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Moral Physiology

Robert Owen. Moral Physiology; or, a Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question. New York: Wright & Owen, 1831.

In the first birth control tract published in America, Owen argues that “Population, unrestrained must increase beyond the possibility of the earth and its produce to support.” He estimated that by 1931 world population would reach eight billion, somewhat less optimistic than the 2000 figure of six billion.

A frontispiece portraying a young mother giving up her child for adoption is captioned “Alas! that it should have ever been born.”

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Robert Owen was the preeminent utopian thinker of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A factory owner, he was influenced by industrialization in his native Scotland and the utilitarian philosophy of his friend and business partner, Jeremy Bentham. He purchased the Harmony land and buildings from the Rappites to establish the first socialist commune organized on the principle of rational ethics and not religion.

Owen rebelled against the “trinity of evils:” private property, irrational systems of religion, and marriage founded on property and religion. He developed a plan of progressive paternalism in his commune at “New” Harmony– curfews, house inspections, and fines for drunkenness and illegitimate children. He equated happiness with docility, and as a result was criticized for condescending to the working class.

Owen introduced the trade school to the US, stressing practical training and character building rather than classical education. But Owen’s character indoctrination irked many parents who rarely saw their children during their years of schooling when Owen would “shield children from the unwanted negative influence of their parents and families.” And although Owen stressed gender equality, girls only studied home economics and had little influence in the politics of New Harmony.

Owen’s naïve belief in the power of rational humanism was eventually denigrated by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels; but Engels once wrote of Owen that, in the early 18th century, all social movements and all real advance made in England in the interest of the working class were associated with Robert Owen’s name.