Print Friendly, PDF & Email


1844 – 1847

Fourierism  – (Sociology) the utopian system of Charles Fourier (1772-1837), the French social  reformer, under which society was to be organized into self-sufficient cooperatives called phalansteries.  This was not a religious movement but rather a socialist communalism movement. Here is the story of this movement in Sodus Bay:


The utopian alternative: Fourierism in nineteenth-century America


By Carl J. Guarneri






This Association originated about the same time as the Clarkson Association (February 1844), and in the same place (Rochester). The following description of its domain is from the Herald of Freedom:


“We have at this place about 1,400 acres of choice land, three hundred of which are under improvement. It borders on Sodus Bay, the best harbor on Lake Ontario, and for beauty of scenery, is not surpassed by any tract in the State. We have on the domain two streams of water, which can both be used for propelling machinery. We number at present about three hundred men, women and children. The buildings on the place were nearly enough to accommodate the whole, the place having formerly been occupied by the Shakers, who had erected good buildings for their own accommodation.”


The editor of the Phalanx visited this Association in the autumn of 1844, and wrote of it as follows:


“The advantages of the location seemed to us very rare, and it was with great pain that we discovered that the internal condition of the Phalanx was not encouraging. We did not find that unity of purpose, without which a small and imperfectly provided Association can not be held together until it has attained the necessary perfection in its mechanism.. At the commencement, as it appeared to us, there was not sufficient caution in the admission of members. A large number of persons were received without proper qualification, either in character or industrial abilities. Sickness unfortunately soon arose in the new Phalanx, and increased the confusion which resulted from a want of unity of feeling and systematic organization. Religious differences, pressed in an intolerant manner on both sides, had at the time of our visit produced entire uncertainty as to future operations, and carried disorder to its height. We left the domain with the conviction, which reflection has strengthened, that without an entire reorganization under more efficient leaders, the Association must fall entirely to pieces; a fact which is greatly to be deplored on account of the cause in general, as well as on account of the excellence of the location, and the real worth of several individuals who have passed unshaken through such trying circumstances. We have, however, in the case of this Phalanx, a striking example of the folly of undertaking practical Association without sufficient means, and without men of proper character. No other advantages can compensate for the want of these.”


Nearly a year later (September 1845), a member of the Sodus Bay Phalanx wrote to the Harbinger in the following dubious vein:


“We have only about twelve or fifteen adult males, and we believe we may safely say (from the amount of labor performed the present season), not many unprofitable ones. We have learned wisdom from the many difficulties and privations of last year, and there is now evidently a settled and determined will to succeed in our enterprise. There is, however, a debt which is very discouraging; $7,000 principal (besides $2,450 interest), which will come due next spring, and an ability on our part of paying no more than the interest.”


About the beginning of 1846 John A. Collins of the Skaneateles Community, visited Sodus Bay, and sent to his paper, the Communitist, the following mournful report:


“Experience has taught them that but little confidence can be placed on calculations which are predicated upon a newly-organized, or more properly disorganized, body of heterogeneous materials, during the first and second years of its existence. There is not the least doubt, but that an energetic and efficient individual, with sufficient capital to erect with the least possible delay the sawmill, lath, shingle, broom-handle, tub and pail, fork and hoe-handle, last, and general turning machinery, and employ as many first-class workmen as the business would require, could in three years, pay both principal and interest, and have the entire farm and several thousand dollars besides. But an Association composed of inexperienced, restless, indolent, feeble and selfish individuals, would perish beneath the pressure of interest, ere they could construct their mills, get their machinery in operation, and become organized and systematized, so that all things could be carried forward with that system and perfection which characterize isolation and the older established Communities.


“But had not capital stepped forth to crush this movement, other elements equally poisonous and deadly were introduced, which would have sealed its ruin. A great portion of its members were brought together, notby a strong feeling or sympathy for the poor, noble philanthropy, or self-denying enthusiasm, but by the most narrow selfishness. Add to this, that bane of all that is meek, pure, noble and peaceful, religious bigotry was carried in and incorporated into the constitution of the Phalanx. Soon the body was divided into the religious and liberal portions, both of which carried their views, we think, to extremes.


“We were present at a business meeting, in the early part of the fall of 1844. Each party, it seemed, felt bound to oppose the wishes, plans and movements of the other. We advised the more liberal portion of the society quietly to withdraw, and allow the other party to succeed if it possibly could. But they did not feel at liberty to do so; and soon after the religious body left, taking with them what of their property they could find, leaving those who remained (the liberal portion of the society), comparatively destitute They felt determined to succeed, and nobly have they combated, to the present time, the hostile elements which have warred against them with terrible force. United in sympathy and feeling, they re-organized last spring; but the interest was too much for them to meet, and now there is no prospect of their remaining as an Association longer than the approaching April. Could those now upon the domain purchase three or four hundred acres of the land, we have not the least doubt but that they would succeed, and ultimately come into possession of the valuable wood-land adjoining. But this is impossible. In the evening all the adults convened together, and at their earnest request, we spoke for the space of an hour or more upon the signs of the times, the evidences of social progress, and the various minor difficulties that the pioneers in this movement must necessarily have to experience; proving to the satisfaction of most of them, we think, that Fourier’s plan of distributing wealth, was both arbitrary and superficial; that it was a useless effort to unite two opposite and hostile elements, which have no more affinity for each other than water and oil, or fire and gunpowder; that inasmuch as individual and separate interests are the cause or occasion of nearly all the crime, poverty, and suffering in civilized society, it follows that the cause and occasion must be removed, ere the effects will disappear. Still the difference between Communists and Associationists is not so great, that they should be opposed and alienated. It should be our object to see the points of agreement, rather than seek for points of disagreement. In the former we have been too active and earnest. Association is a great school for Communism. It will develop the false, and point out the good.


“As we left this interesting spot the following morning, it was painful to think that those men and women, who for nearly two years had struggled against great odds, with their philanthropic, manly and heroic spirit, with all their enthusiasm, zeal and confidence in the beauty and practicability of the principles of social cooperation, must soon be dispersed and thrown back again, to act upon the selfish and beggarly principles of strife and competition.”


Macdonald ends the story in his usual sombre style as follows:


“This experiment was a total failure. I have been unable to gather many particulars concerning its last days, and those I have obtained are of a very unfavorable character.


“The chief cause of failure was religious difference. Persons of various religious creeds could not agree. There were some among them who thought it no sin to labor on the Sabbath, and others who looked upon it as an outrage, which the Phalanx should take action to prevent. A committee was appointed to settle such differences, but in this they failed. Sickness was another of their troubles. They were severely afflicted with typhoid erysipelas, and at one time forty-nine of their members were upon the sick list.


“After laboring a year or two under these difficulties, there was a hasty and disorderly retreat. It is said that each individual helped himself to the movable property, and that some decamped in the night, leaving the remains of the Phalanx to be disposed of in any way which the last men might choose. The fact that mankind do not like to have their faults and failings made public, will probably account for the difficulty in obtaining particulars of such experiments as the Sodus Bay Phalanx.”


Allen and Orvis, the lecturing missionaries of Brook Farm, in that same letter from which we quoted some time since a maledictory paragraph on the memory of the Skaneateles Community, mention also the bad odor of the defunct confederated Phalanxes of Western New York, in the following disrespectful terms. Their letter is dated at Rochester, September 1847:


“The prospect for meetings in this city is less favorable than that of any place where we have previously visited. It is the nest wherein was hatched that anomalous brood of birds, called the ‘Sodus Bay Phalanx/ ‘The Clarkson Phalanx,’ the ‘Bloomfield Phalanx,’ and the ‘Ontario Union.’ The very name of Association is odious with the public, and the unfortunate people who went into these movements in such mad haste, have been ridiculed till endurance is no longer possible, and they have slunk away from the sight and knowledge of their neighbors.”


The experience of the Sodus Bay Phalanx in regard to religion, suggests reflections. Let us improve the opportunity to study some of the practical relations of religion to Association.


The object and end of Association in all its forms, as we have frequently said, is to gather men, women and children into larger and more permanent Homes than those established by marriage. The advantages of partnership, incorporation and cooperation have become so manifest in modern affairs, that an unspeakable longing has arisen in the very heart of civilization for the extension of those advantages to the dearest of all human interests—family affairs—the business of home. The charm that drew the western New Yorkers together in such rushing multitudes, was simply the prospect of home on the large scale, which indeed is heaven.


Now if we consider the laws which govern the formation of homes on the small scale, we shall be likely to get some wisdom in regard to their formation on the large scale.


And in the first place, it is evident that homes formed by the conjunction of pairs in the usual way, are not all harmonious—perhaps we might say, are not generally harmonious. Families quarrel and break up, as well as Associations; and if husbands and wives were as free to separate as the members of Association are, possibly marriage would not make much better show than Socialism has made. Human nature, as we have seen it in the Communities and Phalanxes—discordant, centrifugal—is the same in marriage. Now, as experience has developed something like a code of rules that govern prudent people in venturing on marriage, our true way is to study that code, and apply it as far as possible to the vastly greater venture of Association.


Fourier’s dream that two or three thousand discordant centrifugal individuals in one great home, would fall, by natural gravitation, into a balance of passions, and realize a harmony unattainable on the small scale of familism, has not been confirmed by experience, and seems to us the wildest opposite of truth. We should expect, a priori, that with discordant materials, the greater the formation, the worse would be the hell: and this is just what has been proved by all the experiments. Let us go back, then, and study the rules of harmony in the formation of common families.


Probably there is not one among those rules so familiar and so universally approved by the prudent, as that which advises men and women not to marry without agreement in religion This rule has nothing to do with bigotry. It does not look at the supposed truth or falsehood of different religious creeds. It simply says: Let the Catholic marry the Catholic; the Orthodox, the Orthodox; the Deist, the Deist; the Nothingarian, the Nothingarian; but don’t match these discords together, if you wish for family peace. Now this is the precept which the Fourier Associations, as we see, deliberately violated; and yet they expected peace, and complained dreadfully because they did not get it! There is latent quarrel enough in the religious opposition of a single pair, to spoil a family; and yet these Socialists ventured on hundred-fold complications of such oppositions, with a heroism that would be sublime, if it were not desperately unwise.


It is useless to say that religion is an affair of the inner man and need not disturb external relations. It did disturb the external relations of the Socialists at Sodus Bay, and could not do otherwise. They quarreled about the Sabbath. It did disturb the external relations of the Northampton Socialists. They quarreled about amusements. Religion always extends from the inner man to such external things.


It is useless to say, as Collins evidently wished to insinuate, t’hat the bigoted sort of religionists, those of the orthodox order, were alone to blame. In the first place this is not true. All the witnesses say, Collins among the rest, that both parties pushed and hooked. And in the next place, if it were true, it would only show the importance of excluding the orthodox from Associations, and the value of the rule that forbids marrying religious discords.


Even Collins, with all his liberality, had originally too much good sense to attempt Association in the promiscuous way of the Fourierists. His first idea was to make his Community a sort of close-communion church of infidelity; and, as it turned out, this was his brightest idea; for in abandoning it he succumbed to his more religious rival, Johnson, and admitted quarreling and weakness that ruined the enterprise. His advice also to the liberal party at Sodus Bay to withdraw, shows that his judgment was opposed- to the heterogeneous mixtures that were popular among the Fourierists.


On the whole it seems to us that if should be considered settled by reason and experience, that the rule we have found governing the prudential theory of marriage on the small scale, should be transferred to the theory of Association, which is really marriage on the large scale. Better not marry at all, than marry a religious quarrel. Better have no religion, than have a dozen different religions, as they had at Clarkson. If you mean to found a Community for peace and permanence, first of all find associates that agree with you in religion, or at least in no-religion, and if possible bar out all others. Remember that all the successful Communities are harmonious, and the basis of their harmony is unity in religion. If you think you can find a way to secure harmony in no-religion, try it. But don’t be so foolish as to enter on the tremendous responsibilities of Community-building, with a complication of religious quarrels lurking in your material.