The agitation of labor questions recalls attention to Robert Owen, who spent a great fortune and a long life in endeavoring to show workingmen how to improve their condition by coöperation. A more benevolent spirit never animated a human form than his; his very failures were more creditable than some of the successes which history vaunts.
At the age of ten years, Robert Owen, the son of a Welsh saddler, arrived in London, consigned to the care of an elder brother, to push his fortune. His school-days were over, and there was nothing for him but hard work in some lowly occupation. At the end of six weeks he found a situation as shop-boy in a dry-goods store at Stamford, in the east of England; wages, for the first year, his board and lodging; for the second year, eight pounds in addition; and a gradual increase thereafter. In this employment he remained four years, and then, although very happily situated, he made up his mind to return to London to push his fortune more rapidly.
Being large and forward for his age, a handsome, prompt, active, engaging youth, he soon obtained a situation in a dry-goods store on old London Bridge, at a salary of twenty-five pounds a year and his board. But he had to work unreasonably hard, often being obliged to sit up half the night putting away the goods, and sometimes going to bed so tired that he could hardly crawl up stairs. All the clerks had to be in the store ready for business at eight in the morning. This was about the year 1786, when men were accustomed to have their hair elaborately arranged.
„Boy as I was,” he once wrote, „I had to wait my turn for the hair-dresser to powder and pomatum and curl my hair – two large curls on each side and a stiff pigtail. And until this was all nicely done no one thought of presenting himself behind the counter.”
The lad endured this painful servitude for six months, at the end of which he found a better situation in Manchester, the seat of the rising cotton trade, and there he remained until he was nearly nineteen. He appeared to have had no „wild oats” to sow, being at all times highly valued by his employers, and acquiring in their service habits of careful industry, punctuality, and orderliness. He must have been a young man both of extraordinary virtues and more extraordinary abilities; for when he was but nineteen, one of his masters offered to take him as an equal partner, to furnish all the capital, and leave him the whole business in a few years. There was also an agreeable niece in the family, whose affections he had gained without knowing it.
„If I had accepted,” he says, „I should most likely have married the niece, and lived and died a rich Stamford linen-draper.”
I doubt it. I do not believe that the best shop in Christendom could have held him long. When he declined this offer he was already in business for himself manufacturing cotton machinery. This business was a failure, his partner proving incompetent; and he abandoned the enterprise in a few months, taking, as his share of the stock, three cotton-spinning machines. With these he began business for himself as a cotton spinner, hiring three men to work his machines, while he superintended the establishment. He made about thirty dollars a week profit, and was going along at this rate, not ill satisfied with his lot, when he read one morning in the paper an advertisement for a factory manager. He applied for the place in person.
„You are too young,” said the advertiser.
„They used to object to me on that score four or five years ago,” was his reply, „but I did not expect to have it brought up now.”
„Why, what age are you?”
„I shall be twenty in May next.”
„How often do you get drunk in the week?”
„I never,” said Owen, blushing, „was drunk in my life.”
„What salary do you ask?”
„Three hundred (pounds) a year.”
„Three hundred a year! Why, I have had I don’t know how many after the place here this morning, and all their askings together would not come up to what you want.”
„Whatever others may ask, I cannot take less. I am making three hundred a year by my own business.”
He got the place. A few days after, this lad of twenty, who had never so much as entered a large factory in his life, was installed manager of an establishment which employed five hundred people. He conducted himself with consummate prudence and skill. For the first six weeks he went about the building grave, silent, and watchful, using his eyes much and his tongue little, answering questions very briefly, and giving no positive directions. When evening came, and the hands were dismissed, he studied the machinery, the product, and all the secrets of the business. In six weeks he was a competent master, and every one felt that he was a competent master. Of large frame, noble countenance, and sympathizing disposition, he won affection, as well as confidence and respect. In six months there was not a better-managed mill in Manchester.
Now began his connection with America, a country to which, by and by, he was to give three valuable sons. While managing this mill he bought the first two bales of American Sea Island cotton ever imported into England, and he advanced one hundred and seventy pounds to Robert Fulton, his fellow-boarder, to help him with his inventions. I cannot relate all the steps by which he made his way, while still a very young man, to the ownership of a village of cotton mills in Scotland, and to a union with the daughter of David Dale, a famous Scotch manufacturer and philanthropist of that day. He was but twenty-nine years of age when he found himself at the head of a great community of cotton spinners at New Lanark in Scotland.
Here he set on foot the most liberal and far-reaching plans for the benefit of the working people and their children. He built commodious and beautiful school-rooms, in which the children were taught better, in some respects, than the sons of the nobility were taught at Eton or Harrow. Besides the usual branches, he had the little sons and daughters of the people drilled regularly in singing, dancing, military exercises, and polite demeanor. He made one great mistake, due rather to the ignorance of the age than his own: he over-taught the children – the commonest and fatalest of errors to new-born zeal. But his efforts generally for the improvement of the people were wonderfully successful.
„For twenty-nine years,” as he once wrote to Lord Brougham, „we did without the necessity for magistrates or lawyers; without a single legal punishment; without any known poors’ rates; without intemperance or religious animosities. We reduced the hours of labor, well educated all the children from infancy, greatly improved the condition of the adults, and cleared upward of three hundred thousand pounds profit.”
Having won this great success, he fell into an error to which strong, self-educated men are peculiarly liable, – he judged other people by himself. He thought that men in general, if they would only try, could do as well for themselves and others as he had. He thought there could be a New Lanark without a Robert Owen. Accustomed all his life to easy success, he was not aware how exceptional a person he was, and he did not perceive that the happiness of the people who worked for him was due as much to his authority as a master as to his benevolence as a man. The consequence was that he devoted the rest of his life to going about the world telling people how much better they would be off if they would stop competing with one another, and act together for their common good. Why have one hundred kitchens, one hundred ovens, and one hundred cooks, when the work done in them could be better done in one kitchen, with one oven, by five cooks? This was one question that he asked.
Here is the steam engine, he would say, doing as much work in Great Britain as the labor power of two worlds as populous as ours could do without it. Yet the mass of the people find life more difficult than it was centuries ago. How is this? Such questions Robert Owen pondered day and night, and the results he reached were three in number: –
1. The steam engine necessitates radical changes in the structure of society.
2. Coöperation should take the place of competition.
3. Civilized people should no longer live in cities and separate homes, but in communities of fifteen hundred or two thousand persons each, who should own houses and lands in common, and labor for the benefit of the whole.
In spreading abroad these opinions he spent forty of the best years of his life, and the greater part of a princely income. At first, and for a considerable time, such was the magnetism of his presence, and the contagion of his zeal, that his efforts commanded the sympathy, and even the approval, of the ruling classes of England, – the nobility and clergy. But in the full tide of his career as a reformer he deliberately placed himself in opposition to religion. At a public meeting in London he declared in his bland, impressive way, without the least heat or ill-nature, that all the religions of the world, whether ancient or modern, Christian or pagan, were erroneous and hurtful.
Need I say that from that moment the influential classes, almost to a man, dropped him? One of the few who did not was the Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria. He remained a steadfast friend to Owen as long as he lived. Mr. Owen founded a community on his own system. Its failure was speedy and complete, as all experiments must be which are undertaken ages too soon. He came to America and repeated the experiment. That also failed in a remarkably short period. Associated with him in this undertaking was his son, Robert Dale Owen, who has since spent a long and honorable life among us.
Returning to England, Mr. Owen continued to labor in the dissemination of his ideas until the year 1858, when he died at the age of eighty-seven.
Mr. Holyoake, author of „The History of Cooperation in England,” attributes to the teaching of Robert Owen the general establishment in Great Britain of coöperative stores, which have been successful. As time goes on it is probable that other parts of his system, may become available; and, perhaps, in the course of time, it may become possible for men to live an associated life in communities such as he suggested. But they will never do it until they can get Robert Owens at their head, and learn to submit loyally and proudly to the just discipline essential to success where a large number of persons work together.