There’s a bit of odd history that’s been lost from Haverstraw’s collective memory . . . no pun intended. There’s no denying the resurgence of the “isms” in the media lately; Communism and Socialism are today very common terms, used especially in describing (rightly or wrongly) our current federal administration. Shockingly, the Village of Haverstraw is the site of the second Socialist utopian communal experiment in North America, the first being New Harmony in south Indiana. Owenite socialism can be a precursor to the theories of Karl Marx.
As bizarre as this may sound, this piece of history appropriately fits within Haverstraw’s past. The Village was once a center for intellectuals in the region. A well-known private school, which boasted many live-in professors who traveled back and forth to Yale, sat above Haverstraw near today’s location of Route 9W; the region’s wealthy sent their children here for a “high-end” education. In 1826, only 1 year after the creation of the New Harmony community, a group of 80 artisans, intellectuals, and farmers set up on 120 acres on the outskirts of the Village of Haverstraw.
The leaders were free-thinkers and deists: George Houston who had been jailed in England for publishing blasphemy, Abner Kneeland and Henry A. Fay – shortly to be joined by Robert Jennings from New Harmony. The community lasted for 5 months, ending amidst charges of dishonesty against the managers.
The community was inspired by the work completed at New Harmony by Robert Owen, the Welsh industrialist and utopian thinker, who was practically carrying out his Utopian Socialism, a main precursor to the ideas of Karl Marx.
The first New York community to be established was the Franklin Community at Haverstraw, founded on “Mr. Owen’s Principles” by several New York freethinkers, including George Houston, who had been one of Robert Owen’s first visitors in New York City; Henry Fay, a lawyer known for defending freethinkers in New York; and Jacob Peterson, who held the deed to the property. Joining these men at Franklin was New Harmonite Robert Jennings, who left New Harmony April 10, 1826, in order to become the president of Franklin. The New York founders of the community wrote a constitution dated March 1826 and then publicized the experiment soon to take place, hoping to encourage membership. Reverend Abner Kneeland, a minister who would go to jail for blasphemy in the 1830s, actively encouraged participation in the community from his pulpit in New York. On April 28, the men agreed to purchase land from Major Suffern at Haverstraw, and by May 1 people were already showing up in Haverstraw ready to join the communal venture. By June 23, the purchase was complete and a new communal dining room was under way.
However, things weren’t going so smoothly after several months. Such is the common critique against Communism, Socialism, banning currency and commodities, and the like. I heard somewhere that the community broke up because its founders were “paraders and orators. . .” or, in other words, they talked more than they took real action to maintain the well being of their “experiment.”
After the Franklin Community broke up in October of that same year, some of its members, including Jacob Peterson, journeyed eighty miles north to Coxsackie, in Greene County, New York, where they united with people already settled there to form a new community, the Forestville Community.
It’s always important to know our own past, of course, as we commonly repeat mistakes already made. The Franklin Community, and most other Owenite or Marxist commune experiments, are clear reminders that “Community” is not something that can be forced beneath the lens of any “ism.” Democracy is our system, and it is a system where all “isms” can come together to create a wide breadth of conversation that advances our society in the best possible ways.