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A Declaration of Mental Independence, by Robert Owen
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was a Welsh social reformer who held as his primary principle that \man's character is made for him and not by him.\ Subsequently, he reasoned that the working classes could be bettered if congenial conditions were created in which they could live. To prove his point he transformed an industrial community in New Lanark, Scotland, into a model society known throughout the world. He later tried to reproduce his success in New Harmony, Indiana, but met with failure. During his life, he spent his fortune promoting various reforms, including those of trade unions, feminism, prisons, education, and marriage.
Robert Owen delivered the following oration, known as \A Declaration of Mental Independence,\ in the public hall of New Harmony, Indiana, on July 4, 1826. It was reproduced in the New-Harmony Gazette, vol. I, no. 42, on July 12, 1826.
We meet to commemorate the period, when the inhabitants of this new world attained the power to withdraw from the control of the old world, and to form a government for themselves.
This event is likely to prove, in its consequences, as important as any which has occurred in ancient or modern times. It has been the means of preparing a new era in the history of man, and of producing such a change of circumstances as will admit of the introduction of measures to change, entirely, the character and condition of the human race.
The revolution in America, sanctioned and secured by the Declaration of Independence in 1776, gave to a people advancing towards civilization, the first opportunity of establishing a government, which would, by degrees, permit them to acquire that greatest of blessings, MENTAL LIBERTY.
This was indeed, a most important point gained: it was the first time such privilege had been ever possessed by mankind.
Its fruits have been visible in the gradual advance towards mental liberty, which has been made during the half century which this day completes from that memorable event. But, I conclude, it will be in the next half century, now about to commence, that the wondering world will learn justly to estimate the value of the high achievement which was then attained.
It was not the mere political liberty then conquered from the old world, that was the real victory gained by the inhabitants of these vast regions; for political power had been often wrested from one party and obtained by another: But, it was the right which they thereby acquired and used, to establish the liberty of freely extending thought upon all subjects, secular and religious; and the right to express those thoughts openly, so soon as the existing prejudices, derived from the old world, could be so far removed as to direct the mind of the multitude to investigate facts and reject the mysteries of disordered imaginations: to teach them to discern the value of the former, as they always direct to the development of real knowledge; and instruct them rightly to estimate the evil of the latter, as they lead to those errors which have made man a compound of folly and a recipient for misery.
Yes, my friends, the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, prepared the way to secure to you MENTAL LIBERTY, without which man never can become more than a mere localized being, with powers to render him more miserable and degraded than the animals which he has been taught to deem inferior to himself. It is true, the right of mental liberty is inherent in our nature; for, while man exists in mental health, no human power can deprive him of it; but until the Revolution of 1776, no people had acquired the political power to permit them to use that right, when their minds should be so far freed from early imbibed prejudices as to allow them to derive benefits from its practice. No nation, except this, even yet possesses the political power to enable the people to use the right of mental freedom.
This right — this invaluable right, you now enjoy by the Constitution obtained for you by Washington, Franklin, Henry, and the other worthies associated with them.
You have indeed abundant reason to rejoice in this victory, obtained over the thick mental darkness which, till then, covered the earth.
The collision of mind which produced that victory, and which was produced by it, elicited a spark of light, which enabled the prominent actors in those scenes to discover a glimpse through the long night of error and misrule, with which the inhabitants of all the earth had been previously afflicted.
Still, however, these men, whose minds were in advance of the age in which they lived, were encircled by the prejudices which they and their fathers brought from Europe, and which had descended to the inhabitants of those regions through many ages of despotism, superstition and ignorance. And although a few of these highly gifted men of the Revolution saw a stronger and clearer light at the distance, as they supposed, of some ages before them; they were too conscious of the extent of the old errors around them to attempt more than to secure the means in the Constitution which they formed, by which their successors might work their way to the superior distant light, and gain for themselves the innumerable advantages which real mental liberty could bestow upon them.
It is for YOU and YOUR successors now to press onward, with your utmost speed, in the course which, by so many sacrifices, for your benefit, they have opened for you. They discovered some of the innumerable impositions which have been practiced on your predecessors; they saw more of them, than in the temper of those times, they could venture publicly to expose; but they have left such decided proofs of their own feelings and views regarding them, that none, who reflect, can doubt the strong desire they felt to attack and destroy still more of them, and if possible, to annihilate all the arts and mysteries by which the few had so long held a pernicious, despotic sway and control over many. These wise men were withheld from going beyond the line determined upon at the Revolution, apprehending that, by attempting to gain a greater advance upon ignorance and superstition, they might put to hazard the benefits they found they could secure; and herein they evinced their knowledge of the times in which they lived and acted.
These worthies knew, that their descendants, starting from the point which they had gained, could, in due time, without such risk, make other and still more important advances toward mental liberty — toward that which will, when fully attained, enable man to remove the cause of all crime, and the misery which arises from the commission of crimes. To attain this mental liberty, in its full extent and highest purity, and to be secure in its permanent possession, will be the greatest victory that man can gain.
My friends, it surely cannot be your wish, that any good and great cause should be effected only by halves, — and more especially when that which remains to be done, is, beyond all calculation, the most important? There is a noble object before us, to be won by some party or another in this or in some other country. It is no less than the destruction of the threefold causes which deprive man of mental liberty, which compel him to commit crimes, and to suffer all the miseries which crime can inflict. Could we but gain this object — soon would rational intelligence, real virtue, and substantial happiness, be permanently established among men: ignorance, poverty, dependence, and vice, would be forever banished from the earth.
Let me now ask, — Are you prepared to imitate the example of your ancestors? Are you willing to run the risks which they encountered? Are you ready, like them, to meet the prejudices of past times, and determined to overcome them at ALL hazards, for the benefit of your country and for the emancipation of the human race? Are you, indeed, willing to sacrifice your fortunes, lives, and reputations, if such sacrifices should be necessary, to secure for all your fellow-beings, the GREATEST GOOD, that, according to our present knowledge, it is possible for them ever to receive?
Are you prepared to achieve a MENTAL REVOLUTION, as superior in benefit and importance to the first revolution, as the mental powers of man exceed his physical powers?
If you are, I am most ready and willing to join you in this deed — the last and most daring that has been left for man in his irrational state to perform.
But, my friends, knowing, as I do, the immeasurable magnitude of the GOOD which this Mental Revolution will effect and permanently secure for human nature through all future ages — I deem the continued existence, a little longer here, of a few individuals to be of no consideration whatever in comparison with its attainment; and, therefore, as I cannot know the present state of your minds, and as the continuance of life at my age, is very uncertain, I have calmly and deliberately determined, upon this eventful and auspicious occasion, to break asunder the remaining mental bonds which for so many ages have grievously afflicted our nature, and by so doing, to give forever FULL FREEDOM TO THE HUMAN MIND.
Upon an experience, then, of nearly forty years, which owing to a very peculiar combination of circumstances, has been more varied, extended and singular, than perhaps has ever fallen to the lot of any one man, and, during which period, my mind was continually occupied in tracing the cause of each human misery that came before me to its true origin; — I now DECLARE, to you and to the world, that Man, up to this hour, has been, in all parts of the earth, a slaue to a TRINITY of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon his whole race.
I refer to PRIVATE, OR INDIVIDUAL PROPERTY — ABSURD AND IRRATIONAL SYSTEMS OF RELIGION — and MARRIAGE, FOUNDED ON INDIVIDUAL PROPERTY COMBINED WITH SOME ONE OF THESE IRRATIONAL SYSTEMS OF RELIGION.
It is difficult to say which of these grand sources of all crime ought to be placed first or last; for they are so intimately interlinked and woven together by time, that they cannot be separated without being destroyed: — each one is necessary to the support of the other two. This formidable Trinity, compounded of Ignorance, Superstition and Hypocrisy, is the only Demon, or Devil, that ever has, or, most likely ever will torment the human race. It is well calculated, in all its consequences, to produce the utmost misery on the mind and body of man of which his nature is susceptible. The division of property among individuals prepared the seeds, cultivated the growth, and brought to maturity all the evils of poverty and riches existing among a people at the same time; the industrious experiencing privations and the idle being overwhelmed and injured by wealth.
Religion, or Superstition, — for all religions have proved themselves to be Superstitions, — by destroying the judgement, irrationalized all the mental faculties of man, and made him the most abject slave, through the fear of nonentities created solely by his own disorganized imagination. Superstition forced him to believe, or to say he believed, that a Being existed who possessed all power, wisdom and goodness — that he could do and that he did, everything — and yet, that evil and misery superabound; and that this Being, who makes and does all things, is not the direct or indirect author of evil or misery. Such is the foundation on which all the mysteries and ravings of Superstition are erected in all parts of the world. Its inconsistency and inconceivable folly have been such as to keep the world in continual wars, and massacres, to create private divisions, leading to every imaginable evil; and it is probable that Superstition has caused more than its third of the crimes and sufferings of the human race.
The forms and ceremonies of Marriage, as they have been hitherto generally performed, and afterwards supported, make it almost certain, that they were contrived and forced upon the people at the same period that property was first divided among a few leading individuals and Superstition was invented: This being the only device that could be introduced to permit them to retain their division of the public spoils, and to create to themselves an aristocracy of wealth, of power, and of learning.
To enable them to keep their children apart from the multitude who were to be kept in poverty, in ignorance, and consequently without power, — and to monopolize all wealth and power and learning to themselves, — some such contrivance as Marriage, with mysterious forms and ceremonies, to hide their real intentions from the ignorant, was absolutely necessary, that they might, through the influence of their wealth, learning and power, select the most beautiful and desirable women from among all the people, — and thus enslave and make them, in fact, a part of their private property.
In 1829 Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen (Robert Owen's eldest son) oversaw the founding of the Free Enquirer, an infidel newspaper. Published in New York City, it advocated Atheism; espoused labor reforms; opposed capital punishment and imprisonment for debt; supported women's political, social, and economic equality; and advocated the right to testify in court without a religious test. Soon after its inception, the paper had over one thousand paying subscribers.
This was the commencement of that system which led to such endless crimes and miseries and degradation of the human faculties, by tempting the inexperienced to barter their feelings and affections for wealth, trappings, and power; when too late for their happiness, they discover they have been deceived, and that wealth, learning and power, can make no amends for the want of those natural feelings and affections, in the union of which, all feel the present happiness of life to consist.
Among the truly intelligent, Marriage will be respected only when it shall be formed between those who are equal in wealth, education and condition; who are well acquainted with each others habits, minds and feelings, before they enter upon the engagement; and who know also, that by their nature the continuance of affection does not depend upon the will of either, but that it will diminish or increase according as they produce pleasurable or disagreeable sensations in each other. Marriage, to make it a virtuous and happy connection, must be contracted by both parties, solely with a view to their happiness. As, then, it is a law of nature that our affections are not at the control of the will; and as happiness can be enjoyed only when we associate with those for whom we cannot avoid having the most esteem, regard and affection; it should be as reputable, and equally authorized by law, to dissolve marriage when the esteem and affection cannot be retained for each other, and when the union promises to produce more misery than happiness, as to form the marriage in the first instance. When however the parties are on a perfect equality in wealth, condition and education, and intimately acquainted with each other's thoughts and feelings before marriage; and when no motive whatever exists but genuine affection to induce the parties to unite; it is most likely that the marriages so formed would be more permanent than they have ever yet been. But the present and past character of man, formed by the inconsistent and incongruous circumstances around him, have made him so artificial in his feelings, views and conduct, that a decisive conclusion cannot be drawn upon this most interesting part of the subject. Be this, however, as it may, we may be sure, that as soon as man shall be trained rationally, and surrounded by those circumstances only which are in unison with his nature, he will act only rationally; that is, in such a manner as to secure the highest and purest happiness to himself and his fellow-creatures.
The revolution, then, to be now effected, is the DESTRUCTION of this HYDRA OF EVILS — in order that the many may be no longer poor, wretched beings, — dependent on the wealthy and powerful few; that man may be no longer a superstitious idiot, continually dying from the futile fear of death; that he may no longer unite himself to the other sex from any mercenary or superstitious motives, nor promise and pretend to do that which it depends not on himself to perform.
Upon the experience of a life devoted to the investigation of these momentous subjects, I fearlessly now declare to you, from a conviction, as strong as conviction can exist in the human mind, that this compound of ignorance and fraud, IS THE REAL AND ONLY CAUSE OF ALL THE CRIME, AND MISERY ARISING FROM CRIME, WHICH CAN BE FOUND IN HUMAN SOCIETY.
This threefold, horrid monster, has been most speciously gilded and decorated with external trappings, to awe the ignorant multitude and deter them from examining the black venom and corruption within. It was in sundry times and places made death for any mortal, except the initiated, to approach these hidden mysteries; and nothing short of the Inquisition with the aid of that fearful unmeaning term SACRED, could have, for so long a period, kept man, — irrational as these terrors made him, — from discovering the imposition which was practiced upon him for the sole purpose of keeping him in mental slavery and bondage.
For nearly forty years have I been employed, heart and soul, day by day, almost without ceasing, in preparing the means and arranging the circumstances, to enable me to give the death-blow to the tyranny and despotism which, for unnumbered ages past, have held the human mind spell-bound, in chains and fetters of such mysterious forms and shapes, that no mortal hand dared approach to set the suffering prisoner free. Nor, has the fullness of time, for the accomplishment of this great event, been completed until within this hour, — and such has been the extraordinary course of events, that the Declaration of Political Independence, in 1776, has produced its counterpart, the DECLARATION OF MENTAL INDEPENDENCE in 1826 — the latter just half a century from the former.
Rejoice with me, my friends, that your Mental Independence rests now as secure as your Political Independence; for the overwhelming power of TRUTH over ERROR is such, that as soon as arrangements can be formed to admit of the full development of TRUTH to the world, and it is once publicly promulgated, no art, or falsehood, or force, can ever afterwards return it back into forgetfulness, or unteach the truths which it has taught.
Under the circumstances in which this Mental Revolution has been made, no human power can undo, or render nugatory, that which has now been done. This Truth has passed from me, beyond the possibility of recall: it has been already received into your minds: speedily it will be heard throughout America, and from thence it will pass North and South, East and West, as far as language is known, — and almost as fast as it shall be conveyed, human nature will recognize and receive it. In countries, in which ignorance and despotism hold their sway over the multitude, arts will be used to keep it from being heard among them: but neither armies, nor barriers of any kind, can now prevent a great and important truth from finding its way, by some means or another, into the darkest recesses of error and deception.
Rejoice, then, with me, my friends, that this light is now set upon a hill; for it will increase daily, more and more, until it shall be seen, felt, and understood, by all the nations of the earth.
Rejoice, with me, that we now live under a government unconnected with any of the superstitions of the dark ages of ignorance; a government established purposely to give man his natural rights; to give him the full power to obtain mental liberty as soon as he could disburthen himself of the prejudices of his ancestors.
The individuals who compose a great majority of your present government are happily free from the weakening and deadening influence of Superstition; their experience is too extensive, their minds are too enlightened, to be longer held in slavery and bondage by imaginary notions unsupported by a single fact. They will therefore rejoice to see their fellow-citizens and their fellow-men throwing off the yoke which has hitherto kept their finest faculties in bondage, and they will look forward with increased hope to the advantages which the rising generation, freed from these errors, will acquire and possess.
All who are deeply versant in human nature can readily estimate the difference between a generation whose judgement shall have been carefully cultivated from infancy, and whose best faculties shall have been early called into full action, and one in which the judgement has been forced to become subservient to a misguided imagination, and in whose mind all natural facts have been distorted and made to bend and support mysteries only calculated to blind the understanding and call forth the weaker and worse feelings of human nature.
Your government, and all the enlightened men of these States and of other countries, now look to the improved education of the faculties of children, to produce a race of rational beings, whose minds will be freed from the superstitions, prejudices, and errors of past times; and I trust, that in this respect, no parties will be disappointed.
In furtherance of this great object we are preparing the means to bring up your children, with industrious and useful habits, with natural, and of course rational ideas and views, with sincerity in all their proceedings; and to give them kind and affectionate feelings for each other, and charity, in the most extensive sense of the term, for all their fellow-creatures.
By doing this, by uniting your separate interests into one, by doing away with individual money transactions, by exchanging with each other your articles of produce on the basis of labor for equal labor, by looking forward to apply your surplus wealth to assist others to obtain similar advantages, and by the abandonment of the use of spirituous liquors, you will in a peculiar manner promote the object of every wise government and of all really enlightened men.
And here we now are, as near, perhaps, as we can be in the center of the United States, even, as it were, like the little grain of mustard seed; but with these GREAT TRUTHS before us, with the practice of the social system, as soon as it shall be well understood among us, our principles will, I trust, spread from Community to Community, from State to State, and from Continent to Continent, until this System and these TRUTHS shall overshadow the whole earth, — shedding fragrance and abundance, intelligence and happiness, upon all the sons of men.
I would that you, and those who now live in this and other countries, could partake, for many years, of all these enjoyments. \
Anarchy and Atheism: public reaction to Owen's declaration
Owen's address of July 4, 1826, was given considerable publicity — mostly derogatory. It was unfortunate that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Newspaper columns were flooded with pious and patriotic sentiments to the detriment of other news, particularly Owen's critical statements.
When anything was printed, it was to express repugnance at the immoral doctrines which Owen preached that day. Some newspapers declared him to be mentally deranged. The New-England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser, published in Boston, accused him of \preaching\ Atheism as a form of religion. The National Gazette of Philadelphia ridiculed his speech as a \truly preposterous composition.\ The New-York American warned that such sentiments could lead only to \anarchy and atheism.\ The New-York Evening Post declared that Owen's \crazy declamation . . - seems to be precisely what has been understood by the wildest tribes & most notorious freebooters in all ages.\ The editor opined that he had alienated all his sober-minded followers.
His pronouncement made little impression even on the inhabitants of New Harmony and one wrote, \So much is he out of favor here that I do not believe there is one who would listen patiently to anything he may have to say on his much loved System and Community.\
Owen was, simply, a man out of his times and a broad statement such as he made was the launching of a single life-preserver upon the oceans of religion which circle the earth. His ideas never had a chance, but could only bob about endlessly, drifting, and lost.
Source: Popular Freethought in America, 1825-1850 by Albert Post (New York: Octagon Books, 1974).