A brief experiment in the 1840s near Loami brought the ideals of “utopian socialism” to Sangamon County.
The experiment, called the Sangamon Association and then the Integral Phalanx, was based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. He believed in creating small (1,500 to 2,000 people) rural communities where members would live and work together, free of government intervention. Such societies “would replace all the corrupt institutions of civilization with ones that would foster ‘happiness, truthfulness, compassion, and industry,'” according to a presentation given by Kelley Boston in 2005 to the Sangamon County Historical Society. (Most of the information for this article comes from Boston’s talk.)
The Sangamon Associates was the longest-lived — three years — of any Fourierist community in Illinois, Boston found. The main organizer was Theophilus Sweet, formerly from New York, who had lived in Sangamon County since 1826. His family and those of his in-laws were the heart of the original group of Loami Fourierists.
They established their community on the north edge of Loami, but needed more members. So the Sangamon Association in 1845 contacted an Ohio-based Fourierist group whose members, in turn, needed land where they could practice their philosophy. Leaders of the Ohio group included John S. Williams, an engineer and Fourierist lecturer, and lawyer William Galbraith.
“The members of the Sangamon Association probably believed they were getting the best part of the bargain,” Boston reported. “(T)hey were providing only their existing land, buildings, and members without promising anything more. On the other hand, the Sangamon members believed that many members of the Integral Phalanx in Ohio would be ready to move to Illinois as soon as the union was complete.”
The deal was signed in October 1845, and Williams became president of what was now the Integral Phalanx. On a practical level, the new organization seemed to be working well. A 72-foot-long, 16-foot-wide house accommodated the membership, and one young Fourierist later called the rooms “comfortable,” Boston said. “The members were nearly all pleasant, intelligent people and it was a good place for social intercourse,” the young member said.
However, it quickly became obvious the Illinois and Ohio groups disagreed on the next steps. The Illinoisans wanted to launch immediately into full-scale Fourierism, while the Ohio members thought that should wait until the phalanx attracted the Fourierist minimum of 400 families. Full conversion to Fourierism could take as long as 25 years, Williams believed.
As a result, less than six months after the Illinois/Ohio merger, Williams resigned as president, and he and Galbraith went back to Ohio. By December 1846, the new president, William Pearse, was declaring, “The Integral Phalanx is gone. No human power can save it.”
Except for a lingering lawsuit — ultimately won by the Sangamon County contingent — the phalanx was disbanded by March 1847. Members returned to their individual farms, where they prospered. Boston found that most of the Sangamon County phalanx leaders owned substantial property only a few years after their experiment in socialism.
“Many descendants of the members of the Sangamon Association and Integral Phalanx have continued to live, work, farm, worship, vote, and die in Sangamon County for the past 150 years,” Boston concluded. “These men and women had an impact on Illinois history, and they played a part, although small, in the history of American social reform in general and Fourierism in particular. Their experiences shed light on the reason why people chose to organize socialist communities in the mid-nineteenth century, and how they chose to organize them.
“In the end, however, their natural bonds of community proved stronger and more enduring than their attempts to conform to a foreign philosophical principle.”
More information: Kelley Boston’s pamphlet, Utopian Socialism in Sangamon County: The Story of the Sangamon Association and the Integral Phalanx is available from the Sangamon County Historical Society. See also “The Integral Phalanx” by George Dawson in Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society For the Year 1907.
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