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Pantisocracy and British Radicalism in the 1790s




Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey developed the idea of establishing a model socialist society in New York State while they were undergraduates at Cambridge in 1794. That same year, Coleridge even wrote the poems "Pantisocracy" and "The Prospect of Establishing a Pantisocracy in America" in which he vowed in the latter that "Whilst mad with rage, demoniac, foul intent,/Embattled legions Despots vainly send/To arrest the immortal mind's expanding ray" he and his friends would escape from Europe and "soon with kindred minds shall haste to enjoy/(Free from the ills which here our peace destroy)/Content and Bliss on Transatlantic shore." In "Pantisocracy" he also expressed this deep longing for escape from the oppression of the Old World "Wisely forgetful! O'er the ocean swell/ Sublime of Hope, I seek the cottag'd dell" (Verhoeven 316). Their community was to be a model for the reform of the entire world, with equality of labor and condition, no private property, democratic government, run by all of those who collectively put up the capital to fund it. Although it never came close to fruition, in part because the student visionaries lacked capital, the community would have been located near Cooperstown, New York, where the present-day baseball museum is located. In the 1790s it was still a frontier wilderness that was mostly owned by the father of the famous Romantic novelists James Fennimore Cooper. The youthful enthusiasts knew little of the American frontier or how to survive there, although they planned to learn "agriculture and carpentry", which would indeed have been very useful.

British Radicalism

Coleridge and Southey were inspired in part by the radical ideas of William Godwin, future husband of Mary Wollstonecraft. Pantisocracy would be an "egalitarian community" in which everyone worked two-three hours per day and shared everything equally. In this agrarian utopia there were be no artificial distinctions based on birth, sex, rank, or social class, but political, economic and even emotional equality. Coleridge was even prepared to extend equality to the animals, such as the foal he had befriended "And fain I'd take thee with me in the Dell/Of high-soul'd Pantisocracy to dwell" (Taussig 126). In his second Bristol Lecture in 1794, he compared his communistic and egalitarian society with that of ancient Israel, which had a Year of Jubilee every year in which all debts were cancelled, servants freed and private property redistributed. Godwin believed that the individual should treat all persons with equal justice, including even children, spouses and other family members, making no distinctions of any kind. Equality would hold the new society together, not charity, gratitude or philanthropy that featured in capitalist society. Coleridge carried this even further and stated the basis of the new social order would be "friendly attention" to all and "practical acts of loving kindness" in which everyone in the community would be like brothers and sisters in the same family. Although Pantisocracy never even came close to being established in reality and very likely would have endured no better than most similar experiments before and since, Coleridge did not give up on the dream quickly or easily. In "Monody of the Death of Chatterton" (1796), for example, he wished that his deceased friend would still be able to join them "And love, with us, the tinkling team to drive/O'er peaceful Freedom's UNDIVIDED dale."

WORKS CITED

"Pantisocracy" and "On the Prospect of Establishing a Pantisocracy in America" in W.M. Verhoeven (ed) The Vagabond, Appendix A: Writings on "Pantisocracy". Plymouth: UK: NBN Publishers: 310-17.

Taussig, Gurion. Coleridge and the Idea of Friendship, 1789-1804. Rosemont Publishing Corp.