Founding Lowell: Nathan Appleton and his Utopian dream

Lowell received its town charter in 1826 which means the city’s bicentennial is rapidly approaching, especially when you acknowledge that the founding of Lowell as an industrial center occurred several years before that. It just took the official town charter a couple of years to catch up.

In honor of the coming bicentennial, I will from time-to-time post articles about the founding of Lowell and the people behind the venture. Today we start with an essay written by Paul Marion that was first posted on this site on February 28, 2009.

Appleton, Utopia, and Lowell

By Paul Marion

After writing about the Owl Diner on Appleton Street yesterday, I thought again about Appleton, that is, Nathan   Appleton (1779-1861), one of the early makers of our city who doesn’t make a lot of news these days. It’s fair to say that many people in our community believe that Lowell is “exceptional,” maybe not in as elevated a way as commentators talk about America being an “exceptional” nation. This sense of America was first raised by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic of political and sociological travel writing, Democracy in America (1835 and 1840, two volumes). He was fascinated by the new civic system and culture, standing alone as a world-experiment at the time.

Lowell was meant to be something new when it was established. The city holds a special place in history. For 30 years, we have enjoyed the status of being a national park. Lowell was its own kind of experiment in the 1820’s, and Nathan Appleton had his mind and hands on that effort. Appleton died as one of the ten richest men in Boston in 1861, according to Lynn Gordon Hughes, writing for the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. But it is worth recalling that Appleton and his relative Francis Cabot Lowell while in their early 30’s visited the experimental factory village of New Lanark in Scotland. That “utopian” venture had been organized by the idealistic entrepreneur and social reformer Robert Owen.

I don’t usually equate Lowell and Utopia, the fictional perfect society imagined by Sir Thomas More in the early 1500’s (the term in Latin means “no place”). What Appleton and Lowell saw in Scotland was a place and a plan that contrasted sharply with the poet William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” of industrial England, a dream-in-progress of a working community with no child labor, education from early childhood to evening adult classes, a health-care fund, a savings bank for employees, and reasonable work schedules.

Appleton had aspirations for a humane and profitable manufacturing industry in America. The mills on the Merrimack didn’t produce social perfection.            Competition drove the economic contest to rough practices.

As for human rights, Appleton became a fierce critic of the abolitionists even though he was related by marriage to the abolitionist Charles Sumner, who accused the “lords of the loom” of being in bed with the “lords of the lash.”

In her biographical sketch, Lynne Gordon Hughes notes that Appleton spent 12 years as a state legislator and one term in Congress on top of his business dealings. She also credits him for his philanthropic efforts in Boston. Too bad Lowell residents didn’t get the Lowell Foundation way back instead of those Lowell mill profits funding the charities and endowments in Boston.

Appleton’s daughter Fanny married the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What if every street sign in Lowell had a virtual pull-down menu that would give passers-by a quick history lesson? Dick Howe has done something similar with veterans’ street markers and Google maps. Maybe a Lowell inventor can devise an ingenious Global Positioning System program linked to street signs that would call up the story behind the sign. That would really be taking history to the streets.