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Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth

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Title: Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth  
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Subject: Eugene V. Debs
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Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth

The Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth, later to be known as Equality Colony, was a United States socialist colony founded in Skagit County, Washington, in the year 1897. It was meant to serve as a model which would convert the rest of Washington and later the entire United States to socialism.

Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth

The colony's origins lay in ideas of New England reformers in the mid-1890s. Norman Wallace Lermond, a journalist and farmer in Warren, Maine, and Ed Pelton had been intrigued by an idea originally suggested by Socialist Labor Party member F.G.R. Gordan that a series of socialist colonies be established in a single western state. (Gordan suggested Texas.) Lermond and Pelton started a vigorous letter-writing campaign to notable reformers such as Henry Demarest Lloyd advocating the plan and suggesting that the socialist colonists would be able to initiate the collective ownership of the means of production in the state by voting in a socialist government. Lermond envisioned an organization of many local unions ("L.U.s") that would provide the colonists with financial, material, and moral support, coordinated by a national "center or union" controlled by seven trustees. His immediate model was the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which colonized Kansas with abolitionists prior to the U.S. Civil War in order to make the territory a free state. Lloyd gave the plan modest financial backing [1]

Lermond started the first local union in Warren on October 18, 1895, and Pelton established the second in Damariscotta Mills, Maine that winter. In December 1895, Lermond issued a call for the creation of more local unions in the pages of the New York Commonwealth and the Coming Nation. In the spring of that year he announced he was setting up an "organizational meeting" to create a "National Union of the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth" scheduled to be held in St. Louis on July 24–26, 1896, congruent with that year's Populist party national convention, to which he was a delegate. A formal "call" for this convention was published in Coming Nation July 11 and 18, and was endorsed by Henry Demarest Lloyd, Eugene Debs, Frank Parsons, William D. P. Bliss and Eltweed Pomeroy.[2]

This convention, however, did not materialize. Lermond could not get away from the Populist convention, and Imogene Fales attended a National Co-operative Congress that created a new American Co-operative union with her as secretary. The Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth was officially organized through a mail referendum conducted through the Coming Nation, which was quickly becoming the movement's semi-official newspaper.[3] On September 19, the Coming Nation announced the adoption of a constitution and the election of seven officers: Lloyd as president, Lermond as secretary, B. Franklin Hunter as treasurer, Frank Parsons dean, Morrison I. Swift organizer, I. E. Dean master workman and A. S. Edwards, of the Coming Nation editor.[4]

The constitution's preamble committed the organization to three broad goals: "1. To educate the people in the principles of Socialism; 2. To unite all socialists in one fraternal association; 3. To establish co-operative colonies and industries in one state until that state is socialized." Each of the eight elected trustees would head a department of the organization. The president would theoretically head an executive department to generally supervise the group, but the most important position was secretary, which would head the colonization department charged with planting socialistic colonies. There were also departments for education (headed by the dean), organization, which would create new local unions, exchange, industry (headed by the Master Workman) and finance.[5]

Not all of these positions were filled, however. Lloyd and Hunter declined their positions, and the post of distributor was apparently unfilled. In new elections held in January 1897, Myron Reed was elected president and Eugene Victor Debs national organizer.[6] However, Debs' conception of what the colonization scheme meant was different. He had envisioned it as an outlet for the blacklisted and unemployed members of the American Railway Union. Meanwhile, Victor Berger and his group were urging him to create a new socialist political party, committed to political action and not colonization. Lermond, Parsons and Reed attended the June 1897 convention of the ARU which created the Social Democracy of America, but the BCC did not join the new organization, rejecting its "class struggle" thesis with a vision of a colony that would include middle-class professionals and "everybody who believes in co-operation" and not just "the laboring classes so called". Weakened by the loss of Debs and the defection of some of its membership to the new SDA, the BCC set out to start its first colony.[7]

Equality colony

By mid-1897 the BCC had about 2200 members in 130 local unions. After short tours in Tennessee and Arkansas, Lermond announced that August that Washington would be the most likely state for colonization. The southern states were already well settled and faced the "Negro question", while Washington had a small, sparse population with liberal inclinations and a Populist governor who was rumored to be sympathetic to the BCC. There were also a number of local unions already in the state, seven of which had sites available. On September 1, 1897 Ed Pelton left Maine for the Pacific Northwest to secure land for the colony. After visiting several sites, on October 15 he made a down payment of $100 to Mathias Decker, a conservative Skagit County farmer, for 280 acres (1.1 km2) of land east of Blanchard. Additional purchases and contributions were made until the colony reached an area of 600 acres (2.4 km2) by the summer of 1898.[8]

The first fifteen settlers arrived on November 1, 1897 and named the colony "Equality" after Edward Bellamy's new book. By the time that the national board, their families and others arrived in March, the first building, Fort Bellamy, was finished and several others were in progress. However most members of the BCC board stayed in nearby Edison, where they leased a "national headquarters" for the brotherhood. By that summer membership had reached 3,000 members and 18 states had organizers. Through the organization department and the group's newspaper, Industrial Freedom (which began in May), the Brotherhood maintained its "national character".[9]

However, dissension developed between the colonists at Equality and the BCC leaders at Edison. The colonists resented that their money was being used to keep the administration in town, while they lived in the crude, unfinished buildings at the colony site. They also objected to the administration's emphasis on the creation of a national organization and other colonies, feeling that the more immediate goal should be the completion of Equality. In early April, at a contentious meeting of the two factions, a plan to start an additional colony at Edison of the administrators was defeated and the Equality colonists proposed an amendment giving the colony complete independence in internal affairs, which passed by a vote of 298 to 176.[10]

That August Lermond resigned from the BCC and returned to Maine, where he founded a new group, the Industrial Brotherhood. By the end of the year, most of the board members had left. In January 1899, a new slate of officers favored by the colonists was elected, and that February BCC headquarters was moved to Equality. From that point membership in the BCC fell to nearly 300, material support and new members from the outside dried up and Industrial Freedom circulation plummeted. The Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth as an organization was subsumed by Equality.[11] While lip service was given to the idea of planting new colonies and socializing Washington for the next few years little was actually done toward those objectives and were eventually forgotten.[12]

The colony flourished for a few years, building two large apartments, a barn, a dining room and kitchen, a school house, a public hall, a store room, a printing office, a saw mill, a root house, a blacksmith and copper shop, an apiary, a bakery, a cereal and coffee house, and a milk house. Its population fluctuated, but was about 100 by the spring of 1903, when only the "die hards" remained.[13] Harry Ault, who would later play a role in the Seattle general strike of 1919 as editor as the Seattle Union Record, arrived in April 1898 and began to learn journalism and printing by working on Industrial Freedom. He eventually became its editor, until the publication folded in December 1902. He also started Young Socialist in 1899 for the colony's children.[14]

In 1900 and 1901 some colonists left Equality to found a new community on Whidbey Island called the Free Land Association, or Freeland. This colony should not be confused with Equality in its later stages which was sometimes referred to as Freeland Colony.[15]


In autumn 1904 the colony was visited by Alexander Horr, a proponent of Theodor Hertzkas "Freeland" concept. He returned next year with more of his followers and soon the colonys' population grew by 30%. By the summer of 1905 Horr was able to change the BCCs constitution drastically to adhere to the Freeland concept. A new "local union" was established in New York, and five others in the near vicinity. The changes were not appreciated by the colony's older residents who started to resist the conversion of the colony to the new scheme in late 1905 and the colony became bitterly divided between the two factions, sometimes resulting in violence.[16]

The final factor in the demise of the colony occurred February 6, 1906, when an unknown person or group of people set fire to several buildings at night. The worst loss was the barn, which burned completely to the ground, killing most of the colony's cattle. The perpetrator was never identified, but each factions blamed the other for the arson. The colonists voted to dissolve the colony and the BCC went into receivership; its history ended when its land was sold for 12,500 dollars to John J. Peth on June 1, 1907. A few families stayed in the area on plots of land that they owned individually.[17]


External links

  • Collection of photographs from Equality colony
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