William Maclure: science, Pestalozzianism and reform in Europe and the United States

Picture: William Maclure - believed to be in the public domainWilliam Maclure: science, Pestalozzianism and reform in Europe and the United States. Ian Donnachie explores William Maclure’s role in educational reform during the eras of the European and American Enlightenment and early industrialisation. A scientist and educational reformer, he was the first to introduce Pestalozzian methods to the United States.

contents: introduction · early career · educational reform – pestalozzi and neef · owen and new lanark · new harmony · in conclusion · references · links · how to cite this article · ian donnachie

William Maclure (1763-1840), like Robert Owen, with whom he was closely associated in the utopian experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, played a significant role in educational reform during the eras of the European and American Enlightenment and early industrialisation. Thanks to a successful business career Maclure became wealthy enough to retire and devote himself to scholarship and reform issues. He gained distinction as a scientist and educational reformer, particularly in his adopted country, the United States, where he was the first to introduce Pestalozzian methods. (Baatz 1999)

Early career

William Maclure, the son of a merchant, was born in Ayr, under the name James McClure, which he evidently changed in his youth. Maclure’s father was wealthy enough to afford a private education for his son and then, perhaps using family connections, arrange a career in commerce for him. William Maclure went to the United States in 1782 returning to London soon after to join the American firm of Miller, Hart & Co. Between 1782 and 1796 he travelled extensively on business, visiting Ireland and France, where he witnessed many of the events of the revolution. During his time in Paris William Maclure is thought to have begun the massive collection of 25,000 French Revolutionary pamphlets and literature, which was later augmented by purchases from the editor and journalist, Marc-Antoine Jullien de Paris (Hardy 1966). William Maclure made several further trips to the United States, settling permanently in Philadelphia in 1796 and taking American citizenship.

Maclure was very successful in business, accumulating substantial capital, to which may have been added a family inheritance. By 1797 he was independently wealthy, and while retaining substantial business interests in both Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia, was able to indulge his interest in minerology and geology, to which he would make a distinguished contribution in his adopted country. William Maclure was a key figure in the American Philosophical Society and later of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which both attracted many overseas scholars and became centres for the exploration of the continent. He himself carried out major geological explorations in the United States, reporting and publishing his findings (Doskey 1988; Elliott 1994).

Educational reform – Pestalozzi and Neef

William Maclure’s interests extended beyond scientific research to the promotion of educational reform underpinned by Enlightenment thinking. He had experienced the French Revolution and was also apparently inspired by the American Revolution. Perhaps more politically attuned than Owen. He favoured republican democracy in which the working class would play an increasingly important role. However, William Maclure certainly shared with Owen the belief that the key to this new society was universal popular education. As he wrote of the United States in particular, ‘Power being in the hands of the people, through the medium of our popular governments, renders a diffusion of knowledge necessary to the support of freedom’ (quoted in Bestor 1948: 294).

During his extensive European travels (1801-1808;1809-1815; 1818-25) William Maclure called on the leading reformers and teachers of the time and visited many educational establishments. In 1804 he paid the first of several visits to the school conducted by Johannn Heinrich Pestalozzi, then only recently relocated from Burgdorf to Yverdun, Switzerland. William Maclure thought Pestalozzi’s system was the most rational he had ever seen and was particularly enthused by the emphasis placed by Pestalozzi on the development of the individual and the practical education provided.

Maclure tried to persuade Pestalozzi to emigrate to America to set up a school which he would finance, but met with a negative response. He had more success with Joseph Neef (1770-1854), a Pestalozzian teacher in Paris, who migrated to the United States. Joseph Neef spent several years learning English and studying the educational system and requirements of the country. In 1808 he published a Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education, the first American manual on the system.

Therein Joseph Neef sees education as ‘ the gradual unfolding of the faculties and powers which providence bestows on man’, gradually developing what lies within the child. He translates Pestalozzi’s idea of ‘Anschauung’ as ‘object teaching. Neef thought that knowledge should be derived from our own senses and immediate sensations and that books should only be used at more advanced stages of learning. The child’s interest should be the main motivation for learning and co-operation should impose any necessary discipline, ideas very new in the United States. Physical education, reflecting children’s’ need for movement, should be included in the school curriculum. Pestalozzi’s methods should be applied to intellectual and physical education only, as moral education should be provided at home not in school. (Silber 1960: 307-8)

Around the same time William Maclure himself published some articles on Pestalozzi’s, methods. Although these seem to have been largely translations from the work of Daniel-A. Chevannes, Expose de la Methode Elementaire de M.Pestalozzi (1805), they helped to promote Pestalozzianism in the United States. Maclure financed the first Pestalozzian school in the United States, which headed by Joseph Neef, opened in Philadelphia in 1809.

William Maclure’s residency in Paris (as the base for his European travels) also led to his promotion of another Pestalozzian school, either carried on or re-opened under Guillaume (William) Phiquepal d’Arusmont. The school was evidently located for some time in Maclure’s Paris house. He also supported Pestalozzi’s institute in Yverdun by funding, provision of books and scientific equipment, and by encouraging people to enrol their children in the school.

Although William Maclure’s direct involvement in the Pestalozzian movement was interrupted by his geological tours and researches in Europe and the United States he continued to visit Yverdun and other educational establishments. In 1820 he spent three months with Pestalozzi before setting out for Spain, where he was convinced the liberal Cortez regime would be more favourably disposed to popular education than the reactionary governments that had returned to power elsewhere in Europe. He aimed to establish an experimental industrial school for poor children, which had long been Pestalozzi’s dream, and to be run on roughly similar lines to Emanuel von Fellenberg’s at Hofwyl, Switzerland. There manual labour was combined with academic study and moral training, among the students being Robert Owen’s sons. William Maclure, having decided to settle in Spain, duly purchased ten thousand acres of land near Alicante confiscated from the church and had the buildings repaired and converted for his project. It is unclear just how far the initiative had been taken because in 1823 the liberal regime was overturned and the church was re-instated. Maclure evidently lost much of his property, leaving Spain in 1824 to return to France (Novales 1979).

Owen and New Lanark

Maclure then visited Ireland and Britain meeting scientists and educational reformers. High on his list of priorities was a visit to Robert Owen at New Lanark in July 1824. Writing to Marie Fratageot (1783-1833), a Pestalozzian teacher in the Paris school, he described his few days at New Lanark as the most pleasant in his life. He was greatly impressed by what he saw. He was captivated by Owen’s success on two counts: first, for the good it would produce; second, because it encouraged him in his own ideas for experimental schools in the United States. William Maclure was also struck by the number of ladies visiting the school ‘from which’, he concluded, ‘it would appear that women are more interested in the improvement of society than men’ (Maclure Journals). In Edinburgh Maclure met Robert Jameson, the famous geologist, and James Pillans, the Scottish educational reformer and teacher, and an early pioneer of the monitorial system (Maclure Journals: 727).

William Maclure was clearly not only sympathetic to educational reform but was also familiar with community experiments of the kind being advocated by Robert Owen, such as those of the Shakers, Moravians and Harmonists in the United States. Moreover in his adopted country Maclure was well connected with the intellectual and political elite and consequently could open doors in high places. There seems little doubt that Owen’s plans to establish a new community at New Harmony, Indiana, was high on the agenda during Maclure’s visit. William Maclure may well have confirmed Owen’s view that his plans for social and educational reform stood a better chance of becoming reality in the new world than the old. Whether or not a prospective partnership between the two was discussed at that stage is unknown (Donnachie 2000: 204).

New Harmony

Maclure returned to the United States in 1825, having been preceded there by his protégé, Marie Fratageot, who had opened a school in Philadelphia. It was she who suggested that he re-orientate his educational and scientific interests to New Harmony.

William Maclure thus joined Robert Owen in the community at New Harmony, investing substantially in it and encouraging teachers and scientists to migrate to Indiana. The notables included the scientists, Thomas Say, Charles Alexandre Lesueur, Gerard Troost, and Owen’s eldest son, Robert Dale Owen, also an educational reformer who wrote about the schools at New Lanark. The Pestalozzian educators included Frategeot and Phiquepal d’Arusmont, later augmented by Joseph Neef and others. William Maclure himself joined the party, the ‘Boatload of Knowledge’ which set off down the Ohio river from Pittsburgh, reaching New Harmony in early 1826. (Donnachie 2000, pp. 233-5).

New Harmony from the collection of Ian DonnachieNew Harmony

Education at New Harmony began at the age of two, boys and girls following the same curriculum separately. The infant aschool was essentially devoted to play. Following Pestalozzis precepts teaching at all stages was appropriate to the children’s levels of comprehension and the time devoted to any single subject within their attention span. Boys undertoook various craft activities in nearby workshops, while girls helped in cotton and wool mills and with domestic duties. The schools were thus also centres of production, the sale of goods helping to defray expenses. An interesting parallel can be drawn with New Lanark, since there the profits of the store subsidised the schools (Donnachie 2000, pp. 243-4). Maclure believed that ‘children under proper management, can feed and clothe themselves by the practice of the best and most useful part of their instruction; and in place of being a burden, they would be a help to all concerned with them’ (quoted in Silber: 311).

In the numerous constitutional wrangles and disagreements which afflicted New Harmony from the outset, the School or Education Society survived. As McLaren and others have noted, Robert Owen played some role in organisation and the curricula, arguing constantly with William Maclure, but to less effect than at New Lanark. William Maclure and his associates largely ran things their own way, sticking closely to Pestalozzian precepts. Maclure‘s experience had led him to believe that adult minds were too inflexible to be changed, as Owen did, and that the best route to social reform lay in the teaching of children. Like Pestalozzi, he saw education as a slow process, requiring patience and care, whereas William Owen thought he could introduce a Utopian society immediately. William Maclure was critical of Owen’s use of Lancaster’s monitorial system saying it was nothing more than ‘parrot education to exhibit before strangers at New Lanark’.

As the New Harmony community disintegrated, William Maclure assumed complete control of the School Society, and while maintaining the educational provision, also transformed into a major centre of scientific research. A journal, the Disseminator of Useful Knowledge, was established in 1828 and the press published major works on natural sciences into the 1840s. David Dale Owen, another of Robert Owen’s sons, continued Maclure’s geological research. Maclure subsequently gifted substantial sums and volumes to the New Harmony Library, founding the Working Men’s Institute (1838) and supporting the ANSP financially. William Maclure moved to Mexico and died there in 1840.

In conclusion

William Maclure held highly progressive views for his time on issues as diverse as the importance of diet, exercise, good health, medical practice, slavery, and women’s rights. He was a strong advocate of education for women, as part of his wider agenda for the education of workers and the poor. His printing of cheap books and the provision of libraries were highly effective methods of disseminating knowledge far in advance of Andrew Carnegie. Beyond his enormous personal contribution to the advance of American geology, Maclure was celebrated for his educational innovation in introducing and sustaining Pestalozzianism in the United States.


Baatz, S. (1999) ‘William Maclure’ in J.A.Garraty and M.C. Carnes (eds.) American National Biography, Oxford University Press, vol. 14, pp. 273-5.

Bestor, A.E (1948) Education and Reform at New Harmony: Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot, 1820-1833, Indiana Historical Society.

Donnachie, I.(2000) Robert Owen. Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony, Tuckwell Press.

Donnachie, I. and Hewitt, G. (1993, 1999) Historic New Lanark. The Dale and Owen Industrial Community since 1785, Edinburgh University Press.

Doskey, J.S. (ed.) (1988) The European Journals of William Maclure, American Philisophical Society, Philadelphia.

Elliott, J.M.(ed.)(1994) Partnership for Prosperity: The Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot, 1820-1833, Indiana Historical Society.

Hardy, J.D.Jr., Jensen, J.H. and Wolf, M. (1966) The Maclure Collection of French Revolutionary Materials, University f Pennsylvania Press.

Hijikata, N.(1992) ‘Owen’s View of Nature and His Radicalism’, in Tsuzuki, pp. 49-64.

McLaren, D.J.(1996) ‘Robert Owen, William Maclure and New Harmony’, History of Education, vol. 25, pp. 223-33.

McLaren, D.J.(2000) ‘Education for Citizenship and the New Moral World of Robert Owen’, Scottish Educational Review, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 107-116.

McLaren, D.J. (2003) ‘Parish, Town and Factory Community: the Place of the New Lanark Schools in the Scottish Educational Tradition’, Robert Owen Commemorative Lecture, 2003.

Novales, A.G. (1979) William Maclure: Socialismo Utopico en Espana (1808-1840), Uiversidad Autonama, Barcelona.

Kolmerten, C.C.(1990) Women in Utopia. The Ideology of Gender in the American Owenite Communities, Indiana University Press.

Silber, K. (1960) Pestalozzi. The Man and His Work, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tsuzuki, C.(1992) Robert Owen and the World of Co-operation, Robert Owen Association of Japan/Hokusen-Sha.


See also the New Harmony and New Lanark web sites.

Acknowledgements: Picture: William Maclure – believed to be in the public domain; the picture of New Harmony is from the collection of Ian Donnachie.

How to cite this article: Donnachie, I. (2003) ‘William Maclure: Science, Pestalozzianism and reform in Europe and the United States’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

Ian Donnachie is Reader in History at The Open University and author of Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony, Tuckwell Press, 2000, from which some of this article derives. He continues his researches on Owen and Owenism and is also vice-chair of the Friends of New Lanark.

© Ian Donnachie 2003