Étienne Cabet and the Icarian Movement

Étienne Cabet (1788-1856) was born in Dijon. The son of a cooper, he took full advantage of the opportunities for social mobility brought about by the French Revolution. After the revolution, he remained committed to the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. With the Bourbons once again on the throne of France, he became a member of the French branch of the anti-monarchical Carbonari Society. When Louis-Philippe was placed on the throne, Cabet was made the attorney general of Corsica, but he was too much a child of the French Revolution to be happy even with a constitutional monarchy.

In 1834, Cabet published an article attacking Louis-Philippe's government. He was tried for lèse-majesté, the criminal act of bad-mouthing the king. He was acquitted the first time. When he immediately opened an anti-monarchical paper, L'Populaire, he was arrested again and sentenced to exile. He spent the next five years in England, where he read Thomas More's Utopia. More's imaginary society inspired Cabet to write his own utopian novel, Voyage to Icaria (1840).

Icaria

Cabet's Icaria was “a society founded on the basis of the most perfect equality.” He did less well on the concept of liberty. In his attempt to mitigate the ills of inequality in modern society, Cabet designed a society that included a progressive income tax, no right of inheritance, state regulation of wages, national workshops, public education, control of marriages to promote selective breeding, and a single, government controlled newspaper. Regulations enforced uniformity in all aspects of life, including clothing.

Icarianism in France

Cabet's novel was unexpectedly popular with the French working classes. France had changed while Cabet was in England. Like the British working class before them, French workers were suffering with the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Unemployment and bread prices were both rising. Cabet's ideas seemed to offer hope for a better future.

Cabet did not hesitate to capitalize on the situation. He re-opened L'Populaire and organized Icarian chapters in every major provincial city. By 1847, Cabet acquired a following that has been variously estimated between 200,000 and 400,000 adherents, mostly skilled artisans who were fearful of both the possibility of violent revolution and the impact of modern factories on their position.

Allons en Texas!

Conditions in France grew worse through the “hungry '40s.” Crops failed. Unemployment increased. Bread prices reached a new high. To Cabet's discomfort, Icarians were very vocal participants in bread riots and other demonstrations across France. What's more, the police were keeping a careful eye on the editors of radical newspapers. Cabet began to fear he would once again be imprisoned or exiled.

He suggested a plan to create a small Icarian community in America as early as 1843. In the spring of 1847, he decided the time had come. A headline in L'Populaire announced Allons en Icarie! (Let's go to Icaria!) Working through a broker Cabet purchased 1 million acres of land, sight unseen, in the new state of Texas, which reportedly was eager for immigrants. When the first sixty-nine Icarians arrived, they found they were swindled. After several false starts, the group established themselves in 1849 at Nauvoo, Illinois, recently abandoned by the Mormons.

With responsibility for an actual community, Cabet leaned toward the authoritarian side of the society he described in Voyage to Icaria rather than the democratic. He became such a tyrant that in 1856 a majority of the Icarians voted him out of the community. He died soon afterward in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1895, the remaining Icarians realized they were small American farmers like everyone around them and liquidated the community.

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