The Icarians

The Icarians were a 19th-century utopian society in France. The movement’s formation was inspired and encouraged by the writings of Etienne Cabet; a politician, writer, and irritator. 

14 minutes

The Founding

Before becoming a radical Cabet was born in Dijon in 1788. He grew up in a family of middle-class artisans. He became active in politics after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, incensed by the prospect of a restored theocratic monarchy. He moved to Paris in 1820 and immersed himself in the secret revolutionary societies of the city’s salons. 

The saucy salons of Parisian social life.

By 1830 the July Revolution was building in Paris. Cabet was leading his so-called Insurrection Committee to aid in forcing the abdication of King Charles X, the last of the restored Bourbons. For his role in the chaos, the newly crowned Citizen King, Louis-Phillipe d’Orleans rewarded Cabet with the title of Attorney-General of Corsica. A position he would lose shortly after due to his loud and constant criticisms of the Orleanist monarchy. 

After the loss of his post, Cabet took some time off to author a four-volume history of the French Revolution. A year later he was able to wiggle his way into a lower deputy position at the National Assembly.  He aired his political grievances as loudly as ever. Once again his representative occupation was short-lived. He was formally labeled an Agitator and given the choice between two years in prison or five years in exile. 

Agitation at the National Assembly.

Choosing exile, Cabet departed for England where he took up an obsessive study of philosophy and economics, paying particular interest on the dynamics between political structures and economic welfare throughout history. One of his acolytes recorded this about him: 

Studying, pondering the history of all ages and countries, he at length arrived at the conclusion that mere political reforms are powerless to give society the welfare which it obstinately seeks… He found at all epochs the same phenomena: society sundered in twain; on one side a minority, cruel, idle, arrogant, usurping exclusive enjoyment of the products of a majority, passive, toiling, ignorant, who remained wholly destitute… To change all this, to find the means of preventing one portion of humanity from being eternally the prey of the other — such was his desire, the goal of all his efforts.

Cabet’s exile ended in 1839. He returned to fair France and began work on a book that expounded his ideals in the allegory style of Thomas More’s Utopia. The books title was Voyage en Icarie, or “Voyage to Icaria”, and it was finally published in 1840. 

The plot’s narration was in the form of a travel journal kept by a young English nobleman who had learned of a remote country known as Icaria. It was said that their way of life, culture, and form of governing was unlike anywhere else. The young lord was made so curious that he decided to visit the strange country and record his remarkable experiences. 

The young lord was made so curious that he decided to visit the strange country.

The first part of the book is a fawning account of the wonders of Icarian society with its cooperative industry, inconceivable accomplishments, productive education systems, the peoples’ comforts, freedoms, and high morality. Essentially, why their way of living is the most perfect. 

The second part outlines the history of Icaria. The country apparently lived the exact same way all the rest of Western Europe until 1782, when the hero Icar led a revolution and communism was established. 

The final section is devoted to the nonfiction history of communist and egalitarian thinking and was accompanied by comprehensive summaries of all the writing on the subject from Plato to Cabet’s contemporary Utopians. 

Icar led a revolution and established communism.

The book became successful enough for Cabet to launch a monthly magazine named Le Populaire. He also put out a yearly Icarian Almanac. Fans of Icarianism began to see Cabet as a political messiah and sought to implement his ideas in a practical setting. 

In the May 1847 edition of Le Populaire, Cabet published an article titled Allons en Icarie, or Let’s Go to Icaria”. The article detailed his proposal to establish an American colony based on Icarian ideals. He called for volunteers to come and build an artisanal cooperative community with him. He initially believed that at least 10,000 working men would enlist immediately and that the numbers would swell to one million skilled workers and artisans, and soon there would be huge cities bursting with industry, education, and cultural facilities. His plan was met with great enthusiasm from his readers. A deluge of offers to enlist, donations of money, seeds, farm tools, clothing, and books began to pour in. 

The dream of Icaria.

The Settling

“which lays down with great care the equality and brotherhood of mankind, and the duty of holding all things in common; abolishes servitude and service; commands marriage, under penalities; provides for education; and requires that the majority shall rule.”

Preamble of the Nauvoo Constitution

Hoist the Banners: Denton County, Texas

In February of 1848, an “advance guard” of sixty-nine Icarians set sail from Le Havre, France to the million-acre parcel in Texas that had been purchased by Cabet. They arrived in March, landing in New Orleans. They were to claim the land title first and when they did they quickly learned that they had been deceived. First, one million acres turned out to be 320, and the parcel was not contiguous but split up in a checkerboard of state land, private land, state land, private land, etc. Additionally, the sales contract contained the contingency that required 3,125 individuals or families to construct 3,125 log cabins and occupy them by July 1st of the same year. 

By June only twenty-seven of the settlers had made it to their Texan utopia. The rest had either gone back to France after learning about the discrepancies in the property deed or had given up and turned back to New Orleans when the wagons broke down a hundred miles away from Denton. Upon arrival the remaining believers began a frenzied effort to get their homes built in time to stake their land claims while also attempting to build-up productive crops in the Texas prairie. Poor housing, poor eating, and exhaustion were the way of life in early Icaria, then came the demons of cholera and malaria, at which time the settlement’s only doctor succumbed to a nervous breakdown and fled the colony. 

1500 settlers had been registered for the second wave of migration to the colony. Of these only nineteen showed up to make the trip, and half of these hung back in New Orleans rather than finish the journey to Texas. The deflation of enthusiasm could be explained by the events in France that year. By the time the first settlers had landed in America, the February Revolution was well under way and before the month was over the July Monarchy of the supposed Citizen King had been brought to an end, resulting in France’s Second Republic. 

Frenzied efforts.

When the Icarians in Texas learned of this dismal turnout in the second migration those few who were left standing decided to give up. The colony was abandoned and the defeated handful made their way back to New Orleans in the fall. Upon arrival to the city, they were surprised to find that some several hundred Icarian enthusiasts from France has been gradually gathering there and waiting for news of the Texas colony. When they learned of the failure the news was sent to Cabet. He immediately bought passage to America and left for New Orleans in January of 1849. 

By the time he arrived in the city, there were 480 Icarians loitering around. A portion of these wanted to return to France, while another wanted to stay in America and find a better location to live the dream. Cabet organized a General Meeting where they would all vote on their fate. This led to the movement’s first schism. Two hundred voted to return to France and two-hundred and eighty voted to stay. The two hundred fair-weather Icarians had an amount of money pared to them from the treasury to cover their travel expenses, though this would not be the last time they were heard from. The remainers followed Cabet to a new home. 

Strangeland Reloaded: Nauvoo, Illinois

The town of Nauvoo was founded in 1839 by Joseph Smith and his gang of Mormons. By 1845 their population had grown to 15,000. At the time the town dwarfed Chicago with its population of 8000. After Joseph Smith’s jailhouse murder in 1844, a succession crisis split the Mormons, mostly between those who would follow Brigham Young to Salt Lake City and those who would keep with Smith’s wife and son in Independence, Missouri. Those who stayed behind sold the town to the Icarians in 1849. 

Nauvoo was reborn as the first semi-permanent Icarian community. They structured their governing and society to model those praised in Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie. A president would be elected annually and there would be one officer each to administrate finance, farming, education, and industry. New members were to be admitted by majority vote among the community men, and only after satisfying the prerequisites of four months residency, a forfeit of all personal property, and the payment of an $80 pledge ($3046 in 2023). 

Every family was allotted the same amount of living space, two rooms in an apartment building. They were also each given an equal amount of furniture. Upon reaching the age of four children were moved to a boarding school and were only permitted family visits on Sundays. The intention of this was to encourage a greater love for the community as a whole, rather than cultivating special affection for their parents. Marriage was the norm in the community, but divorce was permitted with the assumption that re-marriage would soon follow. The Icarians did not practice any religion, but they did gather on Sundays where they discussed Cabet’s writings and general ethics. 

Once fully settled the Icarians enjoyed a short period of energetic growth and relative prosperity. Farmland was rented. A sawmill and flour mill were established. Multiple workshops and schools were built. They even opened a theater. A periodical press was released to spread the news of Icaria in French, English, and German. An office was set up in Paris to recruit new members to the colony. Cultural life thrived with weekly concerts and theater productions, as well as an extensively stocked library of four thousand volumes. By 1855 the Icarian project would record just over 500 participants. 

The Second Schism

In 1849 Cabet was the de facto authority of the sect, a status granted more by his followers than his own ego. However, a single individual being the supreme decision-maker was a major contradiction to the ideals of Icaria and Cabet acknowledged this. In 1850 he proposed a constitution that would provide for an elected president and board of directors. 

Presidents, directors, and forgotten kings.

Two years later Cabet was forced back to France to face the courts. Those former Icarians who voted to go back to France after the failures of Texas had combined their complaints of Cabet into a class-action lawsuit, claiming that he had obtained their property by dishonest means and misrepresentation. He spent eighteen months fighting the charges. When he made it back to America he had brought a much different demeanor with him. He started instituting a series of restrictive rules; a ban on alcohol and tobacco, the prohibiting of talking in the workshops, as well as a push to reinstate his old authority as autocrat, though only on a four year term. He insisted that the changes were necessary to preserving the moral fabric of the community. He had a strong minority of supporters, not unlike the restoration kings he’d spent his youth railing against.

The Icarians’ response was divided along the lines of Dissidents and Cabetists. They resolved to a formal split with Cabet leading 170 exiles out of Nauvoo in October 1856. This represented a loss of 40% of the population and the Dissidents came to find they could no longer raise financial support in France without Cabet. Four years later, broke and defaulted, the colony would have no choice but to disband. Many of them would become part of the Iowa colony. 

Dark Ages: Cheltenham, Missouri

From Nauvoo, Cabet took his followers to St. Louis. Two days after they arrived he had a stroke and died at the age of 68. Leadership was given over to a 32-year-old lawyer, Benjamin Mercadier. They used what was left of Cabet’s money for a $500 ($18,343 in 2023) down payment on a $25,000 ($917,195 in 2023) mortgage for thirty-nine acres of land with three buildings on it in Cheltenham, Missouri. 

They chose to use the same constitution as they had in Nauvoo, “which lays down with great care the equality and brotherhood of mankind, and the duty of holding all things in common; abolishes servitude and service; commands marriage, under penalties; provides for education; and requires that the majority shall rule.”

In Cheltenham, there was less development for community industries. The members commuted to work in St. Louis and sent their children to local public schools. And the colony was to be short-lived. The Civil War began in 1861 and would claim most of the men. By 1864 only twenty residents remained. Unable to make the mortgage payments the Icarians abandoned the keys and fled to the Iowa colony. 

Rule Icaria: Corning, Iowa

In 1852 a group of Icarians ventured out from the then-stable Nauvoo to establish a second colony. Four thousand acres of land were purchased southwest of Queen City, Iowa. After Nauvoo and Cheltenham failed the Iowa colony was the primary destination for the remaining believers, who would turn up in phases at the colony with nothing but their skill sets and a collective debt of $20,000 ($761,620 in 2023). 

For a long time the Iowa colony lived in mud hovels or, if lucky, poorly built log cabins. They managed to stabilize themselves by selling food for low prices during the Civil War. They were able to bring in enough to pay off the group’s debt while also erecting a two story building to serve as the community dining hall, a washhouse, a school, and a dozen cheaply built frame houses. They were collectively supporting sixty-five members. Roughly 2500 pounds of wool were sold per year in addition to the sales of cattle and hogs and the produce of their manufacturing facilities. 

The Corning system of government involved weekly meetings of all adults each Saturday, which was led by an officer who was elected also weekly. A president was elected annually. Four directors were elected to each manage agriculture, clothing, industry, and construction. 

The Third Schism

The Corning project went on to survive and grow for twenty years before the next major conflict arose. This time division was sown over the question of whether the community women should be allowed a vote on community matters. Against it were the Vieux Icariens, and in favor were the Jeunes Icariens. The Vieux won 31-17 in a General Meeting. With this defeat, the Jeunes moved one mile Southeast on the property and took eight of the frame houses with them. For the Vieux, despite their win, their corner of the community would soon become unviable and they would declare bankruptcy in 1878. 

Twenty more years would pass before the Jeunes disbanded their commune. With a final total of forty-six years, the Corning project was the longest-running non-religious commune in American history. 

The Last Colony

Before the end of Iowa, a party of the Jeunes Icariens traveled to California and established Icaria Speranza in Cloverdale, in 1881. Situated on the sprawling Bluxome ranch with vineyards, orchards, and acres of arable land. The commune drew some followers, peaking at 55. Nevertheless, the settlers disbanded in 1886. 

Despite holding the record for longest running secular commune, the story of Icaria reeks of loss. A sincere attempt was made to build a utopia in the wilderness without all the prudishness, one reverent to the budding mythology of communism. A brave stumble in the pursuit of paradise.

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