Étienne Cabet

Étienne Cabet (1788-1856) was a French radical whose utopian visions led him to found a community called Icaria in the United States.

Etienne Cabet was born on Jan. 1, 1788, in Dijon; his father was a cooper. After an excellent general education he studied medicine, then changed to law. He gained a reputation as a talented and eloquent lawyer in Dijon, but he was known also as an advocate of causes unpopular with the monarchy. By 1825, having lost his privileges in the courts of Dijon, Cabet had moved to Paris.

Cabet's involvement with republican opponents of the Bourbon monarchy grew bolder. He became a director of the Carbonari, a secret revolutionary society which had found its way from Naples into France. He headed an insurrectionary committee during the July Revolution of 1830, which resulted in the abdication of the last Bourbon king. It did not, however, result simply in republicanism. Instead, Louis Philippe ascended to "a throne surrounded by republican institutions," and in 1831 the new monarch, as part of his strategy to pacify the radicals, appointed Cabet to the post of procurer general of Corsica. But Cabet was too uncompromising to stay in favor long and was removed from office. He was then elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He also established a newspaper to give voice to the opinions of the radicals. Faced with intrigue and agitation, the administration adopted a course of repression. Cabet was given a choice between imprisonment and exile. He took asylum in London.

Away from the rapid pace of events in France, Cabet found time for reflection. He met the socialist Robert Dale Owen. Cabet gave up his faith in political reform and turned his imagination to new forms of social organization. In 1839 he published a fictional account of the travels of an English nobleman in a distant commonwealth named Icaria, after the heroic philosopher Icar who had led its successful revolution. The novel became a best seller. Returning to France, Cabet capitalized on its success with newspapers, magazines, and books publicizing the secrets of communal success in Icaria. He was neither a systematic nor a practical thinker. But by 1847 adherents of his doctrines reportedly numbered 400,000, and Cabet proposed a scheme for setting up his own Icaria in America. On Owen's advice Cabet acquired a million acres in Texas.

The first group of nearly 600 settlers found they had been swindled. The land was poor, isolated, and badly scattered in lots, rather than grouped in one large tract. Their discouragement abated, however, when they learned that the Mormons had abandoned the community of Nauvoo in Illinois. Cabet led the Icarians there in 1849. Still there were difficulties. French enthusiasts drifted away, and there was repeated criticism of the Paris office and Madame Cabet. Cabet returned to France to defend himself against charges of fraud. Then, in 1854, he became an American citizen. At the outset his experiment in forming a commune had seemed promising. Many of his followers were skilled French craftsmen, and the community had acquired a mill, library, printing press, distillery, and schools. But factionalism threatened their dreams.

Cabet was getting older and more dictatorial. He became critical of the morality of some Icarians, encouraged spying on other members, and would not listen to criticism of his economic doctrines. Opposition to his leadership grew. More democratic forms of government were demanded than Cabet, once so radical in his republicanism, would allow. In 1856, when Cabet refused to recognize the results of an election, he was himself expelled from Icaria. He took 180 disciples with him to St. Louis, where on Nov. 8, 1856, he was stricken with apoplexy and died. Icarian experiments on a smaller scale continued throughout the 19th century.

Further Reading on Étienne Cabet

The most important books about Cabet are in French, the best being Jules Prudhommeaux, Icarie et son fondateur, Étienne Cabet (1907). A full-length study in English is Albert Shaw, Icaria: A Chapter in the History of Communism (1884). For background information and a good, brief chapter on Cabet's adventures see Mark Holloway, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880 (1951; 2d ed. 1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Johnson, Christopher H., Utopian communism in France: Cabet and the Icarians, 1839-1851, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974.

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