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Icaria: An Aborted Utopia on the Texas Frontier

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 116, Number 4, April 2013
pp. 358-385 | 10.1353/swh.2013.0045

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Etienne Cabet (1788-1856), author of Voyage en Icarie (1839) and the mastermind of a scheme to found a utopian settlement in Denton County, Texas. Courtesy of the Baxter-Snyder Center for Icarian Studies, Western Illinois University Libraries.

Few decades in the histories of the young American and French Republics were as pregnant with conflicting ideas as the 1840s. An impressive number of Americans busied themselves with humanitarian causes, while others dedicated themselves to battling the influence of new immigrants from France, Germany, and Ireland whose religious and political views along with their very numbers seemed to threaten the basic ideals of America in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Across the Atlantic, similar disintegrations of political and social unity inspired the flood of immigrants who chose the United States as their new home. The lives of many members of the European middle class had been destabilized by the seemingly constant revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While entrepreneurs grew rich from new means of manufacturing, skilled workers on the continent lost a vital safety net with the disappearance of the guild system. The emerging factory system accommodated the hordes of new workers but could not contain their frustrations. Faced with unemployment, recession, malnutrition, and an increase in crime, European laborers sought a new life through first social and political revolution. An untested blueprint for prospective solutions to these modern problems would soon be provided by a polyglot group of thinkers known as the socialists.

These theorists generally saw factory production as a prime factor in the revolutionary future they envisioned. Some, like Claude de Saint Simon, argued that growing factory wealth would eventually enrich all classes. Others, like Louis Blanc , insisted that such a happy result could only come about through a revolution of the workers. Still others, most especially Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, rejected all bourgeois enrichment, even when it trickled down to the laboring class. Marx and Engels argued that the laboring class—the proletariat—would instead lead the way to a new classless society where no one would have more than he needed. Another cadre of socialist writers stepped from the realm of theory to form practical plans for a happier and more just world. Charles Fourier, Victor Considerant, and Robert Owen centered their efforts on ideal settlements such as Fourier's Phalanx and Owens's Quadrangle or Parallelogram, communities of limited size in which workers would live and labor in a cooperative setting. Though several such colonies briefly sprouted in Europe during the 1840s and 1850s, the utopian socialists soon looked to America as the natural laboratory for such social experiments. In an era of cheap American land, Ètienne Cabet would be drawn to Texas, a former Mexican province that constituted one of the largest sources of available territory in North America at the time.

Though born into a petit bourgeois household in Dijon in 1788, Cabet spent most of his life advocating on behalf of the proletariat. Even after earning a law degree, Cabet passed his life as "a veritable political ascetic" who focused on the alteration of society. With the Revolution of 1830, he attained a judicial post in King Louis Philippe's government and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies from his home city. Even with these temporary successes, Cabet soon found himself "a moral exile in his own country" for his unpopular views on a modern society that he claimed was breaking into two distinct classes: "the rich . . . numbering in the thousands . . . and the laboring class numbering in the millions." His noisy insistence that this shameful gap of money and power be filled by legislative means quickly antagonized Louis Philippe's government, which in 1834 charged the troublesome advocate with lèse majesté, a traitorous attack on royal authority. After spending a five-year exile mostly in England, where he came under the influence of Robert Owen, Cabet returned to France in 1839 and began the most important phase of his career.

In the years after his return to France, Cabet gained wide popularity among some segments of the laboring classes of his homeland through two strains of thought that often...



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