Who were the Icarians?
One of the many social movements to emerge from Central Europe in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, the Icaria Colony was the longest existing, non-religious and pure communal experiment in American history. Its lifetime covered a full 50 years, 1848 to 1898, with stops in Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and California.
Etienne Cabet, founder of the movement, was born in Dijon, France in 1788, the son of a cooper. After receiving a law degree at 22 and a doctorate at 24, Cabet advanced rapidly in the circles of an unstable French government, becoming a member of the Chamber of Deputies. A champion of the working class, his actions and outbursts became so irritating to the government that he was found guilty of libel and exiled to England for five years. While in exile, Cabet studied Sir Thomas Moore’s book Utopia. The communal societal system outlined by Moore intrigued Cabet. Cabet started writing a similar novel, in French, which portrayed a land of political and social perfection. Cabet’s book Voyage en Icarie (Voyage to Icaria) was about an English lord and his companions’ travels to a distant island-state of Icaria where they spend four months traveling the island learning about its people and government.
Cabet returned to France and throughout the 1840’s his vision of Icaria fired the imagination of thousands of French. Voyage en Icarie so such a popular novel that a second edition was published in 1845, followed by a third edition in 1848. Cabet and his Icarians re-cast the three theme of the French Revolution - fraternity, equality, and liberty - into the three central tenets of Icarian thought:
Fraternity. As a rule of conduct, three principles summarize all: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Do to others the good that you wish for yourself. All must be as brothers, living each for all and all of each.
Equality. It is not nature, but society that has made men unequal in intelligence and education. The remedy for existing social problems is the universal application of the principle of social equality. Social equality can be achieved by a system of communal sharing of goods and services. The community has an obligation to provide free equal educational opportunities to all. And all individuals must be treated equally before the law.
Liberty. All religious opinion must be accorded tolerance and respect. Freedom of speech is basic and all people may participate in the communal assembly meetings, the principal means of setting community policy.
By 1847, Cabet had sufficient support to announce a plan to establish an Icarian colony. Icarians had given up hope that their ideals would ever be achievable under France’s monarchy of Louis Phillipe. Because of its principles of personal and political freedom, America was considered the ideal place to put Icarianism into practice.
On this quest, an advanced party of 69 men sailed from LaHavre February 3, 1848 on the Rome, arriving in New Orleans on March 27, 1848.