Money  /  Retrieval

The 19th-Century Novel That Inspired a Communist Utopia on the American Frontier

The Icarians thought they could build a paradise, but their project was marked by failure almost from the start.

The Nauvoo colony truly represented the glory days for the Icarians. At its peak, 500 people lived there. Every night, they would dine together in a common hall, feasting on crops they collectively managed. Those who didn’t work the fields labored in workshops, sewing clothes, forging tools, making shoes and baking bread. Living in a state of such reputed Christian virtue, they felt no need for religious observances, only common education in Icarian values.

But even while the colony prospered, tough times weren’t far off. Saddled with debt from their Texas misadventure and in desperate need of tools and machines, the Icarians were constantly pressed for cash. “Money issues were always at the forefront,” says Steve Wiegenstein, an author who has written extensively on the Icarians. “That’s not conducive to harmony.”

As utopian vision clashed with reality, Cabet began to develop “a dictatorial spirit,” according to Nordhoff. He banned dissent and ordered strict silence in the workshops. He outlawed tobacco, spirits and complaints about the food. At one point, Cabet even developed a special dish to divide butter at the dinner table into equal portions, heading off fights between colonists over their precious supply.

Throughout these early years, Cabet’s skill as a leader was frequently in doubt. He was often away from the colony altogether, forced to return to France to face charges of fraud brought by former Icarians embittered over the Texas experiment. His commitment to equality meant workers were regularly cycled between jobs, and few were able to specialize in any one skill. Their lack of experience as farmers was also abundantly clear. “The cultivation methods are barbaric,” observed one visitor. “Manure is thrown into the stream, and the same crops are grown on the same ground for an indefinite period of time.”

As historian Diana M. Garno notes, Cabet soon alienated the colony’s women, whom he repeatedly blamed for its many problems. Though his book had promised a society where women could be physicians and even priestesses, in the U.S., he denied them the right to vote and demanded their children be boarded in a common school. Cabet then barred parents from visiting the school for most of the week.

“They weren’t living the book, that’s for sure,” says Hancks. “And when utopia is busted, it’s really, really hard to repair.”