The Icarian Community Nauvoo
SEPTEMBER 01, 1965 by PAUL M. ANGLE
Nauvoo, Illinois, is well known for the Mormon settlement there from 1839 to 1846, but few know of or remember the communal Icarians who occupied the town from 1849 to 1860.
Paul M. Angle, editor of Chicago History, in the Spring 1965 issue of that journal of the Chicago Historical Society, tells the story as taken from The Icarian Colony in the United States of America: Its Constitution, Its Laws, Its Situation Material and as to Morale at the End of the First Six Months of 1855 by Etienne Cabet.
Etienne Cabet, born at
The voyage took nearly two months. They had been told that there was easy access to their land: they discovered that they had to hack their way to it. At their destination they learned that their purchase had been encumbered by impossible conditions. Illness decimated them. After several months they gave up and made their laborious wayto
At this point Cabet, who had not accompanied the advance guard, arrived. Soon afterward, three Icarians who had been sent north on an exploring expedition returned to report that on the
The State of
Now we turn to Cabet for an account of the Icarian community five years later—that part of his book covered by the "situation materielle" of his title.
"If there are those in the community who wish to leave, I tell them that they are mad; that they will never find what they will leave: Fraternity, Liberty, a life tranquil and without worry; for, while I have found good and generous hearts in the family of my wife, the community was still better."
Lodging, the founder admitted, was still far from perfect, in part because of the shortage of masons. The colony needed stoves and lamps, candles and oil, and a horse and wagon to deliver coal and wood to each dwelling.
Various workshops were in operation: a sewing room for making dresses and men’s clothing, a machine shop, forge, blacksmith’s shop, tin shop, carpenter shop, and quarters for butchers, painters, coopers, printers, shoemakers, weavers, bakers, and various other trades. The list sounds impressive until one comes to Cabet’s admission: "All these workshops are in their infancy, but the colony will develop and perfect them." The great need, it turns out, was for machines, and for storerooms for raw materials, tools, and finished products. This meant money, and money, in
The inventory showed 14 horses, 25 oxen, between 400 and 500 hogs, and 20 cows which gave from 80 to 140 liters of milk a day. Fowls were scarce: so few that eggs were limited to the sick.
Misfortunes had taken a heavy toll. Fire had destroyed the grain elevator, malt house, and laundry, all new buildings. Two valuable horses, three colts, and several cows and hogs had died. On the credit side the colony had built one dormitory on the temple square. It had purchased a service of faience and glass for the refectory and had ordered another, of wrought iron, from
Cabet described living conditions in detail. Board—all ate in the common dining room—was nourishing and as varied as possible. In the morning, before going to work, the men were served a dram of whiskey with bread.
For lunch the men had soup, potatoes or beans, or meat left over from the night before. The women, apparently, had to be satisfied with café au lait. The dinner menu bears out Cabet’s assertion that the Icarians were better fed than the mass of working people elsewhere. "Several times a week we have thick soup and butcher’s meat, sometimes mutton; in the winter fresh pork with sauerkraut, ham and other smoked pork; excellent fish once or twice a week depending on the season; various pastries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, rice, butter, cheese, fresh vegetables of all kinds, radishes, cabbage, peas, carrots, turnips, onions, leeks, spinach; sometimes poultry; often, during the season, melons and watermelons. This year we will have an abundance of peaches, enough to eat three times a day for a month, either fresh or stewed. Next year we will have apples and other fruit, for we have planted fruit trees of all kinds, and we will even have all kinds of preserves. We do not yet have grapes but we will soon, for we are cultivating the vine."
"Icarian dress," Cabet declared, "must be suitable for cold and heat, in winter and summer, comfortable, economical, and consequently simple, easy to make and repair, utilitarian, without luxury and adornment. All which tends toward luxury and coquetry is as contrary to our economic necessity as to our principles of reason and morality." The colony had to make a large number of straw hats, and winter caps of cloth, leather, and fur. Boots had to be made for all outdoor workers, which meant practically everyone. This meant great expense, which could be diminished if money for a tannery could be obtained. In the meantime, some of the workmen were turning out sabots, cheaper than boots and warmer in the winter.
The colony had three schools; one for boys from six to sixteen, one for girls of the same age, and a third, a kind of nursery school, for children between three and six. The children had to eat and sleep at the older schools, which occupied a large double house. On Sunday, their parents could take them away between dinner and supper, and could see them at school any day of the week during recreation periods. The girls were taught women’s work and the boys various trades, including farming. Cabet looked forward to the time when the schools could accommodate some American boarders who would receive instruction in the French language and Icarian principles.
The town had a library of 4,000 volumes which received a number of French and American newspapers. There was also a theater where every Sunday, in the presence of the entire community—the men, women, and children occupying separate sections—talented Icarians presented plays, sang, or recited. The choir—so the founder claimed—was much in demand for public fetes, and on one occasion had received $100 for singing at the dedication of a railroad.
The colonists were fortunate enough to have a physician who was also a surgeon. He made daily visits to the infirmary and the schools and to those who were ill at home. The hospital, however, was so small it could care for men only. A midwife presided at all deliveries. Women and the girls of the school bathed in a large pond, the men and boys in the
Signs of Discord
So far, from Cabet’s recital, one could conclude that affairs were going quite well in
It would be necessary, therefore, to keep Nauvoo for some years as a place of apprenticeship, a school for the children, and a propaganda center. It would also be a place of reception for the many new arrivals expected from
When Cabet turned to a discussion of the colony’s morale, the true state of the venture came out.
"I am not satisfied," the founder asserted bluntly. "We do not understand our principles sufficiently and do not apply them fully; we do not have enough of unity and fraternity, order and economy, discipline in work, or fidelity to the conditions of admission."
Cabet had a long list of specific complaints. Too many colonists tried to obtain special privileges, thus violating the principle of equality. Too many indulged in slanders and calumnies. Some were lazy; some had violated the principle of communal property by secretly selling clothing and furniture which belonged to the community. Many were careless and profligate; others regularly disregarded the rule which prohibited hunting and fishing for pleasure.
Cabet discussed certain delinquencies at length. One of the rules of the colony enjoined temperance, frugality, and simplicity. "But some, too many… can be called free livers or sensualists. I have seen no one suffer from hunger, but I have seen much of indigestion—a mother kill her children by too much to eat, and an old man kill himself by indulging to excess, against the advice of his friends, in melons during a cholera epidemic." Coquetry was a vice of the Old World capable of disrupting the family, yet women who called themselves Icarians were bringing Paris styles to Nauvoo, while Icarian women in Paris were sacrificing their jewels for the advancement of the order.
The use of tobacco, all Icarians knew, was strictly prohibited. Nevertheless, several members of the delegation sent to Keokuk to receive the last group to comefrom
The objections to tobacco could be applied equally to strong drink, but with the difference that whiskey was useful to workers when distributed regularly and with caution. Thus it was that in the morning, during summer, when the Icarians went to work at an early hour, they received a dram of whiskey with bread, and that between meals, in the hot weather, they were rationed whiskey diluted with water. In the winter outdoor workers, and the women assigned to the laundry, received a regular allowance.
But there had been abuses, particularly in the shops on the outskirts of the town. Here workers had taken whiskey after each meal and oftener, and more of the critter than the rules allowed. Women had requisitioned whiskey to make preserves for their own use, and there had been thefts of liquor from the storehouse. "We even see, I say with regret and I blush for you, some drunkenness in a society pledged to temperance. I can cite only one case, but one case in
The thirty-ninth condition of admission to the colony required the applicant to adopt, for religion, "the true Christianity, and for a creed, the practice of fraternity." "In Icaria," Cabet explained, "we have neither superstitions nor ceremonies, and those who believe that it is absolutely necessary to deceive, to brutify, and to fanaticize the people in order to govern them [religion is the opiate of the masses?] must find very difficult the Icarian undertaking which has no other weapons than reason and truth. But, Icarians, how can you hesitate to adopt for your religion the evangelical doctrine of fraternity, and for your creed the practice of that same fraternity?"
The forty-fifth, and final, condition stipulated that the community would have complete control of the children. But almost all families had forgotten this commitment: they wished to retain control of their children and to participate in all that concerned them. Many seemed to think that they could prove their affection by encouraging the children to develop a taste for fine clothing and choice foods; some even permitted them to hear talk which excited them to insubordination. "This," Cabet warned, "is one of the gravest impediments to the progress of the community."
The Greatest Problem: Organized Opposition
"Well, in summary, what is our morale situation?" the founder asked in conclusion. "Isn’t it evident that almost none of the conditions of admission is being fully complied with, that a certain number among us lack the Icarian qualities, that they neither know nor understand Icarian principles, and live in individual selfishness?"
The principal evil in the colony, Cabet charged, was a party hostile to communism, to the president, and to the faithful Icarians—a party which indulged in frequent, unsparing dissidence and a systematic opposition. The members of this group were not numerous—eight, ten, perhaps a few more—but they were very bold. They scorned education and Icarian propaganda; they justified the use of tobacco and whiskey and Bunting fur pleasure; they encouraged insubordination in work. They spread the notion that the Icarians were slaves because they did not enjoy absolute liberty, and asserted that they had not traveled 3,000 leagues to live in bondage. To them the faithful were only flatterers moved by ambition, or informers and spies.
Cabet ended with a pitiful personal confession.
"I am old, overburdened by work, fatigue, and care, and I need rest.
"In consequence of all these fatigues and agitations, at the end of a long discourse on my part in the General Assembly last December, I was struck, you will remember, by a paralytic stroke which, thanks to the care of our physician, did not keep me from going out the next morning. Since then, my eyes are no longer strong enough for me to read, nor is my hand steady enough for writing. I am, to a degree, ill and in pain.
"And if the systematic opposition to which I am subjected does not cease completely, if the party which has been formed does not disband absolutely, if the majority does not resolve to practice vigorously Icarian principles and obey Icarian laws, without condoning any violation, I will retire next February, and leave the safety of the colony up to you."
The opponents of Cabet proved to be far more numerous and far stronger than he thought. In December, 1855, the faithful and the dissidents came to an open break over constitutional changes which the president demanded. Wrangling kept the community in turmoil for months, with Cabet losing ground steadily. Finally he decided to lead his own followers to
The Icarians who had followed Cabet to