Étienne Cabet, utopian socialist and founder of the Icarian movement, was born in Dijon, France, on January 1, 1788, the son of Claude and Françoise (Bertier) Cabet. He received his law degree in May 1812 and moved to Paris four years later to work for Félix Nicod, a wealthy and influential lawyer with links to the opposition to the restored Bourbon monarchy. Cabet also became closely associated with the opposition and embarked on a career of political and social activism that dominated the rest of his life. As a reward for his participation in the revolution of 1830, he served briefly as attorney general for Corsica and as a representative in the chamber of deputies. He soon became disenchanted with the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe and, in 1833, launched an antigovernment newspaper, Le Populaire. The increasingly revolutionary tone of this paper led to his going to England in 1834 to avoid a prison sentence. Cabet married Délphine Lesage, another native of Dijon, while in exile. A daughter, Céline, had been born to the couple earlier. By the time of his return to France in 1839, Cabet, who had been strongly influenced by Robert Owen and by Thomas More's Utopia during his exile, had written and produced two books, Histoire populaire de la Révolution française (1839) and the more famous novel, Voyage en Icarie (1838). The latter book, which outlined Cabet's plan for a perfect utopian community based on the principles of evolutionary communism, captured the imaginations of thousands of French craftsmen. Cabet believed that environment determined human nature and that people, whom he saw as perfectible and rational, would produce a perfect society when placed in a perfect environment.
On February 3, 1848, sixty-nine or seventy of Cabet's adherents left Le Havre to attempt to fabricate such an environment on an expected one million acres of land near the site of present-day Justin, in southern Denton County, Texas. The land had been contracted by Cabet from the Peters Real Estate Company. But upon arriving at the site in late May 1848, the settlers found that only one-tenth of the anticipated land was available and that even that fraction had been allotted in noncontiguous half-section plots. Moreover, they found that they were also required to construct a house on each of their half-sections by July in order to obtain title to the land. Disillusioned and ill with malaria, the surviving settlers returned to New Orleans, their original port of entry in the United States. Cabet, along with another group of Icarians, left France and joined them in that city in December 1848.
Later that same month an advance party traveled north to the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, abandoned two years earlier by the Mormons, and returned to New Orleans to report to Cabet that the vacant town would be an ideal location for another Icarian community. Cabet and 280 followers left New Orleans and arrived in Nauvoo on March 15, 1849. The Nauvoo community had serious problems from the beginning, many of them involving resentment of Cabet's occasionally dictatorial behavior. Cabet also had to return to France in May 1851 to defend himself against charges of fraud in the promotion of his American Icarian projects. After being cleared of wrongdoing, he returned to Nauvoo in 1852 and, in 1854, became a United States citizen. Yet the problems at Nauvoo remained, and in the fall of 1856, the community disintegrated under the combined weight of serious financial difficulties and severe factional strife. After this breakup, Cabet took 180 of his remaining followers to St. Louis to start a new community. He died in that city a week after he arrived, on November 8, 1856. Icarian communities continued to exist in the United States until 1898.