Nydahl, Joel. "Introduction." The Collected Works of John Adolphus
Etzler, 1833-1844. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles
& Reprints, 1977.
At first glance it may seem strange to link the utopian dreams of John Adolphus Etzler, a nineteenth-century German immigrant to America, to the apocalyptic visions of Columbus and the millennial expectations of Jonathan Edwards. When we look closely, however, we can see that Etzler--with his early grandiose proposals to construct a technocratic New Eden in his adopted country, his subsequent fruitless efforts in both America and England to prove the practicability of his "mechanical system, to perform the labours of man and beast by inanimate powers," and, finally, his ill-fated attempt to establish a utopian community in the jungles of Venezuela--stands in a direct line with the centuries of intellectual history represented by the visionary explorer and the zealous divine.
The half-conscious impulses behind Etzler's various plans to construct Utopia Americana are ultimately the same as those behind the dreams of the Renaissance Italian casting glances across the sea and those of the eighteenth-century New Englander casting glances into the future. For Columbus these impulses were tantalizing and suggestive universal myths of lost paradises-to-be-regained; ancient legends of mysterious western lands which held the promise of a simple, sinless life of abundance and joy; and the enigmatic prophecies of the book of Revelation. For Edwards they were similar myths and legends; biblical prophecies seemingly not so enigmatic; and an enlightened sense of man's ability to participate in the making of a better world.
John Adolphus Etzler, one of the most insistently vocal and active, albeit unknown, of the early-nineteenth-century utopists, can be seen as a logical end-product of two evolutionary intellectual process which had been going on for centuries, both of which de-emphasized God and emphasized man: an acceptance of secularized millennial expectations and an embracing of temporalized concepts of progress.
Prior to St. Augustine, church fathers had understood the Revelation of St. John as prophesying an earthly paradise in which would be manifested a radical transformation of man and society. St. Augustine, however, repelled by the emphasis on sensuality implied in such a blueprint for temporal progress, allegorized those apocalyptic visions. By focusing on the spiritual rather than the material life and by insisting that the Millennium (for him, an event of the spirit rather than the flesh) would come about only after the Second Coming (which would usher in the end of history and, hence, the end of the world), he essentially caused the idea of an earthly Utopia to lie dormant. He raised the City of God into ascendancy over the City of Man.
Only Joachim of Flora proved to be an exception to medieval attacks on the concepts of material progress and an earthly paradise. This twelfth-century millennialist, possessing what Ernest Lee Tuveson has called an "unmistakable progressivist tone," preached that God's kingdom would indeed have beneficial temporal consequences and that an earthly Millennium might be achieved before the Day of Judgment--that is, within the bounds of history. Men might therefore be expected to take an active interest, might even participate, in its coming.
Although Joachim's thought was temporarily submerged under waves of adverse criticism by St. Thomas and others, it surfaced again prior to the Reformation and, nurtured by the individualism inherent in Protestantism, not only helped resurrect expectations of glorious days for the church on earth, but also aided in the birth and growth of the progressivist viewpoint: History is dynamic instead of static; the way things were is not the way things have to be; and that man--not so sinful that he cannot improve-- can, with the aid of God, shape his own world.
The intellectual route from Columbus to Jonathan Edwards--by the way of the "optimistic futurism of New World idealism" of Luther and the progressivism of such seventeenth-century English churchmen as Joseph Mede and even, after an initial skepticism, Richard Baxter--is more or less a direct one. Men began to embrace the idea of a providential regeneration of mankind, though they were sure it could not manifest itself in the midst of Old World corruption. Edward Johnson's 1628 "Proclamation for Volunteers" to colonize New England merely reiterated an accepted belief of the time, that the New World would be the location where "the amalgamation of the City of the World into the City of God" would take place: "[F]or your full satisfaction, know this [New England] is the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven, and a new Earth in new Churches, and a new Commonwealth together." American has become Utopia--the setting for a promised millennial State. Earth and Heaven are to be joined on western shores; both the State and the Church are to be wrested from the wilderness of the North American continent as well as from the wilderness of men's souls.
Lacking until only fairly recently both a modern concept of, and a belief in, progress, men for centuries searched space rather than time for paradise; a better world, like the land of Cokaygne west of Spain, was to be found only out there, somewhere over the sea or beyond the next range of mountains. In the western imagination, of course, all images of paradise or of a golden age are eventually transmuted into images of Eden. Our forefathers, when the map of the world was suddenly extended, fused revitalized millennial expectations to ancient paradisiacal dreams by imagining a New Eden which would, according to biblical prophecy, give birth to a heavenly state.
Columbus was saturated with medieval legends about the location of this earthly paradise. From the beginning of his explorations, he firmly believed that God had chosen him to discover the New World and its heathen peoples in order that the biblical injunction to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth might be fulfilled--an action requisite for the Second Coming to occur. After his third voyage, Columbus became convinced that "there [on the continent of America] is the terrestrial paradise," the Garden of Eden, which would also be the place where the last act of history would unfold:
Columbus, by linking the two traditions of a past paradise and a future millennial period, helped perpetuate Joachim's belief that St. John's Revelation would have temporal consequences. Centuries would pass, however, before the idea of man merely finding paradise would give way to (or perhaps incorporate) the idea of man actually creating it; in most medieval and renaissance minds, man was seen only as the relatively passive agent of God, who was the real architect of the Millennium.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more and more English churchmen accepted post-millennialism. This was the belief that the Second Coming would occur after the Millennium--that the period of the new heaven and new earth would exist within the bounds of human history (within time) and, hence, before the end of the world. This faith in the earthly, temporal consequences of the Millennium was, of course, a prerequisite for men having faith in their own ability to make a better world.
In America, however, St. Augustine's--and, even more important, Calvin's Ä- position that the Millennium would be outside history and would be entirely spiritual in nature generally held sway. The first direct attack on this view from New England appeared in Jonathan Edward's A History of the Work of Redemption. Edwards--suggesting Columbus's vision in both his thought and language and being perfectly consistent with early beliefs linking the New World with God's great drama of salvation--sees every reason to expect an earthly Millennium, during which the church will flourish gloriously under the radiant sun of America (and especially of New England):
Edwards's temporalizing of the Millennium was not without its direct influence. Other millennialists--such as Joseph Bellamy (the great-great-grandfather of Edward Bellamy) and Samuel Hopkins--followed Edward's views closely, generally embellishing what the master had set down.
Hopkins's most important work, A Treatise on the Millennium (1793), is especially significant to our investigation of the intellectual and psychic roots of Etzler's utopianism. The earliest non-fictional fully developed, millennial-utopian work written in America, its importance within the utopian canon lies in its close delineation of the secular details of the forthcoming Holy Utopia; thus, it directly paved the way for later secularized versions of the felicitous state. Not that Hopkins is unconcerned with the holiness of the prophesied era of universal peace and spiritual enlightenment; it is just that he sees certain secular beliefs accruing quite naturally in a society of new men who have been transformed by "disinterested benevolence": "[A] time of eminent holiness, must be a time of proportionably great light and knowledge."
Life during the Millennium, says Hopkins, will be easier than ever--a theme never before emphasized to such a degree by any other millennialist, but one which is paramount in the work of Etzler. Foreshadowing Etzler and other scientific-utopians, Hopkins looks forward to a time of such "outward conveniences, and temporal enjoyment[s]" as one might expect to find in an agrarian society when farming is made easier and more efficient:
What we find, as we look at the work of these men who kept the millennial tradition of Joachim alive in America, is a progressive pattern tending toward the temporalization of millennial expectations. Ironically, as we have seen evidence of, this secularizing tendency was inherent in the very thought of the great revivalist himself, Jonathan Edwards; his acceptance of Newtonian physics and Lockean psychology could hardly have avoided adding a materialistic tinge to his millennial extrapolations. His relatively vague map of the Holy Utopia was eagerly seized by his followers, who set about to hypothesize a number of topographical details. From Edwards through Bellamy to Hopkins, the millennial vision of America became more secularized as the millennialists themselves became more interested in the materialistic details of comfort and convenience and in the secondary causes which man for the first time seemed able to control, or at least manipulate. While the initial emphasis may ostensibly have been on the glories of God as manifested in a perfected or improved earth, what caught the fancy of many were Edwards's "contrivances and inventions to facilitate and expedite their necessary secular business."
A modern student of Edwards has perceptively noticed the link between Edwards's thought and the strong progressive impulse behind later American visions of heavens on earth:
Concerning Jonathan Edwards being any kind of direct influence on Etzler, we can only surmise that the German never read--and may never even have heard of--the New England divine. What is clear, however, is that both the imaginative and rational (or logical) sides of Etzler's mind were largely influenced by a climate of opinion concerning America's chosen place in future history, the obvious efficacy of human effort, and the probable utilization by man of certain "laws of nature" to trap natural power sources and, through power, create a life here and now of ease, comfort, and abundance. This is the same climate of opinion which not only helped establish the secular side of Edward's mind, but also was, in turn, itself partially established through Edwards's legitimizing it by religious sanction.
Biographically speaking, John Adolphus Etzler suddenly emerges from a blankness of years and just as abruptly withdraws behind an opaque obscurity that is both frustrating and puzzling. About the years prior to his appearance on the American shore in 1831 as a member of the Muhlhausen Emigration Society (under the leadership of the man who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge, John Augustus Roebling), we know only that he once previously immigrated to America for about eight years in the 1820s, returned to Germany, and was jailed for inciting emigration.
Shortly after its arrival in America, the Mulhausen Emigration Society split into two groups--one loyal to Roebling and one ready to follow Etzler westward on what a recent student of Etzler, Patrick R. Brostowin, has called "his messianic journey in search of the right conditions under which . . . to re-establish the Paradise that Adam lost for mankind." As would happen many times during the next decade and a half, however, Etzler's visionary schemes ran smack up against practical exigencies. According to a long letter written by Roebling in November 1831, Etzler's failure to establish a communal society in the West was due to a number of factors--all of which could perhaps be boiled down to hubris: Etzler's demagogish character; his impatience with those who could not understand, much less accept, his views; his dewy-eyed optimism and impracticality (which, among other things, let him to push past the rich soil of eastern Pennsylvania to lands too distant from profitable markets); and his inability to accept the essential human weaknesses of his followers or of man in general. Most importantly, as Brostowin points out, Etzler's followers were basically German peasants looking for a piece of land and moderate creature comforts; they were not out to change the world--as was Etzler--only their own lives.
Failure to receive further financial backing from Frederick Rapp (who evidently had lent Etzler money previously) forced Etzler to abandon his efforts to establish a community in the area of Cincinnati and to accept the editorship of the newly established German newspaper Der Pittsburger Beobachter in Pittsburgh. Here, in 1833, he published his first and most important work, The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery, half-manual on the proposed application of technological speculation, half-pilosophical treatise on the remaking of both man and society.
With missionary zeal, Etzler traveled in Pennsylvania and Ohio off and on for the next seven years (the period referred to in Two Visions of J. A. Etzler) as a kind of itinerant secular evangelist preaching the possibility of a new kind of Millennium to be brought about through human reason and effort. Not surprisingly, his views on economic and social reform were rejected; and "the more they were rejected . . . the more strident and offensive became his rhetorical appeals. In 1839 Etzler repaired to the West Indies--Haiti in particular--evidently to recuperate from this absolute rejection by those he had been trying to save. We know almost nothing about his activities during this year. Brostowin speculates that he prepared the manuscript for his second work, The New World or Mechanical System (1841), and that he may have traveled to various islands (or even to South America) to investigate the possibility of establishing his paradise in the tropics.
Upon returning to New York early in 1840, Etzler, undoubtedly in order to meet other reformers, attended the Fourier Society of New York's annual celebration of the French philosopher-utopist's birthday. There he first met C. F. Stollmeyer--Fourierist socialist and humanitarian--who was at that time readying Albert Brisbane's The Social Destiny of Man for publication. Stollmeyer, himself a recent German immigrant, was to become not only the publisher of The New World, but also the dedicated disciple of this scientific-utopian Messiah. Stollmeyer, for example, formed a company in Philadelphia in 1841 to patent Etzler's inventions and, in that same year, traveled first to England and then to France, Holland, and Belgium in order to procure patents on Etzler's Naval Automaton, a ship to be steered and driven by the powers of the wind and the waves.
Recognizing by this time that any hope he might have of founding a new society lay with utopian reformers outside America, Etzler instructed Stollmeyer to make contact with Robert Owen and his followers (some of whom had already published the first British edition of Paradise in 1836) and to introduce them to his inventions. Although Etzler himself, busy trying to popularize his theories and win followers, remained in America until late 1843, his ideas and influence were spread in England in various ways. Stollmeyer arranged to have Etzler's third work printed, the twelve-page booklet Description of the Naval Automaton, Invented by J. A. Etzler (1841 or 1842). A second British edition of Paradise appeared in the summer of 1842; extracts from Etzler's The New World were published in the Fourierist London Phalanx in the same year; and Hugh Doherty, publisher of the Phalanx, built (and tried to operate, though unsuccessfully) a small version of the naval automaton.
Etzler evidently was ready early in 1843 to immigrate to England, where he expected a more receptive audience than had greeted his ideas in the United States. The failure of the Naval Automaton, however, had not dimmed the faith of Etzler's followers in England; in fact, an emigration society, based upon Etzler's ideas, was founded in West Riding in January of 1843. Etzler, though, was persuaded by Andred Smolnikov, another German-born social reformer and would-be Messiah, to try out his Satellite--a machine designed to clear and cultivate up to 20,000 acres--in Peace Union, a German communal society in Western Pennsylvania. Again failure met an attempt to translate theory into practice; the machine broke down during the trial because Etzler--the grand abstract thinker with little apparent concern with, or talent for, seeing to small concrete details--had allowed the use of wood for iron in some vital parts.
In the meantime, progress continued in England in the spreading of Etzler's ideas. Stollmeyer, for example, prepared the way for Etzler's arrival by publicizing his theories in various labor papers, with the result that a Chartist, James B. O'Brien, published Etzler's fourth work, Dialogue on Etzler's Paradise: Between Messrs. Clear, Flat, Dunce, and Grudge (1842).
In early December, Etzler finally acted upon his decision that the time was ripe for emigration. When he and his wife arrived in England, however, he was in for a disappointment. Although he had been invited to Harmony Hall by Robert Owen's Rationalist Society to demonstrate his mechanical system, upon his arrival he discovered that Stollmeyer had failed to obtain more than admiration for his ideas; not only was no money available to construct the mechanism, but also there were none of the promised funds to pay his travel expenses. Never one to be prematurely daunted by adversity, Etzler managed to make 1844 a fruitful year. While residing with a small group of Concordists at Ham Common in Surrey, for example, he began making working models of his machines and, in addition, published his fifth and sixth works, Emigration to the Tropical World, for the Melioration of All Classes of People of All Nations and Two Visions of J. A. Etzler, the last published works he would produce.
In June, after moving to London in order to be closer to the heart of the reform movement, he began to make serious plans for establishing his paradise in Venezuela; toward this end he founded the Tropical Emigration Society, based upon the principles laid down in Emigration to the Tropical World. By autumn, he was giving a series of public lectures designed to elicit support for his Satellite and to enlist members in the society, which was, in fact, thriving nicely, its one thousand shares being almost completely taken up by the end of the year. There was even talk of establishing branches in Germany, France, and the United States. Etzler's ideas in general and his emigration plan in particular were given a further boost in December with the appearance of James Duncan's paper The Morning Star, or Herald of Progression, which was to become an official organ of Etzler's theories.
Promises by the Venezuelan Ambassador of religious and political liberty, of freedom from taxes for fifteen years, and of citizenship for colonists upon arrival led Etzler, armed with an appointment as an official agent of the society, to leave for Trinidad in February 1845. He was accompanied by his wife and other members of his family and by two other agents of the society, a Mr. Carr and a Captain Taylor.
From this point until Etzler himself withdraws from recorded history in 1846 and the society officially disbands the following year, their intertwined stories become too involved and complicated in their minor details to be presented here except in terms of a fairly broad overview.
The first of many disappointments for Etzler and his two co-agents was learning that they would not receive thousands of acres free from the Venezuelan government as they had been led to believe. For six weeks, the three bickered among themselves over price and location as they searched fruitlessly for affordable land near the Gulf of Paria. Once again, Etzler tried to obtain free land, this time to the west, in the vicinity of Caracas, and once again he met with no success. By this time (early May 1845) to co-agents undoubtedly realized that the society would have to purchase suitable land wherever they could find it. By this time also, however, Etzler was operating independently from Carr and Taylor, a situation which led to almost inevitable dissension over the best location for the settlement. In October, Etzler, finding a fertile, cheap, and healthful area, bought land for himself west of Caracas at Valencia; it was here he believed that the colonists would settle. Carr and Taylor, in the meantime, needing land on which the colonists could found the initial community, bought 120 poor, hilly acres in Guinimita, along the Gulf of Paria.
Meanwhile, matters were not going well with the society in England. New memberships began to decline; dissension arose over the lack of news about the acquisition of a land site in Venezuela, especially when it became clear that free acreage was not forthcoming and Etzler's Satellite, which for some reason had not been connected properly, failed to perform up to expectations in a trial in Oxfordshire in September 1845--though Etzler's general theories seemed to have been upheld to the satisfaction of his firm supporters, who attributed the Satellite's failure to do more than push around a few yards of dirt to minor mechanical difficulties. The general dissension within the society--discord between branches in London and those in outlying areas; disagreement over whether to purchase a ship for the journey to Venezuela or rely on Etzler's unproved Naval Automaton; and conflict over the proposed democratization of the society's constitution (Etzler and Stollmeyer eventually being reduced to the same level as other members)--was no doubt at least the partial cause of only seventy-three out of an expected one hundred colonists applying for immediate emigration.
In an attempt to stir up what was now a dying interest in a tropical site for the proposed Utopia, a group of thirty-one pilgrims left England months earlier than planned, arriving in Guinimita in December 1845, instead of in the following spring. Not surprisingly, the site was not ready to receive them, only two-thirds of the land having been cleared, and they had to be quartered in Trinidad at their own expense.
Conflict between Etzler and certain members of the society now became even more pronounced. Basically, these members objected to "Etzler and Company" receiving one hundred shares in the society solely for the use of Etzler's Satellite to clear and work the land; there was, after all, no proof that it would work. Etzler, they objected, would profit not only immediately from his possession of shares, but also in the long run from his private ownership of the Satellite. Etzler and Stollmeyer earlier had successfully attempted to amend the constitution of the society to give them this financial advantage; now the society had neither the ownership of the Satellite, the rights to other inventions by Etzler, nor even his advice on scientific matters in general. In spite of Etzler's protestations to the contrary, it seemed to many that he was just as (if not more) interested in capitalism and self-aggrandizement as in communal experiments and secular millennial dreams of a new social and economic order.
Neither was there proof that Etzler's floating islands would work. True to his faith in his friend's genius, Stollmeyer, along with other members of the society in Trinidad, in late 1845 and early 1846 built a working model out of bamboo and balsa wood. Unfortunately, Etzler's unique sail system could be built only in England and then shipped to the tropics; for this venture, Etzler said he needed about 3,000 pounds from the society's sister organization, the Venezuelan Transit Company. The money was not forthcoming; instead, the society decided, over Etzler's strong objections, to charter a ship, the Condor, to transport a second group of 193 pilgrims to the tropics in March 1846. Even though a second Tropical Emigration Society was formed in April, this apparent expansion did not really indicate full confidence in Etzler and Stollmeyer. Many feared that the faith originally placed in Etzler's inventions had not been well founded; one member, in an open letter, regretted not making Etzler stick "to the original proposal when the prospectus was published." It is not too late, he argued, to force a new bargain on Etzler and Stollmeyer; and he warned the society to "stick to your bargain and depend upon it we shall have a float, or Etzler and his inventions will become a byword and a laughing stock to the world."
Although the fact may have been hidden from some, in actuality the society was in its death throes. As news of the sickness and death of many of the colonists reached England (the second group of pilgrims had found fifteen dead at Guinimita and the colony nearly abandoned), the society began to lose members. Even more telling, the colonists in Venezuela could not adjust to the hardships demanded of them; as one of them reported, they began to wish for "comforts above our means at this time," particularly European food and drinks . . . [and] the tavern parlour with its fun and frolic " Not having given up their dream of Utopia, but having given up on the harsh tropics, some colonists wanted to relocate in a more temperate climate. In May a disillusioned group sailed for New Orleans.
Etzler, in his pride, was angered by the apparent failure of his envisioned tropical paradise. In a letter to the Morning Star in July 1846, he lashed out at those who had unfairly criticized him for failing to obtain free land from the Venezuelan government; after all, he argued, his power had been drastically reduced by the initial presence of the two co-agents. Worst of all, however, his altruism had been questioned.
The next two issues of the Morning Star carried "The Manifesto of J. A. Etzler"--an open letter detailing his undying expectations of "a new order of things." His secular Millennium was still a bright and shining star to be followed; he still had faith that once men learned to turn away from the barbarism of capitalism, there would be "a universal paradise of peace, abundance, happiness and intelligence, whence tyranny of all kinds [would be] banished." He naturally saw his own inventions as clearing the path and easing the way to the New Eden. The journey, however, would now take about one hundred years instead of the optimistic ten he had predicted in Paradise.
Impatient as always with minds unable to see Truth with the same absolute clarity he could, but now recognizing that the masses would have to be brought along slowly, Etzler proposed to establish a "practical school," a "union of clear and unbiased minds," where only "material facts evident to our senses" would be studied and "a Pythagorean silence of years for the disciples" would be enforced to suppress error of thought. This union would determine, for example, the best food for man and the best ways to increase the production of it. By purifying the environment and tempering the passions, Etzler hoped to eradicate disease and prolong life to 108-192 years.
His first work, Paradise, was conjured up again and again as Etzler portrayed a world of canals carrying away stagnant water, of reclaimed swampland, and of ubiquitous floating islands. Interesting additions to the world of Paradise were "self-moving houses" on a network of vitrified roads and "air balloons to explore countries"--an image which naturally suggests Edward's "contrivances" which were to unify "the whole earth . . . [into] one community.
If it had not been clear before, however, it becomes so in this document--that Etzler was much more than a mechanic and an inventor. If this were not so, he would hardly be worth resurrecting from historical oblivion. He is, as Patrick Browtowin so aptly points out, "a synecdoche of America in the 1830s and 1840s"; his output of "poetic dreams visions, propaganda tracts, and engineering descriptions" hint, in our merely listing them, at the complex urge which drove Americans then and which drives them to some extent today--the compulsion to search for a divinely ordained and planned perfect order in which American idealism and ingenuity produce a paradisiacal life of ease and abundance for all men. Etzler sincerely believed that he could bring about such a "new order"--essentially "the new heaven and the new earth" of Columbus and Edwards. The rationale behind his confident striving for this "new order" was that he saw its ultimate arrival as an absolute certainty. In spite of the truth of Brostowin's observation that Etzler "was always outside denomination or institutional religions"--even "outside Christianity"--he yet had faith in a divine drama which would inevitably result in a New Eden being established.
He was, in other words, a conscious secular millennialist who "sought the end of History in the accomplishment of his Paradise on earth." Not believing in a spiritual heaven--considering, in fact, the promise of rewards in an after-life to be a hindrance to man's improving his lot on earth--he believed in the divinity of man, the dependability and essential simplicity of empirical phenomena, and the inevitability of history, all of which would produce a paradise over the whole world.
We do not know to what extent, or by what means, Etzler was exposed directly to Christian millennialism. We do know, however, that in both Europe and America profound contemporary concern over the advent and content of the golden age preceding the Second Coming is easily documented in hundreds of essays and sermons, many of which contain detailed speculations on--in the words of Samuel Hopkins--the "worldly prosperity, by which all will be in easy, comfortable circumstances, as to outward conveniences, and temporal enjoyment."
We know also that belief in the imminence of the Millennium was shared not only by clergymen of different religious persuasions, but also by many of the communal utopists of the time, with many of whom Etzler had either direct or indirect contact. He was, for example, as we have seen, in close contact with Robert Owen, who, in his own way, set about to usher in the Millennium. In May, 1843, in fact, Stollmeyer, no doubt acting as Etzler's ambassador as well as professing his own intense interest in millennialism, attended a great celebration put on at Harmony Hall by Owen's Rationalists to announce the actual beginning of the great period of peace and prosperity. And during the summer of 1843, Etzler supervised the construction of his Satellite--for a test that ultimately failed--at Peace Union, a German community in western Pennsylvania founded by the German immigrant Andrew Smolnikor, an itinerant preacher, who, like John the Baptist, was busy making "ready the way for the Lord in the impending millennium by establishing a new society based on brotherhood, love, and Christian communism." In nearly everything he wrote, Etzler expressed his belief that "We are on the eve of the most eventful period of mankind"; sometimes, especially in his early, more optimistic, years, he could speak of the "light of knowledge [bringing] forth all this change within this generation."
In spite of depressing setbacks, Etzler evidently never lost faith in the certainty of the fulfillment of his dream. From Hegel's belief in the absolute rationality of history, he distilled a deterministic philosophy which brought him hope and peace of mind. All happenings, he believed, were linked; both past and future were unalterable. The rational man knew that rage, fear and grief were pointless, for the divine drama of secular salvation would work itself out. Paradise would happen here and, f not now, sometime soon. Rational men, however, could hasten the advent of Paradise; indeed, rationality was a prerequisite for Paradise, because one had to understand the truth in order to act on it. Etzler went on in his "manifesto" to show how one hundred rational men--essentially his disciples--could increase to 100,000 within three generations. In order to train these initial disciples, Etzler proposed to found a school or union. By means of a mathematical progression, Etzler "proved" that an initial one hundred members could, by educating two hundred new members each, increase to 800,000,000 members within three generations. By educating others, therefore, a few rational men could bring about Paradise even sooner.
Whereas in Paradise Etzler had evidently believed that arguments (and even insults) and demonstrations of remarkable inventions could, by themselves, convince men of the truth of his vision, he seemed here to recognize that few were truly rational; the rest had to be raised slowly, patiently. Etzler, near the close of his recorded life, was not the vituperative ranter and raver against the inertia of the stupid masses that he had been over a decade before. He closed his "Manifesto" with a hopeful appeal to all people to join his union.
The constant attacks on his character and motives, however, finally crushed him. Although some branches of the society still had faith in him, he became bitter; his pride had been wounded too severely. In the last known document written by him--a letter to a friend--he directed that all future correspondence be sent to him at a Philadelphia address. He probably returned there, although he may have gone back to Germany. At any rate, his life is completely unknown after 1846.
The Tropical Emigration Society in Trinidad broke up when Etzler left. Some members tried to farm the land but failed; most found steady employment on the local economy. Fever and flooding destroyed the settlement in Guinimita. In January 1847, the society in England urged the colonists to leave Venezuela and settle in the western portion of the United States. While some members in England and Trinidad fought to the end to save the society, most lost interest in the experiment in the tropics. Forty-eight finally sailed from Trinidad for New Orleans aboard the Condor. They were apparently lost at sea. The end of the Tropical Emigration Society officially came in May 1847, when its final meeting was held. An attempt at that time by some members to organize an American Emigration Society in order to found a colony in Texas failed. This particular vision of Utopia had faded.
No matter how important we finally consider the influence of secularized millennial speculations and myths of the American Eden, we must recognize that other thought and feeling went into the make-up of Etzler's metaphysics. The concept of energy-to-be-harnessed, for example, was in the intellectual atmosphere during Etzler's formative years. He must have inhaled much of it. Born around the close of the eighteenth century, Etzler no doubt grew up acutely aware of such advances in steam technology as Oliver Evans's improvement on James Watt's engine and Robert Fulton's successful voyage up the Hudson. Patrick Brostowin has hinted at the symbolic significance of Michael Faraday discovering the principle of electro-magnetic induction and Joseph Henry building the first electric motor in 1831, the year Etzler came to the United States for the second time.
Etzler, however, both fits and does not fit the pattern set by such scientist-inventors. He was fascinated with--we could even say he worshipped--energy and power in a much more elemental form. As Bernard DeVoto has noted,
It was the German philosopher Hegel from which Etzler received his impetus toward "the state [which would be] . . . freedom organized." Originally, in fact, it was a new Germany which Etzler and his friend John-Augustus Roebling had set out to establish. Very quickly, however, it had become not only this narrow ethnic group but Americans and, finally, all men everywhere whom Etzler meant to save. Freedom to Etzler meant more, though, than Hegel's political freedom; it meant freedom from the tyranny of nature and things as they were--or at least seemed to be. Imbued with German romanticism, Etzler saw naturally good men needlessly bound by fetters of ignorance to a life of drudgery. The world, he felt, was not set and immutable; America, especially, was plastic and new. "There," his friend Roebling had declared, "man [is] on his own; his success [is] limited only by his industry and his talents."
One thing man's industry might accomplish with the virginal American landscape was the complete transformation of what was largely a "hideous wilderness" into "a continual garden from the atlantic to the pacific ocean [sic]," as Etzler puts the matter in Paradise. The theme of the machine intruding--or being eagerly invited--into the garden is, of course, one that has been brilliantly explored by others, most notably Leo Marx. None, however, have significantly included Etzler in their tracing of the development of this theme; there is, in fact, no significant American thinker who better illustrates the basically American urge to blend the contradictory impulses of progressivism and pastoralism by manipulating the landscape in order to subdue the darkness and evilness associated with the wilderness in the Puritan mind--and to profit from the resultant abundance. Etzler would not only invite the machine into the garden, he would use the machine to create it. In the end, of course, the garden, the American extension of Eden, would become a garden-city, the American extension of the New Jerusalem--the image which predominates in so much of the American utopian fiction in the decade following the appearance of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888).
Armed with his beliefs in America as Eden, in man as a rational creature, and in Hegel's "absolute rationality of history," Etzler came to the New World to found the State of Paradise. With him he carried other intellectual baggage as well, including the utopian theories of Charles Fourier, the self-proclaimed "Messiah of Reason"; these theories gave or reconfirmed a yearning for absolute organization and order, a desire to ensure a snaring of the blessings which life had to offer by freeing men from the false biblical curse of work, and tendencies toward both absolute materialism (which was also present in and bolstered by his Hegelian philosophy) and sensual (as opposed to sexual) pleasures. Fourier also reinforced Etzler's sense of brotherhood and humanitarianism--a communitarianism, in short, which seemed to Etzler to be a prerequisite for mankind enjoying the benefits which the world had to offer. Following Fourier's dictum, Etzler, in Paradise, insists that the first responsibility of an individual aspiring to bring about "a superior life" on earth is to "constitute] . . . a society in his neighborhood." The second part of his major work is devoted entirely to detailing precisely how a series of Fourieristic communities will enable man to conquer and tame first the American West and then the whole world.
Etzler was a man full of contradictions. He was a visionary and a theorist who considered himself a realist and a practical man. He was a prophet who considered himself a scientist. He was a revolutionary thinker who desperately wished to avoid the violent revolution which might follow the new technology which he was preaching. He was a Jeffersonian agrarian--with little faith in the common man--who would transform America into Utopia by means of science and technology. And he dedicated himself to founding the perfectly free State while unconsciously succumbing to the same benevolent authoritarianism which we find in nearly all American utopian experiments (both real and fictional). Etzler's certitude that only he, Moses-like, had been chosen to lead mankind into the promised land of Utopia--related as it is to the Hegelian idea of the leader-hero as the great man, somehow above the rules and opinions of lesser individuals--made Etzler feel it necessary to lay down rather precisely the manner in which the State of the New Eden was to be organized and run. Etzler's authoritarian turn of mind is revealed not only by his attempts, along with Stollmeyer, to control entirely the operations of the Tropical Emigration Society, but also by his psychological need to impose a preconceived order on everything and his inability to leave anything to chance or human impulse.
As John L. Thomas has pointed out, "[I]n one way or another almost all the communitarians succumbed to the myth of the mathematically precise arrangement, searching for the perfect number or exact size, plotting the precise disposition of working forces and living space, and combining these estimates in a formula which would ensure perfect concord." The formula concept, of course, had trapped Fourier, too. We can surmise that the positive philosophical thrust, the motivation and hope, which Fourierism gave Etzler also worked to his disadvantage: This Hegelian hero was, when it came right down to it, unable to escape the strictures which the French utopist's philosophy (and the natural tendencies of his own personality) foisted upon him. Etzler was given a false sense of security by the seeming certainty of the mathematically precise arrangement. When some of his followers finally accused him of being eminently impractical, he could not understand their objections and he could not change or bend. Did not his mathematical projections prove the truth of his assertions--no matter what happened when men tried to translate them into historical fact? Mathematical formula, in other words, became equivalent to objective experience. We have only to glance at the "estimations of expenses and profits" in The New World, or the computation of usable power in the wind in Paradise, to see that same kind of preposterousness in his mathematical progressions as we see in Fourier's classifications of the passions or his "passionate series."
Although his faults are many and obvious, there is much to admire in John Adlophus Etzler. Thoreau was right when he accused him of paying too much attention to the world outside of man and not enough that inside. Closer to our own time, Bernard DeVoto has justly criticized his vision as being too tied to a mathematical extrapolation which "allowed no leeway for the unforeseen." But Etzler early held out a vision, not tied to sectarianism, of an earthly Millennium in which men were to be truly happy and as truly free as he could imagine them to be. If Johathan Edward's vision was nobler, if Etzler's became too cluttered with prefabricated houses and plastic canals filled with gondolas, at least our nineteenth-century scientific-utopian did preach a reorganized social system by means of which men would be free to realize their potential. While Etzler may have naively expected too much, it is not his fault that men have not lived up to his expectations. If he dreamed too large, it is because we are too small.