The Utopian colony of La Reunion as social mirror of frontier Texas and icon of modern Dallas.

Author:Kagay, Donald J.
Position:Report
 
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The direct bond between Europe and the United States in the first decades of the nineteenth century produced immigrant communities of all sorts within an American setting. (1) Though accommodating rapidly to the social and political ideals of their new country, those who colonized these settlements could not easily forget their violent and often revolutionary pasts. Nowhere in nineteenth-century America was this rivalry between imported ideas and indigenous conditions more pronounced than in key religious, communist, and socialist colonies that sprouted from Massachusetts to Utah in the years immediately preceding the American Civil War. (2) To understand how one group of French, Belgian, Swiss, and Alsatian immigrants, who were often branded as radical by contemporary American standards, found a home in the nativist confines of Texas, this study focuses on the utopian colony of La Reunion that scratched out a meager existence in Dallas from 1855 to 1858, but shaped the burgeoning frontier town long thereafter. Given the checkered fate of contemporaneous socialist ventures across the United States, (3) the failure of the "Old French Colony"--as La Reunion is still referred to in Dallas circles was hardly unexpected. Its steady cultural and intellectual influence on one of America's most politically conservative cities, however, is indeed surprising.

The relationship between America and European socialism that emerged after the French Revolution (post-1789) was one in which participants often misunderstood each others' conceptual foundations and specific motivations. While attempting to establish themselves in a country that either tacitly allowed or openly encouraged chattel slavery, Europe's radical immigrants, many of them followers of Charles Fourier (1772-1837) (4) and Robert Owens (1813-1858), (5) looked upon America's "peculiar institution" as simply another form of class domination. (6) For its part, much of antebellum America viewed socialists as part of a much broader immigration problem. Fearful of losing the foundational ideals of their country due to the spread of socialist and communist concepts that accompanied the flood of European newcomers in the 1840s and 1850s, many U.S. citizens agreed with the nativist stance espoused by the Know Nothing Party, which viewed uncontrolled immigration as a clear danger to American democracy. (7)

Despite the starkly different intellectual positions between socialist immigrants and the inhabitants of their new homeland, the lure of free land and the need for its rapid settlement overrode such concerns and inexorably pushed forward the occupation of immense frontier areas in the Republic (and later state) of Texas. Taking advantage of the region's liberal land policies, Europeans of all political stripes established themselves within the large land grants distributed under the Texas empresario system. (8)

As France lurched into yet another revolution in 1848, (9) a small stream of socialist immigrants entered the broad swath of grassland between the Red River and the frontier settlement of Dallas. The first of these settlers were adherents of the revolutionary activist, Etienne Cabet (1788-1856). A native of Dijon, Cabet had earned a law degree but did not practice. Instead, he turned to politics, winning a seat in the French legislature, the Chambre de Deputes, after the 1830 Revolution. Because of his obstreperous opposition to the government of King Louis Philippe (1830-1848), Cabot was exiled to England but returned to France in time to become an integral participant in the Revolution of 1848. Even before the revolutionary government had turned against the lower classes during the infamous "June Days," Cabet was planning an escape to the New World, sending his adherents to establish a settlement they hopefully called Icarie (after the political agitator's literary utopia) situated on land north of Dallas in the summer of 1848. (10) This colonial experiment quickly fell victim to the region's unpredictable weather and crucial changes in Texas's land policies. (l1) Despite this failure of Texas to live up to its reputation as a "terrestrial paradise," the temptation of establishing new lives in the Lone Star State would attract even more radicals to the lands watered by the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. (12)

The most successful socialist venture of the period that sought to use north Texas as a base was intimately connected with one man: Victor Prosper Considerant (1803-1893). As Fourier's most forceful and intelligent disciple, Considerant had tried to establish a small colony based on socialist and communal principles (called a phalanx by Fourier) outside of Paris in 1852, only to have all such ventures outlawed by France's last emperor, Napoleon III (1852-1870). Exiled for his bitter criticism of Napoleon III's government, Considerant spent time in Belgium, but soon turned to the United States to fulfill his professional and personal aims. (13) After a six-month sojourn that took him from New York across several western states into north Texas, he chose a site for his new phalanx on the limestone bluffs across the Trinity River from Dallas. (14) Upon his return to Europe, Considerant formed the European and American Colonization Society of Texas, which would serve as an administrative body for his proposed colony and oversee the expenditure of funds raised for its operation. (15) To publicize the venture, the socialist leader became a skilled promoter in an American sense with the publication of Au Texas (To Texas). This melding of political tract and travel book, which was soon translated into English and German, invited Europeans oppressed by the Continent's stifling class system to find a new life in Texas, which Considerant described as "one of the most favored regions of the globe," where they could happily sow the "seeds of liberty, knowledge, and love." (16)

The popularity of Au Texas soon attracted a number of northern Europeans to Considerant's colonial undertaking. This group was marked by the great differences among its individual members. Some were socialist "true-believers." Others, weary of revolution and recession in their homelands, wanted to make a new start in America. Still others were "bored to death" and hoped to find a new purpose in their lives through "the revitalizing power of nature." (17) They were skilled in a number of urban professions ranging from business to geology. Unfortunately, few possessed any practical skills in agriculture. (18)

Though many of the colonists initially "believed everything that Considerant said," (19) their faith in him started to wane once they experienced the harsh realities of frontier life. Finding nonexistent the easy river access promised in Au Texas, small parties were forced to walk the 200-mile distance between the upper Gulf Coast and La Reunion. Europeans trudging across the prairies behind the wagons that hauled their goods brought out "crowds of natives" to take in the alien sight. (20) After as much as two months of walking, the French, Swiss, German, and Alsatian immigrants reached La Reunion to find nothing there other than the name of the projected settlement. (21) The finished structures and "alimentary supplies" promised by Considerant in print were nowhere to be found. (22) It then dawned on these representatives of European urban culture that pre-packaged dreams did not exist on the Texas frontier.

Despite the hardships and disappointments that they endured in reaching the Texas promised land, the colonists, numbering some 400 by the end of 1856, began to build a two-story central structure, a commissary, and a separate kitchen. (23) They took fewer pains with their own living quarters, which consisted of a number of rough-hewn log cabins that were largely left exposed to the weather. (24) After months of hard work and having to endure the vicissitudes of Texas weather, the colony seemed to prosper. Working and eating together, the colonists (who spoke several European languages, but not English) relied on each other for entertainment, holding weekly concerts, voice recitals, and dances. (25) Yet despite this facade of perfect socialist harmony, La Reunon, like all other American phalanxes, soon fell victim to two fatal problems: class strife and financial insolvency. (26)

The colonists blamed the rapid collapse of La Reunion in 1856-1857 on the character and administration of Considerant himself, but it also sprang from the structural weakness of Fourier's ideas. Though the phalanx was supposed to be based on the "law of love," it was not democratic, relying instead on the stern rule of the president and its directors. (27) When the colonists' initial trust began to disappear, Considerant, as president, became increasingly autocratic. Embittered at his loss of authority, which was largely his own fault, he became "a sullen man ... [who was] unable to communicate and became profoundly depressed." (28) To get through these terrible bouts of despondency and self-doubt, Considerant consoled himself with whiskey and morphine. (29) As Considerant relinquished his hold on the colony and eventually spent longer periods away, bitter disputes over the governance of La Reunion erupted between artisans and professional men among the colony's membership. (30)

A deepening pall of despair, worsened by the colony's penury and fiscal dependence on the community of Dallas, soon fell over La Reunion and effectively set the stage for the individual most responsible for its collapse. (31) The real catalyst for these events was an unruly French army doctor, Augustin Savardan, who arrived at La Reunion in 1855 and immediately began to question Considerant's authority over the colony. Considerant tried to dismiss the newcomer's complaints by characterizing Savardan as "conceited [and] touchy ... [with] a certain narrowness of spirit." (32) Undaunted by such comments, Savardan claimed...

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