A July 4th History Lesson: We’re Still on Repeat

Well, it’s Independence Day here in the States, and of course folks are on social media sharing all kinds of distorted and revisionist history. In response to one such post on Twitter where the OP was suggesting we can look back to a bygone era in this country when immigrants had it easy compared to today, someone I follow on the platform commented: “Did you completely forget the Know Nothing party?”

At a moment in our contemporary history when immigration and immigrants are being subjected to particularly harsh and relentless demonization and victimization, it’s important to remember our deeply xenophobic past. Fortunately, my own local area of Dallas-Fort Worth offers a significant object lesson in precisely this particular history.

So on this July Fourth, lend me your ear…er…eye for a moment, for a tale that is the perfect metaphor for the deeply troubled current state of America.


Dallas Fences

Every time my mother comes from Georgia to pay us a visit out here in Texas, she remarks on how she’s never seen a city so hellbent on fencing everything in as Dallas is. And she’s right: from far south Dallas, where we lived for the first three years after moving out to Texas, to far north of Dallas where we live now, virtually all communities in the Metroplex hold each and every backyard in strict, regimented delineation from the next by privacy fences.

And all those fences have only become more private in recent decades. The standard height around Dallas-Fort Worth used to be six feet; now it’s reportedly eight. Meanwhile, the edges of those same residential neighborhoods are likewise tidily hemmed in and separated from intersecting roads—all roads, mind you, not just freeways—as well as other neighborhoods by imposing walls of brick or stone.

The overall effect for a visitor is that of an unbroken sequence of facades and closure: the superficial and the closed off.

I reckon you might not expect much else from a country founded by those fleeing more densely populated European shores to stake claims to their own pieds-à-terre on what was thought to be a wide- open continent. It was about rugged individualists finding something and making it their own—at least, that’s the mythology anyway. What it was not about was founding some new egalitarian utopia, where all goods, including land, would be shared equally.

Of course, America is no stranger to idealistic utopian visions: the Shakers, Brook Farm, The Rappites, Oneida. And those cover just the 18th and 19th centuries. The history of Dallas itself bears a significant connection to one such utopian ideal that ironically only serves to underscore this idea of the modern area as one of a superficially public facade but thorough-going closure as soon as you scratch the surface.


A Dallas Socialist Colony?

In 1855, a French socialist by the name of Victor Prosper Considérant founded the experimental colony of La Réunion on what was, at the time, the western outskirts of the nascent community of Dallas. When he first arrived at what was to be the site of the short-lived colony, Considérant tellingly declared:

“Nothing is appropriated nor separated by the selfish exclusiveness of civilized man; nothing is cramped. What fields of action!”

The colony was intended as a communal experiment in direct democracy, with participants sharing in the profits according to a formula that factored in their capital investment and both the quantity and quality of their work. Considérant envisioned La Réunion as the first in a network of colonies throughout the American Southwest, a plan which he detailed in a book with the grandiloquent title of Great West.

And although this idealistic plan might make Considérant sound like some kind of fringe wingnut, that he most definitely was not.

Victor Prosper Considérant had been an engineer in the French army, where he held the rank of captain. Then he left the army at age twenty-four, deeply troubled by the political and social injustices of what he saw as a corrupt monarchy and unfettered capitalism in early nineteenth century France.

Considérant was no communist: his colonies would be founded on private capital investment and would respect the right to hold private property. What Considérant was seeking was simply freedom of opportunity and the right to work, both of which he felt were stifled and unequally available in France.

The basis of Considérant’s socialism, and a key tenet of his teacher Charles Fourier, consisted in the belief that mutual concern and cooperation held the key to the success of society. He envisioned that his colonization scheme in America would involve both Europeans and Americans—farmers, tradesmen, artisans, and professionals—all working together, investing their money, time, and labor in building a truly free, participatory democracy.

And he planned his colonies to the last detail, proposing that they would evolve in a series of well-defined, orderly stages. He even provided a complete, itemized budget for the first two years of La Réunion’s existence.

Needless to say, the planned network of colonies throughout the American Southwest never materialized. La Réunion itself existed formally as a colony for just eighteen months. On January 28 of 1857, one of the heads of the colonization society publicly announced the settlement’s dissolution.

As founder, Considérant blamed himself for the colony’s rapid failure. Under intense pressure from shaky finances, flawed execution, and a harsh local climate both in terms of meteorology and American nativist ideology, Considérant quickly devolved from consummate idealistic optimist into defeated, resigned pessimist. Within just a few months of the start of the endeavor, he was already contemplating suicide.

The settling and building of La Réunion had not followed the clear stages laid out in advance. First off, it attracted the wrong kind of initial settlers—almost all artists, musicians, and other aesthetes, completely unsuited to the demanding Texas climate and unskilled in the crucial areas of agriculture, construction, and mechanics.

Then local sentiment, inspired by the nativist Know-Nothing party, sprang up all thorns and thistles against the settlement. The colonists were reviled in the press as foreigners, communists, atheists, and abolitionists: a threat to the American way of life. A letter to the editor of the Texas State Gazette published on June 2, 1855 charged, in part:

“We are always pleased to have industrious immigrants come among us. Plenty of work can be found by mechanics and laborers, and there is room in all our towns for more enterprising merchants and business men [sic]. There is one class, however, that we are opposed to, and have no disposition to hold out to them inducements to settle among us. This class is of that Propagandist school which in France and in parts of the United States has and is seeking to sap the foundations of society. The socialist desires to destroy individual rights in property and, if he is not a very intelligent and moral man—a rare thing,—we may have in him a neighbor who will rob and plunder us whenever he can get the chance; for he holds it as a primary principle in his creed, that no individual has a right to accumulate property for himself, and all above what is necessary to sustain him belongs to the rest of society. Again, the socialist is an abolitionist everywhere. He would not be less opposed to slavery by living in Texas than in France or in Ohio. It is part of his creed. Now, we are told that John Allen, of Ohio, and Mons. Victor Considerant, propose bringing out from France to western Texas a colony of socialists. This move, for the purpose of building up a sect opposed to our political institutions, may well be regarded with jealousy, and the founders may rely upon it that they will not be suffered to tamper with our institutions.”

Despite publishing a detailed, logical retort in April of that same year, Considérant found native opposition to La Réunion only increasing. The fields of action he initially encountered on the outskirts of Dallas may have seemed wide open on the surface, but the Texas society obscured by that simple vista barred the way for Considérant’s idealistic plans.

By 1860, most former colonists had left the settlement of La Réunion. Several moved to neighboring Dallas county, to which they contributed much from their special expertise. These contributions included advances in scientific farming techniques, architecture, a future mayor of the city of Dallas, and even the first butcher and brewery in the county.

By 1973, the area of the former colony housed a polluted industrial park and ghetto with government housing and a de-facto segregated high school. That area lies just three miles or so west of the now famous downtown Dallas landmark known as Reunion Tower.

In 1972, up-and-coming real estate developer and civic leader John Scovell chose to christen the tower Reunion on the inspiration of the name of the failed socialist experiment. He gravitated toward the name not only because it provided a nod to local history, but also because the word reunion evoked the positive feelings associated with family and reliving high school glory days.

No Socialist, Scovell nonetheless created an exhibit honoring La Réunion in the lobby of his Hyatt Regency Hotel, which adjoins the tower. In addition to photos, certificates, and old maps of La Réunion, the exhibit includes a mural painting of the colony and its founder Victor Considérant. Thus, one can find, right in the heart of capitalist downtown-Dallas commerce, an oxymoronic homage to a failed socialist experiment.

This is just one more vivid reminder of the ultimate problem the tragic story of La Réunion serves to underscore. Modern America may present an ostensibly public facade, but this nation is and has been under increasing pressure of privatization, not just in economics and city planning, but, most importantly, in ideology as well.

 

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