Collens, Thomas Wharton
- Caryn Cossé Bell
Collens, Thomas Wharton (23 June 1812–03 November 1879), Creole jurist and writer, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of John Wharton Collens and Marie Louise de Tabiteau. Collens’s father was descended from an English officer who had settled in Louisiana in the eighteenth century. His mother was a member of one of the city’s French-speaking, Creole families. Raised in a bilingual, Catholic household of modest means, Collens overcame a limited education during an apprenticeship in the print shop to which he was sent as a youth. By the age of twenty-one he had advanced to the position of associate editor of the True American. He married Amenaide Milbrou, and they had eight children. In 1833 he was admitted to the bar, and the following year he embarked upon a highly successful law career by serving as clerk and reporter of the Louisiana Senate. Between 1836 and 1838 he occupied the post of deputy clerk for the U.S. Circuit Court, and two years later voters elected him district attorney for Orleans Parish (1840–1842). From 1842 to 1846 he served as judge of the City Court of New Orleans, and he later participated in the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1852. In 1856 he won the judgeship of the First District Court of New Orleans.
Of Creole descent in the nation’s nineteenth-century “Creole Capital,” Collens imbibed the religious Gallicanism, Romantic idealism, and republican militancy of the city’s Franco-American community. He developed close ties to the proscribed republicans, journalists, and other political dissidents who, fleeing revolutionary upheaval in France and the French Caribbean, reinforced the city’s resident cluster of French-speaking free thinkers and political liberals. Caught up in the excitement of the Romantic literary movement, he even drafted an ambitious, pro-republican play in 1833, The Martyr Patriots; or, Louisiana in 1769, a historical drama based on the Gallic population’s revolt against Spanish rule, which was performed before an enthusiastic audience in 1836 at the St. Charles Theater. Another literary work, a well-received poem titled “Lines to the Memory of Father Turgis,” appeared in a number of publications, including the Living Writers of the South in 1869.
As Collens commenced his legal career in the early 1830s, he immersed himself in the utopian doctrines of Scottish industrialist Robert Dale Owen and French socialist Charles Fourier, thereby developing a lifelong commitment to the reorganization of society on the basis of cooperative, communitarian ideals. In articles published during the 1830s in the city newspapers and the True American, he discussed social problems and even drew up his own utopia in an unfinished manuscript, “The Code of Collenia.” In utopian “Collenia,” the community owned all land, and each man would receive a share of the collective’s profits commensurate with “his proportion of labour & talents.”
A freemason, Collens nurtured his radical views in the city’s French lodges. Like many other urban professionals, businessmen, and workers, he resented the slaveholding elite’s increasing dominance of Louisiana’s political economy. Under the cover of freemasonry, he and other French-speaking leaders refined their political agenda, preserved their republican idealism, and studied the works of European socialists.
In 1841, undoubtedly angered by an extremely bitter dispute between freemasons and the city’s Catholic church leadership—a leadership that had aligned itself with the region’s planter autocracy—Collens announced the organization of a discussion group, the Atheneum. In the society’s constitution he condemned “Religion and her companions Superstition, Bigotry, Intolerance and Persecution” and urged those “who desire the welfare of the human race” to unite. When the short-lived Atheneum dissolved, Collens helped organize an important circle of New Orleans Fourierists who communicated with Albert Brisbane, Horace Greeley, and other prominent leaders of the American Union of Associationists.
With the 1848 French revolution, Collens rallied to the support of the Second Republic. Together with French emigré and fellow freemason Pierre Soulé, Collens appeared at the head of the movement. Paying tribute to the new republic’s radical labor policies at a large public assembly in April 1848, Collens toasted Fourier:
To the great genius who as early as 1808 proclaimed the idea of industrial association which the triumph of republican France today assures;—to the one whose sublime reason and philanthropic soul has known how to resolve the problem of harmonizing the interests of the capitalist with the rights of the laborer, … to the founder of the eternal bases of well-being for the worker, to the apostle of social harmony, to the immortal Charles Fourier!
Influenced as much by Catholicism and French freemasonry’s religious-political doctrines as by Fourierism, Collens theorized a Christian socialist philosophy in Humanics, his first major book. Published in 1860, Humanics revealed a Christ-centered ethic in which the “welfare of society is the paramount law.”
During the 1850s Collens supported the wing of the Democratic party led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and though, like Douglas, he opposed secession, he nonetheless refused to take an oath of allegiance when Federal forces occupied the city in 1862. Instead he fled to Pass Christian, Mississippi, where he suffered great hardship for the remainder of the war. Upon his return to the city in 1865, he practiced law and, having relented in his anticlericalism, assumed an activist role in Catholic church affairs.
At Reconstruction’s outset in 1867, Collens broke with French freemasonry when the white leadership proclaimed the ideal of fraternité and ordered the lodges to open their membership to all “without distinction as to race or color.” Elected Democratic judge of the Seventh District Court of New Orleans (1867–1873) at about the same time, he fought the Republican regime. In retaliation, they withheld his salary for three years. Collens apparently viewed Reconstruction as a ploy by northern businessmen to unleash a system of unfettered, predatory capitalism.
In his second book, the Eden of Labor; or, The Christian Utopia, published in 1876, Collens depicted a fictional Eden of labor in which the “brotherhood of humanity” and the “legal equality of persons” prevailed. Eden’s economy rested upon the principle that the worker’s labor was the real measure of value of all goods and services—a principle rooted in the “law of neighborly love propounded by our Lord Jesus Christ.” Eventually, however, the “idle non-producer” appropriated all of the land and created a social hierarchy based on wealth—a system that reduced all workers to a condition of serfdom. While the Catholic World’s reviewer applauded Eden of Labor’s Christian spirit, he concluded that the “danger besetting works of this kind, where the author is dissatisfied with the existing order of things and feels a strong sympathy with oppressed labor, is that they insensibly verge toward the vindication of the theories of communism and the revolutionary rights of man.”
During the postwar years Collens advocated labor reforms including full employment, unionization, an eight-hour day, and a “just principle of economic distribution” in articles in the Communist, a St. Louis utopian socialist periodical; the Workingman’s Advocate, the official journal of the National Labor Union; the Catholic World; the New Orleans Morning Star and Catholic Messenger; and Equity and Labor-Balance, two Christian socialist journals in Massachusetts that he helped to found. In Labor-Balance, a quarterly declaring in its premier issue in October 1877 that capitalism was the “embodied Anti-Christ of our times,” Collens likewise deplored entrepreneurs who made their “monstrous fortunes off the substance of the bodies and souls of their God-made equals” and declared that work at “living wages” was a right. A working man denied an equitable wage, he insisted, must “summon society to provide it.” At the time of his death in New Orleans, Collens was a director of St. Mary’s Catholic Orphan Asylum.
Collens’s “The Era of Guarantism,” The Harbinger 7 (12 Aug. 1848), offers insight into his Fourierist affiliation. The most important source for Collens’s life and philosophy is Robert C. Reinders, “T. Wharton Collens: Catholic and Christian Socialist,” Catholic Historical Review 52 (July 1966). Brief sketches of Collens’s career and a number of his works appear in James W. Davidson, The Living Writers of the South (1869); and The Louisiana Book: Selections from the Literature of the State, ed. Thomas McCaleb (1894). Carl J. Guarneri, “Two Utopian Socialist Plans for Emancipation in Antebellum Louisiana,” Louisiana History 24 (Winter 1983); Joseph G. Tregle, Jr., “Thomas J. Durant, Utopian Socialism, and the Failure of Presidential Reconstruction in Louisiana,” Journal of Southern History 45 (Nov. 1979); and Caryn Cossé Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718–1868 (1997), offer important insights into his political/intellectual milieu though the Tregle article makes no mention of Collens himself.
- Owen, Robert Dale (1801-1877), reformer and congressman
- Fourier, Charles (1772-1837), utopian social theorist
- Brisbane, Albert (1809-1890), utopian socialist
- Greeley, Horace (1811-1872), newspaper editor and political figure
- Soulé, Pierre (1801-1870), U.S. senator, jurist, and diplomat
- Douglas, Stephen Arnold (1813-1861), U.S. senator and presidential candidate