Frances Wright

Frances Wright[1] (1795-1852), born in Scotland and orphaned at the age of two, rose from rather inauspicious beginnings to fame as a writer and reformer. She and her only surviving sibling Camilla lived with various relatives in England until 1816 when they returned to Scotland to live with their great-uncle James Mylne, a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow College. Frances Wright gained access to the college library and thrived in this new environment. She read everything she could about America, including Carlo Botta's history of the American Revolution (Storia della guerra dell' Independenza degli Stati Uniti d'America, 1809), a work that Jefferson highly valued. Much to her uncle's disappointment, she became determined to travel to America to see how the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence were working out in practice.

In 1818 Frances and Camilla Wright left for New York. There Frances Wright anonymously produced and published Altorf, a play about the struggle for Swiss independence. The two sisters then traveled unchaperoned several thousand miles through many cities and the backwoods frontier. Upon her return to Britain in 1820, she received a letter from Jefferson thanking her for sending him a copy of her play. He praised the play for giving "dignity and usefulness to poetry," and she responded in turn, expressing her reverence for Jefferson's "enlightened, active and disinterested patriotism. "[2] Eager to spread the news about the new social and political ideas established by the American government, she soon published her correspondence with Mrs. Rahbina Craig Millar in book form. Views of Society and Manners in America has become one of the most celebrated travel memoirs of the early nineteenth century. Wright is unabashedly enthusiastic about a nation she considers a guarantor of freedom and equality: "The prejudices still to be found in Europe, though now indeed somewhat antiquated, which would confine the female library to romances, poetry, and belles-lettres, and female conversation to the last new publication, new bonnet, and pas seul are entirely unknown here. The women are assuming their place as thinking beings, not in despite of the men, but chiefly in consequence of their enlarged views and exertions as fathers and legislators. "[3]

Though dismissed by the conservative press in America and England, Wright captured the attention of reformers such as Jeremy Bentham and Mary Shelley. It was in Paris in 1821, on Bentham's business and her own, that Frances Wright met the Marquis de Lafayette. He too praised her work, and she became a participant in Lafayette's clandestine intrigues in support of various revolutionary movements. At his insistence, she published her fictionalized treatise on the philosophy of Epicurus, A Few Days in Athens (1822). Jefferson said the work was a "treat to me of the highest order," and he filled seven pages of his commonplace book with excerpts from it. He wrote that "the matter and manner of the dialogue is strictly ancient ... the scenery and portraiture of the interlocutors are of higher finish than anything in that line left us by the ancients; and like Ossian, if not ancient, it is equal to the best morsels of antiqity."[4]

After an extended stay at Lafayette's family estate La Grange during which Wright worked on a biography of Lafayette, Lafayette persuaded Wright to accompany him on his farewell visit to America in 1824. Lafayette referred to their relationship in father-daughter terms, and she helped him to maintain connections with the European network of liberal activists. She realized the anomaly of her position in the masculine world of politics: "I dare say you marvel sometimes at my independent way of walking through the world just as if nature had made me of your sex instead of poor Eve's," she wrote to Lafayette. "Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam."[5] Wright must have been aware that their friendship had aroused gossip. There was a growing resentment toward Wright amongst members of Lafayette's family that she had become too involved in his life or too important in his affections, and by the spring of 1824 she left for England. Wright had suggested that he legally adopt her to publicly clarify their relationship, but neither Lafayette nor the family would accept her suggestion. Wright finally agreed to follow Lafayette. Accompanied by her sister, she sailed on a different ship and traveled in a separate carriage. Although this provoked criticisms, Lafayette consistently expressed his desire to have Wright accompany him to political events and to meet his famous friends. On October 1, 1824 Lafayette wrote to Jefferson about this arrangement: "She [Frances] is very happy in your approbation; for, you and I are the two men in the world the esteem of whom she values the most. I wish much, my dear friend, to present these two adopted daughters of mine to Mrs. Randolph and to you; they being orphans from their youth, and preferring American principles to British aristocracy, having an independent, tho not very large fortune, have passed the three last years in most intimate connection with my children and myself, and have readily yielded to our joint entreaties to make a second visit to the U.S." Jefferson answered that they "will nowhere find a welcome more hearty than with Mrs. Randolph, and all the inhabitants of Monticello."[6]

The Wrights arrived at Monticello a day or two after Lafayette. Although they would have missed the initial meeting, they nevertheless managed to observe the reunion of the two veterans who had not seen each other for thirty-five years. Frances Wright remarked that she enjoyed "one of the finest prospects I ever remember to have seen" from a mountain "consecrated by the residence of the greatest of America's surviving veterans." She said of Jefferson that his "tall well-moulded figure remains erect as at the age of 20, and his step is as light and springy as tho it cd. bear him without effort up the steepest sides of his favourite mountains." Struck by his physically weakened state, however, she lamented that "the lamp is evidently on the wane nor is it possible to consider the fading of a light so brilliant and pure without a sentiment of deep melancholy. "[7]

Not all members of the "full to overflowing" household were charmed by this curious visitor. A visiting cousin belittled Wright for being a "bluestocking." Jane Cary was annoyed because "to Ladies she never spoke, except to Mrs. Randolph as her hostess, and to the youngest girl of the party, whom she noticed favorably as a mere child." She could not resist adding that "the Frenchmen told many instances of her masculine proclivites--on occasions she wd. harrangue the men in the public room of a hotel and the like." Jane Cary sympathized with George Washington Lafayette, who resented Wright's influence over his father, and scrutinized her appearance: "In person she was masculine, measuring at least 5 feet 11 inches, and wearing her hair a la Ninon in close curls, her large blue eyes and blonde aspect were thoroughly English, and she always seemed to wear the wrong attire. "[8] Whatever the attitude toward her may have been, Wright later wrote Martha Jefferson Randolph that her days at Monticello had been among the most interesting in her life.[9] Camilla had caught a cold at Monticello, but the Wrights were presumably content to be detained there for a few days after Lafayette's departure for Montpelier. Then perhaps inspired by Jefferson, the Wrights planned their own excursion to the Natural Bridge and Harper's Ferry before rejoining Lafayette in Washington.

Later, when Lafayette headed South in late February, Wright decided to proceed across the Midwest and down the Mississippi River. Before rejoining Lafayette in New Orleans in April, she visited Robert Owen and the community he had established at New Harmony, Indiana. By this time, the personal and political voyages of Lafayette and Wright diverged. Wright became more interested in the cause of emancipation. In Views of Society, Wright noticed slaveholders' humanity to their slaves, in which they took such pride, as being mere "gilding" on the chains of bondage.[10] In fact, Wright grew wary of Lafayette's public acclaim by those who were slaveholders: "The enthusiasm, triumphs and rejoices exhibited here before the countenance of the great and good Lafayette have no longer charms for me. They who so sin against the liberty of their country, against those great principles for which their honored guest poured on their soil his treasure and his blood, are not worthy to rejoice in his presence. My soul sickens in the midst of gaiety, and turns almost with disgust from the fairest faces or the most amiable discourse."[11] Wright must have discussed the topic with Jefferson. She wrote from Monticello that "Mr. Jefferson is very anxious that some steps which he considers as preparatory to the abolition of slavery at least in this state should be adopted this winter. You will find his plan (that which he proposed, in the Virginia legislature at the time of the revolution) /sketched/ in the Notes"; Wright accounts for the prejudice against miscegenation as an incentive for this active measure: "The prejudice whether absurd or the contrary against a mixture of the two colors is so deeply rooted in the American mind that emancipation without expatriation...seems impossible."[12]

By the time Lafayette left for France in 1825, Wright had decided to stay in America to promote social reforms. Not long after her visit to Monticello, Wright implemented a practical plan to demonstrate to Americans the possibility of eradicating slavery. In some ways her plan resembled Jefferson's own scheme for gradual emancipation. Slaves would be trained for a vocation while working out the cost of their purchase, their keep, and their eventual colonization abroad. After meeting Robert Owen and observing his utopian community New Harmony, Wright began an experimental community on the site of present-day Germantown, Tennessee. She called her 2000-acre farm Nashoba, the Chickasaw word for "wolf," and about thirty slaves were employed. Lafayette and Robert Owen served as a trustees of the venture, and though Jefferson did not offer an endorsement of financial support for the project, his response was supportive: "At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which ... has been through life that of my greatest anxieties." He continues, "Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. That which you propose is well worthy of trial."[13]

Wright eventually merged the idea of separate colonization of freed slaves with the advocation of a biracial cooperative community as the way toward a solution, but the project never prospered. In addition to crop failure and bad luck, her overseer James Richardson published extracts from the plantation's journal that publicized his relationship with a slave woman, an indiscretion that scandalized the public. Wright eventually responded to attacks of "free love" in the wilds with an article in which she boldly claimed that miscegenation might offer a solution for racial injustices in America; she restated her emancipation plan and attacked racially segregated schools, organized religion, and marriage.[14] Nevertheless, the sexual issue only became more explosive and it frightened away most of her prominent American friends. In 1830 Wright abandoned the plan, a venture that cost her more than half her fortune and drove her to the fringes of American life. The slaves were transported to Haiti, where she made arrangements for their housing and employment.

Not easily discouraged, Wright sought refuge in Robert Owen's community New Harmony. It is an interesting sidenote that Robert Owen visited Jefferson in the spring of 1825. Owen had just announced to Congress that he wanted to help Americans in their pursuit of a "perfect system of liberty and equality," and he proposed the guiding principles of New Harmony to be "union, co-operation, and common property." If Jefferson was not impressed by Owen, his granddaughter Virginia Jefferson and her husband Nicholas Trist were captivated enough to almost join the community, and they became lifelong friends of Owen's son Robert Dale Owen.[15] Whereas the Trists seem to have remained secret admirers of the community, Wright actively supported the communitarian principles.

In support of these principles, Wright became the first woman in America to edit a journal, initially the Harmony Gazette, and after moving to New York City in 1829, The Free Enquirer. She also became the first American woman to give a popular lecture series before an audience of men and women. Little escaped her attention: she condemned capital punishment, cited the dangers of intolerant religion, demanded improvements in the status of women, including equal education, legal rights for married women, liberal divorce laws, and birth control. She traveled to most of the major cities of the East and Midwest, making an impressive appearance as "noble" or "masculine" depending on the observer, and sometimes wielding her sole text, a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Condemned by the press and the clergy as "the great Red Harlot of Infidelity" and the "whore of Babylon," and often in need of a bodyguard, Wright nevertheless captivated large audiences with her commanding presence. Ellen Wayles Coolidge, whom Wright would have met at Monticello in 1824, captures the sense of scandal that accompanied Wright's name. Ellen writes from Boston: "Frances Wright has arrived in Boston to deliver a course of lectures which I hope nobody will go to hear. The report is that she has made a sentimental arrangement with Mr. Owen .... Miss Wright will probably not be noticed by any modest woman"; in another letter she derisively states that Wright is again troubling Boston "where she divides public attention with a rhinoceros, the first ever brought to the United States."[16]

Wright's educational proposals and her involvement in the working-class movement led to political action. So identified with the Working Men's Party did she become that the candidates of this movement became known as "the Fanny Wright ticket." Apparently believing that this identification would hurt the party in the elections of 1830, the Wrights returned to Europe. Camilla, her lifelong companion, died a few months later. The next year Wright married a French physician William Phiquepal d'Amsmont whom she had first met when he was teaching at New Harmony. Lafayette, who despite their long physical separations and changing political concerns, served as a witness at her marriage. Wright and her husband returned to America in 1835 to settle in Cincinnati, and once again, she began to give speeches. She became a convincing supporter of President Jackson and attacked the Second Bank of the U. S. as a public menace that bound the U.S. to the wealth of England. Her suggestions for gradual emancipation and the eventual assimilation of free blacks aroused much opposition, and her public appearances provoked demonstrations, even violence.

Wright traveled back and forth between the United States and Europe several times in a vain effort to untangle personal and financial affairs, and in 1848 she published her final book, England, the Civilizer, a utopian forecast of a global federation justly governed and united in peace. By this time, however, Wright had moved from a largely uncritical view of America to a jaundiced attitude toward all society as a "complicated system of errors."[17] Her views on America had been tempered, enabling her "to see things under the sober light of truth, and to estimate both the excellences that are, and those that are wanting."[18] Wright seems to have spent her remaining years alone. D'Arusmont had objected to her return to public life, and frequent separations eventually led to their divorce. Her divorce was granted by a judge in Shelby County, Tennessee, while she was living on her Nashoba estate, and it actually made legal history. A judge in Cincinnati granted her petition for receiving $800 from her own property while the chancery court suit over control of her property was being decided. Her only child Sylva remained in her father's custody, but by the time of Wright's death in 1852, the chancery suit in Ohio was still unsettled, and therefore became moot, and her daughter was bequeathed the bulk of her estate.[19] Wright's death went largely unnoticed. She was buried in the Cincinnati Spring Grove Cemetery.

 

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on RLB, "Francis Wright," Monticello Research Report, 18 October 1996.
  2. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Correspondence. Printed from the Originals in the Collections of William K. Bixby (Boston: The Plimpton Press, 1916), 254-256.
  3. Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (1821; reprint Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 218.
  4. TJ to Lafayette, November 4, 1823, Ford, Works, v. 12, 324. See also Celia Morris Eckhardt, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 66.
  5. Frances Wright to Lafayette, February 11, 1822. Quoted in Lloyd Kramer, Lafayette in Two Worlds (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 158.
  6. Lafayette to Jefferson, October 1, 1824, Gilbert Chinard, ed., The Letters of Lafayette and Jefferson (Baltimore, 1929), 421-424.
  7. Frances Wright to Julia and Harriet Garnett, November 12, 14 1824, Houghton Library, Harvard University. See also Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, ed., The Garnett Letters (privately printed, 1979) and "The Nashoba Plan for Removing the Evil of Slavery: Letters of Frances and Camilla Wright, 1820-1829," Library Bulletin 23 (1975): 221-51, 429-61.
  8. Jane Blair Cary Smith, "The Carysbrook Memoir," c1864 ViU: 1378, 72-74.
  9. Frances Wright to Martha Jefferson Randolph, December 4, 1824, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  10. Lucia Stanton, "Looking for Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the British Lions," Eighteenth-Century Studies v. 26, no. 4 (1993): 659.
  11. Frances Wright to Julia Garnett, October 30, 1824, quoted in Kramer, 162.
  12. Frances Wright to Julia and Harriet Garnett, November 12, 1824, Garnett Letters, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  13. "TJ to Frances Wright, August 7, 1825, Ford, 12: 410-11.
  14. See Fanny Wright Unmasked By Her Own Pen. Explanatory Notes, Respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institutions of Nashoba, and of the Principles Upon Which It Is Founded (New York, 1828).
  15. Stanton, 660-61.
  16. Ellen Wayles Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph, July 21, 1829, June 6, 1830, ViU: 9090.
  17. Frances Wright, Address on the State of the Public Mind and the Measures Which it Calls For (New York, 1829), 9.
  18. Frances Wright, Course of Popular Lectures (New York, 1829), 7-8.
  19. David Bowman, "Frances Wright at 200," Huntsville News, August 18, 1995.

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