Wright, Frances (1795-1852)
Frances Wright (1795-1852)
Beginnings. Born in 1795, Frances Wright inherited a considerable fortune when she was orphaned at the age of two. Although a Scot, she and her younger sister, Camilla, were raised in England by a maternal aunt. As a teenager she became fascinated with America and was able to travel there with Camilla in 1818, a voyage she recounted in Views of Society and Manners in America in 1821. Renowned as an author, the tall and stately auburn-haired young woman corresponded with and then became attached to the sixty-four-year-old Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, at whose family estate near Paris she and Camilla lived for two years. In 1824 the Wright sisters accompanied Lafayette on his triumphal tour of America, where they met James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, and Frances engaged in discussion with the elderly Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. As she traveled through the American South, Wright observed and became distressed with slavery. In the Northwest she visited a fellow Scot, the Utopian industrialist Robert Owen, who was beginning to implement his ideals at New Harmony, Indiana. Determined to work for the benefit of slaves, Frances did not return to Europe with the marquis. In 1825 she published in the Genius of Universal Emancipation, Benjamin Lundy’s antislavery journal, her own ambitious plan for gradual and compensated emancipation. Purchasing land in Tennessee with her own funds, she hoped to found an experimental community where slaves could work to earn their purchase price, learn skills, and then be resettled some place in the West. Central to her plan was a community boarding school, where enslaved children, separated from their parents, would receive an education in literature and the natural sciences.
The Community at Nashoba . In 1826 Frances and Camilla Wright were joined in Tennessee by Richeson Whitby, a Quaker from New Harmony; James Richardson, a fellow Scot and medical student; and George Flower, the one associate with a practical knowledge of farming, and his wife and three children. A South Carolina planter sent the slave Lucky and her five daughters, and Frances purchased eight additional slaves—five men and three women—with her own funds. Within a year the group built two log cabins; Camilla set up the school; and Frances and Whitby worked with the slaves in the vegetable garden, orchard, and corn and cotton fields. As thirty slaves, half of whom were children, were assembled on the tract, the community suffered from malaria and considerable disorder. Following a visit to New Harmony, Wright was inspired to reform Nashoba on Robert Owen’s principles, relinquishing ownership to ten trustees, among them Lafayette, Owen, and his son Robert Dale Owen. When George Flower, unhappy with the new arrangements, left in 1827, Robert Dale Owen arrived, appalled at the poor quality of the land and primitive conditions. He and Frances immediately set off for Europe to enlist recruits, leaving management of the community to James Richardson and Camilla. Even with the nightly meetings Frances held to teach Owen’s principles, enslaved parents failed to understand why they should be separated from their children at the boarding school; they were troubled as well by the Owenite concept of sexual emancipation, that individuals could mutually select sexual partners outside of marriage. When Richardson, who cohabited with an enslaved teenager, published his record of community activities in Lundy’s journal, readers were shocked. Public outrage grew when Wright returned from Europe and defended the community’s sexual practices; criticizing marriage and organized religion, she called for racial amalgamation and the equal education of white and black children. Yet the Nashoba experiment was defeated less by its ideals than by its finances; it failed to make a profit, and Wright’s fortune and its supporters began to drift away. In 1828 Frances left for New Harmony, where she edited the Free Inquirer and planned a new career as a public reformer.
A Public Woman . In 1829 Wright moved to New York, joined by Camilla, Robert Dale Owen, and a New Harmony Pestalozzian teacher named Phiquepal D’Arusmont. Commencing a career as a lecturer, she bought a Baptist church and renamed it the Hall of Science, housing a lecture hall, a secular Sunday school, and a bookstore for free-thinkers. Wright’s lectures challenged evolving concepts of domestic ideology when she explained the experience and ideals of Nashoba, criticized evangelical revivals, and advocated education and equal rights for women. Her favorite topic was educational reform. She proposed a “guardianship system” through which state government would establish district boarding schools, where Americans could be raised for social equality through a curriculum that instructed all children in free inquiry and the physical sciences. Wright found admirers in New York among the reformers and artisans who comprised the city’s Workingmen’s Party and who also advocated enlightened public education and such issues as the ten-hour workday, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and attacks on the privileges of banks and capitalists. In 1830, however, she returned to Nashoba, where she freed her slaves and escorted them by ship to a new life in Haiti. Traveling to Europe the following year, she and members of her entourage settled in Paris, where Camilla died and Frances married D’Arusmont, with whom she later had a daughter, Sylva. When Wright returned to the United States without her husband and daughter in 1835, she was too notorious to resume her public career. For the rest of her life she lived in Cincinnati, continuing to attack organized religion and advocate secular, state-supported public schools. Upon her death in 1852, the land in Tennessee was inherited by Sylva, who transformed Nashoba into a private estate, settled there and raised a family.
Celia Morris Eckhardt, Frances Wright: Rebel in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984);
Richard Stiller, Commune on the Frontier: The Story of Frances Wright (New York: Crowell, 1972);
Nancy Woloch, “Frances Wright at Nashoba,” in Women and the American Experience, by Woloch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp. 154–169.
Frances Wright (1795-1852), Scottish-American socialist, feminist, and reformer, was the first woman to speak publicly in America.
Frances Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, on Sept. 6, 1795. Orphaned at the age of two, she inherited substantial means, which enabled her to escape from England and her strict relatives upon coming of age. She went to the United States in 1818, and her play about the struggle for republicanism in Switzerland was performed in 1819 in New York City.
Wright was distinguished for her personal courage, amounting at times to foolhardiness, and for the liberality of her views on public questions. She was especially influenced by the social reformer Robert Dale Owen, and in 1825 she visited New Harmony, Ind., an ambitious experiment in communitarian socialism that his father, Robert Owen, had just founded. There she absorbed the multitude of radical ideas on every conceivable question that flourished in the community. The following year she established her own community at Nashoba on the Tennessee frontier.
Unlike New Harmony, which was founded to demonstrate the superior merits of socialism, Nashoba was aimed directly at the problem of slavery. Wright believed that the most practical way to free the slaves was by establishing facilities where they could work off the costs of their emancipation while acquiring useful skills and the habits appropriate to free men. In some ways this was a farsighted plan. However, like most communal experiments, Nashoba was under financed and badly run. Wright further complicated the enterprise by working into it her own ideas on sex and religion. She came to believe that miscegenation was the ultimate solution of the racial question and that marriage was a limiting and discriminatory institution. Her advocacy of free love and her assistant's public admission that he was living with one of the slave women had a fatal effect on Nashoba's fortunes. In 1830 Wright and Robert Dale Owen arranged for her wards to be sent to the black republic of Haiti.
In 1828-1829 Wright lectured widely in the United States with sensational effect. She spoke on behalf of public education in general and women's education in particular, and she actively supported the Workingman's (Loco-Foco) party of New York, earning the sobriquet of "the great she-Loco-Foco." She also wrote several books, none of which proved very durable. She returned to Europe in 1830, remaining there until 1835. In later years her lectures attracted little attention. She died on Dec. 13, 1852, in Cincinnati.
Biographies of Frances Wright are William R. Waterman, Frances Wright (1924), and A. J. G. Perkins and Theresa Wolfson, Frances Wright, Free Enquirer (1939). Among the many works touching on various phases of her career, Arthur E. Bestor, Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829 (1950), is especially useful.
Morris, Celia, Fanny Wright: rebel in America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. □