Wright, Frances (1795–1852)
Wright, Frances (1795–1852)
Wright, Frances (1795–1852)
British-born freethinker, writer, and public speaker who advocated radical social reform, abolition of slavery, and women's rights in the U.S., based on her criticism of the superstitions and immorality of Christianity . Name variations: Fanny Wright; Frances Wright d'Arusmont; Frances Darusmont. Born Frances Wright on September 6, 1795, in Dundee, Scotland; died in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 13, 1852, from complications from a broken hip; daughter of James Wright (a linen merchant) and Camilla (Campbell) Wright; married William Phiquepal d'Arusmont, on July 22, 1831 (divorced); children: daughter (name not known, b. 1831 and died at age six months); Frances Sylva d'Arusmont (b. April 14, 1832).
Orphaned at age two, grew up in London and Dawlish, England; age 18, moved to Dundee, Scotland (1813); traveled to U.S. (1818–19); settled in U.S. (1824); established and lived with emancipation community at Nashoba, Tennessee (1825–29); moved to New Harmony, Indiana (1828); assumed editorship of New Harmony paper, changed its name to Free Enquirer, and moved with it to New York City (1828–29); purchased Hall of Science for weekly lectures and meetings on freethought subjects (1829); became frequent lecturer and writer on freethought and reform (1828–52).
Altorf: A Tragedy (1819); Views of Society and Manners in America (1821); A Few Days in Athens (1822); Course of Popular Lectures, with Three Addresses on Various Public Occasions, and a Reply to the Charges against the French Reformers of 1789 (1829); Biography, Notes, and Political Letters (1844); England the Civilizer (1848); and numerous articles and lectures published in the Free Enquirer.
At a time when few women assumed a public role, Frances Wright became the first woman in America to ascend to fame as a public speaker and social reformer. By 1830, her notoriety had reached such a level that the New York City press labeled her "The Red Harlot of Infidelity." Never afraid to air her views or scoff at the conventions of proper society, Frances Wright bore the double stigma in the early 19th century of being a religious skeptic and an educated, independent woman. As a result of her lectures and writings, she became the most well-known leader of the freethought movement in the 1820s and 1830s.
The goal which shaped the career of Frances Wright was simple: to rekindle in America an understanding of the principles upon which it was founded and to call on its people and its government to live up to the promise which the Revolution had begun—in short, to recreate American society into a nation truly dedicated to liberty of conscience and to legal, economic, and social equality for all its citizens—male and female, black, red, and white. To accomplish this, she believed, radical change in society and in education was needed. Not until the superstitions of Christianity were replaced by the principles of reason, she argued vehemently, would society be freed from its bonds to the inequities and oppression of the past.
Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1795, to a family of means, but was orphaned at age two. Raised by their mother's aristocratic relatives, Frances and her younger sister Camilla Wright spent their childhood in London and in Dawlish, Devonshire, England. Though she chafed at the rigidness of her maiden aunt and the conservative views of an unsympathetic grandfather, Wright was fortunate to receive a solid education and opportunities for learning well beyond those provided for most females in her society. In addition, to fill the lonely hours of her youth, Wright took advantage of the libraries and learned people around her. Indeed, according to biographers Alice Perkins and Theresa Wolfson, she began to think of herself as possessing extraordinary "gifts of genius" and worried that she would die before she could put her talents to use. Her pursuit of knowledge, it seemed, was unquenchable, and she began at a very young age to question what she perceived to be the injustices and inconsistencies of the world around her. The death of her older brother Richard (raised by another uncle), as a young soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, confirmed Fanny's suspicion that she was marked for special suffering and strengthened the lifelong bond between the two sisters.
In her quest for understanding, Wright did not limit herself to reading. During her youth, she was struck by the misery of many, both workers in London and the peasantry in Devonshire, who had not been fortunate enough to have been born into the higher classes. As she recalled in her biography, her sympathies "were powerfully drawn towards the sufferings of humanity, and thus her curiosity was vividly excited to discover their causes." On a trip through the countryside with her aunt, the young Fanny observed peasants living at subsistence level, and she began to think about the lives of the poor, burdened with taxes, tithes, poor-rates, game laws, unemployment, and other economic hardships. Do these people also have no rights? she wondered. Are they entitled to nothing? Soon after, she claimed, she took a solemn oath "to wear ever in her heart the cause of the poor and helpless; and to aid in all that she could in redressing the grievous wrongs which seemed to prevail in society." It is that oath which guided the course of her adult life.
During this period, Wright also developed a fascination with the United States. It was while engrossed, perplexed, and often depressed with silent and unsuccessful efforts to arrive at a satisfactory view of truth in anything, she explained, that she first came across a history of America by the Italian writer Bocca which filled her with excitement. "Life was full of promise," she reported. Finally she knew that "there existed a country consecrated to freedom, and in which man might awake to the full knowledge and full exercise of his powers." She determined there and then, at age 16, to direct her sights and her life toward America.
At age 18, Wright moved with her sister to Glasgow, Scotland, to escape the restrictions of her mother's family. There they were welcomed into the family of their great-uncle, James Milne, respected professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow and leader in the rationalist empiricism of the Scottish Enlightenment. She had finally found a lively and progressive intellectual environment which suited her tastes and talents. The Milne family and their friends stimulated and encouraged Wright in her pursuit of truth and engaged her in parlor discussions on literature, philosophy, and current issues ranging from republican principles to legislation against the slave trade.
Wright also indulged her continuing fascination for the United State by reading everything available on its history. She even tried her hand at playwriting, composing a short drama, entitled Altorf: A Tragedy, which extolled republican principles in the guise of a fictitious event in the aftermath of the Swiss war for independence from the Habsburgs. She found no stage or publisher for such a play in Britain, but it would eventually be performed in Philadelphia in 1819, to limited success, and then published in America. In the preface, Wright criticized the lack of freedom in the press of Great Britain and revealed her affinity for the United States, explaining to American readers that she "sought their country uninvited, from a sincere admiration of the government, a heart-felt love of its freedom, a generous pride and sympathy in its rising greatness."
In September 1818, after three years in Glasgow, Frances and her sister Camilla sailed to New York, and, for the next 19 months, they traveled from New York City through the western frontier of New York State, from Niagara through Canada, down through the battle sites at Lake Champlain, through Vermont, to Philadelphia and Washington, and briefly to Virginia. Fanny kept account of her experiences in a series of letters to an older friend in Scotland, subsequently published in 1821 as Views of Society and Manners in America. Filled with observations on America's tolerance and freedom, and on the limits to those ideals in areas such as slavery and female education, this book launched her career as a public figure. Views and Manners was read widely in both countries, bringing criticism of Wright from conservatives in New York for identifying America's faults, and praise from liberals in Europe for identifying its virtues. Yet perhaps its most important effect on Wright's career was that it brought her two new and important acquaintances upon her return to Europe: the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in England, and the Marquis de Lafayette in France, both of whom were impressed with her defense of republicanism.
Has treason gone so far in this land, for EQUALITY to be denounced as a dream of enthusiasts, an innovation of foreigners?
Over the course of the next several years, Bentham, whom she affectionately referred to as "her Socrates," introduced her to many leading intellectuals of the day. Wright's later writings and addresses reveal strong affinities with the basic tenets of utilitarianism she absorbed during these years. Testifying to the extent of Bentham's influence, in 1822 Wright published a second play (actually written in 1818), A Few Days in Athens, and dedicated it to Bentham, "as a testimony of her admiration of his enlightened sentiments, useful labors, and active philanthropy, and of gratitude for his friendship." In this play, two ideas surfaced which would remain characteristic of her thought: an abhorrence of intolerance; and the inklings of a materialist epistemology which would lead her to reject all dogma and superstition as the enemies of reason, freedom, and equality. The play centered around a figure in ancient Athens who investigated various schools of philosophy, concluding that all have their prejudices and that rather than choosing one school to which to belong, the best advice is "think for yourself." At play's end, its only female character sums up Wright's message: "Trust me, there are as many ways of living as there are men, and one is no more fit to lead another, than a bird to lead a fish, or a fish a quadruped."
Wright's friendship with Lafayette proved even more influential. For the next three years, she became his almost constant companion, and through him, met many of the most influential liberals in Europe. When Lafayette accepted the invitation of President James Monroe to tour America as its honored guest in 1824, Wright accompanied him (raising more than a few American eyebrows) and met many of America's leaders as well. She then remained in the United States with a specific mission in mind.
Wright's first visit to America had made her keenly aware of the disparity between the country's theory and practice of equality on one vital issue: slavery. Her comments on it ran through her letters home, both published and private. Appalled by the moral inconsistency of slavery continuing in her ideal country, she determined to undertake a social experiment which, she hoped, would lead to the emancipation of all African-American slaves.
On her travels westward with Lafayette in the spring of 1825, Wright passed through New Harmony, Indiana, the site of the new communitarian experiment of Robert Owen, the British socialist. Owen's social and economic theories strongly influenced Wright's ideas and specifically her budding plan for an experimental emancipation community. She also met Owen's son, Robert Dale Owen, who would become her friend and associate in the active days ahead. After a second trip westward that summer, she published A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South, in the Baltimore newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation.
The plan entailed convincing the U.S. Congress to establish model plantations in the southwest cotton belt on which slaves would be educated to be economically self-sufficient, trained in the principles of freedom and equality, and then colonized elsewhere, outside the United States. It was a fairly conservative plan, compared to calls by other abolitionists for the immediate general emancipation of slaves. But she defended her scheme as good for both the slaves and the Southern economy: the slaves would be properly educated for freedom, and the economy of the South would be strengthened at the same time. In her view, the necessary moral reform could be accomplished only by choice and not by coercion. Wright was convinced that if she could demonstrate that the moral imperative was economically advantageous, slave-owners would gradually see
the light and participate voluntarily. To provide a model, she purchased some land in western Tennessee in December 1825 and began an emancipation community at Nashoba with about a dozen manumitted slaves and a handful of co-workers.
The experiment was a miserable failure. Wright suffered in the climate of western Tennessee and the community suffered from inexperience with farming and from scandal. Based on reports that one of the white leaders, James Richardson, had begun living with one of the mulatto women residents, Nashoba was derided as a community which fostered free love and miscegenation. This put Wright in a bind. On the one hand, she did reject the sanctity of the marriage bond and did not see any moral barrier to interracial relationships. Part of the purpose of the Nashoba experiment had been to remove the obstacles created by all forms of slavery, including the tyranny of marriage laws which subjugated women to men and bound people together long after affection between them had died. On the other hand, such reports damaged the community's image in the public mind, and she would have preferred to keep the details quiet. The hoped-for public support never materialized.
In the fall of 1829, Wright announced the end of the Nashoba experiment. Accompanied by William Phiquepal d'Arusmont (her future husband), she traveled with the emancipated slaves to their new home in Haiti in January 1830. By then, however, she already had embarked upon a new, and broader, mission.
Because of Nashoba, Wright concluded that small experiments were not the best means to accomplish real social reform. She had "begun at the wrong end." Instead, the place to start must be with the public mind. "Reform, to be effective," she insisted in her biography, "must be rightly understood in its principles by a collective body politic, and carried forward wisely, consistently, with due regard to the interests of all concerned, by that body politic." The task now was to convince others of the rightness of reform. It was to the process of educating the American public in the basic principles of liberty—in effect, retraining society—that she dedicated the remainder of her life.
The years 1828–30 were Wright's most active and public. She undertook lecture tours through the western frontier and the cities of the eastern seaboard, focusing on the principles of reason and the problems of inequality and injustice in areas of class, sex, and race. To disseminate her views more widely, with Robert Dale Owen she edited a weekly paper called the Free Enquirer (1828–35) in New York City, whose motto explained their purpose: "Just opinions are the result of just knowledge,—just practice of just opinions." By encouraging free enquiry on all subjects, she hoped to instruct society in "truth" and in "reason," in order to lay the foundation for the rational reform of society in all its laws and institutions. The problem, as she saw it, was that the U.S. was a land of great hope and promise, but it was not living up to its promise. "The great principles stamped in America's declaration of independence," she declared in one lecture, "are true, are great, are sublime, and are all her own. But her usages, her law, her religion, her education, are false, narrow, prejudiced, ignorant, and are the relic of dark ages." The reason for its shortcomings, she argued, was at base the negative influence of Christianity and its clergy.
Faced with what seemed to her to be an increase in revivalism on the frontier and in the cities and a rise in evangelical religion, Wright sought to replace what she considered emotionalism and superstition with an appeal to reason. Religion, she argued in her lectures, preys on "human credulity and nervous weakness," especially in women and youth, and interferes with a rational understanding of the principles of morality and truth. Worse, she feared that Christian clergy were attempting to form a "Christian party in politics" which would undermine the American principle of religious freedom.
Attacked as an infidel, Wright welcomed the label, for she firmly believed in the need to reject all religious dogma, just as she rejected all forms of tyranny over the mind and heart of society. Instead, she emphasized the need to doubt, to inquire, and to break away from the unwarranted dominance of the clergy. When an opponent asked on one occasion whether or not there is a God, she responded, as she reported in the Free Enquirer: "I am unable to inform him" one way or the other. She insisted that one should concentrate on what one can know, rather than hypothesize about what one cannot know with any certainty. Christianity claimed knowledge where it had none, which led it to assert as true doctrines which were inconsistent, contradictory, and absurd. What Wright advocated was a morality based on the principles of reason rather than on some fictitious God. People then would need no outside influence to explain what is morally right, and certainly not the influence of "priests" who have a vested interest in perpetuating the authority of the Church and its "outdated" beliefs. Then, as a result of rational investigation, people would come to support the causes of equality and justice for slaves, women, laborers, and other disenfranchised members of society.
Thus criticism of Christianity was a product of her philosophy and a means to an end. The consequences of Wright's insistence on reason and the principles of freedom and equality were a passionate commitment to reform on a number of issues: free and universal public education for citizens of all classes and both sexes; opposition to state and federal laws based on Christian belief and practice (such as Sunday "blue laws," prohibition of Sunday mail service, and blasphemy laws); involvement in the nascent labor movement of New York City to secure political rights for the working classes; and reform of laws and attitudes on a variety of social issues ranging from marriage, divorce, and contraception to civil rights, improved status for women, and criminal justice. She also became perhaps the most notorious woman in America, derided not only as that "bold blasphemer and voluptuous preacher of licentiousness," but also as a "female monster" who, against all propriety, took the public-lecture platform, stepping far over the line of acceptable female behavior.
Wright was not alone in her work. By the late 1820s and early 1830s, there were a number of writers and lecturers on the freethought circuit—most notably Robert Dale Owen, Abner Kneeland, Benjamin Offen, George Houston, and Gilbert Vale—and freethinking citizens in numerous cities had organized into societies to support the cause. But Fanny Wright remained the most infamous leader. The movement achieved little in real reform; but its legacy continued in the writings of leaders like Wright and in the power of its vision as inspiration for future reformers. Through the pages of her newspapers, lectures and debates, and tireless devotion to the activities of the freethought movement, Wright helped define the vision of a more rational and just society in America.
Frustrated by lack of widespread popular support, Wright virtually disappeared from the American scene between the years 1831 and 1836. For most of that time she was in France, preoccupied with marriage and family. In 1831, soon after the death of her sister, Wright married William d'Arusmont after learning she was pregnant with his child. The marriage was mostly one of convenience; Wright had sharply criticized contemporary marriage laws which reduced wives to little more than the property of men, but she feared the effects of society's condemnation upon a bastard child. Sadly, their daughter died at six months, but a second daughter, Frances Sylva d'Arusmont , born in April 1832, survived.
Marriage and family could not consume Wright's energies for long. She returned to the U.S. in late 1835 and began a new series of lectures in the spring of 1836 in Cincinnati, and then in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The winter of 1836–37 found Wright in Philadelphia engaged in publishing her own monthly paper, A Manual of American Principles. The motto recalled the earlier days of the Free Enquirer: "Independence, Liberty, Justice; from the three, shall proceed happiness." Yet the paper soon folded.
By 1838, Wright broadened her interest in political philosophy and practical reform to encompass the history of civilization. The result was her magnum opus, England the Civilizer, which, though never well received, was the capstone on a lifetime search for the causes of injustice in society. Her concern still centered on republican principles, the rights of women, and the needs of the laboring classes, but now she ranged back through the history of Western civilization to explore both the origins and pervasiveness of injustice and the history of innovation and efforts for justice. What she discovered, she believed, was that the problems endemic in American society were products of millennia of subjection and degradation of those not in power. Progress would occur only when society turned its attention from the individual to the public good. It was up to women, she argued, to "give the tone in this" and place themselves "everywhere on the side of humanity, union, order, right reason, and right feeling."
In the 1840s and early 1850s, Wright continued her moral and educational crusade. One might expect that she would have joined the lead of the rising abolitionist movement; she did not. Her strong antipathy to the churches, whose members formed much of the abolitionist movement, kept her away. Moreover, her belief that immediate abolition would be detrimental to both slaves and society at large remained intact. It also may be, as Perkins and Wolfson suggest, that she did not want to "play second fiddle in a field where she had already made the supreme sacrifices of fortune, health, and personal reputation." In any case, her conviction that progress could only be achieved through a slow process of education ran counter to the calls of William Lloyd Garrison and other advocates of abolition and immediate emancipation.
On women's rights, too, Wright remained aloof from the blossoming suffrage movement. This is not to say, however, that Wright had no connection at all to the movement. Since 1828, Wright had forcefully and repeatedly argued for women's rights and for the value of women, and many women and men heard and read her views, including reformers like Lucretia Mott and Orestes Brownson. Susan B. Anthony displayed a picture of Frances Wright on a wall in her study, along with portraits of other past reformers she admired; and both Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized Wright's contribution as a lecturer on behalf of women.
Much of Wright's energy in the decade before her death was consumed by personal concerns. Her husband's long illness, his legal and financial difficulties, estrangement and child custody problems, and finally divorce took their toll. Following a year of suffering after falling and badly breaking a hip, Wright died on December 13, 1852. The press, which 20 years earlier had excoriated her so often, barely noticed.
Frances Wright was a precursor of progress, a prophet of an idea whose time had not yet come. As with most prophets, her legacy lies not in reforms she accomplished, but in the inspiration she gave to others of more practical bent. As a vocal, confident, articulate woman who refused to be limited in her role because of her sex, Wright stands out as a model for women who followed. Her public career on behalf of equality and freedom has earned her an honored place in the pages of American and Western history as one of the outspoken voices of dissent from complacency, credulity, injustice, and intolerance.
d'Arusmont, Frances Wright. Life, Letters, and Lectures, 1834–1844. NY: Arno, 1972.
Eckhardt, Celia Morris. Fanny Wright: Rebel in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Perkins, Alice, and Theresa Wolfson. Frances Wright, Free Enquirer: The Study of a Temperament. NY: Harper Bros., 1939.
Post, Albert. Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850, 1943 (rep. ed., NY: Octagon Books, 1974).
Wright, Frances. Altorf: A Tragedy. Philadelphia, PA: Mathew Carey & Son, 1819.
——. England the Civilizer: Her History Developed in its Principles; With Reference to the Civilizational History of Modern Europe (America Inclusive) and with a View to the Denouement of the Difficulties of the Hour. London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1848.
——. A Few Days in Athens, being the translation of a Greek manuscript discovered in Herculaneum. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822.
——. Views of Society and Manners in America, 1821 (rep. ed., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).
——, and Robert Dale Owen, eds. Free Enquirer. New York, 1828–32.
Kolmerton, Carol A. Women in Utopia: The Ideology of Gender in the American Owenite Communities. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Lockwood, George B. The New Harmony Movement, 1905 (rep. ed. NY: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970).
Taylor, Anne. Visions of Harmony: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.
Correspondence and papers located in the Houghton Library, Harvard University; the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh; the British Library, London; the Bloomsbury Science Library, University College, London University; the Theresa Wolfson Papers, Labor-Management Documentation Center, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University; and the Cincinnati Historical Society.
Terry E. Sparkes , Assistant Professor of Religion, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa