Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Frances Wright, Abolitionist and Reformer

Frances Wright, Social Reformer, Writer, and Lecturer (born 6 September 1795)


Frances Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, the daughter of Camilla Campbell and James Wright, a "free-thinking radical and revolutionary." Whatever direct influence her father may have had on her thinking is limited, however--by the time that she was three years old, both of her parents had died.

An 1824 portrait of a young Frances Wright,
painted by George Inman
But, in addition to his radical political views, James Wright was also a wealthy manufacturer, so his children were not left as impoverished orphans after the loss of their parents.

With a significant inheritance, James Wright's two daughters were taken to England by their maternal aunt, who was their guardian. Since herself was young, the girls lived with their aunt in their maternal grandfather's home.

Fanny Wright returned to Scotland when she was sixteen, and was educated there by her great-uncle, James Milne, a moral philosopher. Milne was educated at the University of St. Andrews and was teaching at the University of Glasgow.

In Scotland, Fanny Wright spent her winters studying and writing, her summers in the Scottish highlands. She read widely, having access to the library of the university--she was particularly interested in reading about America and the American Revolution.

She also began to write, beginning with what is described as "youthful romantic verse." But in August 1818, when she was twenty-three years old, Fanny Wright sailed for America with her sister, Camilla, for a two-year tour of the United States. In New York, she produced her play Altorf: A Tragedy, dramatizing the struggle for Swiss independence. (The play was published the following year in Philadelphia.) 

Once she returned to Scotland, she published an account of her trip, Views of Society and Manners in America (1821) and A Few Days in Athens (1822), which has been described as "a novelistic sketch of a disciple of Epicurus that outlined the materialistic philosophy to which she adhered throughout her life." 

Her account of her American trip earned her praise and attention--in particular that of the Marquis de Lafayette, whom she met in France in 1821. She accompanied the Revolutionary War hero when he returned to America in 1824, and she traveled with him when he was entertained by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Wright had been shocked to witness the brutality of slavery on her first visit to the United States. When she returned, it was with the purpose of purchasing, educating, and emancipating slaves, establishing them in a community outside of the United States. As she remarked while traveling in Mississippi in 1825, “The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere. But to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that imagination can conceive.”

The image of Frances Wright that appears in
Elizabeth Cady Stanton et a.,
A History of Woman Suffrage
While planning the community for freed slaves, Wright had visited Robert Owen's utopian community of New Harmony, in Indiana.

She was impressed by Owen's ideas about cooperative labor and universal education--these notions formed the basis of the community she established, the Nashoba Commune, just outside Memphis, Tennessee.

She also published a tract outlining her proposal for ending slavery: A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South.

Nashoba was founded in 1826, but the initial optimism underlying its foundation was lost after Wright herself left, suffering from bouts of fever and still campaigning for support.

The trustees in whose hands she had left the organizing and running of the community seem to have failed her--there were reports of floggings, sexual misconduct, and unhappiness of parents who lost control of their children. The community had collapsed by 1829, and Wright escorted the remaining emancipated slaves to Haiti, settling them there with promises for their freedom and independence.

(As an interesting note: in order to recover her health, Frances Wright had gone back to England--there she met Frances Trollope, about whom I have posted (click here). Trollope returned with Wright to Nashoba, but she was shocked by conditions, disillusioned with the project. and soon left.)

Returning to the United States, Wright rejoined Owen and, with him, began publishing the Free Enquirer, a newspaper advocating equal rights for women, women's suffrage, education for women, birth control, and liberalized divorce laws. She also condemned capital punishment and worked toward educational reform--with Owen, she argued for the establishment of a system of free state boarding schools offering a religion-free curriculum and industrial skills in addition to traditional subjects. 

With Owen, she also founded the Working Men's Party, supporting small farmers, artisans, and workers in early factories in New York. Those opposing this progressive party gave it the most insulting name they could devise: the Fanny Wright Party.

In 1831, her sister Camilla's health failing, Frances Wright returned to France. There she met and married a French physician, French physician, Guillaume D'Arusmont, whom she had met when they were at New Harmony. They had a child, Frances Sylva, born in 1832. The family returned to the United States in 1835,  when they returned to the United States and took up residence in Cincinnati. But the marriage failed, and Wright began the long process of divorce.

In the mean time, after her return to the United States, Frances Wright delivered public lectures opposing slavery. In 1836 and 1838 she campaigned actively for the Democratic Party, She also became involved in the Popular Health Movement, in particular arguing for the inclusion of women in health and medicine. 

In 1836 she published her last book, Course of Popular Lectures, again arguing strongly for the rights of women: 
However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion, that, until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike, assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good, they will for evil; if they advance not knowledge, they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race. 
Wright's health failed again after her efforts in the 1838 elections. and she withdrew from her active life. 

In 1850 she was finally divorced from her husband, but it came at a particularly high cost. Given divorce laws, which Wright had fought to reform, her earnings from her lectures and royalties belonged to her husband. 

She died just two years later, on 13 December 1852, after a fall on the ice. She was fifty-seven years old.

Wright was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery,
Cincinnati, Ohio
In addition to the entry on Wright in the Tennessee Encyclopedia, to which I've linked above, you might also be interested in the biographical note on Wright in the Encyclopedia Britannica (click here).

Celia Morris Eckhardt's 1984 biography, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, is out of print, but used copies are readily available.

Wright's own work is also easy to find. There are a number of print-on-demand editions available (through Amazon, for instance), but you can find easily find and read her work through the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg.