Frances Wright

Frances Wright (September 6, 1795 – December 13, 1852), widely known as Fanny Wright, was a Scottish-born lecturer, writer, freethinker, feminist, abolitionist, and social reformer, who became a US citizen in 1825. The same year, she founded the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee, as a utopian community to demonstrate how to prepare slaves for eventual emancipation, but the project lasted only five years. In the late 1820s Wright was the first woman lecturer to speak publicly before gatherings of men and women in the United States about political and social-reform issues. She advocated for universal education, the emancipation of slaves, birth control, equal rights, sexual freedom, legal rights for married women, and liberal divorce laws. Wright was also vocal in her opposition to organized religion and capital punishment. The clergy and the press harshly criticized Wright's radical views. Her public lectures in the United States led to the establishment of Fanny Wright societies and her association with the Working Men's Party, organized in New York City in 1829, became so strong that its opponents called the party’s slate of candidates the Fanny Wright ticket.

Frances "Fanny" Wright
1824 portrait of Wright by Henry Inman
Born(1795-09-06)September 6, 1795
DiedDecember 13, 1852(1852-12-13) (aged 57)
OccupationWriter, lecturer, abolitionist, social reformer
Known forFeminism, free thinking, utopian community founder
Spouse(s)Guillaume Phiquepal D'Arusmont
ChildrenFrancès-Silva D'Arusmont Phiquepal

Wright also wrote about political and social reforms, which included Views of Society and Manners in America (1821), a memoir of her travels that provides her observations of early democratic political and social institutions in the United States. She also outlined her position on emancipation in A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South (1825). In addition, Wright co-edited The New Harmony and Nashoba Gazette or Free Inquirer with Robert Dale Owen in New Harmony, Indiana, as well as the Free Enquirer in New York City in 1829, and, later, The Sentinel (renamed New York Sentinel and Working Man's Advocate). Among Wright's other published works is Course of Popular Lectures (1829), a collection of her speeches, and her final book, England, the Civilizer (1848).

Early life and education

Frances "Fanny" Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland, on September 6, 1795, to Camilla (Campbell) and James Wright.[1][2] Her father was a wealthy linen manufacturer,[3] a designer of Dundee trade tokens, and a political radical. He corresponded with Adam Smith and was sympathetic to the American patriots and French republicans,[4] including Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Frances, or "Fanny" as she was called since childhood, was the second eldest of family's three children. Her siblings included an older brother, who died when Frances was still young, and a sister named Camilla.[5][6][7] Wright's mother also died young, and her father died in 1798, when Frances was about the age of two. With support from a substantial inheritance, the orphaned Wright sisters were raised in England by members of the Campbell family, who were relatives of their mother.[2][8]

A maternal aunt became Wright's guardian and taught her ideas founded on the philosophy of the French materialists.[9] In 1813, when Wright was sixteen, she returned to Scotland to live with her great-uncle, James Mylne, a philosophy professor at Glasgow College.[5] Wright spent the winter months in study and writing and the summer months visiting the Scottish Highlands. Wright was interested in the works of Greek philosophers, especially Epicurus, who was the subject of her first book, A Few Days in Athens (1822), which she had written by the age of eighteen. Wright also studied history and became interested the United States' democratic form of government.[2]

First visits to the United States and France

Twenty-three-year-old Wright her younger sister Camilla made their first trip to the United States in 1818. The sisters toured the country for two years before returning to England. While Wright was visiting New York City, Altorf, her play about the struggle for Swiss independence from Austria, was anonymously produced and performed beginning on February 19, 1819, but it closed after three performances.[10][11]

Soon after her return to England in 1820, Wright published Views of Society and Manners in America (1821).[1][11] The book's publication was a major turning point in her life. It brought her an invitation from Jeremy Bentham to join his circle acquaintances that included economist James Mill, politician Francis Plore, and author George Grote, among others. The group's opposition to religious clergy influenced Wright's own emerging philosophy.[8][12][13]

In 1821 Wright traveled to France at the invitation of the Marquis de Lafayette and arranged to meet with him in Paris. Despite the differences in their ages, the two became friends. At one point Wright encouraged him to adopt her and her sister. Wright's request put a strain on the relationship with General Lafayette's family and no adoption took place. Wright's friendship with the general continued after relations with his family were repaired. She also returned to Lafayette's home in France for a six-month visit in 1827 to work on a biography of his life.[5][13]

Second visit to the United States

In 1824, Wright and her sister returned to the United States[8] to follow the Marquis de Lafayette and his entourage during much of his farewell tour of the United States.[5] Wright joined Lafayette for a two-week stay at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's plantation in Virginia.[14] In addition to Jefferson, Lafayette also introduced Wright to Presidents James Madison and John Quincy Adams, as well as General Andrew Jackson.[15]

In February 1825, when Lafayette headed south, Wright traveled northwest to visit Harmonie, George Rapp's utopian community in Butler County, Pennsylvania. She also visited the Rappite colony established in Indiana, which was also named Harmonie. At that time the Indiana community was in a period of transition. It had recently been sold to Welsh industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen, who renamed his utopian community New Harmony.[15][16][17] Wright's visits to these utopian communities inspired her to form her own experimental community, which she established in Tennessee.[15] After leaving Indiana, she traveled along the Mississippi River to rejoin Lafayette's group in New Orleans in April 1825.. When Lafayette returned to France, Wright decided to remain in the United States, where she continued her work a social reformer. Wright also became a U.S. citizen in 1825.[5][14] [18]

Wright's views

Wright believed in universal equality in education and feminism.[17] She opposed organized religion, marriage, and capitalism.[5] Educational opportunities was a particular interest of hers. Along with Robert Owen, Wright demanded that the government offer free public education for all children after the age of twelve or eighteen months of age in federal government-supported boarding schools.[19]

Wright was a vocal advocate for birth control, equal rights, sexual freedom, legal rights for married women. liberal divorce laws, the emancipation of slaves, and the controversial idea of interracial relationships.[1][20] She tried to demonstrate through her experiment project in Tennessee what the utopian socialist Charles Fourier had said in France, "that the progress of civilization depended on the progress of women."[21] Wright's opposition to slavery contrasted with the views of many other Democrats of the era, especially those of the South. Her activism on behalf of workingmen also distanced her from the leading abolitionists of the day.[22]


Early career

Wright's early writing career included her book, Few Days in Athens (1822), which was a defense of the philosophy of Epicurus that she wrote before the age of eighteen.[2][5][9] Wright's Views of Society and Manners in America (1821), a memoir of her first visit to the United States, enthusiastically supported the country's democratic institutions.[9][1][8] This book provides early descriptions of American life that preceded later works such as Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) and Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837).[15] Wright's book is also an example of an early nineteenth-century humanitarian perspective of the new democratic world.[12] Historian Helen Elliott also pointed out that Wright's traveloque was "translated into several languages and widely read by liberals and reformers" in Great Britain, the United States and Europe.[13]

Nashoba experiment

In early 1825, after spending time at former President Jefferson's home in Virginia and Robert Owen's utopian settlement at New Harmony, Wright began developing her plans for an experimental farming community. By the summer of 1825 she was seeking advice from Lafayette and Jefferson, among others, to begin implementing her ideas.[23] Owen and Lafayette later became members of her project's board of trustees; however, Jefferson declined to participate.[5] Wright also published A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South (1825),[1] a tract that she hoped would persuade the U.S. Congress to set aside federal land for the purpose of promoting emancipation. To demonstrate how slaves could be emancipated without their owners losing money, Wright established a model farming community in Tennessee where slaves could work to earn money to purchase their own freedom and received an education.[24]

Taking inspiration from the New Harmony community in Indiana, Wright traveled to Tennessee in the fall of 1825, and bought about 320 acres (130 hectares) of land along Wolf River about thirteen miles from Memphis. Wright founded a community at this wilderness site, which she named Nashoba.[25][26] To demonstrate that her idea was a viable way to abolish slavery, she purchased about thirty slaves, nearly half of them children, to live in the experimental community. Her plan was for the slaves to gradually acquire their freedom through their labor on the property. Wright also planned to eventually colonize the newly emancipated slaves to areas outside the United States.[27][28][29]

In addition to building cabins and farm buildings, Wright planned to establish a school for black students, although many abolitionists criticized her idea of gradual emancipation and educational training for the former slaves. Wright joined in the early efforts to clear land and build log cabins for its inhabitants, which included blacks and whites. Nashoba was, however, plagued with difficulties from the start. It was built on mosquito-infested land that was conducive to malaria and failed to produce good harvests. Wright contracted malaria in the summer of 1826 and had to leave the property to recover her health in New Harmony, Indiana, and visits to France and England. While she was absent from Nashoba the community declined. Its interim managers began instituting a policy of harsher punishments toward the black workers. A scandal also eruped over the community's tolerance of "free love" and publicized accounts of an interracial relationship between James Richardson, a white supervisor of the community, and Josephone Lalotte, the mulatto daughter of a freed African American woman slave who had brought her family to live at Nashoba. Wright returned to Nashoba in 1828 with her friend, Frances Trollope, who spent ten days at the community, and found it in disarray an on the verge of financial collapse.[30][31] Trollope's published descriptions of the area criticized its poor weather, lack of scenic beauty, and Nashoba's remoteness and desolation.[32]

In 1828, when Nashoba was rapidly declining, the New-Harmony Gazette published Wright's explanation and defense of the commune, as well as her views on the principles of "human liberty and equality."[33] In January 1830, Wright chartered a ship and accompanied the community's thirty slaves to Haiti, which had achieved independence in 1804,[34] so that they could live their lives as free men and women.[35] The failed experiment cost Wright about US$16,000.[36] Germantown, Tennessee, a present-day suburb of Memphis, was established on the land where Nashoba once stood.[37]

Newspaper editor

After Wright's failure at Nashoba in the late 1820s, she returned to New Harmony, Indiana, where she became the coeditor of The New Harmony and Nashoba Gazette (later renamed the Free Enquirer) with Robert Dale Owen, the eldest son of Robert Owen, the Owenite community's founder. In 1829 Wright and Robert Dale Owen moved to New York City, where they continued to edit and publish the Free Enquirer.[15][17][38] Wright was also editor of The Sentinel (later titled New York Sentinel and Working Man's Advocate).[12]

Political and social activist

Beginning in the late 1820s and early 1830s, Wright spoke publicly in favor of abolition and lectured in support of women's suffrage. She also campaigned for reforms to marriage and property laws. While residing in New York City, she purchased a former church in the Bowery area and converted it into what she called a "Hall of Science" for use as a lecture hall.[39] From 1833 to 1836, her lectures on slavery and other social institutions attracted large and enthusiastic audiences of men and women in the eastern United States and the Midwest, leading to the establishment of what were called Fanny Wright societies. Although her lecture tours extended to the principal cities of the United States, the enunciation of her views and publication of a collection of her speeches in her book, Course of Popular Lectures (1829 and 1836), met with opposition.[5][9][2]

The clergy and the press were critical of Wright and her opinions on religion and social reform.[17] The New York American, for example, called Wright "a female monster" because of her controversial views, but she was undeterred.[40] As Wright's philosophy became even more radical, she left the Democratic Party to join the Working Men's Party, organized in New York City in 1829.[17][41] Her influence on the Working Men's Party was so strong that its opponents called its slate of candidates the Fanny Wright ticket.[5] Wright was also an activist in the American Popular Health Movement in the 1830s and advocated for women being involved in health and medicine.[17]

Personal life

Wright married French physician Guillaume D'Arusmont in Paris, France, on July 22, 1831. Wright had first met him at New Harmony, Indiana, where he was once a teacher. D'Arusmont also accompanied her to Haiti in 1830, serving as her business manager.[42][17][43] Wright's and D'Arusmont's daughter, Francès-Sylva Phiquepal D'Arusmont, was born on April 14, 1832.[43][44][45]

Later years

Wright, her husband, and their daughter traveled to the United States in 1835 and made several subsequent trips between the United States and Europe. Wright eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she bought a home in 1844, and attempted to resume her career as a lecturer. Wright continued to travel the lecture circuit, but her appearances and views on social reform issues were not always welcome.[44] She also became a supporter of President Andrew Jackson.[5] After the mid-term political campaign of 1838, Wright suffered from a variety of health problems.[46] She published her final book, England, the Civilizer in 1848.[5]

Wright divorced D'Arusmont in 1850. She also fought a lengthy legal battle to retain custody of their daughter and control of her own personal wealth. The legal proceedings remained unsettled at the time of Wright's death.[17][47] Wright spent her last years in quiet retirement at Cincinnati, estranged from her daughter, Francès-Sylva D'Arusmont.[46][48]

Death and legacy

Wright died on December 13, 1852, in Cincinnati, Ohio,[1] from complications resulting from a broken hip after fall on ice outside her home. She is buried at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.[47][49] Her daughter, Francès-Sylva D'Arusmont, inherited the majority of Wright's wealth and property.[48]

Wright, an early women's rights advocate and a social reformer, was the first woman to deliver public lectures to men and women on political social reform issues in the United States in the late 1820s. Her views on slavery, theology, and women's rights were considered radical for that time and attracted harsh criticism from the press and clergy.[50]

Honors and memorials

Selected published works

  • Altorf: A Tragedy (Philadelphia, 1819)
  • Views on Society and Manners in America (London, 1821)[1]
  • A Few Days in Athens (London, 1822)
  • A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States (1825)
  • Lectures on Free Inquiry (New York, 1829; 6th ed., 1836)
  • Address on the State of the Public Mind and the Measures Which it Calls For (New York, 1829)[1]
  • Course of Popular Lectures (New York, 1829 and 1836)[1][53]
  • Explanatory Notes Respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba (1830)
  • What is the Matter? A Political Address as Delivered in Masonic Hall (1838)[54]
  • Fables (London, 1842)
  • Political Letters, or, Observations on Religion and Civilization (1844)
  • England the Civilizer: Her History Developed in Its Principles (1848)
  • Biography, Notes, and Political Letters of Frances Wright D'Arusmont (1849)

See also


  1. Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn (1996). Encyclopedia of Women's History in America. New York, New York: Facts on File. p. 236. ISBN 0816026254.
  2. Elliott, Helen (June 1, 1939). "Frances Wright's Experiment with Negro Emancipation". Indiana Magazine of History. Bloomington: Indiana University. 35 (2): 141–42. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  3. James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. (1971). Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. p. 675. ISBN 0-67462-731-8.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  4. Lee, Elizabeth (January 1894). "Frances Wright: The First Woman Lecturer". The Gentleman's Magazine. London, England: Chatto and Windus. 276: 518. Retrieved May 2, 2019.
  5. Bowman, Rebecca (October 1996). "Frances Wright". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  6. Keating, John M. (1888). History of the City of Memphis Tennessee. Syracuse, New York: D. Mason and Company. pp. 129–30.
  7. Gilbert, Amos (1855). Memoir of Frances Wright, The Pioneer Woman in the Cause of Human Rights. Cincinnati, Ohio: Longley Brothers. pp. 35–36.
  8. Sanders, Mike, ed. (2001). Women and Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century: Frances Wright. II. New York, New York: Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 0415205271.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  9.  Ripley, George; Dana, Charles A., eds. (1879). "Wright, Frances" . The American Cyclopædia.
  10. Lee, p. 519.
  11. James, James, Boyer, eds., p. 676.
  12. Okker, Patricia (June 6, 2008). Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-century American Women Editors. University of Georgia Press. pp. 219–20. ISBN 9780820332499.
  13. Elliott, pp. 143–44.
  14. Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed. (1997). Women Without Superstition: "No Gods –No Masters": The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison, Wisconsin: Freedom From Religion Foundation. p. 34. ISBN 1-877733-09-1.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  15. Sanders, pp. 3–4.
  16. Elliott, pp. 145–47.
  17. Lansford, Tom; Woods, Thomas E. (2008). Exploring American History: From Colonial Times to 1877. Marshall Cavendish. pp. 1103–05. ISBN 9780761477587.
  18. Keating, p. 124.
  19. Brownson, Orestes (1853). An Oration on Liberal Studies, Delivered Before the Philomathian society, of Mount Saint Mary's College, Md., June 29th, 1853. Baltimore, Maryland: Hedian and O'Brien. p. 19. Retrieved May 30, 2019. "It is not without design that I have mentioned the name of Frances Wright, the favorite pupil of Jeremy Bentham, and famous infidel lecturer through our country, some twenty years ago; for I happen to know, what may not be known to you all, that she and her friends were the great movers in the scheme of godless education, now the fashion in our country. I knew this remarkable woman well, and it was my shame to share, for a time, many of her views, for which I ask pardon of God and of my countrymen. I was for a brief time in her confidence, and one of those selected to carry into execution her plans. The great object was to get rid of Christianity, and to convert our Churches into Halls of science. The plan was not to make open attacks on religion, although we might belabor the clergy and bring them into contempt where we could; but to establish a system of state, we said, national schools, from which all religion was to be excluded, in which nothing was to be taught but such knowledge as is verifiable by the senses, and to which all parents were to be compelled by law to send their children. Our complete plan was to take the children from their parents at the age of twelve or eighteen months, and to have them nursed, fed, clothed and trained in these schools at the public expense; but at any rate, we were to have godless schools for all the children of the country, to which the parents would be compelled by law to send them."
  20. Schlereth, Eric R. (2007). "Fits of Political Religion: Stalking Infidelity and the Politics of Moral Reform in Antebellum America". Early American Studies. 5 (2): 288–323. Also: Ginzberg, Lori D. (1994). "'The Hearts of Your Readers will Shudder': Fanny Wright, Infidelity, and American Freethought". American Quarterly. 46 (2): 195–226.
  21. Zinn, Howard (1980). A Peoples History of the United States. Harper and Row. p. 123.
  22. Lott, Eric (1993). Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press. p. 129.
  23. Elliott, pp. 147–49.
  24. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Frances Wright". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
  25. James, James, Boyer, eds., p. 677.
  26. Wright later acquired additional land, expanding the property to about 2,000 acres (810 hectares). See: Woloch, Nancy (1984). Women and the American Experience. New York: Knopf. pp. 151 and 154. ISBN 9780394535159.
  27. Elliott, pp. 151–52.
  28. Woloch, p. 155.
  29. Bederman, Gail (2005). "Revisiting Nashoba: Slavery, Utopia, and Frances Wright in America, 1818–1826". American Literary History. 17 (3): 438–59. See also: "Frances Wright [1795-1852]". Also: Parks, E. W. (1932). "Dreamer's Vision: Frances Wright at Nashoba (1825–1830)". Tennessee Historical Magazine. 2: 75–86. Emerson, O. B. (1947). "Frances Wright and her Nashoba Experiment". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 6 (4): 291–314. Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia (1975). "The Nashoba Plan for Removing the Evil of Slavery: Letters of Frances and Camilla Wright, 1820-1829". Harvard Library Bulletin. 23: 221–51, 429–61 61.
  30. Elliott, p. 154.
  31. Keating, pp. 124–26.
  32. Lee, p. 522.
  33. Wright, Frances (1828). "Nashoba, Explanitory Notes, &c. Continued". New-Harmony Gazette. New Harmony, Indiana: 17.
  34. Harrison, John (2009). Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. Taylor & Francis, p. 140.
  35. Elliott, p. 157.
  36. Sanders, p. 4.
  37. Sampson, Sheree (2000). "Reclaiming a Historic Landscape: Frances Wright's Nashoba Plantation in Germantown, Tennessee". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 59 (4): 290–303.
  38. Lansford, Tom; Woods, Thomas E. (2008). Exploring American History: From Colonial Times to 1877. Marshall Cavendish. ISBN 9780761477587.
  39. Gaylor, p. 37.
  40. Sanders, p. 5.
  41. Carlton, Frank T. (September 1907). "The Workingmen's Party of New York City: 1829–1831". Political Science Quarterly. 22 (3): 402. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  42. Woloch, p. 165.
  43. James, James, Boyer, eds., p. 678.
  44. Gaylor, p. 38.
  45. Francès-Sylva Phiquepal D'Arusmont, who later inherited the Wright fortune, married William Eugene Guthry, a bigamist whose real name was Eugène Picault. Francès-Sylva (D'Arusmont) Guthry had three children, a daughter, Hena, and two sons, Norman and Kenneth-Sylvan. See: Keating, pp. 129–30. Also: "Tribunaux". Le Temps. March 17, 1880. Retrieved May 1, 2019. Via Gallica BnF. (Translated from the French text.)
  46.  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1889). "Wright, Fanny" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  47. James, James, Boyer, eds., p. 679.
  48. Woloch, p. 166.
  49. "Frances "Fanny" Wright". Find A Grave. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
  50. Buhle, Paul; Mari Jo Buhle; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1978). The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 3 and 61. ISBN 9780252006913.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  51. "Frances Wright - Dundee Women's Trail".
  52. "Fanny Wright". National Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  53. Wright, Frances (1829). Course of popular lectures as delivered by Frances Wright ... with three addresses on various public occasions, and a reply to the charges against the French reformers of 1789. University of California Libraries. New York : Office of the Free Enquirer. Retrieved May 1, 2019.
  54. Wright D'Arusmont, Frances (1838). What is the Matter? A Political Address as Delivered in Masonic Hall. New York.


Further reading

  • "Benjamin Lundy plan" (PDF).
  • Connors, Robert J. (1999). "Frances Wright: First Female Civic Rhetor in America," College English 62 (1), pp. 30–57.
  • Eckhardt, Celia Morris (1984). Fanny Wright: Rebel in America. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-252-06249-3.
  • Everett, L.S. (1831). An Exposure of the Principles of the "Free Inquirers." Boston: B. B. Mussey
  • Horowitz, Helen (2002). Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Kissel, Susan S. (1983). In Common Cause: the "Conservative" Frances Trollope and the "Radical" Frances Wright. Bowling Green. ISBN 0-87972-617-2.
  • Perkins, Alice J. G. & Theresa Wolfson (1972). Frances Wright, Free Enquirer: The Study of a Temperament. Porcupine Press. ISBN 0-87991-008-9.
  • Schlereth, Eric R. (2013). An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Waterman, William Randall (1924). Fanny Wright. Columbia University Press.
  • White, Edmund (2003). Fanny: A Fiction. Hamilton. ISBN 0-06-000484-3.
  • Wilentz, Sean (2004). Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850. Oxford University Press.

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