The first female in America to address mixed crowds at a public event, Frances Wright was one of the first American feminists, and female abolitionists, a champion of worker’s rights, and a sharp critic of religious institutions. Frances was the first American to write eloquently of sexual passion as a wonderful pleasure, not a sinful shame. She fought for birth control, divorce and property rights for women. Her lectures attracted thousands. Jefferson, Lafayette, Monroe, Madison and Andrew Jackson advised her. Her audacious attempt to cure slavery with an experimental commune scandalized America. When she matured and compromised, no one noticed. Her fame remained a caricature of extremism, until she became a curiosity, and then was forgotten in her own lifetime. Estranged from her family, her only friends her lawyer and her carpenter, she died alone.
Walt Whitman saw Frances Wright lecture at the height of her fame, in New York City, where thousands thundered their appreciation of the eloquence with which she presented her radical ideas about freeing slaves and giving women equal rights. That year a play Frances had originally written only for her friends and family was produced for the second time at the Park Theater on Broadway. At Thomas Paine celebrations across America her name was the most toasted. In old age, remembering her, Whitman wrote: “She was a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate, who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good—public good, private good…we all loved her: fell down before her: her very appearance seemed to enthrall us…the noblest Roman of them all…a woman of the noblest make-up whose orbit was a great deal larger than theirs—too large to be tolerated for long by them: a most maligned, lied about character—one of the best in history though also one of the least understood.”
THE ORPHAN PRODIGY
On the southeast coast of Scotland in 1795, Frances “Fanny” Wright was born. Her father James Wright Jr. adored his wife and children. His career as a merchant suffered from his dedication to spending time with his family, practicing liberal politics, and collecting coins, which included advocating for coin designs featuring good honest work like weaving and mail coaches instead of royal profiles and boring coats of arms. British authorities investigated James in 1794 for printing and distributing Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. His mother’s brother James Mylne was one of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment. James had a reputation as a local hothead who admired the American and French revolutions.
Fanny’s mother Camilla was the niece of Baron Rokeby, vice chancellor of the University of Dublin and Archbishop of Armagh. Camilla’s godmother the bluestocking Elizabeth Robinson Montagu defended Shakespeare from the witty attacks of Voltaire; Samuel Johnson nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues,” making her undoubtedly the first queen of the blues in English literary history, though she earned the title without having to sing or play guitar. Not long before Fanny was born the Queen of England and her six daughters breakfasted with Camilla’s godmother.
Frances seemed destined for the comfortable life of a petty aristocrat. Letters from Camilla to her husband record the depth of love these parents felt for their children. With a grand uncle like James Mylne, Frances was assured that her life would not be the empty display of manners and conspicuous consumption practiced by so many of her class, but as a female intellectual all she could hope for was to host a salon, while attending to the responsibilities of a wife and mother, with servants and nannies, to be sure.
When Fanny turned two years old Camilla died in the winter of 1798. Three months later her father died. Fanny and her older brother and younger sister became orphans. Her brother they sent to be raised by James Mylne. Loving foster parents took in her sister. But her grandfather and teenage aunt raised Fanny.
Major General Duncan Campbell of the Royal Marines had retired into a luxurious life of grand dinner parties with lords and generals at which ten courses of wine were served. Opulent evenings at the opera interested him more than child rearing. Once when little Fanny walked with Duncan through the streets of London she saw the plight of hundreds of mothers and children in tattered clothes, obviously starving, begging for any pittance. Duncan told her they were begging because they were too lazy to work.
Later when Duncan refused a beggar at the door, a man asking to work for a little food, Fanny announced that she wished she had money to give the poor soul. Duncan told her she was foolish. So “she asked him why rich people who did not work did not become beggars, he answered that work was shameful.” He also informed her that “God intended there should be poor, and there should be rich.”
In 1803 Fanny’s uncle William, a military man like his father, was killed in India. He willed half of his property in Bengal, Behar, Orissa, and Benares to his nieces. The other half he willed to his sister. In 1806 Fanny and her little sister Camilla were reunited when their young aunt used her new wealth to buy a house on the coast of Devonshire. The sisters became very close and for most of the rest of their lives Fanny depended on her sister named after their mother to handle the domestic side of her life.
The twenty-room mansion called The Cottage offered beautiful scenery, including a view of Lyme Bay from the top of a hill. Fanny could watch the English Channel flow into the Atlantic. Apricots and peaches ripened in the kitchen garden. Magnolia trees scented the ocean breeze. Fanny would read Wordsworth’s poetry of the rapture of nature and experience it herself swimming and riding horses. Fanny wrote that she was “surrounded at all times by rare and extensive libraries.” But this idyllic interlude didn’t last long.
In 1809 Fanny’s brother died in a skirmish with the French, then Major General Duncan Campbell died. By age fourteen Fanny had lost her mother, father, brother and grandfather.
Fanny lived in the world Jane Austen wrote about. Women of marriageable age must have only one concern, according to local propriety; they must compete to marry the finest man available. Fanny’s conservative aunt demanded conformity to local standards of behavior. Tall, thin teenage Fanny had other ideas. While others politely trotted their horses, she galloped past them. When at high tea an eligible bachelor praised his hounds she might respond with a recent insight she had regarding a problem of higher mathematics. When polite society chatted about the latest popular novel she quoted the smoldering poetry of the notorious Lord Byron.
Meanwhile the industrialization of England advanced. Men of wealth and power began to buy enormous areas of land on which to build their noble estates. Fanny saw the evictions of families whose ancestors had worked farms on that land before the Norman Conquest. They would become workers in dangerous factories, beggars on the streets of London, or immigrants to America or Australia. Lush lawns and gardens, terrain suitable for foxhunting, and opulent mansions replaced the farms. Going to tea or dinner at one of these castles tested Fanny’s limits. She could not understand how these men could have treated innocent people so cruelly.
Fanny came to think of her aunt as an enemy, or perhaps an example of “the enemy.” The domineering woman told the children exactly how much food to eat, how to stand, how to speak. Boys must wear gloves at all times. Her fussy reign of terror predicated on what proper society would think went against the grain of Fanny’s every instinct.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH AMERICA
In The Cottage library Fanny found a book that began the most important romance of her life. In her autobiography she described herself at this key moment: “While still a very young girl, she found by chance among some old books tumbled together in a chest in her aunt’s library, a copy of Botta’s History of the American Revolution…From that moment she awoke, as it were, to a new existence…There existed a country consecrated to freedom, in which man might wake to the full knowledge and full exercise of his powers. To see that country was, now at the age of sixteen, her fixed but secret determination…She had absolutely devoured the Italian historian and was in the full tide of ecstasy when a sudden apprehension seized her. Was the whole thing a romance? What had become of the country and the nation? She had never heard of either. A panic terror seized upon her. She flew to examine every atlas in the library. The first was not of recent date and showed no trace of the United States. She opened with trembling hands another and another. At last she saw ‘United States’ marked along the Atlantic coastline of North America.”
In the preface to her Course of Popular Lectures she wrote: “I may observe, however, that from the age of seventeen, when I first accidently opened the page of America’s national history…from that moment my attention became riveted on this country, as on the theater where man might first awake to the full knowledge and the full exercise of his powers.” Soon Frances was reading everything she could find on this daring experiment in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1813 Fanny though still underage forced a move to the household of James Mylne. Daughters and sons were equal, and equally well educated in the Mylne family. Mylne’s colleagues impressed by Fanny’s intellect since she was not allowed to study at any college instead borrowed for her any book she asked for, helping her along in her career of learning.
Gathering with a circle of like-minded friends of both genders Fanny began writing Byronic poetry. She also wrote a play, and a precocious neoclassical examination of Epicurean philosophy eventually published as A Few Days in Athens. Frances presented it as a translation of a Greek manuscript discovered in Herculaneum.
While her peers got engaged Fanny decided to move with Camilla to London. Not only would they pursue a lawsuit against their aunt, who was unwilling to let go their purse strings, but Fanny would get a better sense of what might be accomplished to do some good in the world. Instead she got a good hard look at the devastation of the poor as policies of protectionism and industrialization destroyed local economies that had been self sufficient for generations. Soaring prices and unemployment caused rioting in the streets. Fanny decided she must see America for herself, because she had no hope for England.
James Mylne was so alarmed by Fanny’s plan to sail across the Atlantic with Camilla on a trip to see the wondrous republic America he traveled straight to Liverpool hoping to talk her out of it. But 22-year-old Frances Wright had made up her mind. She was too much for England, perhaps in a country as free, brash, and modern as herself, she could find a destiny more to her liking.
On the way to America Fanny made a science of adjusting diet to support digestion at sea, sharing her know how with her fellow passengers. Imagine her delight when she found that unlike illiterate British sailors the American crew could read and write. They spoke eagerly and knowledgably of the history and laws of the United States. In her journal Fanny described the voyage as uneventful, but she must have been thrilled with the anticipation of arriving in a republic to her mind like some new Athens, an outpost of a superior civilization.
In fall of 1818 New York was still a small town; Greenwich Village was a landscape of farms. Though America’s economy was struggling to Fanny it seemed no one was too poor and no one too rich. The famous New Yorker exuberance was already in evidence. But a series of hustles and thefts by boarding house keepers and servants quickly taught Fanny that not every American was a sage.
Walking everywhere and taking touristy boat rides Fanny was the original Studs Terkel, interviewing everyone in her path about what was going on in America. Her favorites seem to have been the gents from the Carolinas, with their polished manners, and the rugged honest men from the western frontier. Despite her initial experiences with hustlers, Fanny wrote that New York was more honest than other cities.
Seeking citizenship Frances and Camilla were disappointed to find that five years of residency were required.
Wealthy and powerful new friends helped make life more gracious for the newcomers. A possible romance with an American banker, son of a famous Irish revolutionary, led to an opportunity for Frances to have the play she’d written for her friends back home in Scotland produced at the ritzy Park Theater on the famous street that even then was known simply as Broadway.
Almost 2400 people filled the theater on opening night to see this new British production about Swiss freedom fighters. Like Fanny’s family most of the lead characters died. The play was credited to anonymous; a female author was out of the question. So Frances sat beside Camilla watching the standing ovation. She had to keep her seat as the audience chanted for the author. She could not share the rave reviews she read proclaiming her play uniquely suited for the American stage because of its passion for freedom. She could not correct the critics who were certain a man had written it.
Despite the exciting premier the play didn’t survive a week before closing down. No secret can last long in New York City. Word got out that a woman had written the play that got a standing ovation. Fussy old ladies and conservative gentlemen were shocked from Boston to Glasgow.
Frances searched for a publisher as a new production of the play was prepared for a run in Philadelphia but no one was in a rush to publish a female playwright.
Frances and Camilla returned to their travels, two young women alone voyaging thousands of miles. They went north to Montreal, and west to Pittsburgh. Frances relished her anecdotal research on Americans. She met wealthy liberal expatriates from Great Britain and simple backwoods mechanics and merchants. She found all of them eager to reflect her own enthusiasm about the republic.
But Frances also saw slavery in America for the first time. To her such brutality and inhumanity, in a country devoted to freedom and composed of wilderness, became especially vivid.
America’s economic depression seemed an easy fix to Frances. If the wealthy had not developed a taste for fancy European fabrics and other products of decadence, if they would be content with their own homespun, the prosperity of the growing country could be immediately restored.
Sick from her travels under difficult conditions, Frances missed the opening night of her play in Philadelphia. Once again the audience responded with a standing ovation. But the play closed that very night. Frances gave away the few copies of her play that she had been able to get printed. She sent some of the copies to Americans she admired, including founding father Thomas Jefferson.
Before returning home the sisters visited the future site of Washington D.C. where Frances relished the muddy roads and the boarding houses of nailed together fresh lumber. She knew someday this would be a city of impressive official buildings but she wished it could always retain the innocence of its humble beginning. She foresaw “a sumptuous metropolis, rich in arts, and bankrupt in virtue.”
FIRST OF A NEW BREED
The England that Frances returned to had taken a turn for the worse. While the sisters were touring America unemployment led to a mass march in Manchester, a protest of over a hundred thousand working people. The swords and guns of their own troops were turned against them. Blood drenched the field. New laws were passed allowing soldiers to search any home or person without a warrant. Political groups were limited to fifty members at any gathering. There would be no revolution in Merrie Olde England.
Meanwhile a frisky new king, George IV, was busy trying to divorce his wife for allegedly having an affair with a servant. Frances told anyone who would listen that America was the hope of humanity. “Truly I am grateful to this nation; the study of their history and institutions, and the consideration of the peace and happiness which they enjoy, has thawed my heart and filled it with hopes which I had not thought it could know again.” She began to work on a book about her travels.
She had faith in the American political system. “The wheel of the people, turns noiseless, and unimpeded, watched by all and suspected by none.”
But she also criticized America for not living up to its potential. The press used its freedom in shameful ways. Many farmers could only just eke out a living. Slavery was slowly poisoning America. Vital young American girls all became withdrawn sullen wives. Frances blamed exclusion from education and citizenship for the sorry state of America’s mothers.
And yet Frances also wrote: “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 parasol are entirely unknown here. The women are assuming their place as thinking beings.”
Then Frances received a letter from Thomas Jefferson praising her play. In her response she didn’t mention her Broadway triumph. She mentioned only “chilling disappointments.”
Views of Society and Manners in America; A Series of Letters from that Country to a Friend in England, During the Years 1818, 1819, and 1820 By An Englishwoman was published in London in 1821. She wrote about natives, mail delivery, the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, Niagara Falls, Benedict Arnold, and the history of the federal administration.
“The Americans are very good talkers,” she wrote, “and admirable listeners; understand perfectly the exchange of knowledge, for which they employ conversation, and employ it solely. They have a surprising stock of information, but this runs little into the precincts of imagination; facts form the groundwork of their discourse. They are accustomed to rest opinions on the results of experience, rather than on ingenious theories and abstract reasonings… the world, however, is the book which they consider most attentively, and make a general practice of turning over the page of every man’s mind that comes across them; they do this very quietly and very civilly, and with the understanding that you are at prefect liberty to do the same by theirs…equally free from effrontery and officiousness…the constant exercise of the reasoning powers gives to their character and manners a mildness, plainness, and unchanging suavity, such as is often remarked in Europe in men devoted to the abstract sciences….wonderfully patient and candid in argument, close reasoners, acute observers and original thinkers.” She says you can learn more from an American in half an hour than you could from an entire evening with the literary and diplomatic elite of Europe.
The great American novelist James Fennimore Cooper dismissed Fanny’s book about America as “nauseous flattery.”
As for British critics a prominent front-page review claimed to have proof that the author was a “red-hot American” dismissing the book as “a tissue of impertinence, and injustice, and falsehood.” The quarterly, which that year had published the review widely credited with having killed the poet Keats, considered Views of Society and Manners in America “impudent” and “ridiculous.” Only The Scotsman, a Scottish journal, praised the book as morally sublime, “deeply felt, and so eloquently described.”
But the opinions of European critics mattered little to Frances. The book became popular in America and two heroes of the American Revolution would soon champion her cause.
British philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham was an old man when he met Frances. The story was told that Jeremy at age three had already begun to study Latin, being dissatisfied with the histories he was already reading in English. His later attempts to codify the laws of England and the United States may have been unsuccessful but he established the trend. In fact, he coined the verb: “codify.” All his life he fought for absolute equality for women, abolition of slavery, the repeal of the death penalty, a ban on physical punishment for adults and children, freedom of speech, the right to divorce, and the legality of homosexuality.
Jeremy shared Fanny’s sentiments about America, and her book supported his own arguments. Jeremy believed the ultimate moral rule to be the greatest happiness for the majority. He didn’t respect hereditary power and certainly didn’t credit it with superior intelligence. He thought the prisons should be reformed, the ballots blind. He argued that Paul had ruined the religion of Jesus. Jeremy became Fanny’s mentor. He also sent her to visit friends of his in France, to deliver messages that if intercepted by the British government could have caused him serious trouble. She became acquainted with the elite political intellectuals of France. Then in autumn of 1821 she met Jeremy’s friend the American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette.
IN THE WAKE OF LAFAYETTE
George Washington talked with tears in his eyes about the contributions to the American Revolution of the Marquis de Lafayette, a man who had shared the rough life of his soldiers, who paid them out of his own pocket, spending his inheritance to support the army Washington gave him, a shrewd tactician and heroic fighter.
Lafayette, the preeminent hero of the French Revolution, even dreamed up the tri-color flag of France. The French idolized him. In July 1789 when the troops surrounded the national assembly as the king prepared to dismiss it, Lafayette presented the assembly with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, approved by his friend Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Four days later the locals elected Lafayette commander of the Paris militia. He saved many lives from the wrath of the rioters.
Lafayette rescued the royal family twice. Once when rioters broke into Versailles and with pikes and knives killed royal guards, Lafayette saved the Queen of France by taking her to a balcony over the central court and kissing her hand. The French understood this generous and sentimental gesture. They shouted long live Lafayette and long live the queen.
But on the next occasion of her rescue by Lafayette, Marie Antoinette sneered at him for being a traitor to his class, and refused to be rescued by him, choosing to die by the guillotine instead. Yet because of his respect for the royals Lafayette was a constant target of radicals who wanted to send him to the guillotine with the queen. When the leaders of the revolution issued warrants for his arrest Lafayette fled with 22 fellow officers, but they were caught in Prussia, and so began Lafayette’s five years of prison in Prussia and Austria, an ordeal of deprivation and hunger that damaged his previously robust health.
When Napoleon defeated Austria the French people demanded the release of Lafayette. Napoleon didn’t relish a rival of Lafayette’s immense popularity so he negotiated his freedom but exiled him from France. Lafayette snuck in anyway. He wanted to go home to his castle on a thousand acres La Grange. When Lafayette promised to stay there and keep out of public life Napoleon relented.
By the time Frances met Lafayette his days of swashbuckling freedom fighting were long over. French realist author Stendhal wrote this unflattering portrait: “He took each day as it came; a man not overburdened with intelligence…dealt with each heroic situation as it arose, and in between times was solely occupied, in spite of his age, in fumbling at pretty girls’ plackets, not occasionally but constantly, and not much caring who saw.”
But Lafayette and Frances always insisted their relationship was platonic. When they first met they talked long into the night about their greatest passion, America. According to Fanny’s letter to her mentor Jeremy, Lafayette described an “army of brothers who had all things in common, our pleasure, our pains, our money, and our poverty…the virtues of that army…their fortitude, their disinterested, and sublime patriotism.”
La Grange dazzled Frances, with its park, five towers, moat, menagerie, aviary, and cider presses. La Grange was the creation of Lafayette’s beloved wife Adrienne, who had died in 1807. Adrienne had fought the new bureaucracy of Paris to regain what she could of her ancestral lands and wealth. She had designed La Grange as a tribute and sanctuary for her husband, made it magical with her sense of decoration, she even wrote the music playing in the background. She was gone but grandchildren, cousins and dinner guests meant setting the dinner table for thirty. The halls and walls of La Grange were a museum of Lafayette’s accomplishments, including flags of historical importance, and paintings of great Frenchmen and Americans who had been his friends and colleagues.
Frances offered to write Lafayette’s life story. He had a portrait painted of her that he placed in his study. From the privileged position Lafayette provided, Frances watched the maneuvering of the French political parties in their legislative sessions. Back home in London Lafayette’s friends visited Frances, she found herself surrounded by the famous liberal gray heads of the day.
Frances wrote Lafayette fawning, sycophantic letters in which she claimed to love him more than a daughter could her father, but she was merely imitating his own tone towards her. He was the first to bring up the father and daughter quality of their relationship. While his letters to her seemed to stray into the area of romance, testing her reactions, Frances was careful to stay away from any affection except paternal, she emphasized his importance to her as a mentor and ideal.
Lafayette wrote of her: “—to know, to respect, and to love her, will ever be, in my sense, one and the same thing.” Their close relationship first caused gossip then suspicion. Observing the flurries of intellectual conversation Lafayette and Frances enjoyed, the general’s family began to fear that she had too much influence over him.
Frances had a simple suggestion to end all such interference. Lafayette could adopt her, or marry her, as he saw fit. Lafayette explained that he had promised his dying wife he would never marry again. How could he adopt her when he already had such devoted children and grandchildren?
When Frances shared with Lafayette her unfinished work about Epicurus, he insisted it be published. Finishing it turned out to be a chore for the impatient Frances, but the book was published in 1822. Jefferson received a copy and gave it a rave review calling it a “treat to me of the highest order.” Excerpts from it filled seven pages of his journal. 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… if not ancient, it is equal to the best morsels of antiquity.”
Frances became Lafayette’s agent as he schemed to support the army in Spain who had forced their king to accept shared power with elected officials. But in 1823 the new Bourbon king of France came to his fellow monarch’s rescue, and the French army helped crush the rebellion, and then stood by watching in horror as the Spanish royalists took their revenge. Frances dismissed the disaster as the result of supporting a man inadequate to the task. The man in question’s last request was to have a lock of his hair snipped off and sent to the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1824 President Monroe invited Lafayette to return again to the United States. Lafayette considered this his farewell tour. He wanted Frances to join him and she of course would not go without Camilla. But the family would not allow them to travel together, by boat or carriage. Still Lafayette loved to have the sisters accompany him to public events and he enjoyed introducing Frances to his powerful friends as the author of his biography.
Reunited in America, sucked into the celebration of Lafayette with artillery salutes, musical flourishes, cheering crowds and even a visit to the first of many towns named after him, Frances met Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson. Congress voted Lafayette a gift of two hundred thousand dollars to help pay back his generous financial support of the American Revolution.
About Frances Lafayette wrote to Jefferson: “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, though 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.”
The beauty of Montebello, and the daring of the University of Virginia, America’s first institution of higher learning without affiliation to any religious body, charmed Frances. She was moved by the reunion of these heroes of the American Revolution. She described Thomas Jefferson’s tall upright figure but observing his weakened state 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.”
One female critic at the Jefferson soiree said of Frances: “to ladies she never spoke.” Fanny’s future as a lecturer becomes obvious when this critic commented: “the Frenchmen told many instances of her masculine proclivities, on occasion she would harangue men in the public room of a hotel and the like.”
Frances both charmed and alienated Lafayette’s old American friends. One woman in particular set her sites on Frances, outraged by her impudent demands on Lafayette’s time and reputation. Mary, or Mindy as she was better known, was George Washington’s stepdaughter. She soon convinced Lafayette to distance himself from these two young Scottish sisters traveling scandalously without family, despite his own inappropriate claim to be their protector.
Fanny welcomed the opportunity to see the country, becoming the most traveled woman in American history until that time, from the frontier outposts of the Midwest to the drunken steamboat races on the Mississippi River, all the way to mosquito infested New Orleans, Fanny and Camilla had the foolhardiness and courage to travel alone through the great frontier, astonishing and charming everyone they met. But Fanny’s fond belief that all Americans were well read, and passionate about liberty, required revision. She had seen some rough types along the way, none rougher than the men who practiced the business of slavery.
Reunited with Lafayette in the south Frances wrote of the dismay she felt watching slaveholders celebrate the Marquis. “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.”
Was this resolve regarding slavery a reaction to Fanny’s rejection by the slave owning stepdaughter of George Washington? Or had she been influenced by the fervor of a social experiment? On the way to New Orleans, Fanny had seen the Utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana.
JACOB RAPP AND THE HARMONISTS
Jacob Rapp declared himself a prophet to his thousands of followers in Germany so the Lutheran authorities gave him five days in jail to think it over. Jacob never doubted his calling, but he did decide to transplant himself and five hundred families to America. The Harmonists had a business: building towns. First they built Harmony, Pennsylvania. Then they built Harmony, Indiana. After selling Harmony, Indiana made them wealthy they moved back to Pennsylvania to build the town of Economy.
Jacob was deeply influenced by the great German theosopher and mystic Jakob Böhme. Böhme’s extraordinary visions of spiritual dimensions of existence found harmony and geometry throughout the universe seen and unseen. Jacob Rapp also found inspiration in the works of the great Swedish mystic visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, who was a curious combination of pioneer scientist and spiritualist author. Angels and devils are good and bad humans outside the temporary domains of physical bodies. Böhme’s heaven a shining vision of principles and ratios seems somewhat remote when compared with Swedenborg’s talkative angels and for the most part not really all that bad devils. Swedenborg reassured loving couples that their sex lives in heaven would make the best sex they had ever known mere foreplay.
Since alchemical vessels and bottles have been found in the town of Economy historians speculate that the Harmonists may have practiced alchemy. Their library included the notorious and spurious magical work Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and Opus Mago Cabalisticum, but they were more like Christian mystics than hermetic practitioners.
Jacob and the Harmonists expected the apocalypse during their lifetimes. They prized celibacy; even married couples were encouraged to give up the practices that depend on the Adam and Eve world, instead of the Adam world, when he was pure, before the fall. Babies were few and far between. Sundays were for services and singing. No chewing or smoking tobacco. Harmonists lived five or six in each small house, not necessarily family members, but devoted to living as Christian brothers and sisters.
In 1814 the Harmonists moved to Indiana Territory. That first summer and fall malaria felled over a hundred people. So the Harmonists drained the swamp, then got back to the “hard labor and coarse fare” of building a town in the wilderness. By 1819 the town boasted vineyards, a distillery, a brewery, a winery, and a steam powered wool carding and spinning factory. The impeccable craftsmanship of the carpentry and masonry was matched by the beautiful symmetry of the architecture. Because they worked in harmony with each other and with great pride in their work they outperformed their peers in these professions. By the time the Harmonists sold Harmony, Indiana they had two thousand acres under cultivation. They manufactured peach brandy, whiskey, wine, beer, tin ware, rope, wagons, carts, plows, flannel, wool, and cotton. But they didn’t like living so near Kentucky slave towns. The Harmonists were strictly abolitionist. They all became rich when Robert Owen paid them 150,000 dollars for Harmony, Indiana. Robert renamed it New Harmony.
Robert Owen was an industrialist but also a reformer. A Welshman who ran a model factory in Scotland, he tried to prove that treating worker’s decently, paying them well, and providing for their whole lives, instead of working them to death, produced not only superior workers with far fewer issues like violence and alcoholism, but the factory itself could make more money. Sadly, no other industrialists seemed to care. British industrialism rolled on through child labor and matchstick girls with glow in the dark jaws eaten away by phosphorous. Owen had decided to think bigger. He bought this town from the Harmonists so that he could create a model society. Like Plato’s Republic, this community would prove the principles of its founder.
It took only ten years for the Harmonists to build the beautiful town of Harmony. But Owen’s experimental community lasted only two. Owen invited everyone who wanted to try life in a commune devoted to enlightened living to join him, but along with a few idealists he attracted hustlers and freeloaders. So the “Constitution of the Preliminary Society” was drawn up. Members invested not just their money but also their household possessions. They would own a piece of an enterprise devoted to reform and equality. Any services they rendered for the community would be paid in points redeemable at the town store, but cash was welcome there, too, for folks disinclined to work.
Soon New Harmony became a cacophony of bickering. Overcrowded, poorly supervised and unproductive, the town floundered. Within months the shortage of skilled craftsmen and laborers led to unrepaired breakdowns. But Owen soon arrived with reinforcements. He had recruited scientists and educators, and he had raised more funds, so his great experiment was given another opportunity to flourish.
The New Harmony Community of Equality was adopted as the town constitution. Happiness would be the result of equal rights and equal duties. All property would be held in common. The constitution mandated cooperation, freedom of speech, kindness and courtesy, preservation of health and education. What it would not do was provide rules by which these objectives were to be achieved.
America’s first anarchist, Josiah Warren was a member of the community. He wrote eloquently of its failure: “It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of all reforms, and conservatism felt itself confirmed. We had tried every conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in miniature. We had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. …It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us …our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation.”
To dissolve his New Harmony enterprise Owen had to spend another 200,000 dollars, at a time when you could buy a cow for twelve. His fortune never recovered, and his ambitions became less grandiose.
Unhappily for Frances, she arrived in New Harmony in the first flush of its enthusiasm. She had heard Owen address Congress on February 25, 1825. Owen described what he called A New System of Society, a commune where everyone owned an equal share and shared work equally. This experimental community would prove that cooperation is superior to competition.
Frances arrived in New Harmony before its first constitution, before the second chance of 1826, at a time when none of the participants would have believed their failure would become obvious by 1827.
By then Frances was mired in the failure of her own utopian experiment. Like New Harmony, Nashoba would fail because of naiveté regarding human motivations and the complexities of communities. The Harmonists who had flourished in the town they built were all German immigrants who shared a pious belief system that required constant practice. New Harmony was a melting pot of radicals, crackpots, intellectuals, and opportunists, each with his or her own agenda.
Frances and Camilla were thrilled when they learned they were eligible to become citizens of the United States of America, despite having spent much of the five eligibility years in Great Britain and France. When they said goodbye to Lafayette on his 68th birthday, as he sailed home from New York harbor on a hot day in July, Frances and Camilla were American citizens.
Now Frances combined the inspiration of New Harmony with her dedication to finding a way to solve the problem of slavery in America in a five-year plan. She would buy or be given slaves, who would earn their freedom in five years. While they were earning their freedom they would receive educations. They would be prepared for life after slavery by learning trades and developing a sense of politics and history. White members of the community, six of them, would supervise and educate. Slaves and free blacks would do the work. White and black children would receive the same education.
Frances worked the connections Lafayette had provided to get a chance to pitch her plan to President Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson liked the idea. James Monroe approved. James Madison had serious reservations, however. He didn’t think a promise of freedom would be enough to motivate a slave. He pointed out Spain’s policy of offering slaves the opportunity to work for their freedom and how few slaves took it.
Andrew Jackson suggested Frances buy some recently cleared land in Tennessee. Jackson had forcibly removed the Chickasaw tribe. Tennessee was the most liberal of the slave states; abolitionist groups were allowed to flourish there. The land was cheap and the population sparse, making local controversy less likely.
Jefferson offered neither public endorsement nor funds but he did encourage Frances. “At the age of eighty-two,” he wrote to her, “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. 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.”
Though Jefferson wondered if “moral urgencies” would be enough to motivate the slaves he also wrote: “You are young, dear Madam, and have powers of mind which may do much in exciting others in this arduous task. I am confident they will be so exerted, and I pray to Heaven for their success, and that you may be rewarded with the blessings which such efforts merit.”
No one wanted to invest in her plan except Lafayette who offered her eight thousand dollars. She refused to take it, not wanting to cause him further trouble with his family. In October 1825 Fanny used her own money to buy two thousand acres of trees and swamp near the Wolf River. She named her raw acreage Nashoba, the Chickasaw word for wolf. She spent more of her own money to buy supplies and slaves.
Among the founders of Nashoba was Marcus Brutus Winchester, the eldest son of General James Winchester, President Jackson’s business partner, and his wife, a free black woman. They had eight children, the oldest boy they named Robert Owen, and their second daughter Frances Wright. His father’s gift of 420 acres in 1824 became downtown Memphis. Marcus became a land agent, the county Democratic Party leader, postmaster, and when the town incorporated in 1826 he became the first mayor. He built the jail and the courthouse. His general store where Native Americans, backwoodsmen and townspeople mingled gave Frances an education in American frontier society.
Frances was 29 when Nashoba broke ground. In its first year about 100 acres were cleared, and primitive log structures provided shelter.
Frontier life at first agreed with Frances. As Celia Eckhardt wrote in what remains the only biography of Frances Wright Fanny Wright: Rebel in America: “She wrote of forest land still full of bears, wolves, and panthers, and pictured herself galloping her white horse over rough, open country. She slept in log cabins open on all sides, she said, and even in the woods with a bearskin for a bed and a saddle for her pillow. She endured extremes of heat and cold and had never felt better or stronger in her life. She could now ride forty miles a day without fatigue, and she did so often, going between Memphis and Nashoba, greeting the Indians who were her nearest neighbors as they came to sell their furs. She prayed God for a little rain, drank milk from her cow, ate venison from the Indians, and warmed herself at the great fire in her cabin. She closed by saying…I begin to cherish life.”
The land was hard to work, and often flooded. Bad weather made the work harder. Supplies like lime and rocks had to be taken from the earth itself. Despite the hardship by its first summer Nashoba seemed to be succeeding. Visitors commented that the slaves worked with such devoted concentration just seeing them was enough to convince any skeptic that they could match or surpass white men.
In abolitionist newspapers Frances pleaded for stonemasons, carpenters, teachers, and investors to help the great experiment, but her pleas went unanswered.
Frances decided in December 1826 that she would write up a new deed for Nashoba. No longer privately owned it would now be a true commune. That way if anything happened to her the experiment could continue. New rules were written, as well. Six thousand dollars was set as the price of freedom, plus 6% interest yearly. No slave could become a trustee and they would not be involved in making community decisions. Freed slaves would leave the United States. Slaves who deserved punishment would be punished according to the old slave system, including flogging, though only in extreme cases.
Camilla, and Robert Dale Owens, son of Robert Owens were among the trustees. So was James Richardson, an enigmatic man who would care for the sisters through their life threatening fevers, but who would later destroy the reputations of Nashoba and Frances Wright. Another trustee was George Flower, the only member of the community with farming skills; Nashoba had been his idea at first. Frances and he worked together to realize their dream. Historian Celia Eckhardt suggests that Flower and Frances had a passionate affair when they were alone together on a long trip through the wilderness, in the early days of planning Nashoba. Flower was married with young children. His wife didn’t keep secret her disdain for Nashoba and Frances. Mrs. Flower devoted her self to nothing more or less than raising her children. Camilla was eager to see her go. But when she did go, she took her husband George with her,
In 1827 Frances visited New Harmony again, hoping to renew her optimism. The dances, the bands, the marches, the organization, all the good intentions had fallen into angry bickering. When Owen suggested everyone return to their beds to contemplate their animosities and mean thoughts peace reigned only briefly. Anger ruled the day. So Owen dissolved New Harmony. Unwilling to give up the dream, Robert Dale Owen, Owen’s son, left New Harmony to join Frances at Nashoba.
Nashoba was a mosquito-infested swamp the natives had used for hunting only, never for habitation. Frances became ill with fever. Just as Frances began to improve Camilla was struck by the fever, re-infecting Frances, who spent three months in bed near death. James Richardson took responsibility for nursing the sisters back to health, and both credited his care for their survival. The slaves continued to work devotedly, but supplies of rope and other necessities were running out. The school had not yet been built. They still had neither a skilled carpenter nor an expert at farming.
Dale helped Frances make the arduous trip back to Europe. She suffered in a hammock in the back of a wagon bumping over uneven roads all the way to the port of New Orleans. Her ship became grounded on a sand bank. Nevertheless her health began to improve as the ship crossed the Atlantic. On board a hired Scottish servant fed her a steady supply of oatcakes and porridge.
Mary Shelley noticed Fanny’s arrival: “a woman, young rich and independent, quits the civilization of England for a life of hardship in the forests of America, that by so doing she may contribute to the happiness of her species.”
Meanwhile back in Nashoba James Richardson for some reason decided details of his journal deserved to be published in a leading abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation. Two of the excerpts made shocking news. Richardson described two incidents when he whipped slave women in the approving presence of Camilla. He also admitted to be living outside wedlock with a free black woman. Accusations flew that Nashoba was a “brothel.” Richardson’s efforts to defend his position, which culminated in his declaration of atheism, only inflamed the controversy.
Frances and Robert Dale had enjoyed time with Lafayette and his now gracious family at La Grange. They toured Paris and the surrounding countryside. Dale assured his sister back home that his relationship with Frances was platonic. He found in her his ideal intellectual companion. But then the news from home arrived; their trip would have to be cut short. Frances couldn’t return immediately. The anxiety over the next month began to turn her hair white. A chronic backache tormented her.
Before returning to Nashoba, Frances reached out to Mary Shelley: “If you possess the opinions of your father and the generous feelings of you mother, I feel that I could travel far to see you.” The widow of the notorious poet Shelley, Mary’s mother was the English pioneer of feminism Mary Wollstonecraft and of William Godwin, friend to poets, author of Political Justice, he argued for the overthrow of all traditional institutions including government, religion and private property. Mary had run off with her poet while he was still married to the mother of his children. She had a child with him before she took his name in marriage. Frances must have hoped she would find a kindred soul in Mary, one who might join her in Nashoba.
To Mary Frances wrote: “While we endeavor to undermine the slavery of color existing in the North American Republic, we essay equally to destroy the slavery of mind now reigning there as in other countries.” She described Nashoba as “an establishment where affection shall form the only marriage, kind feeling and kind action the only religion, respect for the feelings and liberties of others the only restraint, and union of interest the bond of peace and security.”
Mary was flattered and wanted to know more, but she wasn’t about to abandon Europe. Frances wrote to her passionately hoping to convince her: “I have made the hard earth my bed, the saddle of my horse my pillow, and have staked my life and fortune on an experiment having in view moral liberty and human improvement. Many of course think me mad, and if to be mad mean to be one of a minority, I am so, and very mad indeed, for our minority is very small. Should that few succeed in mastering the first difficulties, weaker spirits, though often not less amiable, may carry forward the good work.”
Frances traveled south from London. She spent seven days with Mary. The author of Frankenstein understood Frances better than most. She wrote of Frances to Robert Dale: “neither so independent or so fearless as you think.” Mary’s son Percy said drily that Frances reminded him of “Minerva.”
When Frances returned to Nashoba she restated her mission in a letter shared with her friends and with potential colleagues. Nashoba’s purpose was “to prepare the two colors for the coming change. It is to kill prejudices in the white man by raising the black man to his level…not the mere theory, but the practice of equality…a first example of union and brotherhood.”
Mrs. Trollope, a friend of Fanny’s, needed somewhere to hide from her creditors so she joined the endless line of Fanny’s visitors in London eager to learn more about Nashoba, which included Leigh Hunt, who had been a friend of Keats and Shelly. Despite approaching age fifty, Mrs. Trollope liked what she heard enough to pack up her servants and her children with a plan to spend one or two years in the woods. The Trollope troop joined Fanny on her voyage home.
Mary Shelley came to see Fanny off. She asked for a lock of her hair, which she kept near her for the rest of her life. Was tearful Mary reminded of her husband, another tall thin idealist with curly hair and a way with words? Mary knew that Fanny was sailing into a storm of her own.
As the ship crossed the Atlantic, Fanny wrote a definitive response on Nashoba she wished to have published. Trollope watched her read portions of the tract to sailors. “Let us correct our views of right and wrong,” Frances wrote, “correct our moral lessons, and so correct the practice of rising generations.”
On the way to Nashoba, eating beside sailors and working men, Trollope quickly realized that Fanny had presented an idealized America quiet different from the rude reality. She couldn’t keep her clothes clean in this world of tobacco spit and spilled alcohol.
When they arrived in Nashoba Frances found out that Camilla was now married, and both she and her husband looked alarmingly sickly. James Richardson had already left; he had no apologies for Frances or Nashoba. Food was limited to cornbread, pork and rice. The farm was a failure. The slaves had given up and were now as ineffective as any passive aggressive plantation slave, and the pestilential climate and atmosphere seemed a direct threat to herself and her children so Trollope borrowed money to make a hasty exit. She commented that Camille seemed to share her suspicion that the fever may have somewhat deranged Fanny’s mind.
Trollope quickly relocated to Cincinnati. But Fanny’s example wasn’t entirely lost on her. In 1832 she published Domestic Manners of the Americans, beginning her career as a novelist. Trollope’s anti-slavery novel influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Trollope had this to say about America: “How is it that the men of America, who are reckoned good husbands and good fathers, while they themselves enjoy sufficient freedom of spirit to permit their walking forth into the temple of the living God, can leave those they love best on earth, bound in the iron chains of a most tyrannical fanaticism? How can they breathe the balmy air, and not think of the tainted atmosphere so heavily weighing upon breasts still dearer than their own? How can they gaze upon the blossoms of the spring, and not remember the fairer cheeks of their young daughters, waxing pale, as they sit for long sultry hours, immured with hundreds of fellow victims, listening to the roaring vanities of a preacher, canonized by a college of old women? They cannot think it needful to salvation, or they would not withdraw themselves.” Her sentiments here weren’t far from Fanny’s own.
When Frances published her Explanatory Notes, Respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba, and of the Principles upon Which It Is Founded. Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in All Country and of All Nations’ she shocked her contemporaries by writing that sexual passion was “the strongest and the noblest of human passions…the best joys of our existence…the best source of human happiness.” Virtue is not the province of self sacrifice and bitter discipline, virtue exists in anyone “in proportion as they are happy, and happy in proportion as they are free…ignorant laws, ignorant prejudices, ignorant codes of morals… condemn one portion of the female sex to vicious excess, another to as vicious restraint, and all to defenseless helplessness and slavery, and generally the whole of the male sex to debasing licentiousness, if not to loathsome brutality.”
But praising sexual passion wasn’t the most controversial of her points. Frances no longer advocated relocation for the slaves. She thought the races should mingle. She predicted that once black Americans received equal educations miscegenation would no longer be controversial. This and her attacks on organized religion only made her all the more notorious. Old allies like James Madison were alienated by her adoption of views almost universally despised. Disappointed, Frances hoped that in the future people would look back in disbelief that her thoughts were ever considered radical.
At this time many of her allies deserted her. The failure of Nashoba cost her half her fortune. The whiff of the scandal haunted her for the rest of her life.
FRANCES WRIGHT: SUPERSTAR
Robert Dale returned to what was left of New Harmony, and Fanny soon followed. She accepted his invitation to become co-editor of the New Harmony Gazette. Frances became the first woman to edit an American newspaper since the colonial days. Her eloquent articles and editorials argued against the death penalty, condemned religious intolerance, demanded rights for women, advocated equality by education, legal rights for married women, simple divorce laws, and access to birth control.
July 4, 1828, Frances as the featured speaker during New Harmony’s Independence Day celebration was probably the first woman in American history to address a large mixed gender crowd at a secular ceremony, or as her critics called it “a promiscuous assembly.” The New Harmony Gazette became an important source of news neglected by the newspapers who at the time were the mainstream media. When her first lecture in Cincinnati overflowed with a line wrapped around the block only the Gazette reported the triumph. Another newspaper rebutted her ideas with the observation that unhappy marriages don’t exist, then reminded the reader of Fanny’s scandalous defense of miscegenation.
Frances was such a success she toured as a lecturer for several months. She carried notes but seldom consulted them as she spoke. She proposed the creation in every town of a Hall of Science or Temple of Reason, where citizens could see for themselves the fruits of science and of the republic. She suggested correspondence committees create boarding schools, what she called Schools of Industry, to be attached to the Halls of Science so citizens could become skilled workers and educated participants in democracy. Local leaders lined up to meet her.
Reactions to Fanny’s lectures were mixed, and tended to the extremes of admiration and disgust. According to Trollope in Cincinnati the men cared only about money, and the women only about religion, nevertheless wealthy donors contributed to what they hoped would become the local Cincinnati Temple of Reason, but the chimerical location was never realized.
Then more bad news forced Frances to return to Nashoba. A taskmaster who deserted the farm had stolen supplies. Camilla was now six months pregnant. Did Fanny put aside her ambitions to stay with her sister for several months during this anxious time, Camilla’s first birth, at risk in the primitive place that was Memphis? Frances left her sister to fend for herself. She took a risky trip over river and prairie, to lecture to bigger crowds, appearing in St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Fanny’s fame spread during an especially vicious 1828 presidential campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The Great Awakening gave America an evangelical preoccupation with sexual morality. Mrs. Jackson was attacked in the press as an adulteress, and therefore as a threat to society, although the scandal in question was hardly scandalous and had occurred thirty years earlier. In turn Mr. and Mrs. Adams were accused of having had premarital sex. The ladies of the hottest new town on the frontier, Cincinnati, confronted a shopkeeper about his sign depicting a lady with petticoats showing her ankles. He had to have the ankles painted out. Women were scandalized if a man used the word corset in their presence.
Into this climate of overheated repression Frances delivered lectures praising erotic passion and advocating sexual liberation. She not only ignored the current controversies of adultery and premarital sex, she questioned the institution of marriage.
What did Frances think of the evangelical spirit sweeping America, reaching even into New Harmony? “By the sudden combination of three orthodox sects, a revival, as such scenes of distraction are wont to be styled, was opened in houses, churches, and even on the Ohio river. The victims of this odious experiment on human credulity and nervous weakness were invariably women. Helpless age was made a public spectacle, innocent youth driven to raving insanity, mothers and daughters carried lifeless from the presence of the ghostly expounders of damnation; all ranks shared the contagion, until the despair of Calvin’s hell itself seemed to have fallen upon every heart—.”
What Fanny’s admirers called “noble” her detractors called “masculine.” She carried no notes, only a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The press and the clergy were united in their opposition to her. She was labeled the “female monster,” “great Red Harlot of Infidelity,” “Priestess of Beelzebub,” and “the whore of Babylon.” Her supporters organized to provide her protection. She traveled with a bodyguard. Once when a heckler yelled fire and her audience began to stampede Frances stood calmly on stage, soothing the panic like Apollonius silencing the riot.
Another opponent turned off the gas lines that lit the lecture hall lamps. Frances finished the lecture by candlelight, earning a thunderous ovation she was carried out of the venue by her devoted followers.
In January of 1829 Camilla was suffering a terrible labor in Memphis. She was bled three times by the incompetent doctor, and nearly died. She named her newborn son Francis. Frances didn’t see her nephew. Instead she commenced a six lecture series at Masonic Hall in New York City, with an audience of perhaps two thousand each night. The beaten down liberals of New York found in her words a refuge and hope for their cause. Her lectures there and at the Park Theater brought together what amounted to a political party. Then William Stone noticed her.
Stone edited the New York Commercial Advertiser. Though he admired Lafayette and was himself an abolitionist as Celia Eckhardt wrote: “Fanny Wright stirred something so deep and powerful in him that he lost his self-control: repeatedly he returned to the attack, with a rage and hatred so little suppressed that it seemed pathological.”
Stone admitted: “the sensation of the ludicrous, naturally suggested by its novelty…was entirely superseded.” The novelty Stone refers to was perhaps best captured by Samuel Johnson a century earlier: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Thousands attended Fanny’s third lecture, at a gothic temple, decorated in what supposed to be Epicurean style. Thousands were turned away. Stone called Fanny “the Lioness of the day,” but he shuddered at the women who openly attended the spectacle.
At the fifth lecture a protestor set fire to a barrel of turpentine sending suffocating smoke billowing through the venue. Stone blamed the victim. “It is time we should have done with Miss Wright, her pestilent doctrines, and her deluded followers, who are as much to be pitied, as their priestess is to be despised. She comes amongst us in the character of a bold blasphemer, and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness…Casting off all restraints, she would break down all the barriers to virtue, and reduce the world to one grand theater of vice and sensuality in its most loathsome form.”
Other editors argued that she was no more than a curiosity who attracted big crowds because the tickets were free. Many newspapers refused to take ads for her lectures, or to print letters or editorials written in her defense. Famous poets lampooned her in verse; cartoonists had their way with her.
Undaunted, Frances relocated herself and the New Harmony Gazette to New York City. The newspaper got a more modern name: the Free Enquirer, printed twice a week. Frances also bought the Ebenezer Baptist Church for seven thousand dollars and rechristened it the Hall of Science. Here Frances had her office, printing facilities and a bookstore. Lectures and debates were held every Sunday and sometimes during the week, at ten cents a ticket.
Frances asked Camilla to come join her. Camilla was reluctant, she blamed herself for the failure of Nashoba, and for the scandal that so damaged Fanny’s reputation, but Fanny reassured her things would be different in New York City. Fanny was planning to start a commune where men and women would live as equals. Camilla was needed to be the housekeeper. Camilla, still sickly, and now caring for an infant, hinted that she could use some help getting there. But Frances told her the world was changing right before their eyes, requests for lectures were pouring in from all over America, she couldn’t abandon this historic moment that might change the fate of the nation.
April 26, 1829 Frances delivered the first lecture at the Hall of Science. She wondered if it might “mark an era in the moral history of the republic.” While Fanny’s self aggrandizing seems obvious, in a world where women were seldom heard or seen she had found a way to command a stage before an audience of thousands. She became convinced that the people were with her.
Trollope wrote Lafayette with her usual dry wit that Fanny: “anticipates confidently the regeneration of the whole human race from her present exertions.”
Camilla traveled from Nashoba over frontier, and often alone with her child, until she reached Fanny’s side. Camilla, happy to see her sister apparently in complete command of her talents, settled into the role she had always played. Yet now she was truly a mother, proud of her child’s intelligent eyes. When her son died of a sudden fever Camilla was devastated. Poems of grief were popular in those days. Like many other women of the time Camilla pined away for her lost loved one. The serene optimism of Frances Wright didn’t have time to deal with Camilla’s grief. In letters Camilla lamented that she just wasn’t that important to Frances anymore.
The Hall of Science became headquarters for New York’s liberals, and for curiosity seekers. Across the street at the Bible repository the employees saw with dismay the bookstore window featuring Shelley and Thomas Paine. Worse still, the bookstore was a modest success. The Free Enquirer published exposes about the consequences of extreme inequality of wealth, and whistle blower looks at working class exploitation, like the seamstresses of Philadelphia forced to beg, starve, or practice prostitution.
An assembly she inspired in New York City, the National Association for the Protection of Industry, had begun to analyze the conditions of the working class and the poor. Their first report revealed that twelve thousand children in New York City between the ages of five and fifteen had no access to education.
Trollope wrote after a lecture by Frances: “I knew her extraordinary gift of eloquence, her almost unequaled command of words, and the wonderful power of her rich and thrilling voice…all my expectations fell far short of the splendor, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator… Her tall and majestic figure, the deep and almost solemn expression in her eyes, the simple contour of her finely formed head, unadorned, excepting by its own natural ringlets; her garment of plain white muslin, which hung around her in folds that recalled the drapery of a Grecian statue, all contributed to produce an effect, unlike any thing I have ever seen before, or ever expect to see again.”
THE RED HARLOT IN HER OWN WORDS
Here are some passages from her lectures. Francis usually walked on stage with a phalanx of women who stood with her throughout her lecture. Imagine a five foot ten inch woman with red curly hair and a Scottish brogue dominating a hall full of astonished listeners, many thrilled by her, and many deeply offended by her unladylike performance and radical ideas. Frances was so eloquent many a bigot admitted to having been inspired by her to reconsider timeworn prejudices.
Frances criticized organized religion as a waste of resources: “Turn your churches into halls of science, and devote your leisure day to the study of your own bodies, the analysis of your own minds, and the examination of the fair material world which extends around you! Examine the expenses of your present religious system. Calculate all that is spent in multiplying churches and salarying their ministers; in clothing and feeding travelling preachers, who fill your streets and highways with trembling fanatics…. I say, that Jesus would recommend you to pass the first day of the week rather otherwise than you pass it now, and to seek some other mode of bettering the morals of the community than by constraining each other to look grave on a Sunday, and to consider yourselves more virtuous in proportion to the idleness in which you pass one day in seven.”
“My friends,” she dared to tell audiences, “I am no Christian, in the sense usually attached to the word. I am neither Jew nor Gentile, Mahomedan nor Theist; I am but a member of the human family, and would accept of truth by whomsoever offered — that truth which we can all find, if we will but seek it — in things, not in words; in nature, not in human imagination; in our own hearts, not in temples made with hands.”
She also said of religion that: “much of our positive misery originates in our idle speculations in matters of faith, and in our blind, our fearful, forgetfulness of facts.” In all societies priest craft leads to persecutions.
“Your institutions may declare equality of rights, but we shall never possess those rights until you have national schools. Your legislatures may enact prohibitory laws, and laws offensive and defensive, protective or invasive, it matters little which; our liberties will never be secure, for they will never be understood, until you have national schools. Your spiritual teachers may preach damnation and salvation henceforward through all the eternity of existence, and we shall never be wise nor happy, peaceful nor charitable, useful in our generation, nor useful through our descendants, to all generations, until ye open the flood- gates of knowledge, and let her pure waters fertilize all the land.”
She spoke eloquently as the first feminist lecturer in American history. “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. Are they cultivated? – so is society polished and enlightened. Are they ignorant? – so is it gross and insipid. Are they wise? – so is the human condition prosperous. Are they foolish? – so is it unstable and unpromising. Are they free? – so is the human character elevated. Are they enslaved? – so is the whole race degraded.”
When they banned her in Philadelphia, refusing her a venue, she went to the court to protect her right to free speech, but the case never went to trial.
On December 5, 1829, during a lecture at the Hall of Science, Frances had this to say about the plight of working people: “The industrious classes have been called the bone and marrow of the nation; but they are in fact the nation itself. The fruits of their industry are the nation’s wealth; their moral integrity and physical health is the nation’s strength; their ease and independence is the nation’s prosperity; their intellectual intelligence is the nation’s hope. Where the producing laborer and useful artisan eat well, sleep well, live comfortably, think correctly, speak fearlessly, and act uprightly, the nation is happy, free and wise. Has such a nation ever been? No. Can such a nation ever be? Answer, men of industry of the United States! If such can be, it is here. If such is to be, it must be your work.”
A GHOST IN THE WORLD OF BALZAC
The Working Men’s Party candidates in the election of 1830 became known as “the Fanny Wright ticket.” Fanny gave lectures to support the party’s principles and candidates, sharing her staff and resources with the party to launch their newspaper.
But her efforts were cut short when she realized Nashoba couldn’t go on anymore. The president of Haiti had once promised her when they met on his visit to America that he would help her. Now she would ask him to take the slaves of Nashoba and make certain they were provided for. She chose a path to Haiti that allowed her to lecture in areas of America she had never visited before. Some citizens simply waited for her on the road to ask her questions, then invited her to meet their friends. When she was refused a stage by local authorities she gathered listeners in the fields.
Frances had the paperwork drawn up to free the slaves of Nashoba. She traveled with them to Haiti, where she met with the president who personally arranged homes and jobs for them. Frances travelled to Haiti with Dr. D’Arusmont. He claimed to be a doctor though he never practiced. At first he occupied himself with theories of education, establishing a progressive school. Then he became a teacher at New Harmony. He had never been an important part of Fanny’s life. He was a teacher at Nashoba but not a trustee. He had followed her to New York to run the printing presses for the Free Enquirer. But Frances took him on the trip because he was familiar with Haiti and the Caribbean.
The president of Haiti was good to his word. He took in the slaves of Nashoba and gave them some of his own land, along with the help they would need to learn how to survive as free citizens of their new country. He also wined and dined Frances and D’Arusmont. He surprised her with a small sack of gold coins to repay her expenses. Frances must have relished the quiet walks and lavish tropical meals, a vacation from her work in the political trenches back home. Somewhere in the mood of intoxication she found herself attracted to D’Arusmont and they became lovers.
Upon her return to New York City editor Stone was ready for her. He wrote a scathing exposé accusing Frances of shady dealing in Haiti, claiming that she pocketed thousands of dollars from what she trumpeted as a moral obligation.
Frances responded calmly point by point but won only a partial retraction from Stone. Realizing she was doing more harm than good by having become synonymous with the struggle for workers rights Frances left for Europe with D’Arusmont and Camilla. To the chagrin of her friends there when she arrived she disappeared into an almost complete isolation. No one was to know of her pregnancy. She knew a baby out of wedlock was just the sort of scandal her enemies in America were hoping for. She had her daughter Sylva in secret.
The timing must have frustrated Frances. Fed up with the renewed monarchy the French Revolution reared its head. The people of Paris elected Lafayette commander again, effectively making him the leader of France. Incapacitated, Frances was reduced to writing short notes in which she advised Lafayette as best she could in flurries of jagged sentences.
Lafayette ignored her advice. He believed promises of a new more enlightened monarchy, the younger generation of royals. He wrapped himself and the new King of France, another member of the Bourbon family, in the tricolor flag, and once again his sentimental gesture moved the masses. As Frances predicted, the new king betrayed Lafayette; the new boss was the same as the old boss. Disappointed, Frances decided she would never write Lafayette’s biography, because he had betrayed his lifetime of devotion to freedom with the last act of reaffirming the hereditary monarchy.
When Frances appeared in Paris, making a rare public appearance at Lafayette’s reception, James Fennimore Cooper wrote: “She looked haggard and much changed for the worse.” The women all shunned her.
A few months later, in Paris, Camille, who seemed to have regained her health, swooned into Fanny’s arms and died. Frances had depended on Camille all her life. Fanny’s grief sealed her isolation. She married D’Arusmont. Lafayette served as a witness at her wedding ceremony. Mr. and Mrs. D’Arusmont had a second child, but the infant died. From then on Frances used her dead child’s birth date as the birth date of Sylva so no would know her daughter was born out of wedlock. Frances lived a lonely life in France. She avoided her family and her friends. One of her oldest friends, the story is told, also a friend of Lafayette’s, asked him for her address. The woman visited unannounced. She found a shabby old apartment building. A bleak, comfortless apartment up four flights of stairs revealed the shocked expression of D’Arusmont, sitting with his son by another marriage in the front room.
Asking for Frances the unexpected guest was dismayed to find a disheveled worn woman, tending to her naked daughter. Frances wanted to know who gave up her address. No, she responded curtly, she wasn’t interested in writing anymore, and the very idea of her old fame was painful to her. How Lafayette must have been saddened by this revelation of a transformation no one foresaw.
Husband and wife engaged in lengthy conversations refining each other’s theories, and yet becoming ever more obscure and out of touch. Frances developed a detailed counter history of the world based on her theories about money and the suppression of women. She could still work up a passion over Polish freedom fighters but the troubles of the poor all around her she ignored.
When the French feminist movement found the heroines who would inherit the mantle of 18th century French feminist author Madeleine d’Arsant de Puisieux Frances knew nothing about it. Though in conversation and letter writing she was still a feminist she never became involved with them, or contributed in any way to their efforts.
Her sense of urgent destiny had rusted into a brittle self-importance. She told the great essayist Thomas Carlyle that he was wrong about his theory that history was made by great men. No one is greater than another, she argued, and yet she portrayed herself as far more important than she had actually been.
How did Frances feel when she was told that her old partner at arms Robert Dale had fallen in love and married a young citizen of New Harmony: nineteen-year-old Mary Jane. She showed no reaction to the news. Mary had seen Frances lecture back home in America, so when she got the chance to travel with her husband to Europe, and to stay for a while with Frances, while Robert took care of family business, she had been excited about meeting her heroine. But the household she found was not happy, and the help she tried to provide while being a guest was unwelcome.
Mary Jane described a bleak scene. Seldom was there a day when either Mr. or Mrs. D’Arusmont enjoyed good health. Often, they were both sick. He was an arrogant, irritable control freak, over protective of his daughter. She was a negligent mother unskilled at even the simplest household task. Lafayette’s daughter in law brought the old grand general over for a visit. Lafayette had arranged for D’Arusmont to become superintendent of an experimental garden, but D’Arusmont could not read or write because of worsening problems with his eyes, so he lost the job. If not for their cook, said Mary Jane, the D’Arusmonts wouldn’t have seen another living human being. Mary Jane bravely dared the English Channel off-season to escape into the arms of her loving husband.
Fanny’s years with her aunt had taken place in the world, among the people, that Jane Austen wrote about. Now she lived her life in France among the very people Balzac captured in his coffee driven stream of books: a new generation of unsentimental people dedicated to the pursuit of money.
When old friend Trollope’s humorous sketch of a much less glamorous America became all the rage in Europe Lafayette asked Frances to come out and fight. Trollope was being used against him politically. Frances could at least bear witness that the suddenly moral Trollope had fled to America to escape her debts. Frances never responded to his request.
In 1832 Jeremy Bentham died. He gave up his body for a public dissection, inviting his friends, hoping to demonstrate that material things, including one’s body, are unworthy of special concern. His skeleton was preserved then dressed in his clothes stuffed with straw. He intended that his mummified head be used to complete his surrogate, but the results of the process were ghastly, so a wax head stuffed with his hair, wearing his hat, completed what Jeremy called his Auto-Icon. The mummified head sat in the cabinet between Jeremy’s feet. The Auto-Icon was to be rolled in for any special occasion, on demand. As the “spiritual founder” of University College London, Jeremy’s Auto-Icon eventually became the property of the school where it became the object of numerous student pranks. In 1975 students of King’s College, London stole the head and held it for ransom. Another time it was stolen only to turn up in a locker at the train station in Aberdeen, Scotland. When it was found on the soccer field the head was locked away to keep it safe from further mischief. The Auto-Icon anticipates in certain ways the darkly humorous and starkly realistic assemblages of Edward Kienholz.
FROM INFAMY TO CURIOUSITY
In 1834 Frances returned to London to lecture at Freemason’s Hall. The radical press turned out to see her, a who’s who of forward thinkers from a radius of two hundred miles. Attendance after the first night plummeted. Fanny had never faced empty seats before. Then the radical papers criticized her for being too obscure and vague. Where were practical answers to the real problems of the day? Complaining of sickness she went home to Paris, to the comfort of isolation.
A few weeks later Lafayette died. She didn’t attend the funeral. She left no writing about the loss. She had no friend to bear witness to her reaction or her thoughts at the loss of her first and greatest champion, the man who had called her daughter.
In 1835 at age forty, Frances returned to America. She claimed to be there on business. She and her husband had left their daughter with neighbors in Paris to travel to New Orleans and then Cincinnati to check up on the brewery business Frances had bankrolled for her stepson. In fact, Andrew Jackson had inspired her. The president was fighting the Second United States Bank. She and the president agreed that the bank was the tool of the rich and powerful and a sharp golden knife at the throat of the republic. Frances also thought the bank the tool of the Bank of England. Her conspiracy theory included the Rothschild family. If the old powers of Britain and Europe were not able to hold on to America by military force, she argued, than they would bleed it economically and put an end to this dangerous experiment in equality.
America had changed. The president was a violent man, with a history of duels. The country was violent, too. Lynching in the south, a slave was slow roasted alive over green wood in the Deep South, the army fired on protestors. A riot by supporters of slavery lasted three days in New York City. Civil War was only 25 years away.
America had not forgotten about Frances Wright while she was in France. When the prosecutor of a blasphemy trial against a preacher who thought women should be able to divorce and to keep their own names and property wanted to sway the jury to understand the danger inherent in such ideas he brought up Frances Wright: “What too did Fanny Wright come here for, but to plant the standard of Infidelity, to raise an insurrection against Christianity, to make an open and gross attack upon our religious faith and our domestic happiness; to open a rendezvous to gather volunteers to enter upon a crusade against religion, marriage, chastity, order and decency, and the very foundations of civil society?”
In spring of 1836 Cincinnati suffered riots. Though asked to give speeches along the way there, even on board the steamboat that took her up river, Frances refused. But by May she felt moved to speak, at the very courthouse where her professional lecturing commenced a mere seven years earlier. She believed she could help calm the town, and dispel the extremism. She didn’t realize that she was the most notorious woman in America.
Most of Fanny’s listeners didn’t notice that she had reversed many of her old positions. Her two lectures were devoted to supporting Andrew Jackson’s choice as his successor, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren had a spotty record on free speech, having been involved in a ban on abolitionist literature delivered by mail. Jackson was one of America’s biggest slave owners and a friend to the South. Anyway how could the north talk about slavery in the south, Frances argued, when northern industrialists practiced what she called wage slavery? But Frances believed the fight against the Second Bank of the United States superseded all other priorities.
The papers and the authorities didn’t notice her new platform. She was banned in Philadelphia again. So she lectured at a country fair to five thousand listeners who braved the heavy rain.
When she lectured at an abandoned factory near Laurel Hill Cemetery, Fanny and her small phalanx of two women walked onto the rickety stage in the dilapidated building to loud hissing and cheering. Gentlemen outside urged street brats to hurl stones through the glass windows of the factory. What an eerie scene it must have been, as the stubborn lecturer and her equally stubborn audience of a thousand sat through the spraying glass and bouncing rocks. The local newspaper chortled that the audience had to suffer the “two-fold pain” of the stoning and the lecture itself. Another newspaper warned: “Fears are entertained that she many not escape personal injury if she persists in her degrading career.”
When Frances returned to Cincinnati she found it uneasy after another riot. Abolitionist printing presses had been dragged down the street and thrown into the river. One of Cincinnati’s most respectable ladies, Catharine Beecher now set her sites on Fanny, establishing a pattern conservative women have followed ever since.
The good Christian lady wrote: “who can look without disgust and abhorrence upon such an one as Fanny Wright, with her great masculine person, her loud voice, her untasteful attire, going about unprotected, and feeling no need of protection, mingling with men in stormy debate, and standing up with bare-faced impudence, to lecture to a public assembly…There she stands, with brazen front and brawny arms, attacking the safeguards of all that is venerable and sacred in religion, all that is safe and wise in law, all that is pure and lovely in domestic virtue. Her talents only make her the more conspicuous and offensive…”
But Frances had bigger fish to fry. The Second Bank of the United States had to be stopped. Using “promises to pay…they will appropriate American lands, mortgages on American real estate, shares in American internal improvements…the privileged orders of Europe, having drained their own peoples life-blood, may now gorge themselves…with the heart’s blood of America.
By now Frances and her husband had drifted apart. They had not been sleeping in the same bed. The fiery public defender of the glorious sexual passions now believed husband and wife sharing a bed unhealthy. Soon distance settled between them. Though the entire family had returned to America, D’Arusmont and Sylva were always together, and never for very long in any city where Frances arrived.
D’Arusmont had been bickering with Robert Dale over old loans and mortgages Dale owed his wife. Frances chose to write publicly about the trouble. She dismissed her former colleague Dale, even adjusting the facts to aggrandize her own accomplishments, such as describing him as an assistant editor she had hired at the New Harmony Gazette when in fact he had hired her as co-editor. Dale forgave her in a public letter, hoping she would come to her senses.
Just before the election Fanny returned to New York in support of Van Buren and the Bank War. The great newspapers of the city ignored her. The minor papers reported the event with sneering prose. “This disgusting exhibition of female impudence has no redeeming excuses. One could very well afford to hear his own opinions of propriety abused by a woman if…from between a pair of pretty lips.” The other described Fanny as “a great awkward bungle of womanhood, somewhere about six feet in longitude, with a face like a Fury, and her hair cropped like a convict.” Pity was owed her husband.
1837 was a rough year for America economically. A $480 dollar lot in New York was only worth fifty bucks. Cotton, nineteen cents in December was suddenly nine cents. Two out of three merchants in New York went bankrupt. Banks in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia suspended payments. Twenty thousand people gathered in Philly’s Independence Square to protest the banking system. Frances seemed to believe that if she could explain British history to the American electorate they would not make the same mistake. The banks, she hoped Americans would realize, were nothing more than the new royalty. The old king of France used to appear daily in his golden carriage wearing jewels and priceless fabrics; the new king strolled in a sober suit like any good banker. The banks shared with the royals the goal of hording wealth while cheating the workers out of a decent living wage. If Americans could realize that, Frances believed, the republic would be saved.
In Philadelphia Fanny’s lecture was jeered and heckled until she gave up. She never spoke in Philadelphia again though she lived there when she wrote and published Manual of American Principles.
But Fanny was more useful to the opposition than to the party she hoped to promote. Her name was used to discredit any liberal politician or platform. The Cincinnati Chronicle for example accused her of “diffusing the worst principles of the French revolution through this land of the Puritan fathers…She has set in motion a train of causes, which will never cease to operate, until that day when God shall come to make inquisition for blood, and to destroy the wicked with the breath of his mouth. Many a happy home has been rendered a moral desert by the trace of her footsteps, many a parent worse than childless, and many a wife more desolate than a widow.”
Some called her ugly now. Her deeply furrowed forehead and dowdy dresses mortified her former friends. The monotone of self-importance had crept into her eloquence. She seemed the living embodiment of the consequences of having sacrificed the liberty she had once so fiercely idealized.
In late September 1838 Frances began a series of five lectures at Masonic Hall. There she had first addressed the people of New York nine years earlier. Her first lecture was uneventful except for bad press. The second erupted when Frances and a phalanx of thirty women appeared on the platform: hissing, shouting, heckling, hooting and pounding hundreds of canes. A local newspaper described Frances as a witch from Macbeth because she silenced the crowd with her pointed finger.
The third lecture was broken up by the uproar, more pounded canes and this time shouted obscenities. The papers blamed her again. “Riot and Revolution is the element she creates and breathes in.”
For the next lecture the mayor stationed police all around the hall, many in plain clothes. When the tumult began inside police there got the situation under control. After the lecture a bodyguard of fans surrounded her as she walked up Broadway. Small groups of young men insulted and taunted her as she passed.
The fifth lecture, on October 21st was the worst. Five thousand showed up to hear her. Ten thousand gathered outside. After the lecture the crowd outside surged towards her, threatening her, barely restrained by a double line of police. Women leaving the lecture had their bonnets flipped off by bullies who called them whores yelling every obscenity at them. The flotsam of the mob washed up at Fanny’s own doorstep. She must have cowered as the boroughs all around her erupted into riots. Frances Wright, it could be argued, was the first riot grrrl.
She was now reduced to renting Clinton Hall. Though only a few blocks from the Park Theater where twenty years earlier her play had its triumphant opening night, Clinton Hall was in a bad neighborhood. She hoped to draw a thousand listeners to the decrepit building. A woman named Elizabeth Oakes Smith left an eyewitness account after ignoring her family’s warnings and convincing her husband to brave the heavy fog. “We went upstairs and turned into a very dirty, dimly lighted hall, filled with straight wooden benches, and only three persons in them. The appointed hour had already arrived, and slowly, men, one after another, sauntered in—several women also, some with babes in their arms, and all bring an atrocious odor of tobacco, whisky, and damp clothing. At length there might have been fifty persons, not more, present, and these began to shuffle and call for the speaker. It was all so much more gross and noisy than anything I had ever encountered where a woman was concerned, that I grew quite distressed, and the bad atmosphere nearly made me faint.” As for the lecturer, Elizabeth found her sound, earnest and wholesome.
Opposition and controversy she thrived on, but Frances could not face the boredom of curiosity seekers. In March 1839 Fanny surrendered. She announced her retreat to private life. As her ship left New York a newspaper editorial commented: “Let her go home or go to the Devil, so that she never visits us again.”
PERILS OF ISOLATION AND THE DESCENT INTO OBSCURITY
Her return to Europe began auspiciously. In England The National appreciated Fanny’s book Course of Popular Lectures: “The work is also invaluable as evidence of the power of a female mind. We especially recommend it to the unprejudiced consideration of all those males, who yet, on the score of intellect, claim a superiority over their more moral sisters, enforcing such superiority by the argument of brutality—muscular power.
In 1844 Frances inherited valuable property and land from a cousin in Scotland. She traveled there to inspect her new wealth. But she seemed to find no relief from this inheritance. A year later she was bedridden with nervous exhaustion in America again, as she turned fifty years old, without her husband, or her daughter. They had traveled to Great Britain to try without her knowledge or consent to weasel some of Fanny’s inheritance out of her estranged relatives.
In 1846 Fanny’s papers mysteriously burned but she quickly reconstructed as much as she could from memory.
By 1847 Frances and her husband began a series of legal suits and financial maneuvers by which he tried to seize control of all his wife’s property, though he brought no wealth to their marriage. D’Arusmont was clever and the laws gave wives few rights when it came to property so Frances found herself living on a stipend so meager she had to borrow money to survive.
Through most of the 1840s Frances had worked on her last book, England the Civilizer (1848) a pioneering, in some ways gender based, unconventional history of Great Britain that some leading intellectuals found admirable but which was utterly overshadowed by the publication soon after of Macauley’s beloved History of England. In her final book Frances revealed that she no longer considered America the glowing ideal of her youth, like any society America was a “complicated system of errors…the most decidedly anarchic and supremely corrupt of any on the face of the globe.”
Frances had also changed her mind about religion. She now believed that communities require religion, but she didn’t consider any of the organized religions widely available to be anything but societies for the enrichment of the few.
In 1850 Frances began divorce proceedings and asked the American court to restore her fortune of 150,000 dollars (in today’s money the wealth of a multimillionaire). Her husband responded by circulating a condescending open letter her enemies shared and published. Her husband accused her of falling into mental illness, the natural result of alienation so complete she treated her own husband and daughter as mere appendages. He described his attendance at her lectures as self-sacrifice, and claimed to have prevented their daughter from ever hearing her mother speak publicly.
Two winters at Nashoba, where a strong wind could blast open the door of her damp cabin, further damaged her health. She began to lose her eyesight. She was preoccupied with the idea that if she could take control of her estate she could win back her daughter. In 1851 she won an important victory in court when the judge decided her husband had abandoned her. But when her daughter came to Memphis, she refused to see her mother without her father in the room. A month later the local sheriff gave Frances a writ informing her that her daughter was trying to take Nashoba from her.
Living at Nashoba, Frances made legal history when a judge granted the petition of the “infirm and aged” complainant to receive $800 from her own property while the court decided. The judge made this poignant statement: “to review the history of two lives…that are closing in suffering and sorrow…a fearful picture…of ambition, disappointed hope, and lost happiness…what demon turned all this love to hate, and their home into hell?”
Fanny wrote to her daughter again but the five-hour meeting that followed was only an opportunity for Sylva to adamantly refuse any relationship with her mother.
So isolated had Frances become her friends were now her lawyer and the carpenter working on her house. The carpenter was shocked by her way of life. Her possessions amounted to a charcoal furnace, a writing desk, and a table with several chairs. She ate crackers and boiled potato, egg, or beef. She drank only tea or coffee. At first the carpenter had worried that she would oversee his work, but she was more interested in talking about worker’s rights. She always invited him to eat at her table. He found her to be a walking encyclopedia and wonderful conversationalist. He said she lamented that her aristocratic upbringing had never taught her the simple skills of housework, which he said, she still had not mastered, being inept at everything from sweeping to cooking. He remembered her prediction that in fifty years America would be covered with railroads built on the backs of the poor, creating more large cities, and more millionaires, who would control power at every political level. She was right.
In early 1852 Frances fell on the ice in her front yard in Cincinnati and broke her femur. She spent two months in agony at the Hotel for Invalids, cared for only by a hired maid. Her husband and daughter never visited her. Her lawyer, who brought her the copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin she requested, thought she was improving and wrote to her friends at Nashoba that she would return to them, though she would be lame in one leg. She seemed to believe she would recover. She bought Prescott’s History of Mexico and a year’s subscription to a magazine she liked. She had a dentist visit her twenty times to make her a new set of teeth; she paid in old gold coins.
The death of the first female abolitionist and feminist in America didn’t make the news. Frances did not follow Jeremy Bentham’s example; she had no Auto-Icon. She became just another grave at Cincinnati Spring Grove Cemetery but she did leave a powerful message carved into her tombstone: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.”
Fanny’s estate was still tangled in the courts but upon her death became the property of her estranged daughter, Sylva, as Frances wished. When her father died three years later Sylva battled with her half brother over the estate.
As I write this a collection of Fanny’s unpublished letters is up for sale. Nine letters, 32 pages in all, in quarto and folio, written as her fame began to spread from 1820 to 1823. Written to a famous Irish exile in New York, the letters praise the free press as “the safety valve of a free Constitution.” She writes about the prison systems of England and America. She explains why she favors life imprisonment over the death penalty. She argues for universal education. She comments on Bolivar and the revolutions in South America. She observes that America needs more patriotic songs. She shares Thomas Jefferson’s complementary assessment of her play, and moments from her friendship with Lafayette.
The letters reveal young Fanny’s excitement about the political upheavals in Europe. “Another revolution!” she wrote. “Naples free and all of Italy in insurrection! How wonderful has been the march of the human mind in these last thirty years…so may it be till the last link of the chains of slavery is broken and the banner of freedom waves over the whole earth!” Frances writes of America: “Is not an hereditary nobility inconsistent with liberty? I will ask more, is it not inconsistent with public virtue? Not only does it lodge authority with the unskillful but with those whose interest it is to abuse it. It does more– it degrades the minds of men, it corrupts their hearts and debases their understanding, leading them to attach honor and to yield respect to something else than talent and virtue.” The collection is offered at 28,000.00. A bookseller in Memphis is offering a small poem Frances wrote for a child during her first theatrical tour of the United States. What would she have made of the asking price of 6500 dollars?
What is an atheist like Frances Wright doing in a series of blogs about American Metaphysical Religion? Frances Wright’s religion was science and her mysticism her romance with the ideal of America. With her confident optimism that science could only bring good things to humanity, she had no presentiment of Fukushima or Monsanto. Like the intelligencers, and their inspiration, Paracelsus, Frances believed that all human suffering would find its cure in the natural world. She did not expect science to produce more suffering. Ignorance dictates the fates of individuals and nations, she believed. Like any practitioner of American Metaphysical Religion she believed that knowledge cures all ills.
Once she wrote of how she and D’Arusmont had become husband and wife because of their interest in finding the truth of human society and the cure to injustice and unnecessary suffering, which they believed could be found in the analysis of history. As she discussed this arcane secret she and her partner labored to discover one can easily imagine them, in the tradition of the alchemist and sorer, or mystical sister, together seeking the philosopher’s stone, often in disheveled poverty, chasing the revelation that revolutionizes individual lives and society.
Her science could be mistaken for Daoist alchemy, a theory of Eliphas Levi, or Blavatsky, or one can easily imagine the following passage written by Frances as an excerpt from a yoga book by Chicago’s favorite Yogi Ramacharaka: “We detect then, throughout the whole of things – in the operations of nature, of human society, and in those of our own internal percipient and sentient soul – two master energies. These – while preserving equal forces and acting in conjunction – keep all existences in life, all bodies in place; impart and preserve to each and all their appropriate sphere of action or of movement; and tend, throughout the world of matter, as of mind – to order, harmony, and beauty. Acting in disjunction – i.e. singly, or in opposition – these two principles are transformed into agents of disorder and death; producing variously, violence, inertia, confusion, stagnation, convulsion, decomposition, dissolution.”
Sylva became a devout Episcopalian Christian. In 1874 the daughter of Frances Wright appeared before Congress to argue against giving women the right to vote. Sylva inherited her mother’s unpublished papers. She preserved them for her children but in their hands they disappeared.
Sylva sent her sons to get degrees and ordinations at a good American Episcopalian college in Tennessee. Both became ministers of churches in New York City. Both carried on crusades like the grandmother they never met, and each had a toned down version of grandma’s Hall of Science. Kenneth had a Museum of Slavery in his church; he claimed his Neo-Platonist translations could improve the world.
Like his grandmother Frances, elder brother William rubbed shoulders with the famous, from Kahlil Gibran and Martha Graham to Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright; he also pioneered the use of Native American and other non-Christian but nevertheless complementary cultural rituals, and of dance and light shows in American churches. But the grandkids had nothing on grandma. She would have considered them weak tea, indeed. Yet this extraordinary grandmother and her far from ordinary grandsons are an important and fascinating though almost forgotten episode in the neglected history of American Metaphysical Religion.
At the age of 83, in 1854, Robert Owen, whose New Harmony community inspired Fanny’s equally spectacular failure Nashoba, became a spiritualist; thanks to several sessions he had with famous American medium Maria Hayden. Hayden was one of the first mediums to bring to England séances where spirits answered questions with knocks. Owen claimed to have contacted the spirits of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. After his death the famous English medium Emma Hardinge Britten said she received the spiritualist classic Seven Principles of Spiritualism from Owen himself.
Robert Dale, his son, the long time ally Frances later dismissed in print after bickering about property rights and loan paybacks also became a spiritualist.
Even the feminists she helped inspire had ambivalent feelings about Frances Wright. Although Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton used her portrait as the frontispiece of History of Woman Suffrage, Frances soon became a less told story. Nashoba was such a disappointment, and her outspoken atheism was only one of the ways she inflamed opposition rather than furthered the cause they were fighting for.
Was she ahead of her time or left behind? Her naive enthusiasm for the cure-all of science fit better with the Enlightenment than the new world of industrialization. Yet she anticipated many important reforms later adopted by societies worldwide. The United States, and the globalized world community, all too often lack the fairness, liberty and justice Frances Wright so enthusiastically pursued and promoted.
“The Utopian Visions of Frances Wright
The Power and Danger of Empathy
Reviews in American History Vol. 12 #4 1986
Course of Popular Lectures as Delivered by Frances Wright
Hall of Science, 1829
Women & Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century
Sanders, Mike, ed.
“Revisiting Nashoba: Slavery, Utopia, and Frances Wright in America, 1818–1826,”
American Literary History 17 (2005)
“Frances Wright’s Experiment with Negro Emancipation”
Indiana Magazine of History
Views of Society and Manners in America
Baker, Paul, ed.
Harvard University Press, 1963
“Frances Wright: The Other Woman of Early American Feminism.”
Travis, Molly Abel.
Women’s Studies 22, 1993
Volume 2: Frances Wright
Women and Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century
Sanders, Mike, ed.
Francis Wright and the Great Experiment
Manchester University Press, 1972
“An important collection of nine autograph letters signed to Dr. William James MacNeven.”
(Stevenson, MD, U.S.A.)
Fanny Wright: Rebel in America
Harvard University Press, 1983
Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge. He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.