Frances Wright had been living in Cincinnati for nearly twenty years when she died in 1852.
Walt Whitman described her as "a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate, who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good — public good, private good." [much of the public criticized her morals but] "we all loved her; fell down before her; her very appearance seemed to enthrall us. [she was] 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 long by them: a most maligned, lied-about character — one of the best in history though also one of the least understood."
Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton all refer to Frances Wright as a pioneer in women’s rights.
Frances "Fanny" Wright (September 6,1795-December 13,1852), born in Scotland and orphaned at the age of two, rose from rather inauspicious beginnings to fame as a writer and reformer.
She and her only surviving sibling Camilla lived with various relatives in England until 1816 when they returned to Scotland to live with their great-uncle James Mylne, a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow College. Frances gained access to the college library and thrived in this new environment. She read everything she could about America, including Carlo Botta’s history of the American Revolution (Storia della guerra dell’ Independenza degli Stati Uniti d’America, 1809), a work that Jefferson highly valued. Much to her uncle’s disappointment, she became determined to travel to America to see how the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence were working out in practice.
In 1818 Frances and Camilla Wright left for New York. There Frances Wright anonymously produced and published Altorf, a play about the struggle for Swiss independence. The two sisters then traveled unchaperoned several thousand miles through many cities and the backwoods frontier.
Upon her return to Britain in 1820, she received a letter from Thomas Jefferson thanking her for sending him a copy of her play. He praised the play for giving "dignity and usefulness to poetry," and she responded in turn, expressing her reverence for Jefferson’s "enlightened, active and disinterested patriotism. "
She published her correspondence with Mrs. Rahbina Craig Millar in book form. Views of Society and Manners in America has become one of the most celebrated travel memoirs of the early nineteenth century. Wright was unabashedly enthusiastic about a nation she considers a guarantor of freedom and equality: "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 pas seul are entirely unknown here. The women are assuming their place as thinking beings, not in despite of the men, but chiefly in consequence of their enlarged views and exertions as fathers and legislators."
In Paris in 1821, Frances Wright met the Marquis de Lafayette. He too praised her work, and she became a participant in Lafayette’s clandestine intrigues in support of various revolutionary movements. At his insistence, she published her fictionalized treatise on the philosophy of Epicurus, A Few Days in Athens (1822). Jefferson said the work was a "treat to me of the highest order," and he filled seven pages of his commonplace book with excerpts from it.
After an extended stay at Lafayette’s family estate La Grange during which Wright worked on a biography of Lafayette, Lafayette persuaded Wright to accompany him on his farewell visit to America in 1824. Lafayette referred to their relationship in father-daughter terms. She realized the anomaly of her position in the masculine world of politics: "I dare say you marvel sometimes at my independent way of walking through the world just as if nature had made me of your sex instead of poor Eve’s," she wrote to Lafayette. "Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam."
The Wrights arrived at Jefferson’s home, Monticello a day or two after Lafayette. Frances Wright remarked that she enjoyed "one of the finest prospects I ever remember to have seen" from a mountain "consecrated by the residence of the greatest of America’s surviving veterans."
Later, when Lafayette headed South in late February, Wright decided to proceed across the Midwest and down the Mississippi River. Before rejoining Lafayette in New Orleans in April, she visited Robert Owen and the community he had established at New Harmony, Indiana.
Wright became more interested in the cause of emancipation. In Views of Society, Wright noticed slaveholders’ humanity to their slaves, in which they took such pride, as being mere "gilding" on the chains of bondage.
By the time Lafayette left for France in 1825, Wright had decided to stay in America to promote social reforms. Wright implemented a practical plan to demonstrate to Americans the possibility of eradicating slavery. Slaves would be trained for a vocation while working out the cost of their purchase, their keep, and their eventual colonization abroad.
After meeting Robert Owen and observing his utopian community New Harmony, Wright began an experimental community on the site of present-day Germantown, Tennessee. She rode horseback to Memphis, arriving late in October 1825, inspecting land along the Wolf River near the site of present-day Germantown. She then rode to Nashville, bought eleven slaves including five men (Willis, Jacob, Gradison, Redick and Henry), three women (Nelly, Peggy and Kitty), for $400 to $500 each, and three of their children. She called her 2,400 acre farm "Nashoba", the Chickasaw word for "wolf," and about thirty slaves were employed.
Some of the men who played an important role in the experiment were Richeson Whitby, a Quaker from New Harmony; and a Scotsman by the name of James Richardson, who lived in Memphis and had strong convictions of moral freedom. Another was George Flowers who was an emancipationist with experience in utopian community living.
Wright became seriously ill with malaria and was encouraged to seek the milder climate of Ohio in May 1827. Camilla and Whitby were left in charge with Richardson to help. While Frances was away, Camilla and Whitby fell in love and married, and passed the sterner tasks of leadership onto Richardson who took control of Nashoba’s policies.
Wright had gone on to Europe for her health, and there she recruited Frances Trollope, an English travel writer. They returned through New Orleans and journeyed up the river to Memphis arriving in Nashoba on January 1828. Mrs. Trollope was shocked by manners in Memphis, dismayed by desolation at Neshoba and appalled by the primitive rooms. She noticed the diet of pork and rice, without any other meat or vegetable, the absence of milk, butter and cheese and the fact that rain water was the only liquid. She remained a few days and then hurried to Cincinnati. Whitby’s health broke and he moved with Camilla to Ohio.
Wright eventually merged the idea of separate colonization of freed slaves with the advocation of a biracial cooperative community as the way toward a solution, but the project never prospered. In addition to crop failure and bad luck, James Richardson published extracts from the plantation’s journal that publicized his relationship with a slave woman, an indiscretion that scandalized the public. Wright eventually responded to attacks of "free love" in the wilds with an article in which she boldly claimed that miscegenation might offer a solution for racial injustices in America; she restated her emancipation plan and attacked racially segregated schools, organized religion, and marriage. Nevertheless, the sexual issue only became more explosive and it frightened away most of her prominent American friends.
In 1830 Wright abandoned the plan, a venture that cost her more than half her fortune and drove her to the fringes of American life. The slaves were transported to Haiti, where she made arrangements for their housing and employment.
Wright became the first woman in America to edit a journal, initially the Harmony Gazette, and later, The Free Enquirer.
She also became the first American woman to give a popular lecture series before an audience of men and women. Little escaped her attention: she condemned capital punishment, cited the dangers of intolerant religion, demanded improvements in the status of women, including equal education, legal rights for married women, liberal divorce laws, and birth control. She traveled to most of the major cities of the East and Midwest, making an impressive appearance as "noble" or "masculine" depending on the observer, and sometimes wielding her sole text, a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Condemned by the press and the clergy as "the great Red Harlot of Infidelity" and the "whore of Babylon," and often in need of a bodyguard, Wright nevertheless captivated large audiences with her commanding presence.
She believed in universal equality in education, and feminism. She attacked organized religion, greed, and capitalism. Along with Robert Owen, She was a fighter for the emancipation of slaves and for birth control and sexual freedom for women. She wanted free public education for all children over two years of age in state-supported boarding schools. She expressed through her projects in America what the utopian socialist Charles Fourier had said in France, "that the progress of civilization depended on the progress of women."
As an activist in the American Popular Health Movement between 1830 and 1840, Wright advocated for women being involved in health and medicine. Wright also developed her own dress code for women. This included bodices, ankle-length pantaloons and a dress cut to above the knee. This style was later promoted by feminists such as Amelia Bloomer.
In 1830, Frances and her sister Camilla returned to Europe. Camilla died a short time after their return. In July 1831, Wright married a French physician, Guillaume Sylvan Casimir Phiquepal D’Arusmont, whom she had first met when he was teaching at New Harmony. They had one child, a daughter, Frances Sylva D’Arusmont, in 1832.
Wright and her husband returned to America in 1835 to settle in Cincinnati, and once again, she began to give speeches. She became a convincing supporter of President Jackson and attacked the Second Bank of the U. S. as a public menace that bound the U.S. to the wealth of England. Her suggestions for gradual emancipation and the eventual assimilation of free blacks aroused much opposition, and her public appearances provoked demonstrations, even violence.
Wright traveled back and forth between the United States and Europe several times in a vain effort to untangle personal and financial affairs. In 1848 she published her final book, England, the Civilizer, a utopian forecast of a global federation justly governed and united in peace.
By this time, however, Wright had moved from a largely uncritical view of America to a jaundiced attitude toward all society as a "complicated system of errors." Her views on America had been tempered, enabling her "to see things under the sober light of truth, and to estimate both the excellences that are, and those that are wanting."
D’Arusmont had objected to her return to public life, and frequent separations eventually led to their divorce in 1850. Her only child, Frances Sylva remained in her father’s custody.
Wright’s divorce was granted by a judge in Shelby County, Tennessee, while she was living on her Nashoba estate.
As her husband had managed to gain control over her entire property, including her earnings from lectures and the royalties from her books. Wright was involved in a legal struggle with him, and it made legal history. A judge in Cincinnati granted her petition for receiving $800 from her own property while the chancery court suit over control of her property was being decided.
She died in 1852 in Cincinnati, Ohio, from complications resulting from a fall on an icy staircase.
She was buried in the Cincinnati Spring Grove Cemetery.
After her mother’s death,Sylva lived in the family of Dr. Eugene DeLagertrie (or Guthrie) in Cincinnati. For convenience in handling her property, she deeded the Nashoba lands to Dr. Guthrie, who in turn contracted to furnish her a $5,000 annuity from them.
After a time, Dr. Guthrie’s wife went to France to visit her family. When she had been gone some time, there came the report of her death. Dr. Guthrie and Sylva were married in 1865 in New Jersey and had three children.
In 1878, they also learned that the first Madame Guthrie was still alive. Dr. Guthrie’s health became worse, and he and Sylva went to Italy hoping that the climate would help, but he died there.
“Memoir of Fanny Wright, the Pioneer Woman in the Cause of Women’s Rights,” by Amos Gilbert was published inCincinnati in 1855.
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