In her book “Frances Wright and the ‘great experiment’”, Margaret Lane notes that very few people today have heard of Frances (Fanny) Wright, despite being a famously notorious figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Her views during the first half of the 19th century shocked both her peers and, in fact, whole countries! Even today she would not have gone unnoticed in voicing her opinion in her own indomitable style – just like a typical Dundee wifey! Lane writes ‘If ever she is referred to, it is with the innuendo of an old-fashioned joke…” So, who was Fanny Wright, and what did she do that was so notorious?
Frances (Fanny) Wright was born in the Nethergate in Dundee on 6 September 1795, in the middle of very Revolutionary times. Her father, James Wright was a wealthy linen manufacturer and bit of a political radical himself, so it seems the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree! James believed that taking huge risks paid off (when they worked) and he even found himself under police surveillance because of his antics. Despite the crackdown on ‘radical ideologies’, James frequently attended secret political meetings of a radical nature. We read that he was almost caught red-handed with radical literature, and had to take a wee boat out into the Tay and dump it all in the river.
Unfortunately, Fanny never really knew her parents, as both James and his wife died within a few months of each other, when Frances was barely two years old. Orphaned at such a young age, her mother’s sister took her to live in England, where she was taught until she was 16. By then, she had learned much by way of philosophy and politics, forming some fairly radical opinions of her own. She returned to Scotland to live with her great-uncle, and it was this time which inspired her to write and study even more.
By the age of 18, she had written her first book, but the sight of so many poor people boarding an emigrant ship in Glasgow which was on its way to America really shook her to the core. For the first time, she had seen for herself the peasant farmers and their families who had been forced from their lands by the rich and powerful. She wrote that she swore an oath to herself ‘to wear ever in her heart the cause of the poor and the helpless; and to aid in all she could in redressing the grievous wrongs which seemed to prevail in society’.
If America was such a ‘land of the free’, Fanny wanted to see this for herself, so she made secret plans for herself and her sister Camilla to travel to America by boat. She was 23 at this point, and required a larger platform from which to preach her ideas – notions and concepts that did not fit in with the America of 1818. She spent 2 years going around America with her sister, speaking out against organised religion, greed, capitalism and universal education, before briefly returning to Scotland. From there, she went to France, where she wrote ‘Views of Society and Manners in America (1821).
When her writings were published in America, it cemented her into the history books as an established social reformer – the books were translated into numerous languages and sold around Europe and the Americas. She went back to America in 1824 with an influential Revolutionary War hero from France, and his travelling party. This time, she was mixing in much more influential circles, meeting Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were the 3rd and 4th US presidents! Her political activities still continued, as she focused on rights for women, creating a furor with her ‘outrageous’ views on legal rights for married women and the right for equal education.
Something she detested whilst in America, was slavery – especially in the South. Nothing filled her with horror quite like what she felt upon seeing the conditions of the slaves she saw in the Mississippi. She wrote: “The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere. But to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that imagination can conceive.”
She was the first woman in America to act publicly against slavery, in 1825 she bought a tract of land twenty miles outside one of the Mississippi River trading posts named Memphis and there she established a commune she called Nashoba. Its purpose was to discover and then to demonstrate how slaves could be responsibly educated and then freed without undue cost to their owners. Fanny had received a healthy inheritance from her parent’s death, a lot of which was used to build Nashoba, but her wealth didn’t stop her from getting stuck in with all the manual labour that needed to be done, such as clearing forestland, building cabins and tending to the surrounding lands.
Dealing with unexpected social and financial issues, as well as the burden of so much physical labour, she became physically weakened and contracted malaria. The illness was so severe that she had to move to Ohio because the heat was making her worse. Frances later went to Europe to improve her health and returned to America in January of 1828. By that time Nashoba was in financial collapse, and Fanny admitted that, despite having a manager to oversee the plantation whilst she was convalescing, there was no way it could be rescued.
Despite Nashoba being dedicated to the abolition of slaves, its ‘radical’ teachings saw it accused of being a love-camp. Topics such as birth control, abolition of slavery and the death penalty and the trappings of organized religion made her detractors uncomfortable. Nashoba’s manager, James Richardson was openly living with a woman of colour, which, at the time, created a scandal which sent shockwaves from America to Europe! With rumours that ‘anything goes’ at Fanny’s love camp, it became somewhat of a farce. Her sister, Camilla, was sick, and, in her absence, had married the only other white man at Nashoba. Amidst a flurry of criticism, mockery and personal humiliation (not to mention the fact that she had spent most of her wealth on funding this project), she was forced to abandon her plans, and it subsequently collapsed. In doing so, she paid for the slaves she had emancipated to go back to Haiti.
Her critics called her ‘The Great Red Harlot’, not only because she had red-hair, but she was alleged to have had many illicit romances and dressed ‘inappropriately’ for the time (bodices, pantaloons and an above-the knee dress). Her failure with Nashoba, as well as the onslaught of continuous persecution for her radical views saw Fanny begin to recede from the constant scrutiny of the public eye. She married a French physician and had a daughter the following year, but she later divorced her husband. He gained control of all of her resources, and what followed was a lengthy and protracted divorce, made worse by the restriction of cash from any lectures she spoke at, and any royalties from her writings, which went directly to him instead!
Health problems swiftly began to follow, and she eventually died in December 1852 from complications following a fall on an icy staircase in Ohio. It’s a little ironic to think that she moved to Ohio from Mississippi because the heat and malaria were killing her, yet it was the ice that ultimately sealed her fate.
Despite everything, Fanny Wright stood up for what she believed in, and campaigned hard for things that were far ahead of her time. She shouldn’t be seen as any kind of ‘old fashioned joke’ – she was a woman ahead of her time, progressive, modern and radical…and not afraid to stand up for the rights of others less fortunate than herself. Maybe we should all take a leaf from her book.
Special thanks to Ashley Todd.
Frances Wright and the ‘Great Experiment’ – Margaret Lane, 1972, Manchester University Press