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Frances Wright - Pioneer Campaigner for Human Improvement

Updated: Jul 29, 2023


Portrait of Frances Wright by Johan Gorbitz (c.1852), engraved by J C Buttre for History of Woman Suffrage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1887)


Frances Wright (also known as Fanny or Fan) was born at 136 Nethergate, Dundee on 6 September 1795. Before she reached her second birthday, her family was bankrupt; before her third birthday, both her mother, Camilla, and her father, James Wright Junior, were dead.


As an orphan with her two siblings, it was decided that Frances would be made a Ward of Chancery under the authority of her aunt, Frances Campbell, herself less than twenty years of age, who lived in London with her father, Duncan Campbell, a Major General in the Royal Marines. Wright’s younger sister Camilla joined her there some time afterwards, while her older brother Richard was brought up by the Watson family, relatives in Glasgow.


From an early age Frances detested the social elitism of her grandfather, who made no secret of his lack of sympathy with the poor that thronged the streets of the metropolis. She records that on one occasion, aged less than ten, she asked him why the people were so wretched. “Because they are too lazy to work,” he answered. “But you don’t work, Grandfather,” she retorted. She was already showing the self-assurance, independence of thought and social conscience that was to characterise her life.


A formative moment was when she read Carlo Botta’s History of the American War of Independence (published in France in 1809). As she wrote many years later, “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.” The ideals of equality and fairness underpinning the birth of the young country so mirrored her own that she could not convince herself that such a country really existed until she found it in an atlas.


In 1813, she convinced her aunt to allow her and Camilla to move north to Glasgow, staying with James Mylne, a great uncle on her father’s side. During the summers she roamed through the Highlands, commenting on the poverty and suffering that she saw among the poor during this period of the Clearances.


At this time, as she subsequently wrote, she “pronounced to herself a solemn oath, to wear ever in her heart the cause of the poor and helpless; and to aid in all she could in redressing the grievous wrongs which seemed to prevail in society”. Not yet out of her teens, she had already cast herself in the role of a social reformer.


Following her first travels in the USA, her travelogue Views of Society and Manners of America (1821) brought her to the attention of several significant figures, perhaps most notably the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman, politician and supporter of the American War of Independence, whom she accompanied on his next tour of the United States as a guest of the government.


On her arrival in New York Frances saw a vessel about to set out for Virginia, overloaded with slaves, again arousing her social indignation. She then accompanied Lafayette on his visit to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who had wished to meet her. She discussed the problem of slavery with him, with other Southern plantation owners, and studied the relevant slavery laws in order to gain a thorough understanding of all the issues involved. 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 also much influenced by Robert Owen, the celebrated industrialist and social reformer who had developed New Lanark in Scotland; she met him and discussed his plans for New Harmony, a community he was currently founding in Indiana.


The result of her research was not mere knowledge for its own sake; what she produced was no less than a practical plan for the elimination of slavery throughout the USA with no financial loss to the current owners of the slaves, estimated to number approximately 10,000,000. It was published in 1825 as A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South.


Cover of Frances Wright’s pamphlet promoting her plan for the gradual abolition of slavery, 1825

There were four main strands to her plan: slave owners were to be financially compensated for their ‘loss’, with the money being repaid through the work of the former slaves over several years; as they worked, the former slaves would be educated in the skills necessary to prepare them for life in free society; their children would also be educated and families kept together to establish stable home-lives; and to promote racial harmony, the farms themselves would be cooperative, with all persons treated and working equitably. Emancipation would serve as motivation, rather than barbaric corporal punishment.


The projections she produced in support of her plan were not an impractical Utopian vision; they were examined independently by former Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe amongst others and deemed to be practicable and worthy of trial.


In 1825, Wright purchased 2000 acres of land near Memphis, Tennessee, to put her ideas into practice and named her new community Nashoba, the Chickasaw word for ‘wolf’. Together with George Flower, who had previous experience of working with Black farmers, she planned out a model plantation with schools, workshops and leisure areas. Flower came on board as a partner, providing farm equipment, animals and provisions; she provided funds.


She then rode to Nashville, and for $400 to $500 each, bought eleven slaves including five men (Willis, Jacob, Gradison, Redick and Henry), three women (Nelly, Peggy and Kitty) and three of their children as the initial population of her farming community. James Richardson, a Scotsman from Perth who had studied medicine in Edinburgh, also committed to the project.


Drawing of the Nashoba Commune by Auguste Hervieu from Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Milton Trollope (1832)

After a promising start in establishing the farm and community despite the hard physical working and living conditions, Wright became dangerously ill with a fever that went to her brain. For three months she was in imminent danger. As an added problem, during that time George Flower left Nashoba.


Nevertheless, in mid-December, an educationalist named Maclure visited the community and was amazed at what she had achieved so quickly – he felt Nashoba was more advanced than Owen’s New Harmony, which had been in existence for longer.


Frances needed to return to Europe to recuperate, and a Deed of Trust was made out stating that Nashoba was to be held in trust for the benefit of the “negro race”; that there must always be a school for Black children; and emancipated slaves were to be colonised outside the USA, a policy decided as affording them the best chance of success.


On 9 June 1827 she left for Europe to recuperate, Camilla remaining at Nashoba. In Frances’ absence, matters at Nashoba soon deteriorated. Adverse local press reports commented that a woman had been refused permission to have a lock on her door and that Richardson had started living with Mam’selle Josephine, a ‘quadroon’. He had also flogged two women slaves – two dozen and one dozen lashes respectively on the bare back. The founding ideals were being betrayed.


Shocked at the news, Frances returned in November; en route, she penned her ‘Explanatory Notes…’ of the Nashoba philosophy for publication, intended to deflect continuing criticism. She stated that “No woman can forfeit her individual rights or independent existence, and no man assert over her any rights or power whatsoever”, that she therefore opposed the current institution of the church, and continued that sexual passion was “the strongest and…the noblest of the human passions”. Given the prevailing attitudes in the USA to family life and the Church, this ‘explanation’ merely added fuel to the flames.


Matters had deteriorated significantly at Nashoba in her absence, and Frances was finally forced to admit defeat in the face of all the criticism and lack of support, but she continued her crusade for justice and equality as editor of the New Harmony Gazette. She eventually decided that the Nashoba experiment had run its course, and that the emancipated slaves at should be resettled as promised. In October, she and Phiquepal d’Arusmont, a teacher, accompanied them to Haiti to establish them as free persons with a grant of government land, thus fulfilling her initial promise. She, Camilla and d’Arusmontthen returned to Paris.


Some six months later Frances had a daughter, Sylva; then, tragically, on 8 February 1831 her sister Camilla died. In July Frances married Phiquepal and took his family name of d’Arusmont; and in April the following year her second daughter was born.


Another tragedy hit Frances in June, when her baby died; interestingly, in view of her attitude to marriage and legitimacy, she decided in the best interests of her surviving daughter Sylva to ‘transfer’ her birthday; for the rest of her life, Sylva was recorded as being born on 14 April 1832, the birthday of her younger sister.


In December 1835 Frances and Guillaume needed to return to the USA to manage her investments; when there she was inspired by the political and racial unrest to start lecturing again, and the social crusade that she was driven to involve herself in inevitably impacted on her family life; between May 1840 and 1852 she crossed and recrossed the Atlantic seven times, and Phiquepal nine times, but never together.


Indeed, she built a house at Nashoba, planning to settle there, but her plans changed early in 1844 when the British Embassy informed her of an inheritance in Dundee. The estate consisted of various properties and land in Dundee, which had a total value of around £700,000 at today’s prices.


This inheritance proved a double-edged sword: it provided a considerable sum of much-needed money, but also started a serious disagreement about its disposal when Frances put it in a Trust over which she had control rather than her husband. Over the next few years matters became increasingly acrimonious, until Frances felt the need to file for divorce, which was granted in August 1851. In January 1852 she fell and broke a hip, living alone in acute pain for nearly a year. On 13 December 1852 Frances Wright made her will and died.


Her achievements are remarkable. Although, she did not succeed in solving the problem of slavery in the USA or in achieving equality for women, she did blaze a trail for generations to follow. She succeeded in making both issues a matter of public debate that required practical solutions, and provided a blueprint for progress. As an orator, she was inspirational, attracting huge audiences. She did all this as a woman, one who as such was not expected have opinions concerning the way society was arranged and certainly not to express them in public.


Her life is commemorated on her tombstone in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati and she rightly has a place on the Reformers’ Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. There are also plaques showing her birthplace outside her first home in Dundee.


Perhaps her best epitaph is what she said of herself: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement; staked on it my reputation, my fortune, and my life.”



Written by Roger Illsley



Sources:


C M Eckhardt, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, Harvard University Press, 1984


A J G Perkins& T Wolfson, Frances Wright: Free Enquirer, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1939


https://sites.lafayette.edu/slavery/frances-wright-and-nashoba/


https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/frances-wright


http://historic-memphis.com/biographies/wright/wright.html


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