Frances (Fanny) Wright
The 19th century in the U.S. was an age of reform, and there were many popular causes such abolition of slavery, women’s rights, temperance and more. And when these activist reformers were women then that presented a challenge. That’s because in the early 1800s, “decent” women did not speak to public audiences, especially crowds of mixed gender. It was just considered improper. However, over time women began to defy this custom and one of them was Scottish born Frances (Fanny) Wright who advocated many different causes. What made her unique was not just that she spoke about these issues, but that she often attracted adverse criticism, even from some fellow reformers. As one source put it, “Her views on slavery, theology, and women’s rights were considered radical for that time and attracted harsh criticism from the press and clergy.”
Born in September, 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, she was the daughter of a wealthy factory owner and political radical who was in contact with similarly minded thinkers of the time. She lost her parents while she was still young and was raised by relatives. At age sixteen she lived with an uncle, a philosophy professor at whose home she studied, and read on her favorite subjects. Because of her inheritance Fanny was a wealthy young woman.
In 1818 Fanny and a sister traveled to the U.S. where she had a play produced and performed before she returned to Great Britain. Then in 1820, like other British revelers, she published a book on American customs and society, and this brought her to the attention of other similar thinkers. The next year after a trip to France she met the Marquis De Lafayette, who during the American Revolution had befriended the Americans in support of their independence and he and she became friends. Then when he returned to the U.S. in 1824 to wide acclaim Fanny accompanied him. At the time they visited many American figures such as Thomas Jefferson, as well as Presidents James Madison, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
Since Fanny was not part of Lafayette’s official party she was free to travel on her own and as she passed through Mississippi she saw slavery first hand. She later 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.”
In February, 1825 Fanny left Lafayette’s company to visit a utopian community in Pennsylvania that was eventually operated by British reformer Robert Dale Owen who called it New Harmony. In fact, her introduction to this sort of community encouraged her, to later set up a similar facility in Tennessee.
Then after spending time in Indiana, she rejoined Lafayette’s company to visit a utopian community in Pennsylvania that was eventually operated by British reformer Robert Dale Owen, who called it New Harmony. In fact, her introduction to this sort of community encouraged her, to later set up a similar facility in Tennessee.
Then after spending time in Indiana, she rejoined Lafayette’s entourage in New Orleans and after he returned to France, Fanny remained and later became an American citizen.
In 1825 Fanny put into action what she’d seen at New Harmony when she purchased property near Memphis, Tennessee to set up her community she called Nashoba. Her idea was to show how enslaved persons, could achieve their freedom by paying back their masters, and learning skills they need in a new life of freedom. For this purpose she acquired several enslaved persons to begin her ideal program.
The word Nashoba was Chickasaw for the local “Wolf River” and while it was directed toward the enslaved, Fanny welcomed anyone of any race who wanted to work. According to one source, “She envisioned a self-sustaining, multi-racial community composed of slaves, free blacks and whites.”
However, over time Nashoba faced various challenges. It was built on swampy land which brought the threat of malaria as well as poor harvests. Fanny herself had the disease, and as she left the community to recover Nashoba began to decline, due to personnel difficulties as well as other problems. When Fanny returned in 1828 she found the project was in imminent collapse. Then in 1830 Fanny arranged for 30 enslaved persons to travel to Haiti where they could live in freedom. Germantown, Tennessee now occupies the Nashoba site.
Fanny then returned to live in the New Harmony property where she managed their newspaper—and at the same time she began to speak publicly about her support for votes for women, slavery and other causes.
She also acquired a venue for her lectures in New York City, and from 1833 to 1836 her lectures on slavery and other causes brought enthusiastic audiences, in what became known as Fanny Wright societies. She traveled around the country to lecture and later publish about her experiences.
Actually, many of her main critics were clergy (because she opposed organized religion) and the press. In fact one newspaper called her a “female monster” because of her embracing unpopular causes and others in the press called her “The Great Red Whore.”
In 1831 Fanny married French doctor Guillauyme D’Arusmont in Paris, who was a teacher she met at New Harmony. Their daughter Frances-Sylvia D’Arusmont was born the next year. Eventually Fanny and her family settled in Cincinnati in 1844 where she continued to travel and lecture.
Then in 1850 she filed for divorce, which began several years of legal battles, for control of her money and of her daughter. However, the issues were not settled by the time of her death in 1852, and at the time she was estranged from her daughter, who eventually inherited her estate. As it turned out, her life purpose was reflected in her epitaph: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.