by Dan Allosso, find him on Facebook, Twitter, and on the web.
Frances Wright was born in 1795 in Dundee. Scotland. Her father was a wealthy, politically radical linen manufacturer, but he and Frances’s mother both died by the time she was three. Frances and her sister Camilla inherited a fortune, and as they grew up in the homes of a variety of relatives, it became apparent that Frances was a remarkable young woman. As a teenager in Glasgow, Frances was introduced to literature and philosophy by people who had known Adam Smith and David Hume. By the time she was eighteen, Frances was writing plays for her circle of friends. One of them, Altorf, was staged in England and America. Frances also wrote an story celebrating Epicurean philosophy, which was later published as A Few Days in Athens.
But it was America that really excited Frances, and it was in America that she became a famous secular radical. When she was twenty-three, in 1818, Frances and Camilla toured America for nearly two years. Like many Europeans, Frances was excited about the possibility of a new way of life that seemed to be written into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Frances put this optimism into Views of Society and Manners in America (1821), and it became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and made Wright a minor celebrity in America. When she returned a few years later, Frances was welcomed by regular people and high society. Traveling with the Marquis de Lafayette, a family friend who had taken a keen interest in the brilliant young heiress, Frances accompanied the Revolutionary hero as he revisited the nation he had helped create. Frances met Jefferson at Monticello, and discovered he was a fan of her play and appreciated the positive things she had said about America in Society and Manners. She also discovered slavery.
The fact that Thomas Jefferson and many other champions of Democracy held millions of fellow humans in slavery shocked Frances. Slavery was obviously inconsistent with the ideals of the American Revolution and the Declaration that announced all people were “created equal.” Frances traveled the South, observing conditions and talking to people. She visited Andrew Jackson at his Tennessee home (he was a Senator at this time), and discussed a radical plan for emancipation. Jackson was impressed, and suggested Frances should go ahead and try it on a tract of land outside Memphis. In 1825, Frances Wright started Nashoba, the first cooperative community dedicated to educating and emancipating slaves.
Part of the idea behind Nashoba came from Robert Owen’s Indiana commune, New Harmony. Owen was a Scottish industrialist devoted to cooperative social reform; another Wright family friend. But Frances Wright was the first person to suggest there might be a way to solve America’s slavery problem without conflict. Nashoba was partially successful. The thirty slaves Wright bought and brought to the community were ultimately freed and taken to Haiti, where they and Frances were warmly welcomed. Unfortunately, the community ran into problems stemming from its small size, its remoteness, and personality conflicts unrelated to its abolitionist mission. When Nashoba failed to miraculously cure American slavery overnight, its critics claimed Wright’s plan was idealistic and utopian. Frances had also made the mistake of offending white sensibilities by suggesting that the long-term solution to the race problem might be intermarriage and the creation of a mixed American population. Ironically, both racial mixing and eliminating slavery without war worked in many Latin American nations such as Mexico and Brazil. But shortsighted slaveholders and racial purists in America were sure it couldn’t be done, and this became a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a war that historians have told us was inevitable and unavoidable.
After Nashoba, Frances moved to New York. Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, partnered with Wright to build a Free Enquirer’s society dedicated to social change. Frances bought an old church and converted it to a Hall of Science that sponsored lectures, dances, and social events. Wright and Owen started a freethought newspaper, and Wright financed a secular evangelical mission into the heart of Puritan New England that established Abner Kneeland and his paper, The Boston Investigator, in Massachusetts. On the Fourth of July, 1828, Frances became the first woman to give a speech in front of a large, public audience, at New Harmony. Her critics were enraged that Frances had stepped out of the woman’s traditional role, but she was a great speaker. Frances spoke again in August, to a larger crowd in Cincinnati. By 1829, Frances had enough material to publish A Course of Popular Lectures , including speeches she had delivered in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. It was immediately reprinted in London and eagerly read by secularists on both sides of the Atlantic.
For most of her life, Frances’s personal life came second to her mission as a social reformer. Although she inherited a substantial fortune, Frances chose to live simply. She regularly put herself in uncomfortable, and sometimes in dangerous circumstances, in the name of emancipation, workers’ rights, and social change. Like her close friend Robert Dale Owen, Frances believed women should be completely equal with men — her personal demonstration of what this would look like frightened and antagonized defenders of the status quo. When she found herself pregnant, Frances bowed to social pressure and married a man who wasn’t a good match for her, with predictable results. But in spite of her personal disappointments, Frances was recognized by nineteenth-century Americans who knew her as a tireless social reformer. Freethinker and poet Walt Whitman called Wright “a brilliant woman…who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good.” Frances Wright’s story and her contributions to secularism and reform deserve a special place in American history.
About the Author
Dan Allosso is an author, farmer, and freethought historian. Dan lives with his family on a small farm in the upper midwest, where he is regularly distracted from writing his dissertation for a PhD in History, by interesting farm challenges and freethought history projects. He has recently completed the first volume of a Freethought History series. An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy is the first-ever biography of the doctor who was jailed for writing America’s first birth control book. Dan can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and on the web.