I’m still on vacation! Mike Duncan, host of the popular podcast “Revolutions,” is in charge. He wrote an original essay about Fanny Wright, a fascinating woman he learned about while writing Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolutions, which I’ll release in two parts.
Thanks again to Dr. Kimberly A. Hamlin for last week’s takeover. Her essay explored the real history behind a famous photo of women protesting outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Dr. Hamlin will be interviewing me about You Never Forget Your First tonight at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Fanny Wright: “The Red Harlot of Infidelity”
When writing a book, an author encounters many fascinating people, ideas, or events that touch on their subject matter, but which, thanks to cold math of word counts, cannot be explored in depth. Following every tangential thread would quickly turn a 450-page book into a 450,000 page book—and publishers do not approve of 450,000 page books. The author must instead stay ruthlessly focused on their subject. If they are lucky, they might manage to hint that there is much more to a particular story before moving on. But then they must move on.
Writing a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette meant encountering such fascinating tangents at almost every turn. But one person deserves to be explored in more depth, and I’m thrilled to tell her story here. I am talking about the groundbreaking reformer, abolitionist, feminist, utopian socialist, editor, lecturer, and author Frances “Fanny” Wright.
Fanny Wright was born in Scotland in 1795, the daughter of a wealthy linen manufacturer. She and her sister were orphaned at a young age and inherited a fortune that allowed them the freedom to live as they pleased. Precocious, talented, and ambitious, Wright inhaled the radical political and social doctrines churned up in the wake of the French Revolution, and as a teenager, she became fixated on the United States as a land free of the prejudices and backwardness of Europe. For her, America was a place where radical social doctrines could be put into practice.
Fanny and her sister Camilla embarked on a trip to visit this fabled land of liberty in 1818 and spent nearly two years touring the young country. When they returned to England in 1820, Wright wrote Views of Society and Manners in America, an anthropological travelogue extolling the virtues (and foibles) of American society. The book was a hit upon publication and earned her invitations to join the liberal salons in London hosted by utilitarian philosopher and political reformer Jeremy Bentham, who became an early admirer and champion of her work.
Bentham was a regular correspondent of the Marquis de Lafayette, an aging icon of American and French Revolutions, and the leader of the liberal opposition to the Restored Bourbon monarchy. Lafayette liked anyone who liked America, and Bentham forwarded him a copy of Wright’s book, paving the way for her to visit France and meet the famous “Hero of Two Worlds.” Wright jumped at the chance, and when she met Lafayette in the summer of 1821, they quickly bonded. They shared liberal beliefs, a love of America, and opposition to slavery.
The exact nature of their budding relationship is not clear. Wright was a starstruck 24-year-old and Lafayette was a 63-year-old widower; at a minimum, they entered a father-daughter dynamic with the orphaned Wright readily accepting Lafayette’s paternal love. Whether they consummated a sexual affair remains hidden just below the surface of the historical record.
Since the point of this article is to talk about the things I was not able to include in Hero of Two Worlds if you want more on their relationship, Wright’s participation in Lafayette’s ultimately failed attempt to trigger a liberal revolution to overthrow the Bourbon dynasty on New Year’s Day 1822, and the growing concern of Lafayette’s children about the constant presence of Wright in their father’s household, please check out the book! Hero of Two Worlds will also explain that after Lafayette’s uprising failed, he decided to take a long vacation in the United States, where he and his ideas were cheered, not stifled. Wright insisted on accompanying him and Lafayette happily agreed, though he declined her suggestion to legitimize their relationship by either marrying her or adopting her.
In the summer of 1824, Wright and her sister Camilla traveled to the United States to join Lafayette as he embarked on his tour. But the two unmarried and unaccompanied women became an awkward social problem. Lafayette made them welcome, but they could not join his official entourage without offending American sensibilities, which were buttressed by a stiff puritanical streak underneath the veneer of egalitarian liberty. The awkwardness increased as Wright voiced her more radical points of view among American society. She now saw clearly that for all its utopian promise, the United States was a country bound by rigidly enforced social, gender, and above all, racial hierarchies. “An impartial spectator opens his eyes and amazement at this wonderful attachment to pure white skin…in which predilections, the morals, happiness, wealth, peace, and finally the very lives of the whole population are to be sacrificed.” Comments like this did not endear her to polite society.
The veil continued to lift as she accompanied Lafayette south into Virginia to visit his old friends Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Though she still allowed herself to be awed by the great Jefferson, Wright was disillusioned by the speeches she heard in every city extolling the virtues of liberty and equality, so passionately delivered by defenders of slavery. “The enthusiasm, triumphs and rejoices exhibited here before the countenance of the great and good Lafayette no longer have charms for me,” she wrote home to a friend. “They who sin against the liberty of their country, against those great principles for which their honored guest poured on their soil his treasure and his blood, are not worthy to rejoice in his presence. My soul sickens in the midst of gaiety.” By the end of 1824, she was ready to let Lafayette continue his tour without her. She wanted to chart her own, less hypocritical path through America.
While in Washington, D.C. over the winter of 1824-1825, Wright attended the lectures of another European visitor to the United States, Robert Owen. Owen was a Welsh industrialist and utopian socialist who made a fortune in textile manufacturing while simultaneously introducing groundbreaking improvements in working conditions and living standards for his workers. Owen was in the United States to begin what he hoped would be the culmination of his reform efforts: Founding a utopian society in Indiana built on principles of cooperative socialism.
Wright was inspired by Owen’s lectures, and when Lafayette headed into the deep south to continue his tour, Wright went west to meet with the Owenites of New Harmony, Indiana. Impressed by their ideas, she formulated her own plan for a utopian community. But her community would focus on resolving the great moral contradiction of the United States: liberty and slavery. Wright planned a community where slaves would be gradually emancipated, proving to the world that slavery was neither just nor necessary. With Lafayette writing her a few key letters of introduction, Wright threw herself into the project and spent the rest of 1825 making plans, securing land in Tennessee, and purchasing thirty slaves who would be brought to live alongside a group of white residents and managers. She called her utopian community Nashoba.
Wright believed Nashoba would quickly prosper. Her plan called for the slaves to earn wages, and after they earned enough, they would purchase their own freedom. She forbade the white residents to use force, violence, or coercion of any kind. Meanwhile, the enslaved families would be educated by teachers Wright hired. She believed the enslaved families would work hard to earn their liberty, then work even harder as free people. But despite her hopes, Nashoba suffered problems from the start. The land she picked was neither rich nor productive and it was infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos. She also discovered the enslaved families were less motivated than expected by her dangled promises of freedom.
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