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. Part I went out yesterday. Here’s Part II.
Fanny Wright: “The Red Harlot of Infidelity”
Fanny Wright spent the next several years touring the United States and Europe promoting Nashoba. Along the way, she modified and enlarged its goals. But in the process, Nashoba developed a scandalous reputation. As a free woman controlling her own independent fortune, Wright was a fierce critic of prevailing marriage laws that subordinated wife to husband. She promised that at Nashoba, “no woman can forfeit her individual rights of independent existence and no man can assert over her any right or power whatsoever beyond what he may exercise over her free and voluntary affections.” She also despised puritanical attitude toward love and sex that consigned women to the age-old binary of virgin or whore. She wrote, “ignorant laws, ignorant prejudices, ignorant codes of morals, condemn one portion of the female sex to vicious excess, another to as vicious restraint and all to defenseless helplessness and slavery and generally the whole of the male sex to debasing licentiousness, if not to load some brutality.”
Above all, Wright attacked America’s pathological aversion to miscegenation. She arguged that racial mixing was not just the inevitable future of the United States, but the existing reality of the present. Everywhere in America, white men routinely raped black women, producing offspring they proceeded to ignore, repudiate, and enslave. The hostility to race-mixing in polite society was a form of hypocritical denial about what the white men of America were doing every night. Wright said of miscegenation, “the only question is whether it shall take place in good taste and good feeling…Or whether it shall proceed as it does now viciously and degradingly, mangling hatred and fear with the ties of blood.” She promised that at Nashoba, whites and blacks would be allowed to intermingle and find love and companionship as free and consenting equals.
Wright’s promises of free love and open miscegenation at Nashoba scandalized the salons of America. James Madison wrote to Lafayette that for all Wright’s noble intentions, she was creating, “insufferable obstacles to the good fruits of which they may be productive by her disregard or rather defiance of the most established opinion and vivid feelings” He later followed up to say, “her views of amalgamating the white and black population are universally obnoxious.” Lafayette continued to support her, and remained on the Board of Trustees of Nashoba, but everywhere else she turned, Wright found very few people in America willing to take her call.
With her utopian colony in Tennessee failing under the combined weight of geography, productivity, and scandal, Fanny Wright set out to blaze a new trail. Though still hoping to keep Nashoba going, she settled in Cincinnati in 1828 and embarked on a career as a newspaper editor and public speaker. Biographer Celia Morris Eckhart says when Wright set out on this new path in the summer of 1828, she was the first woman to exert editorial control of a general circulation newspaper in the United States and the first women to deliver public lectures to a mixed audience of men and women.
Fanny Wright’s first public address was in Cincinnati on July 4, 1828. The spectacle of a woman giving a social reform speech drew the attention of the local community, and more than a thousand people showed up. A friendly observer wrote, “I knew her extraordinary gift of eloquence, her almost unequal command of words and the wonderful power of her rich and thrilling voice…But all my expectations fell far short of the splendor, the brilliance, the overwhelming eloquence of this extraordinary orator.” People may have come out of curiosity, but they stayed because they were captivated.
Wright’s lecture covered a broad array of social reform issues: equal rights, free education, women’s equality, poor relief, and of course, the abolition of slavery. She called on her audience to look, “to your jails, to your penitentiaries, to your houses of refuge, to your hospitals, to your asylums…to your haunts of intemperance, to your victims lost in vice and hardened in profligacy, to childhood without protection, to youth without guidance, to the widow without sustenance, to the female destitute and female outcast, sentenced to shame and sold to degradation.” The world was filled with the victims of social injustice, and they all deserved a chance at a better life.
Undaunted by her previous brushes with offending the sensibilities of polite society, Wright proceeded to open a broadside on the institution she felt was most responsible social injustice: organized religion. She thundered “In any improvement suggested in our social arrangements, calculated to equalize property, labor, instruction, and enjoyment; to destroy crime by removing provocation; vice by removing ignorance; and to build up virtue in the human breast by exchanging the spirit of self-abasement for that of self-respect—who are the foremost to treat the suggestions as visionary, the reform as impossible? They who live by the fears and the vices of their fellow creatures; and who obtain their subsistence on earth by opening and shutting the door of heaven.” By this she meant the priests and ministers who used fear and superstition to maintain an unjust status quo.
The lecture in Cincinnati was such a success that she repeated the performance then hit the road. Wright toured cities across Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, drawing thousands of people at every stop. In early 1829, she took her lectures to the great cities of the east. Setting up in a Masonic Hall in New York City, Wright drew 1500-2000 people every time she spoke.
Her growing popularity drew withering attacks from the powers she criticized. Influential ministers called her, “The Red Harlot of Infidelity.” A newspaper editorial declared, “It is time we should have done with Ms. Wright, her pestilent doctrines, and her deluded followers, who are as much to be pitied, as their priestess is to be despised.” The editorial went on to say, “she comes amongst us in the character of a bold blasphemer and a voluptuous preacher of licentiousness…Casting off all restraint she would break down all the barriers to virtue, and reduce the world to one grand theater of vice and sensuality in its most loathsome form.” But despite the growing backlash, she continued to command popular attention. The great poet Walt Whitman later recalled, “She was a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate, who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good, public good, private good…We all loved her, fell down before her, her very appearance seemed to enthrall us.”
With her speaking career taking off, Wright finally admitted the Nashoba experiment was irretrievable. The small community sunk into demoralized poverty and there seemed no hope of reviving its fortunes. Wright was determined to shut down the commune and free the still-enslaved black residents. She did not trust the neighboring Americans to not simply re-enslave them as soon as she left. Through the help of several friends, including Lafayette, Wright contacted the government of the free Republic of Haiti and received an invitation to bring the families to settle on the island as free citizens. In early 1830, she charted a ship and transported them from New Orleans to Port-au-Prince where President Jean-Pierre Boyer personally pledged them land on his estates. Wright stayed in Haiti for a month then returned to New York City.
Back in New York City, Wright became deeply involved in municipal city politics and continued to attack religion, racism, slavery, misogyny, and economic inequality. She became connected to a new party of craftsmen and skilled laborers called the Workingmen’s Party; they were dubbed the “Fanny Wrightists” by the press.
Wright herself now considered universal free education to be the silver bullet that would cure all social ills. She proposed a network of national boarding schools that would educate all children regardless of race, gender, or economic class. She considered this superior to regular classrooms where children still returned each night to very different circumstances which affected their success. As Robert Dale Owen said, “If the children from the state schools are to go home every evening, the one to his wealthy parents’ soft carpeted drawing room and the other to his poor father’s or widowed mother’s comfortless cabin, will they return the next day as friends and equals? He knows little of human nature if he thinks they will.” But few supported the farfetched plan that promised to permanently break up families. The proposal broke the unity of the Workingmen’s Party in mid-1830 and they splintered.
After more than five years in America, Fanny Wright’s reputation increasingly turned from famous to infamous. The Minister Lyman Beecher, who was no knee-jerk reactionary, nonetheless said Wright was part of, “a conspiracy in your land against the being of God, and our civil, and social, and religious institutions.” Increasingly isolated and uncomfortable, with subscriptions to her newspapers falling and audiences at her lectures dwindling, Wright decided to return to Europe.
She had begun a romantic relationship with a French doctor and teacher earlier in the year, and in the summer of 1830 found herself pregnant out-of-wedlock at the age of 35. She decided to leave the hostile scrutiny of the United States and return to Europe where she could resettle herself in purposeful obscurity. After she gave birth, Wright finally bowed to the unavoidable demands of society. In late 1831, she married the father of her daughter to secure the child’s legitimacy. Lafayette, who had never stopped supporting her, was one of the witnesses at the small ceremony.
Fanny Wright’s star blazed a fiery trail through the United States in the 1820s, but her own light dimmed after settling in France. Her marriage was unhappy, she withdrew not just from public life, but also from her friends. Her disappointments and resentments started to outweigh her dreams and successes. In 1836, she relocated back to the United States and attempted to revive her public career but discovered the label “Fanny Wrightist” was a political pejorative.
To compensate, she dialed back many of her previous radical views, and even denounced more radical abolitionists for their extremism. She latched on to the Democratic Party machine as a traveling speaker, but her energy, motivation, and interest waned. During these years, her marriage collapsed, and by 1839 she was depressed, spent, and once again ready to quit public life. From her final home in Cincinnati, she continued to write, publishing a final book in 1848. But it was published anonymously, as her name was now more a hindrance than a selling point. Fanny Wright died in Cincinnati in 1852 at the age of just 57, still enmeshed in a protracted divorce from the estranged husband she never wanted to marry in the first place.
Fanny Wright was a trailblazing social reformer who did not mind incurring the wrath of the unjust societies she attacked, but she clearly paid a price for her brazen flouting of social norms. She marched around America challenging the power of organized religion and racist white supremacy, two of the most deeply rooted institutions in the young country. Her utopian community failed, her social reform movement died, and she was cast aside into obscurity. But Fanny Wright is a shining example of the kind of moral courage that was required to change a nation for the better. Wright was unable to finish what she started, but others picked up her mantle and kept going. Without people like Fanny Wright, nothing good ever comes of this world. And for that we owe her our admiration, respect, and the dignity of being remembered.
To learn more about Fanny Wright, the definitive biography of her is Fanny Wright: Rebel in America by Celia Morris Eckhart, which provided most of the details and direct quotes for this piece. (https://www.amazon.com/Fanny-Wright-Celia-Morris-Eckhardt/dp/0252062493) Most of Wright’s books, essays, and collected lectures, including Views of Society and Manners in America are available for free online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library.