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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,148

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This is the grave of Fanny Wright.

Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, Wright grew up wealthy. Her father was a linen industrialist, making him a capitalist of the early Industrial Revolution. Her father however was also quite radical. He and Adam Smith had a correspondence (ignore what right-wingers who have never actually read Smith say, he was really quite a progressive thinker for his time) and supported the French Revolution. But her parents died when she was a child and so she was raised by an aunt who also had radical thoughts. She read deeply in Greek philosophy and started writing about it by the time she was 18 years old.

In 1818, Wright visited the U.S. for the first time. She probably expected it to be more radical than it was. She had a play all ready to go on the Swiss independent movement from those evil Austro-Hungarians, but it closed after three performances in New York. It played in Philly too though and she had a good time and mostly enjoyed the U.S. She certainly found the nation fascinating. In fact, much of Europe did. So when she published Views of Society and Manners in America in 1821, it was a big deal. Most importantly for her, it caught the attention of Jeremy Bentham and she benefited in a big-time way from his patronage. The Marquis de Lafayette also read her work and invited her to France. They became very close friends, to the point that his kids thought she was honing on in the future inheritance. So this was a major European intellectual by the time she was in her mid-20s, all the more remarkable because she was a she.

In fact, in 1824, Wright accompanied Lafayette on his tour of the U.S., meaning she got to know Jefferson and Madison and John Quincy Adams and all the big wigs of the time. By this time, she was determined to be part of the change she wanted to see. During that tour, she decided to peel off from Lafayette and explore these new intentional communities she’d been hearing about. Her whole life, short as it still was at this time, had been about rethinking social norms. That very much included gender norms. So she had exposed herself to a huge amount of influences and she came up with her own ideas about how a society should run. That included what people called “free love” at the time, but this is not the Summer of Love here. It’s people being able to make choices on their relationships outside of coercion and change that status when it seemed right to do, i.e., how normal people not bound by right-wing religious ideas act today. Wright’s ideas very much revolved around freedom for women to control their own bodies. She advocated for a free discussion of birth control and dissemination of what methods they were without penalty. She also demanded political rights for women, including legal rights for married women. Moreover, Wright went much farther than your average reformer in the 1820s–she advocated not only for the end of slavery but for actual social equality, including interracial marriages. In short, Wright was everything right-wingers fear.

Wright didn’t necessarily know how to start her own intentional community yet, so she went and stayed with George Rapp and his Pennsylvania community and then Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana. She and Owen got along pretty well, having similar ideas about women’s equality, education, and a number of social issues. Wright did go back to see Lafayette before he left for France, but she decided to stay in the U.S. to try out her ideas there and she even became a U.S. citizen in 1825.

Then Wright decided to found her own community and to do so in an area of the country pretty hostile to the reform movements popping up farther north. Outside of Memphis, in the middle of the cotton belt, where slavery was predominant, Wright established Nashoba. She didn’t want to just provide for an experimental community. She wanted to show southerners how they could gradually end slavery. As such, she bought about 30 slaves and then had them work off the price, at which point they were free. The idea was to then send the freed slaves outside of the United States. Even a radical such as Wright couldn’t get beyond the idea that the Black and white races should not live together. The community itself was basically a disaster, as these things usually were. Just clearing land and building housing was an enormous task and even though Wright physically did her part in this, what could she do about the mosquitoes? In fact, she contracted malaria and retreated back to New Harmony to recover. While she was gone, the guy she left in charge, a white man named James Richardson, started living openly with a Black woman named Josephine Lalotte. This outraged local society, who were extremely skeptical of these weirdos seeking to end slavery anyway. But Wright returned and kept the community going until 1830. At this point, she closed it but she accompanied all the slaves she had freed to Haiti where they could live in a Black nation.

After the failure of Nashoba, Wright went back to New Harmony where she edited The New Harmony and Nashoba Gazette with Owen, pushing both of their ideas to an increasingly fascinated and often repelled audience. Americans found Wright scandalous. To be fair, Americans were easily scandalized in this period, as what we might even consider relatively moderate reform ideas shocked people to their core. But Wright was a genuine social radical and so there was widespread outrage. At the same time, other reformers started Fanny Wright societies to try and put her ideas into action. Wright traveled around the country a lot, giving speeches about free love and her other ideas for real social equality. She took a lot of harassment but she influenced a lot of people too. She published a book in 1829 titled Course of Popular Lectures that she updated in 1836.

Over time, Wright became even more radical. Eventually, she left the Democratic Party, where she had put her hopes because of its rhetoric about working people and democracy, though she had supported Andrew Jackson for a long time. She realized these were mostly lies and to the extent they were not, they were only about specific white men. So she joined the Working Man’s Party and other third party movements. Wright eventually married the French physician and radical Guillaume D’Arusmont. He had been at New Harmony for awhile. They fell in love and when he returned to Paris, she joined him. They married in 1831. They returned to the U.S. in 1835 for another big lecture tour. For the next decade, she was back and forth between Europe and the U.S.

Finally, in 1844, Wright returned to the U.S. full time, choosing Cincinnati as her home base. Interesting choice given that while centrally located, it was not a radical city by any means and her presence there was plenty controversial. She also underwent the exact kind of situation that she fought against her whole life. In 1850, she and D’Arusmont divorced. In her ideal, this would have been a simple legal issue. But of course the real United States was not her ideal and D’Arusmont might have talked a big game about reform, but when it came to the divorce, he wanted custody of their daughter and lots of her money, which was mattered as she was pretty rich. Her daughter stopped talking to her during this period too. This dominated the rest of her life and her affairs were not settled upon her death. Her health had declined in the last decade anyway. Her last book was England, the Civilizer in 1848, which seems pretty dubious to me, but then I haven’t read it. Nor has probably anyone alive except Wright scholars.

Wright died in Cincinnati in 1852, at the age of 57. She fell on ice and broke her hip. Awful young for that to take you out, but given the medicine of the time and her health problems, it was enough.

Fanny Wright is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other founders of experimental 19th century communities, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Dale Owen is in New Harmony, Indiana and Joseph Smith is in Nauvoo, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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