Frances Wright

Lived:September 6, 1795—December 13, 1852 (aged 57)
Career:Lecturer, abolitionist, social reformer

Frances Wright, born September 6, 1795, in Dundee, Scotland, was a reformer and author. After her parents' deaths, she and her siblings were parceled out to various relatives, and Wright went to live with her aunt and maternal grandfather in England. She and her sister Camilla were reunited in Dawlish around 1806, only to suffer the death of their brother and their grandfather three years later. Wright and Camilla left Dawlish in 1813, moving to Scotland to live with their uncle James Mylne, a professor at the University of Glasgow, whose staunch opposition to the slave trade made a lasting impression on Wright. In Scotland, she began to explore her talents as a writer, completing her first version of "Altorf," a tragedy about the Swiss fight for self-rule, as well as a historical fantasy about a young female disciple of Epicurus, which she eventually published in 1822 as "A Few Days in Athens."

By the time Wright turned 21, her sights were firmly set on America. She and her sister set sail for the New World in August 1818. During Wright's two-year stay, "Altorf" was staged in New York (1819) and in Philadelphia (1820) with modest success, although its publication went largely unnoticed. Wright then set out to see the "real" America, traveling throughout the Northeast and collecting observations that would eventually become "Views of Society and Manners in America" (1821), a memoir constructed from a series of letters to a Scottish friend. Published after her return to England, the book was warmly received by Americans who liked her romantic portrait.

In 1825, after visiting Robert Owen's utopian society in New Harmony, Indiana, Wright purchased a tract of land near Memphis, Tennessee, named the settlement "Nashoba," and began her grand effort to confront the country's most painful dilemma. After acquiring several slaves, Wright set out to prove that the institution was unprofitable. She argued that if slaves were given an education and a goal--the promise of freedom in approximately five years--they would not only work harder but in the end the settlement would undersell its competitors. Although radical in its inception, Wright's proposal was tentatively endorsed by Thomas Jefferson, who thought her plan had "its aspects of promise."

Ultimately, Wright's experiment was destroyed by alleged improprieties. In addition to lean harvests and overwhelming debt, her health failed, and during her brief return to Europe the Genius of Universal Emancipation (1827) printed excerpts from Nashoba overseer James Richardson's journal, which described the "free love" practiced at the colony. Upon her return to the United States, she printed a full account of her views in the Memphis Advocate and embarked on a crusade against organized religion. This final affront to morality cost the settlement its financial backing, and by 1828, all of the other free members, including Camilla, had abandoned the project. Keeping her promise to her thirty slaves, Wright secured their freedom a year later, personally escorting them to Haiti.

Wright joined Robert Dale Owen as coeditor of the New Harmony Gazette, making her one of the first women to edit a widely circulated paper in the United States. Likewise, in July 1828, Wright shocked Americans by becoming one of the first women to speak publicly in front of a mixed audience. Traveling from Boston to New Orleans, Wright blasted religion, capital punishment, and the treatment of women, while simultaneously promoting equality and tolerance.

Settling outside of New York City, Wright, in 1829, purchased a church near the Bowery, and converted it into a "Hall of Science," a building that served as a lecture hall as well as a publishing house for the Free Enquirer (formerly the New Harmony Gazette). Although a vehement supporter of women's rights (the promotion of birth control earned her the title of "The Great Red Harlot of Infidelity"), she increasingly fixed her attention on public education, calling for free, state boarding schools funded by a graduated property tax. Wright's push for educational reform eventually led to her leadership of the free-thought movement in New York, and her involvement in the Workingman's party, which the opposition facetiously dubbed "the Fanny Wright party."

Wright returned to Europe in 1830, with her sister. After a brief stay in Paris, Camilla died, and in 1831, Wright married William Phiquepal, a French physician with whom she had traveled to Haiti in 1829. The couple had one child, and Wright spent several years in Paris away from the limelight. Unfortunately, her efforts in America collapsed without her presence. The Hall of Science was converted into a Methodist church, public interest in education waned, and the Free Enquirer ceased publication in 1835. Nevertheless, when she returned to America with her husband, Wright resumed her role as lecturer, joining Democrats on the campaign trail in both 1836 and 1838. Although she valiantly argued against the Bank of the United States in 1836, and continued to support both an independent treasury and gradual emancipation, she became discouraged by the public's lack of interest in her increasingly Comtean view of social ills. She left the United States in 1839 for France and spent the next decade embroiled in financial struggles, traveling from America to Europe five times. She and her husband divorced in 1850, and Wright lost custody of her child. She died in Cincinnati on December 13, 1852.

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