The Utopian Visions of Frances Wright: Part II

Fanny had developed her fourth Utopian Vision, to transform America and achieve Liberty and Justice for All.

On July 4, 1828, Frances Wright was the main speaker at New Harmony’s Independence Day celebration. As such she was probably the first woman in America to be the main speaker for a large, mixed public audience.

Fanny was a tremendous success. She decided to seek larger audiences. Fanny embarked on a national circuit over the next several months speaking in Cincinnati , St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York.

In her lectures, Fanny said that her purpose was to outline “the field of truth… to expose such existing errors as much tend to blind the intellectual sight to its perception.” She stated that “…I have wedded the cause of human improvement; staked [on it] my reputation, my fortune, and my life; and as, for it, I threw behind me in earliest youth the follies of my age, the luxuries of ease and European aristocracy …so will I …devote what remains to me of talent, strength, fortune, and existence to the same sacred cause – the promotion of just knowledge, the establishing of just practice, the increase of human happiness.”

Fanny ended her lectures by calling for the creation in each community of a Hall of Science, where people could come together to build the institutions of a republican culture.

Fanny was a sensation and people flocked to hear her. Frances Trollope, an Englishwoman and future author who knew Frances Wright, wrote this after hearing Fanny speak. “I knew her extraordinary gift of eloquence, her almost unequaled 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… Her tall and majestic figure, the deep and almost solemn expression in her eyes, the simple contour of her finely formed head, unadorned, excepting by its own natural ringlets; her garment of plain white muslin, which hung around her in folds that recalled the drapery of a Grecian statue, all contributed to produce an effect, unlike any thing I have ever seen before, or ever expect to see again.”

Another observer said that he was “wonder struck” by Fanny’s matchless eloquence. He wrote that Fanny was, “A prodigy in learning, in intellect and in courage, she awes into deference the most refractory bigot.”

Frances Wright was indeed a sensation. She broke the mold of the contemporary role for women. As such, she was considered an oddity by some and grandly heroic by others. Many were offended to see a woman stepping so far outside of proscribed roles by speaking in public. Fanny defied a fear of women that was so deeply entrenched in the assumptions and institutions of American culture of the time, that no one even understood that it was there. They simply knew that a woman had a place, and if she strayed outside it, the walls of the temple would come down.

Criticism of Fanny in the press was severe at the onset. People came to hear her because she defied convention; because she was the center of controversy. After they came and heard her, they left inspired and filled with her ideas. And they were coming in greater numbers with an increasing number of women in the audience. However, all of the “refractory bigots” were not subdued. It was at this time that the press began to refer to Fanny as “The High Priestess of Infidelity” and “The Great Red Harlot of Infidelity”. Infidelity in this instance referred to Fanny’s anti-religious views rather than her anti-marriage views.

After her tour, Frances Wright decided to stay in New Your City. Along with Robert Dale Owen, Fanny moved the New Harmony Gazette to New York, renaming it the Free Enquirer. Fanny bought the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Broome Street and renamed it the Hall of Science. On April of 1829 Frances Wright gave the opening address at the Hall of Science and consecrated it to “the sectarian faith” and devoting it to “universal knowledge”. From the Hall of Science Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen published the Free Enquirer twice weekly. And Fanny frequently gave lectures.

Once settled in New York, the controversy stirred by Fanny’s views on the role of women in society, political corruption and the need to radically restructure society to provide economic justice for all, began to have physical manifestations at her lectures. There was verbal abuse and smoke bombs. Some of her audiences were assaulted. Once they turned off the gas lines plunging the lecture hall into darkness. Fanny finished her lecture by candlelight accompanied by thunderous applause.

Frances Wright’s lectures and opinions had increasingly distanced her from the aristocratic society of Lafayette. Her high placed social connections had disappeared. Likewise, her radicalism severed her connections to liberal social reformers. Increasingly, her audiences were members of the new working class labor movement.

Accompanying America’s climate of social change was a profound economic change caused by the restructuring of industrial production. Skilled workers were becoming impersonal cogs in the machinery of production. The new economy had no appreciation for artisan skills. Lacking education, skilled laborers were being left out of the economic expansion. Some of them decided to organize politically.

The Working Men’s Party was organized in 1828 to give political voice to this movement. Although Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen were not directly involved with the Working Men’s Party, they were active supporters of it.

Liberation for the Working Man was Frances Wright’s fifth Utopian Vision.
The themes in Fanny’s lectures, advocating universal free public education and equal distribution of wealth and property addressed issues of concern to the Loco-Focos, as the members of the Working Men’s Party were called.

Fanny’s reputation was used to cast disrepute on the labor movement. Members of the Working Men’s Party were dismissed by the press as “Fanny Wrighters” and Fanny was dubbed “The Great She Loco-Foco”.

Fanny felt that America was on the cusp of change or ruin. Her lectures reflected this perception. One of her lectures in 1829 contained the following passage:

“Look around on the misery which is gaining on the land! Mark the strife, and the discord, and the jealousies, the shock of interests and opinions, the hatreds of sect, the estrangements of class, the pride of wealth, the debasement of poverty, the helplessness of youth unprotected, of age uncomforted, of industry unrewarded, of ignorance unenlightened, of vice unreclaimed, of misery unpitied, of sickness, hunger, and nakedness unsatisfied, unalleviated and unheeded. Go! Mark all the wrongs and the wretchedness which the eye and the ear and the heart are familiar, and then echo in triumph and celebrate in jubilee the insulting declaration – all men are free and equal!”

In the fall of 1929 Frances Wright had unfinished business in Nashoba. In October Fanny left New York to take Nashoba’s newly liberated slaves to Haiti. She was accompanied by Philippe Darusmont; a Frenchman who owned the presses that published the Free Enquirer. In most ways her trip to Haiti was uneventful. She was well received by President Boyer who arranged work and housing for Nashoba’s former residents. During the trip, Fanny had grown close to Philippe Darusmont and found, after her return to New York in April of 1830, that she was pregnant.

Fanny soon discovered that her antagonists had been busy during her 6 month absence. Conservatives and fundamentalists continued to attack her in the press. She had become the most vilified person in America.

Fanny felt that she was in no position to stay and fight. After some rousing lectures that caused a few riots she announced that she had urgent affairs to settle in Europe. In May of 1830 Frances Wright left with Philippe Darusmont and Camilla for France.

Without Fanny’s leadership, all of her achievements soon collapsed in her absence. The Hall of Science was sold and became a Methodist Church. The Free Enquirer stopped publication and Robert Dale Owen returned to New Harmony.

The fruits of Frances Wright’s Utopian Visions had withered. Her future causes would not measure up. They would lack the broad sweeping transformative scope of her earlier Utopian Visions.

In France Fanny lived in self-imposed isolation, keeping herself apart from friends and family in Europe and her American friends as well. She married Philippe Darusmont and had a daughter. She suffered the losses of her second child, her sister Camilla and Lafayette. She seemed unable to form a close relationship with her husband or daughter. After a 6-year absence, Fanny returned to America in January of 1836. She was 40 years old.

Until this point in her life, Frances Wright was driven by her visions and uncompromising. Upon returning to America, Fanny adopted the cause of supporting President Jackson’s Independent Treasury Bill, which would eliminate currency arrangements with the powerful and private United States Bank. This was the issue that consumed Fanny. She saw the United States Bank as the embodiment of financial elitism and oppression. Fanny pursued her newfound cause with tunnel vision. The “ends” of eliminating the power of the United States Bank justified taking the Jacksonian positions of accommodating southern slavery, a pestilence that she had spent 4 years of her life trying to cure, and suppression of political dissent. By compromising and subordinating her positions on slavery and free speech, Fanny distanced herself from the Owens and many of her old supporters.

In 1838 Fanny embarked on what would be her last mass audience lecture series. This series of 5 lectures covering the independent Treasury bill, free speech, universal free education and women’s rights were marked by near riot conditions.

The last lecture was the most dramatic. 5,000 people came to hear her speech and by the time it was over 10,000 waited outside. Afterwards, it took an hour to clear the hall and the police needed to protect Fanny from a surging mob outside. The press criticized Fanny saying that, “Riot and Revolution is the element she creates and breathes in”,
and chided Fanny for requiring $400 in extra police protection.

The defeat of the Jacksonians in the election of 1838 brought the end of Fanny’s political fortunes. Her local lectures early in 1839 were poorly attended and had become more of a curiosity than something of social or political interest. Fanny had rapidly fallen from someone whom people risked serious injury to come and hear, to someone on the fringes without influence.

In March of 1839, Fanny stopped her public lectures. She was 43 years old. She entered a period of self-imposed isolation from her family and former friends, which would last for the rest of her life. Over the next decade and a half Fanny’s social and political thought was obscure and inaccessible to most audiences.

The bright light of her Utopian Visions had shone mightily. Eventually it burned her friends, her family, and finally herself. Fanny died in 1852 alienated and alone.

What do we gain from looking back at the lives and ideas of others?

Is it true that “if we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it?”

I find a timelessness sense of the continuity of ideas and human values when I look at History.

I found this with Frances Wright.

Her personal courage, to step outside of society’s assigned role and challenge assumptions held so deeply that no one thought to ever challenge them before, has won my deep respect and admiration.

Her Utopian Visions have inspired and uplifted my spirit. They ring true today as timeless aspirations.

The value of Aesthetics and True Friendships.

The Promise of America. True then and still true today as we engage in our continuing efforts to shape our democracy.

Striving to right the injustice of slavery. A struggle that still resonates today as we grapple with the effects of centuries of racism and discrimination and continue to seek justice.

Liberty and Justice for All. Since Frances Wright’s time, we’ve achieved Abolition of Slavery, Women’s suffrage, an end to legal segregation, civil rights, and are moving forward with legislation to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. And there is so much more to do.

Liberation for the Working Man. We now have free public education. The right to organize. Concern for the dignity of workers.

The life of Frances Wright also caused me to think about the value of working throughout our lives to cultivate friendships, to find love and happiness in our lives and personal experiences with each other, to find fulfillment in family and community. The ultimate tragedy of Frances Wright was that she pursued her goals at the expense of everything else. She subordinated her personal life to her ideals. She lived a life out of balance and she paid a high price for it.

Frances Wright’s America in the 1820s was poised on the brink of social change. The economy was being transformed and industry was changing worker’s lives. The ideas of equality and social justice were being debated. It was a time of conservative religious revival.

One hundred eighty three years later, the year 2003 also finds America on the brink of social change. The global economy and the information age are changing the way that we work and live. War, Peace and Economic Justice issues are being examined and debated. It is a time of conservative religious revival.

We in the Ethical Culture Movement must follow Frances Wright’s example.

We must work to ensure that economic change improves our lives and that governmental entities such as the World Trade Organization act in the interests of those without power.

We must make conscious decisions about how we use technology. We must continue to examine our lives. We must constantly strive for equality and social justice.

We must speak out against religious dogma and maintain the separation of church and state.

We must oppose laws replacing the teaching of evolution with creationism in our schools.

We must continue to work for Liberty and Justice for All.

Has a perfect Nation ever been? No. Can such a nation ever be? If such can be, it is here. If such is to be, it must be our work.

Posted by Randy Best on August 05, 2003

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