Jacksonian Miscellanies, #11: March 25, 1997

Topic: Frances Wright and Nashoba

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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Probably many readers would be puzzled by the Explanatory Notes... (see next paragraph) without some background, I've devoted about half of this issue to providing that background, relieved by a long quote from Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans.

There follows part 1 (of 3) of Frances Wright's Explanatory Notes, respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba, and of the Principles upon which it is founded. Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in all Countries and of all Nations, which ran in the January 30, February 6, and February 13, 1828 issues of the New-Harmony Gazette. Parts 2 and 3 will run at some point later.

A Brief Biography of Frances Wright, With Particular Emphasis on Nashoba

A Scottish (upper middle class) born radical free thinker who visited America in 1818-1820, became a passionate friend of Lafayette starting September 1821. Followed him to America in 1824, and stayed, making the U.S. her main home thereafter (she and her sister Camilla got U.S. citizenship in 1825).

Frances Wright was a British-born radical reformer/adventurer who became an American citizen, and considered the United States her home after 1824.

Born in 1795, She and her younger sister Camila were orphaned very early, and sent to live in London with a grandfather, and an aunt whom she came to despise; she also came to despise their Tory politics. The death of an uncle gave the two Wright sisters a sizeable fortune, and resulted in her foster family (also heirs of the uncle) setting up an estate in Devonshire. She then spent her adolescence (ages 11-18) in the very milieu described in Jane Austen's novels. At 18 Fanny, with her sister, fled their legal guardian, and were welcomed in Glasgow by an uncle, James Mylne, a successor to Adam Smith's professorship of Moral Philosophy. In this great university town, in the bosom of a learned and liberal family, Wright accomplished much of her impressive self-education.

Wright's childhood was spent in the early days of industrialization, during which the landless poor were also being deprived of the use of common lands, and the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic wars helped generate a violent reaction against liberal ideas by the party in power, which made the U.S.' Alien and Sedition Laws look very pale by comparison.

In this period, America looked to her like the Promised Land, and as soon as she came of age, in 1818, she sailed for New York, with Camilla in tow. During these first years in America, she wrote a very successful play, which flattered the American self-image. Though the sisters filed for U.S. citizenship in late 1820, the two sisters were on their way back to England in early 1821.

Back in England, Frances Wright published Views of Society and Manners in America, which most Americans welcomed as fair and accurate, and which James Fenimore Cooper called "nauseous flattery". She became something of a disciple of the radical-thinking Jeremy Bentham, and then on a visit to France sought out Lafayette, and became his passionate friend for life, spending much of her time at the Lafayette estate.

In 1824, Wright followed Lafayette to the U.S. when he came to see the almost 50 year old nation he had helped liberate. There was much awkwardness with Lafayette's family, so the Wright sisters were kept at arms-length, and they eventually struck out on their own. Since their application for citizenship, the necessary five years had elapsed, and despite their having been out of the country most of that time, citizenship was granted.

Fanny Wright had always abhored American slavery, though it took her a long time to see just how deeply embedded it was in the nation's life. In late 1825, she decided on a scheme to demonstrate just how the U.S. could extricate itself from the "misfortune" of slavery. She would gather a group of slaves (purchase them, in fact), and with them she would break a tract of virgin land on the Wolf River in the wilds of south-western Tennessee. Meanwhile she would educate them morally and intellectually in preparation for freedom. The slaves, understanding her good intent, would work much harder than slaves normally worked. Out of the procedes their purchase cost would be defrayed, with a nicely growing profit so that the venture could not only continue, but expand rapidly. Others, seeing that this sort of enterprise was more profitable than slavery itself, would copy it, which would lead, before very long to the end of slavery in America. The community was called Nashoba.

What happened to Nashoba? It was a well-intended and in some ways ingenious plan, but revealed Wright's problem dealing with or even perceiving human factors, and her lack of grasp of the fragility of human processes.

Under Wright's immediate guidance, and that of George Flower, a true soul-mate to Fanny (and probable lover), the enterprise did look promising. William Maclure, who clearly saw the failure of New Harmony, was "astonished that everything proceeded so smoothly. ... The slaves worked hard without coercion -- even without apparent direction". But by this time, George Flower was already gone (having returned to his wife), and Fanny's health was nearly wrecked by the chronic illnesses, including malaria, suffered by nearly all American pioneers.

To overcome decades of being lied to and abused; to convince slaves of the improbable notion that one who held ownership papers on them was planning their liberation, and, with all this, to lead them through a transformation of their culture from that of slaves to that of free and independent educated people -- without the two tremendously gifted organizers, the process would founder.

Wright decided that to recover her health she would need to travel to a different climate. Thus for most of 1827, she traveled back to Europe. While she was gone, the managers of Nashoba used sometimes terrible judgement in dealing with their charges, and even resorted, on occasion, to whipping. They also informed the world at large of their disdain for the marriage institution, and that one of the men was openly living with a free "mulatto" woman.

In England and France, Wright reenvisioned the enterprise as a communal place of work and education, in which the marriage contract would be invalid (the Rubicon having been crossed), and the two races would learn to live in peace and harmony. From henceforth, they would receive only free blacks, and would educate them for colonization in a land where they would be safe from the viciousness (towards blacks) of white culture in America. It was thought that they could be colonized in Haiti, as a few indeed were at the time of the dissolution of the Nashoba experiment. Unfortunately for Wrights plans, there were no large numbers of free blacks wanting to be sent to a strange new country, much less would the mostly urban free blacks want to serve an apprenticeship in a pestillential swamp in western Tennessee. They rightly doubted that this would be an improvement, even over their current oppressed lives.

Meanwhile, Wright tried to recruit enlightened Europeans to take part in the building of a new world. She found one taker, another Frances, or "Fanny", the mother of Anthony Trollope, who would write a book on the Domestic Manners of the Americans at wide variance from the "nauseous flattery" of Wright's views of the U.S.

Frances Trollope was a lively, open-hearted woman (though a caustic observer), by no means radical in politics, though having some share of liberal optimisim, and able to be dazzled, for a while, as people were, by the brilliant Wright. Mrs Trollope, two of her children, and her artist protege Auguste Hervieau accompanied Wright to America, expecting to spend considerable time in America, away from English creditors, in brilliant company, getting a fine education for her children, and with the artist participating in the experimental educational institute of Nashoba.

As Wright composed a sort of manifesto to be presented to the newpaper of another communal venture in the American west, (Robert Owen's New Harmony), Mrs. Trollope "watched, while Fanny sat on a coiled rope in steerage and read parts to a sailor patching his trousers" the composing of her "Explanatory Notes on Nashoba" (See Jacksonian Miscellanies, 3/25/97, 4/8/97).

Frances Trollope described Nashoba, and the Frances Wright of Nashoba, as follows:

Source: pp 27-29, Trollope, Frances, Domestic Manners of the Americans (originally London, 1832); also "edited with a history of Mrs. Trollopes Adventures in America, by Donald Smalley (New York 1949):

The Trollope family and their artist-in-tow soon fled Nashoba, and within a few months Nashoba was no more. Neither the self-supporting institution for buying(!), educating and freeing the slaves, nor the cultivated interracial commune was forthcoming, and Wright had dangerously compromised her modest fortune.

Wright subsequently became co-editor of the New Harmony Gazette, which was renamed the Free Enquirer. She lectured all over the United States (the first woman to so address mixed audiences -- "promiscuous audiences", as they said back then ) promoting strict equality of the sexes, a strong universal education system, free love (and, more or less, abolition of marriage), atheism and communalism. She relocated the Free Enquirer to New York, and there purchased a former Baptist church, rechristening it a "temple of science" - a combination lecture hall with seating for 3000, museum, bookstore, and headquarters. Walt Whitman described her in this period as

From Eckhardt, Fanny Wright, p189

Two years later, Wright chartered the brig John Quincy Adams to take the former slaves to Haiti. She was accompanied by William Phiquepal D'Arusmont, an unfortunate traveling companion. She must have felt drawn to him during the difficulties of this trip, for sometime on the voyage she became pregnant by him. She became, for almost five years a recluse, and married D'Arusmont after the child was born. She was so hidden from view that the press did not get to make hay over her illegitimate baby, as much as they delighted in attacking her.

The marriage to D'Arusmont was an empty affair and worse, he gained control of much of her remaining fortune. Late in 1835 she returned to America and tried to stage a comeback as a lecturer. The rest is anticlimactic until her death in 1852, in Cincinnati. She did lecture and write, but no longer reached a large audience. She and D'Arusmont eventually divorced. Her daughter became an ardent Christian and a conservative, and in 1874 testified against woman's suffrage before an American congressional committee.

Principal Source:  Eckhardt, Celia Morris Fanny Wright - Rebel in America (Harvard U. Press, 1984).

See also Jacksonian Miscellanies, 3/25/97, 4/8/97.

From the New-Harmony Gazette, January 30, 1828


Explanatory Notes, respecting the Nature and Objects of the Institution of Nashoba, and of the Principles upon which it is founded. Addressed to the Friends of Human Improvement, in all Countries and of all Nations.


[The Editors and Conductors of periodical publications in whatever language, are requested to assist the circulation of this Address, by giving it insertion in their pages.]

This Institution was founded in the autumn of 1825, in the western district of the state of Tennessee, North America, by Frances Wright.

The object of the founder was to attempt the practice of certain principles, which in theory had been frequently advocated. She had observed that the step between theory and practice is usually great, -- that while many could reason, few were prepared to proceed to action, and that yet mankind must reasonably hesitate to receive as truths, theories, however ingenious, if unsupported by experiment. In the individual who should first attempt an experiment opposed to all existing opinions and practice, she believed two requisites to be indispensable, -- mental courage, and, as some writers have defined it, a passion for the improvement of the human race. She felt within herself these necessary qualifications; and strongly convinced of the truth of the principles, which, after mature consideration, her heart and head had embraced, she determined to apply all her energies, and to devote her slender fortune, to the building up of an institution which should have these principles for its base, and whose destinies, she fondly hoped, might tend to convince mankind of their moral beauty and practical utility. Actuated, from her earliest youth, by a passionate interest in the welfare of man, she had peculiarly addressed herself to the study of his past and present condition. All her observations tended to corroborate the opinion which her own feelings might possibly, in the first instance, have predisposed her to adopt,-- that men are virtuous, in proportion as they are happy, and happy in proportion as they are free. She saw this truth exemplified in the history of modern as of ancient times. Every where knowledge, mental refinement, and the gentler, as the more ennobling, feelings of humanity, have keep pace, influx or reslux, with the growth or depression of the spirit of freedom.

But while human liberty has engaged the attention of the enlightened, and enlisted the feelings of the generous of all civilized nations, may we not enquire if this liberty has been rightly understood? Has it not been with limitations and exceptions, tending to foster jealousies, or to inspire injurious ambition? Has it, in short, been pure and entire in principle, universal in the objects it embraces, and equal for all races and classes of men? Liberty without equality, what is it but a chimera? and equality, wiat is it also but a chimera unless it extend to all the enjoyments, exertions and advantages, intellectual, and physical, of which our nature is capable?

One nation, and, as yet, one nation only, has declared all men "born free and equal," and conquered the political freedom and equality of its citizens -- with the lamentable exception, indeed, of its citizens of color. But is there not a liberty yet more precious than what is termed national, and an equality more precious than what is termed political? Before we are citizens, are we not human beings, and ere we can exercise equal rights, must we not possess equal advantages, equal means of improvement and of enjoyment?

Political liberty may be said to exist in the United States of America, and (without adverting to the yet unsettled, though we may fondly trust secured republics of America's southern continent) only there. Moral liberty exists no where.

By political liberty we man understand the liberty of speech and action without recurring the violence of authority of the penalties of law. By moral liberty may we not understand the free exercise of the liberty of speech and of action, without incurring the intolerence of popular prejudice and ignorant public opinion? To secure the latter where the former liberty exists, what is necessary "but to will it." Far truer is the assertion as here applied to moral liberty than as heretofore applied to political liberty. To free ourselves of thrones, aristocracies and hierarchies, of sects and armies, and all the arrayed panoply of organized despotism, it is not sufficient to will it. We must fight for it, and fight for it too with all the odds of wealth, and power, and position against us. But when the field is won, to use it is surely ours; and if the possession of the right of free action inspire not the courage to exercise the right, liberty has done but little for us. It is much to have the fetters broken from our limbs, but yet better is it to have them broken from the mind. It is much to have declared men free and equal, but it shall be more when they have been rendered so; when means shall be sought and found, and employed to develope all the intellectual and physical powers of all human beings, without regard to sex or condition, class, race, nation or color; and when men shall learn to view each other as members of one great family, with equal claims to enjoyment and equal capacities for labor and instruction, admitting always the sole differences arising out of the varieties exhibited in individual organization.

It were superfluous to elucidate, by argument, the baleful effects arising out of the division of labor and as now existing, and which condemns the large half of mankind to an existence purely physical, and the remaining portion to pernicious idleness, and occasionally to exertions painfully, because solely, intellectual. He who lives in the single exercise of his mental faculties, however usefully or curiously directed, is equally an imperfect animal with the man who knows only the exercise of muscles.

Let us consider the actual condition of our species. Where shall we find even a single individual, male or female, whose mental and physical powers have been fairly cultivated and developed? How then is it with the great family of human kind? We have addressed our ingenuity to improve the nature and beautify the forms of all the tribe of animals domesticated by our care, but man has still neglected nam; ourselves, our own species, our own nature are deemed unworthy, even unbecoming, objects of experiment. Why should we refuse to the human animal care at least equal to that bestowed on the horse or the dog? His forms are surely not less susceptible of beauty, and his faculties, more numerous and exalted, may challenge, at the least, equal development.

The spirit of curiousity and enquiry, which distinguishes the human animal, and which not all the artificial habits and whimsical prejudices of miscalled civilization have sufficed to quench, seems as yet, for the most part, to have been idly directed. Arts and sciences are multiplied, wants imagined, and luxuries supplied; but the first of all sciences is yet left in the germ; the first great science of human beings, the science of human life, remains untouched, unknown, unstudied; and he who should speak of it might perhaps excite only astonishment. All the wants and comforts of man are not abstracted, as it were, from himself. We hear of the wealth of nations, of the powers of production, of the demand and supply of markets, and we forget that these words mean no more, if they mean any thing, then the happiness, and the labor, and the necessities of men. It is not the unnatural division of mankind into classes, --operative, consuming, professional, enlightened, ignorant, &c. which inspires this false mode of reasoning, and leads the legislator and economist to see in the most useful of their fellow-creatures, only so much machinery for the creation of certain articles of commerce, and to pronounce a nation rich, not in proportion to the number of individuals who enjoy, but to the mass of ideal wealth thrown into commercial circulation. Surely it is time to enquire if our very sciences are not frequently as unmeaning as our teachera are mistaken and our books erroneous. Surely it is time to examine into the meaning of words and the nature of things, and to arrive at simple facts, not received upon the dictum of learned authorities, but upon attentive personal observation of what is passing around us. And surely it is more especially time to enquire why occupations the most useful and absolutely necessary to our existence and well being, should be held in disrepute, and those the least useful, nay, frequently the most decidedly mischievous, should be held in honor. The husbandman who supports us by the fruits of his labor, the artisan to whom we owe all the comforts and convenience of life, are banished from what is termed intellectual society, nay worse, but too often condemned to the most severe physical privations and the grossest mental ignorance; while the soldier who lives by our crimes, and the lawyer by our quarrels and our rapacity, and the priest by our credulity or our hypocrisy, are honored with public consideration and applause.

Were human life studied as a science, and, as it truly is, the first and most important of all sciences, to which every other should be viewed only as the handmaiden, it would soon appear that we are only happy in a due and well-proportioned exercise of all our powers, physical, intellectual, and moral; that bodily labor becomes a pleasure when varied with mental occupation, and cheered by free and happy affection, and that no occupation can, in itself, be degrading, which has the comfort and well-being of man for its object.

It will appear evident upon attentive consideration that equality of intellectual and physical advantages is the only sure foundation of liberty, and that such equality may best, and perhaps only, be obtained by a union of interests and cooperation in labor. The existing principle of selfish interest and competition has been carried to its extreme point; and, in its progress, has isolated the heart of man, blunted the edge of his finest sensibilities, and annihilated all his most generous impulses and sympathies. Need we hesitate to denounce the principle as vicious, which places the interests of each individual in continual opposition to those of his fellows; which makes of one man's loss, another's gain, and inspires a spirit of accumulation, that crushes every noble sentiment, fosters every degrading one, makes of this globe a scene of strife, and the whole human race, idolators of gold? And must we be told that this is in the nature of things?  It certainly is in the nature of our anti-social institutions, and need we seek any stronger argument to urge against them?

Man has been adjudged a social animal. And so he truly is; equally, we might even hazard the assertion, more capable of being moved to generous feeling and generous action, through his affections and his interests rightly understood, than he is now moved to violence, rapine and fraud by hard necessity, and his interests falsely interpreted. Let us not libel human nature! It is what circumstance has made it. But, as profiting by experience, we shall change the education of youth, remould our institutions, correct our very ideas of true and false, of right and wrong, of vice and virtue, we may see human nature assume a new form and present an appearance rich in peace and enjoyment-- yet more rich in future hope.

How great soever the differences stamped on each individual by original organization, it will readily be conceded, that by fostering the good, and repressing the evil tendencies, by developing every useful faculty and amiable feeling, and cultivating the peculiar talent or talents of every child, as discovered in the course of education, all human beings, (with the single and rare exceptions presented by malconformation of the physical organs) might be rendered useful and happy. And, admitting only a similar capability of improvement in our own species that we see in the races of animals, we may with justice set no limits to our expectations respecting it, so soon as it shall become, through successive generations, the object of judicious care, and enlightened and fearless experiment.

But if we should hazard the assertion, that of children we may make what we please, we must accord that it is otherwise with man. The simplest principles become difficult of practice, when habits, formed in error, have been fixed by time, and the simplest truths hard to receive when prejudice has warped the mind.

The founder of Nashoba looks not for the conversion of the existing generation; she looks not even for its sympathy. All that she ventures to anticipate is, tha cooperation of a certain number of individuals acknowledging the same views with herself; a similar interest in the improvement of man, and a similar intrepidity, to venture all things for his welfare. To these individuals, now scatterred throughout the world, and unknown probably to each other, she ventures to address herself. From their union, their cooperation, their exertions, she ventures to expect a successful experiment in favor of human liberty and human happiness. Let them unite their efforts (their numbers will not be too many) and in a country where human speech and human action are free, let them plant their standard in the earth -- declare fearlessly their principles, however opposed to the received opinions of mankind, and establish their practice accordingly, with consistence and perseverance.

This has been attempted at Nashoba: not in a spirit of hostility to the practice of the world, but with a strong moral conviction of the superior truth and beauty of that consecrated by the legal act of the founder. By a reference to that act, it will be seen that the principles on which the institution is based are those of human liberty and equality without exceptions or limitations, -- and its more especial object, the protection and the regeneration of the race of color, universally oppressed and despised in a country self-denominated free. This most immediate object was selected and specified by the founder, first because her feelings had been peculiarly enlisted in behalf of the negro; and secondly, because the aristocracy of color is the peculiar vice of the country which she has chosen as the seat of her experiment.

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