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Wright, Frances

The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy

Dolores Dooley

Wright, Frances (1795–1852) 

Frances Wright was born in Dundee on 6 September 1795 and died in Cincinnati, Ohio on 2 December 1852. She was the second of three children born to James and Camilla Campbell Wright. Her mother's family were of a high land-owning class in Scotland, while her father was reared in a family of linen tradesmen, a politically liberal man and great admirer of Thomas Paine. Frances, who preferred the name of ‘Fanny’, was orphaned at a young age and she and her sister Camilla were reared by an aristocratic and strict aunt, leading Fanny to seek solace by reading the classics and geography while developing a special interest in the cultures of America and France and their revolutionary traditions. She learned ancient and modern languages when she moved to live with her father's uncle, Professor James Mylne, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Mylne encouraged Wright's self-education while she lived with him, from 1814 to 1818, studying works of Epicurus, David Hume, Wollstonecraft, Jeremy Bentham, Lord Byron and the co-operative philosopher Robert Owen. Wright combined her strong rationalism with a belief in the perfectibility of the human race and social views that argued for a form of community living where inequality of wealth, sex, birth and race would not exist.

In 1818 Wright made her first trip to America, carrying letters of introduction to several influential families. On her return to England, in 1820, she drew on the data of her journeys in America and published Views of Society and Manners in America, a collection of learned disquisitions on structures of government, representative democracy, religion, education, the evils of Negro slavery and the condition of women. On reading the publication, Jeremy Bentham initiated a friendship with Wright, inviting her to his Hermitage residence in Queen's Square, London, where, during subsequent visits, Wright met philosophical radicals, James Mill, Francis Place, George Grote and John Austin. Wright received a second laudatory acknowledgement for her 1820 publication from General LaFayette, a politically astute gentleman living at his country estate in La Grange, France. A long friendship between the two flourished and LaFayette secured Wright as a courier to provide politically sensitive materials to exiled Frenchmen in England under the government of Louis XVIII.

During 1821–4 Wright travelled between France and England but also held a small salon of her own in Paris and met members of the Carbonari movement, a group that adopted the socialist theories of Henri Saint Simon and implemented them in a community they founded near Paris. Wright knew of the plans for community association developed by the French socialist, Charles Fourier, the work of the Scottish co-operator, Robert Owen, and the incipient plans for a co-operative community of the Irish political economist, William Thompson. Wright's Paris salon provided the context for discussing her favoured views on these prospects of community structures to further equality across classes and sexes. These years provided materials for Wright's social philosophy published in the 1829 Course of Popular Lectures.

Wright travelled to New York in 1824, intent on addressing the problem of Negro slavery which she saw as a grave sin against humanity and a cancer at the heart of her beliefs of free America. By 1825 Wright was arguing that liberation of slaves would be unjust if they were not educated first to understand the nature of such liberty and to acquire skills at surviving economically once free. She determined to establish an integrated community structured to educate black slaves for eventual freedom. In preparation, Wright visited Robert Owen's co-operative community in New Harmony, Indiana, paving the way for the establishment of her community for black slaves in Nashoba, Tennessee. The provisions for liberty and equality for all members of the community, and for elimination of marriage laws and religion from the Nashoba community meant that controversy and vehement reaction from middle-class Americans deflated public enthusiasm and support for community prospects. In addition slaves resented the fact that their children were taken from their families in order to educate them away from their parents' influence. Nashoba ceased as a viable concern in 1829. Wright ended her responsibility to the slaves in Nashoba by sailing with them to Haiti, where they could be free.

Wright's Course of Popular Lectures expounded her doctrine of ‘Free Enquiry’ directed at teachers, parents and women in particular. Under the rubric of free enquiry, Wright's utilitarian philosophy combined with her views on the importance of developing moral sensibilities; both were apparent in her sustained focus on the task of working towards happiness in whatever life vocation one pursued. Pursuit of happiness was not simply a task directed at individuals but was an inherent part of Wright's understanding of moral liberty, which includes free exercise of liberty of speech and action without incurring the intolerance of popular prejudice. Convinced she could influence more people if she was closer to the political heart of the United States in New York, Wright moved there in 1829, continued public lecturing and edited the Free Enquirer, a publication aimed at attacking errors in thinking that generated the social evils of inequality, poverty and ignorance. Convinced of the transforming potential of education, she purchased an old Methodist church in New York and converted it into a Hall of Science, where regular lectures on moral and scientific subjects were organized, and a dispensary with attending physician was available for working-class families.

Education was a subject of sustained critical comment in Wright's writings, since education can either facilitate or frustrate the acquisition of skills of critical thinking and analysis which are essential if happiness is to be achieved. Human beings, Wright argued, are virtuous in proportion as they are happy, and happy in proportion as they are free but freedom is a chimera without equality. With this philosophy, Wright lectured to parents and teachers, urging them to develop their skills of critical thinking if they intended to transfer the essential rudiments of free enquiry to others. The stress on the value of respect for personal autonomy was pivotal, and her position stated that no person should aim to command the feelings of another any more than attempt to control their opinions or actions. Rather, the need is to train individuals in the analysis of their feelings, their nature, tendencies and effects and thus foster good utilitarians with a facility for gauging the potential consequences of their actions.

Wright had two children with an Owenite and free enquirer, William Phiquepal D'Arusmont, whom she married on 22 July 1831. A daughter, Frances Sylva, survived. The marriage was a capitulation of principle but a legal necessity for her daughter's sake. Wright saw the institution of marriage as a direct negation of a woman's natural right to her own individuality. Following Sylva's birth, Wright virtually disappeared from public life until the mid 1830s. In 1835, she settled in Philadelphia and regained her reputation as a public lecturer. She started a new paper in 1837, the Manual of American Principles, edited, financed and largely written by herself to reteach the principles of the American Revolution and further promulgate a philosophy of free thought and expression on subjects without exception.

Wright was often separated from D'Arusmont and Sylva while lecturing and overseeing her publications, and saw her marriage disintegrate rapidly in the 1840s; she faced constant legal battles to retain the property she brought into the marriage. Since she could not bring suit against her husband, she obtained a divorce, resumed her birth name and succeeded in regaining control of her property through legal action against D'Arusmont in 1850. In January 1852 Wright fell on ice and broke her hip. She died in December of the same year. Leaving everything she possessed to her daughter, Frances Sylva D'Arusmont, Wright would never know that, some twenty-two years after her death, her daughter testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary in opposition to the enfranchisement of women on the grounds that such civil liberties for women would demoralize society and undermine the state.


Views of Society and Manners in America (1821).Find this resource:

    Course of Popular Lectures (New York, 1829).Find this resource:

      ‘Address to the Industrious Classes: a Sketch of a System of National Education’, in Popular Tracts (New York, 1830).Find this resource:

        Fanny Wright Unmasked, 3rd edn (New York, 1830).Find this resource:

          Biography, Notes and Political Letters of Frances Wright D'Arusmont (Dundee, 1844).Find this resource:

            Further Readings

            Bartlett, Elizabeth Ann, Liberty, Equality, Sorority (New York, 1994).Find this resource:

              Eckhardt, Celia Morris, Fanny Wright. Rebel in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).Find this resource:

                Kolmerten, Carol A., Women in Utopia (Bloomington, Indiana, 1990), chap. 4.Find this resource:

                  Morris, Celia, Fanny Wright: Rebel in America (Urbana, Illinois, 1992).Find this resource:

                    Perkins, A. J. G. and Theresa Wolfson, Frances Wright Free Enquirer (New York and London, 1939).Find this resource:

                      Taylor, Barbara, Eve and the New Jerusalem (London, 1983), chap. 3.Find this resource:

                        Waterman, William Randall, Frances Wright (New York, 1924).Find this resource:

                          Dolores Dooley

                          See also Applied Ethics; Continental Philosophy; Education, Philosophy of; Female Philosophers; Freedom of Speech; Rights; Scottish Philosophy; Social Sciences; Utilitarianism