2021 has been one of the most divisive years Americans have endured. But if we look back at history, this is by no means the worst we’ve seen. The early years of the 19th century found Americans bitterly divided over the institution of slavery, the power of the federal government, and the importance of religion. Some people wanted nothing to change, but many others were determined to change society in a way that would eliminate slavery and ensure justice for everyone. The question was—how could that be done?
One of the most ambitions dreamers of a new, more just America was a young immigrant named Fanny Wright. Born into a wealthy family in Dundee, Scotland, in 1795, Fanny Wright was orphaned as a young child. She was raised mostly by an aunt of her mother’s and an uncle who was a professor of philosophy in Scotland. In the university library, she read every book she could find and soon began writing poetry and plays. When she read about America and how it was dedicated to a just and fair society for all, she determined to visit the country.
At the age of 23, she was able to fulfill her plan and sailed to America with her sister. She was delighted by the freedom of American society, but shocked when she discovered the realities of slavery. In the book she wrote about her travels she said, “The sight of slavery is revolting every where, but to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that the imagination can conceive.”
After her book was published in Great Britain, many important people admired it and wanted to meet the young author. One of her most congenial new friends was the Marquis de Lafayette. In fact, they became such close friends that she moved into Lafayette’s house for a while and was rumored to be his lover. Whether that was true or not, when Lafayette was invited to return to the United States in 1826 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the United States, Fanny and her sister followed in his footsteps.
On her second visit to the country, Fanny was even more troubled by the continued existence of slavery and the failure of Americans to confront the issue and find a way to end it. One popular idea in the 1820s and 1830s was that slaves should be freed and then transported out of the country. Very few people liked the idea of having free Blacks live in the same areas in which they had been enslaved. Two popular destinations for these people were Liberia, in Africa, and Haiti, the Caribbean Island that had won independence from France in 1804 and had abolished slavery.
Fanny Wright conceived an ambitious plan to demonstrate how slavery could be abolished in the United States without slaveowners losing the money they had invested. She proposed starting a farming colony where slaves could buy their freedom through the products they raised and sold. Unfortunately, the location she found was Nashoba, Tennessee, a swampy, isolated area that did not offer good soil for farming. It was also far from the markets where produce could be sold and there were no roads. Fanny Wright had never farmed, and she apparently did not consult anyone who could give her practical guidance.
The bad start soon grew worse. Fanny had hoped to form a utopian community, but the Black residents were still slaves and were not given any responsibility for running the organization. Instead, Fanny recruited white men and women who wanted to form an ideal society, although they did not know much about how to farm or to run a business. Nonetheless, the trustees made all the decisions, while the slaves that Fanny had purchased, did the practical farm work.
When Fanny got sick, probably with malaria, and she left the colony under the supervision of the white trustees while she traveled to Europe to find treatment. When she returned to the farm a year later, she found that nothing had gone well. The farm was failing, most of the trustees had left, and the man who was left in charge treated the slaves just about as badly as they had been treated by their old masters.
When Fanny published a paper to justify her plans, she got herself into more trouble. For one thing, she suggested that the free Blacks could intermarry with white citizen and the differences between the races would disappear. She also revealed that she was an atheist and did not believe religious services would help the community. Both of those beliefs caused Wright to lose the support she had enjoyed earlier. Many people could hardly decide which was worse—believing in inter-racial marriage or being an atheist.
That was the end of the Nashoba colony. Fanny was able to purchase freedom for the eight slaves she had brought there and eventually to send them to Haiti, but the community never recovered. And the failure of Nashoba led to the end of Fanny’s dream of freeing all the slaves in America.
Fanny Wright spent the rest of her life traveling between Europe and America, lecturing on rights for women and sometimes on the abolition of slavery, but her reputation was damaged beyond repair. She died in 1852, years before the Civil War had finally led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.