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Byrd's Words

"This is not meant to offend or convert anyone.
Take what you want and ignore the rest."
— Byrd

January 7, 2001

FANNY WRIGHT

by byrd tetzlaff

This week, Byrd's Words is a little different. This is a true story, lost to all but the most avid historian. But I love the forgotten stories, the little-known, the people time forgot. History, after all, is only a collection of stories of real people and their very real lives.

What follows is one of my favorite stories...

Fanny Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland in the year 1795. When she was three years old, she and her younger sister, Camilla, were orphaned, leaving her dour Uncle in charge of them. He was not unkind, but was very morose and strict. Fanny reported that her childhood was devoid of laughter. When she was eighteen, she came into her inheritance, which was a considerable amount of money. Now wealthy and independent, she took her sister with her and moved to Dublin where "life was much brighter." Fanny enjoyed the gaiety and social life.

When she was twenty-one, Fanny read a pamphlet on the glories of America and resolved to see it for herself.

Now, in those days, pamphlets were a big deal. They reached more folks than any other form of entertainment. Only the wealthy in large cities could see plays or hear orchestra music. Folk music was brought out only for special occasions. Pamphlets, however, reached almost everyone, regardless of station in life or location. Even the illiterate enjoyed pamphlets, because folks would read them aloud for the amusement of their listeners. Pamphlets were written on every subject imaginable and ranged from the very scholarly to the absurd. Pamphlet writing was big business and even women could participate, although they almost always wrote anonymously. (To be fair, many of the men wrote anonymously too. If you were in a certain class in society, it simply was not done to work for a living. Yet, for some in those classes, money was needed, so pamphlet writing provided an outlet which gave remuneration. However, since one could not work for a living, folks would write anonymously, thus giving them work without the stigma of actually being seen to work).

Anyway, Fanny read the pamphlet and was enchanted by the idea of America. Not one to spend her time in idle dreaming, Fanny packed up her sister and came over to tour the United States in 1818. Well, she loved it. She rhapsodized about it. She was so enamored that she started writing pamphlets herself about America, extolling it's virtues, it's majestic lands, it's politics and it's wonderful people. She couldn't say enough good about it, and she said it well, in pamphlets that she wrote for the folks back home. She became a best seller and added to her already substantial fortune.

The nice reviews she gave to America endeared her to the American public. She became America's darling and was even permitted to speak in public (She was a Very Daring woman for her time). Society lionized her and she became the toast of the town, feted and feasted wherever she went.

However, as she pointed out, in this paradise of America, there was a cancer. That cancer was called slavery. She couldn't say enough about the evils of slavery either. Actually, at first she didn't say anything. Then she said just a little something. Then she spoke out even more and she noticed that her popularity dropped in direct proportion to her speaking against slavery.

She joined a few anti-slavery groups to discuss the problem. To her amazement, the abolitionists had no organized plan for freeing the slaves. They kind of had hazy ideas about possibly sending the Slaves back to Africa. Fanny thought that was rather short-sighted of them. Fanny returned to Scotland with her sister where they met with the British abolitionists about the problem. And Fanny thought that maybe she had some answers.

Meantime, her pamphlets were selling out, so she wrote more and made more money. She started getting what we would call today, fan mail. One of these letters was from an obscure little corner of France from one Marquise de Lafayette (Yes, our very own dear Revolutionary War hero). He, too, held America dear to his heart and was considering one last trip to see it before he died. Would Fanny care to join him?

Would she!? Fanny jumped at the chance and wrote another pamphlet. She began a correspondence with the Marquise and they became fast friends, vowing eternal fidelity and friendship to one another. This continued for a time and then they arranged to meet. Fanny and Camilla went to Paris where they became the reigning toast again. Fanny and the Marquise were inseparable. They went every where together and made a wonderful couple. Society was thrilled.

They made plans to take another cruise to the New World and tour the country together. Everything was all set but then, just as they were about to embark, Fanny pointed out that she was a single female and perhaps it would not be proper for them to travel alone together. She suggested they get married, or, failing that, he could adopt her. The Marquise declined the honor and offered to pay the way for Camilla to accompany them so that the proprieties could be observed.

It should be noted that from that moment on, his enthusiasm for Fanny cooled somewhat and shortly after they arrived in America, they ended up going their separate ways.

Fanny was still unhappy about slavery. She decided to tour the South (Lafayette was touring the Northern cities) and while she was at it, she spoke to many of the slave-owners she met. To her surprise, they were quite resistant to the idea of freeing their slaves. Nothing daunted, she proposed several plans for freeing the slaves through attrition, if nothing else. This would mean that the folks currently in slavery would remain slaves, but all the new folk born would be born free. Several slave-owners pointed out that they would not be willing to take on the expense of feeding, housing and educating children who would not someday turn a profit for them. And besides, how would the former slaves make their way in the world when they didn't have a clue about reading, writing, ciphering or any sort of trade?

Fanny listened very carefully to what the slave-owners said and started forming her own ideas, which were somewhat different than what the slave-owners had in mind.

You have to understand that Fanny honestly could not comprehend that one person might want to own another. It was simply beyond her capabilities to fathom that point. She thought that if somehow she could answer the concerns of the slave-owners, they would rejoice and glady rid themselves of the stain upon their souls engendered by the ownership of one human being over another.

One of Fanny's good friends was a fellow named Robert Owen, who was a leader in the Utopian Movement. It seems that right about that time, a number of folks were flirting with the concept of starting up Utopian Communities. And several indeed were being tried. Now, the idea of a Utopian Community is that you try to think things out to forestall problems and live life the way it should be lived. All sorts of folks were trying all sorts of ways to live together. And some of those societies did indeed last for quite a while. Others fell apart quickly.

Fanny decided to start her own Utopian Community, based on freeing the slaves. She was convinced that when folks saw how well it worked, they would send up cheers as they signed the manumission papers for their slaves.

In 1825, she found a plantation that was for sale near Memphis, Tennessee. She felt it was perfect for a Grand Experiment, so she purchased it, and re-named the plantation "Nashoba", which, she said, was a Swahili word for "freedom". (She was wrong about that. It might be the Cherokee word for freedom, but I have been told by a reliable source that there is no such word in Swahili). Unfortunately, Fanny was long on inspiration, but a little short on common sense. She failed to inspect the property before she purchased it. Yes, it did have a lot of acreage, but sadly, most of it was over-run most of the time by a local river. It was, in effect, swamp-land.

Next, she bought some slave families (trying very hard to keep them together) and hired some teachers. She freed the slaves and set about building a school building for the former slaves and their children. When she was finished, she invited the local poor white children (who had no schools to attend) to come and sit as equals next to the former slave children as they learned their lessons. Interestingly enough, there is no record of the former slaves objecting to this situation. Nor did the local poor white folk. The local slave-owners, however, were up in arms and did their best to shut down the school.

Fanny tried to set up Nashoba so that it would be self-supporting and even turn a profit (thus encouraging the slave-owners to try the same thing). Sadly, things did not turn out quite as she had hoped. Local lack of support made things very difficult. The swamp-land produced very little in the form of food or saleable crops. And the buildings were all in terrible disrepair.

Fanny was forced to put more of her money into the project (it had become a very costly dream). She didn't mind spending her money on the project (although she really didn't want too many folks to know about that aspect), but her personality was not suited to be stuck out in East-Jimmy-Nowhere. She craved bright lights, society and attention. So, leaving her sister and an overseer in charge of Nashoba, she joined the lecture circuit and began lecturing on the evils of slavery and her solutions (leaving out certain unfavorable details).

Fanny was truly a woman ahead of her times. In those days, women simply did not speak in public. Fanny probably only got away with it because she was wealthy and a foreigner. But she was quite popular and very well paid. In part, she was popular because she said such outrageous things. She espoused very strange ideas, including equal rights for women, Abolition of Slavery, Indian rights to own land, Temperance and (gasp!) free-love.

Back home on the plantation, however, things were not going so well. All the crops had failed so they were pretty hungry. The overseer had gotten her sister pregnant and then absconded with the funds. Then everyone came down with Malaria from the swamps.

Fanny's sister wrote to her and mentioned that things were getting a little dire. So Fanny put aside the lecture circuit and went back to the plantation to set things right.

But not before she wrote a few letters.

Fanny had been keeping up her reputation back in Europe as a free-thinker and notable wit. In part, she had managed this by corresponding with some rather influential people. When things were looking their worst on the plantation, Fanny handled it by inviting half of Europe to come and witness how easy it was to set up ways to free the slaves.

Some of the Europeans accepted her invitation and soon Nashoba became a place to visit when one was doing the Grand Tour of America. It was not, however, the experience they might be expecting.

One such visitor was named Mrs. Trollop (I kid you not). She was the Mother of the fellow who wrote "Anthony Adverse" and was a prodigious writer in her own account (pamphlets, of course.) She wrote of her experiences with Fanny. Frankly, she was appalled. She said something to the effect that

Fanny entered the room where we were to stay, which was open to the heavens, being that the roof was no longer in evidence, it having fallen in at some time earlier. Fanny, upon seeing the sky, just laughed, opened her arms and twirled about, saying that the night air would be good for us. Her manner was such that one came away with the impression that nothing could dampen her enthusiasm nor make her in any way depressed.
Fanny must have been rather wearing to be around.

In any case, Nashoba folded. Fanny packed up everyone, herself, Her some-time companion Robert Owen, the very pregnant Camilla, and the former slaves and bustled all of them to Haiti. (Presumably, it wasn't very safe for them to stay in the area). That gesture cost her most of what was remaining of her fortune. Her sister had the baby and found someone else to marry her. Fanny gave up the lecture circuit because nobody wanted to hear about things that had failed. Eventually she married and died fairly shortly thereafter at the ripe old age of 57.

Fanny's Grand Experiment failed. No one felt disposed to follow her example and she is largely forgotten today.

But to me, she was a female Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and very real dragons. She was a Joan of Arc, trying to free the slaves. She was a dreamer and a fool. But she was willing to spend her personal fortune and her health to act on her beliefs. Very few others have had such courage.

As requested, her tombstone was inscribed with the following quote from her:

I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life."
So Be It.

Byrd Tetzlaff
© January 2001 All Rights Reserved

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