Francis "Fanny" Wright's battle against American slavery--and her hope to involve Mary Shelley.
Let’s look a moment at what Fanny Wright said about slavery in Views of Society and Manners in America. Her first letter—dated in the text as September 1818—talks about her arrival in New York City. For a number of months she traveled around the East, and it was in Philadelphia—a visit recorded in her fifth letter (May 1819)—that she wrote this: To the Society of Friends [the Quakers] also is humanity indebted for a continued opposition to the odious traffic in the African race, for unwearying efforts to effect its abolition, which no clamour, no ridicule, no heart-sickening delays and disappointments could relax, until they were crowned with success.
May 1819. Forty years before John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, forty-two years before the ignition of the Civil War at Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861). Wright, who died in 1852, would not live to see any of it. But her heart was full of abolitionism already, and she would write about it—and act upon it—relentlessly. And she wanted Mary Shelley to help.
As she wandered around the East, Wright also wrote about women’s rights, about public education, penal issues, this new American democracy, the plight of Native Americans, and much about the citizens and the scenery of our country, which, at the time of her visit, was not yet a half-century old.
Many pages later—in the city of Washington (later, Washington, D.C.)—she returns to the topic of slavery and issues some bitter criticism of the practice. In her letter dated April 1820 (her final letter in the volume), she wrote The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere, but to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that the imagination can conceive.
A bit later she gives birth to the idea that would become Nashoba. She recognized that merely freeing the slaves was insufficient: People held in horrible bondage, uneducated and hopeless, need help when the shackles fall—lots of help. And this is what Americans must do, she urged: provide that help—as she would attempt to do at Nashoba. Among her final words are these: justice should be held superior to humanity; to break the chains would be more generous than to gild them and … decidedly more useful.
And so—in the fall of 1823, she traveled to visit with Andrew Jackson (yes, that one). He recommended some land near the Wolf River near Memphis. She bought ten slaves (four were women). She bought the land that Jackson—who, of course, owned slaves himself, some 150 at the time of his death in 1845—had recommended. She paid $480 for 320 acres. (Her purchases would eventually swell to some 1800 acres.) She published her plan for the settlement—and then set about getting it started.
But during her absences (while she traveled and tried to raise support), the community collapsed. And by the time she tried to enlist Mary Shelley’s help, it was all but over. And Mary declined to help the woman she much admired.