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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 438-459
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Slavery, Utopia, and Frances Wright in America, 1818–1826
In 1825, Frances Wright, British author and protégée of the aging Marquis de Lafayette, proposed an antislavery experiment that became known as Nashoba. Although Nashoba soon failed, it has made its way into the broad narrative of US history (and many US history textbooks) as an inspiring interracial utopia—a noble, if transient, step on the road to abolitionism and racial equality. As one recent textbook puts it, "Influenced by Robert Owen and New Harmony, Frances Wright established an interracial utopian community, Nashoba, near Memphis, Tennessee" (Clark et al 459). Another characterizes Nashoba as "a bold plan to set up a utopian community of whites and freed slaves who would live together in full equality" (Henretta et al. 336).1
Although this optimistic description fits nicely into textbook depictions of US history moving inevitably toward ever-increasing freedom, it bears little relationship to Nashoba's actual character, nor to Wright's true aims in establishing her "utopia." Wright's original goal was never to form an interracial community. Rather, she hoped to perfect American liberty by ridding the US of both slavery and former slaves, through a complex financial scheme that would support universal colonization. An English radical, Wright chafed at the British political repression of the 1810s and viewed the US, in contradistinction, as a utopia of liberty; she planned Nashoba accordingly. She wanted to get rid of the US's slaves, so the world's only true bastion of liberty could flourish.
The history of Nashoba is thus a complex story of political misrecognition. Naively idealizing America as a bastion of late eighteenth-century republican principles, Wright misrecognized the United States as the perfect republicóthe opposite of 1810s British political corruption. Following this logic, she misrecognized slavery as a vestigial remnant of British colonial tyranny rather than an intrinsic part of US political culture. In turn, subsequent US historians [End Page 438] and history textbooks —with little understanding of the transatlantic complexity of Wright's racial and civic identifications—have misrecognized "Nashoba" as an early example of the type of interracial community we would wish to see (but almost never do) in the US's distant past. In reality, Nashoba was never an "interracial community." Wright's relationship with her slaves was no different from that of any other benevolent slave mistress, and her slaves bore the brunt of her visionary schemes. In founding Nashoba, Wright was motivated not by interracial sympathy, but by a profound political, racial, and civic identification with the patriots of 1776, especially republican slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Nashoba's inevitable failure was caused by this ironic misrecognition.
1. Late Enlightenment Middle-Class British Radicalism and Wright's Youth
In 1825, when Wright began to plan Nashoba, her political philosophy was radical in Britain but absolutely mainstream in the US. In Britain, her politics fit into the current known today as philosophic radicalism, a type of middle-class radicalism espoused by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, and Mary Wollstonecraft. In Britain, philosophic radicalism had been firmly suppressed since the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793. Yet in the US, Wright's early political enthusiasms were quite ordinary—even old-fashioned—and echoed Revolutionary-era republicanism.2
Wright was drawn to republican ideals partly in reaction to the Tory relatives who raised her. Born in 1795 to a Scottish merchant with radical sympathies, Wright was orphaned at the age of two and raised by her mother's Tory father and sister, whom she grew to detest. Growing up during the Napoleonic wars when political radicalism of all sorts was associated with the French enemy—hearing, no doubt, political aspersions cast on her dead, liberty-loving father—the young girl intuitively identified with the radicalism of the 1790s.3
Then, in about 1812, Wright discovered America—or more accurately, she read Carlo Botta's epic history of the birth of...