Frances Wright

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All that I say is, examine; enquire. Look into the nature of things. Search out the ground of your opinions, the for and the against. Know why you believe, understand what you believe, and possess a reason for the faith that is in you…

Frances Wright (September 6 1795December 13 1852), also widely known as Fanny Wright, was a Scotland-born lecturer, writer, feminist, abolitionist, and utopian, who became a U. S. citizen in 1825.

Quotes[edit]

Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam
An opinion, right or wrong can never constitute a moral offense, nor be in itself a moral obligation.
We detect … throughout the whole of things — in the operations of nature, of human society, and in those of our own internal percipient and sentient soul — two master energies.
I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.
  • Is not an hereditary nobility inconsistent with liberty? I will ask more, is it not inconsistent with public virtue? Not only does it lodge authority with the unskillful but with those whose interest it is to abuse it. It does more – it degrades the minds of men, it corrupts their hearts and debases their understanding, leading them to attach honor and to yield respect to something else than talent and virtue.
    • Letter (1820), quoted in "The Red Harlot of Liberty: The Rise and Fall of Frances Wright" by Kimberly Nichols in Newtopia Magazine (15 May 2013)
  • The Virginians are said to pride themselves upon the peculiar tenderness with which they visit the sceptre of authority on their African vassals. As all those acquainted with the character of the Virginia planters, whether American or foreigners, appear to concur in bearing testimony of their humanity, it is probable that they are entitled to the praise which they claim. But in their position, justice should be held superior to humanity; to break the chains would be more generous than to gild them; and whether we consider the interests of the master or the slave, decidedly more useful. To give liberty to a slave before he understands its value is, perhaps, rather to impose a penalty than to bestow a blessing; but it is not clear to me that the southern planters are duly exerting themselves to prepare the way for that change in the condition of their black populations which they profess to think not only desirable but inevitable.
    • Letter XXVIII (April 1820) Views of Society and Manners in America (1821)
  • I dare say you marvel sometimes at my independent way of walking through the world just as if nature had made me of your sex instead of poor Eve's. Trust me, my beloved friend, the mind has no sex but what habit and education give it, and I who was thrown in infancy upon the world like a wreck upon the waters have learned, as well to struggle with the elements as any male child of Adam.
  • An opinion, right or wrong, can never constitute a moral offense, nor be in itself a moral obligation. It may be mistaken; it may involve an absurdity, or a contradiction. It is a truth; or it is an error: it can never be a crime or a virtue.
    • A Few Days in Athens (1822) Vol. II
  • We detect … throughout the whole of things — in the operations of nature, of human society, and in those of our own internal percipient and sentient soul — two master energies. These — while preserving equal forces and acting in conjunction — keep all existences in life, all bodies in place; impart and preserve to each and all their appropriate sphere of action or of movement; and tend, throughout the world of matter, as of mind — to order, harmony, and beauty. Acting in disjunction — i.e. singly, or in opposition — these two principles are transformed into agents of disorder and death; producing variously, violence, inertia, confusion, stagnation, convulsion, decomposition, dissolution. To render this facile of apprehension by every ordinarily informed and reflecting understanding, let us, for a moment, conceive the material universe itself — in which we move and feel and think and have our being, submitted to one only of those universal energies which as considered in disjunction — we call attractive and repellant. Conceive the material universe, I say, submitted to one only of these; it matters not which, for select either, the result must be the same — stagnation, darkness, immovability, universal death.
    • "An Exposition of the Mission of England: Addressed to the Peoples of Europe" in The Reasoner, Vol. 3, No. 54 (1847), p. 321
  • It is not, happily, within our power thus to work destruction in the universal womb of things; still within the sphere of human influence — which extends to the uttermost limit of our world's circumambient atmosphere — we can, and do, modify all nature's kingdom; bending towards good or ill, health or disease, harmony or discord, each part, each unit of the universal plan. Upon our just or erroneous comprehension then, of the laws of nature, must depend our adaptation of art for the right improvement or for the ignorant deterioration of Nature's works. And moreover, upon our just or erroneous interpretation of these in the first division of truth — the physical — will depend our interpretation of them in the intellectual and in the moral; from all which it follows, that our system of human economy will present, even as it has ever presented, a practical exhibition of that of the universe. There is more consistency in the human mind, as in the course of events, than is supposed. In both, the first link in the chain decides the last. Man hath ever made a cosmogony in keeping with his views in physics; a scheme of government in keeping with his cosmogony; a theory of ethics in keeping with his government, and a code of law and theology in keeping with his ethics. Every perception of the human mind modifies human practice. Science is but the theory of art.
    • "An Exposition of the Mission of England: Addressed to the Peoples of Europe" in The Reasoner, Vol. 3, No. 54 (1847), p. 321
  • I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked on it my fortune, my reputation and my life.

Independence Day speech (1828)[edit]

From the era which dates the national existence of the American people, dates also a mighty step in the march of human knowledge.
Independence Day speech at New Harmony (4 July 1828), sometimes noted as the first major public address by a woman to occur in the United States, as published in Course of Popular Lectures as Delivered by Frances Wright (1829) Address I, p. 171 - 182 (Full text online at Wikisource)
Where men then are free to consult experience they will correct their practice, and make changes for the better.
Patriotism … is … the interest felt in the human race in general… patriot, in like manner, is employed to signify a lover of human liberty and human improvement, rather than a mere lover of the country in which he lives, or the tribe to which he belongs.
Liberty means, not the mere voting at elections, but the free and fearless exercise of the mental faculties, and that self-possession which springs out of well-reasoned opinions and consistent practice.
  • From the era which dates the national existence of the American people, dates also a mighty step in the march of human knowledge. And it is consistent with that principle in our conformation which leads us to rejoice in the good which befalls our species, and to sorrow for the evil, that our hearts should expand on this day; — on this day, which calls to memory the conquest achieved by knowledge over ignorance, willing co-operation over blind obedience, opinion over prejudice, new ways over old ways, when, fifty-two years ago, America declared her national independence, and associated it with her republican federation.
  • Dating, as we justly may, a new era in the history of man from the Fourth of July, 1776, it would be well, that is, it would be useful, if on each anniversary we examined the progress made by our species in just knowledge and just practice.
  • The political dismemberment of these once British colonies from the parent island, though involving a valuable principle, and many possible results, would scarcely merit a yearly commemoration, even in this country, had it not been accompanied by other occurrences more novel, and far more important.
  • There is, in the institutions of this country, one principle, which, had they no other excellence, would secure to them the preference over those of all other countries. I mean — and some devout patriots will start — I mean the principle of change.
    I have used a word to which is attached an obnoxious meaning. Speak of change, and the world is in alarm. And yet where do we not see change? What is there in the physical world but change? And what would there be in the moral world without change?
  • Where men then are free to consult experience they will correct their practice, and make changes for the better. It follows, therefore, that the more free men are, the more changes they will make. In the beginning, possibly, for the worse; but most certainly in time for the better; until their knowledge enlarging by observation, and their judgment strengthening by exercise, they will find themselves in the straight, broad, fair road of improvement. Out of change, therefore, springs improvement; and the people who shall have imagined a peaceable mode of changing their institutions, hold a surety for their melioration. This surety is worth all other excellences. Better were the prospects of a people under the influence of the worst government who should hold the power of changing it, that those of a people under the best who should hold no such power. Here, then is the great beauty of American government.
  • We tax our ingenuity to draw nice distinctions. We are told of political liberty — of religious liberty — of moral liberty. Yet, after all, is there more than one liberty; and these divisions, are they not the more and the less of the same thing? The provision we have referred to in our political institutions, as framed in accordance with the principle inherent in ourselves, insures to us all of free action that statues can insure.
  • The great national and political revolution of '76 set the seal to the liberties of North America. And but for one evil, and that of immense magnitude, which the constitutional provision we have been considering does not fairly reach — I allude to negro slavery and the degradation of our coloured citizens — we could foresee for the whole of this magnificent country a certain future of uniform and peaceful improvement.
  • The great error of the wisest known nations of antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, was the preference invariable given to the imagined interests of an imaginary existence called the state or country, and the real interests of the real existences, or human beings, upon whom, individually and collectively, their laws could alone operate. Another error was the opposition in which they invariably placed the interests of their own nation to the interests of all other nations; and a third and greater error, was the elevating into a virtue this selfish preference of their own national interests, under the name of patriotism. The moderns are growing a little wise on these matters, but they are still very ignorant.
  • Americans no longer argue on the propriety of making all men soldiers, in order that their nation may be an object of terror to the rest of the world. They understand that the happiness of a people is the only rational object of a government, and the only object for which a people, free to choose, can have a government at all. They have, farther, almost excluded war as a profession, and reduced it from a system of robbery to one of simple defence. In so doing, they ought also to have laid aside all show of military parade, and all ideas of military glory. If they have not done so, it is that their reform in this matter is yet imperfect, and their ideas respecting it are confused.
  • In continental Europe, of late years, the words patriotism and patriot have been used in a more enlarged sense than it is usual here to attribute to them, or than is attached to them in Great Britain. Since the political struggles of France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, the word patriotism has been employed, throughout continental Europe, to express a love of the public good; a preference for the interests of the many to those of the few; a desire for the emancipation of the human race from the thrall of despotism, religious and of the human race from the thrall of despotism, religious and civil; in short, patriotism there is used rather to express the interest felt in the human race in general, than that felt for any country, or inhabitants of a country, in particular. And patriot, in like manner, is employed to signify a lover of human liberty and human improvement, rather than a mere lover of the country in which he lives, or the tribe to which he belongs. Used in this sense, patriotism is a virtue, and a patriot a virtuous man. With such an interpretation, a patriot is a useful member of society, capable of enlarging all minds, and bettering all hearts with which he comes in contact; a useful member of the human family, capable of establishing fundamental principles, and of merging his own interests, those of his associates, and those of his nation, in the interests of the human race. Laurels and statues are vain things, and mischievous as they are childish; but, could we imagine them of use, on such a patriot alone could they be with any reason bestowed.
  • Is there a thought can fill the human mind
    More pure, more vast, more generous, more refined
    Than that which guides the enlightened patriot's toll
    :
    Not he, whose view is bounded by his soil;
    Not he, whose narrow heart can only shrine
    The land — the people that he calleth mine;
    Not he, who to set up that land on high,
    Will make whole nations bleed, whole nations die;
    Not he, who, calling that land's rights his pride
    Trampleth the rights of all the earth beside;
    No: — He it is, the just, the generous soul!
    Who owneth brotherhood with either pole,
    Stretches from realm to realm his spacious mind,
    And guards the weal of all the human kind,
    Holds freedom's banner o'er the earth unfurl'd
    And stands the guardian patriot of a world!
  • If such a patriotism as we have last considered should seem likely to obtain in any country, it should be certainly in this. In this, which is truly the home of all nations, and in the veins of whose citizens flows the blood of every people on the globe. Patriotism, in the exclusive meaning, is surely not made for America. Mischievous every where, it were here both mischievous and absurd. The very origin of the people is opposed to it. The institutions, in their principle, militate against it. The day we are celebrating protests against it. It is for Americans, more especially to nourish a nobler sentiment; one more consistent with their origin, and more conducive to their future improvement. It is for them more especially to know why they love their country, not because it is their country, but because it is the palladium of human liberty — the favoured scene of human improvement. It is for them more especially, to know why they honour their institutions, and feel that they honour them because they are based on just principles. It is for them, more especially, to examine their institutions, because they have the means of improving them; to examine their laws, because at will they can alter them.
  • Liberty means, not the mere voting at elections, but the free and fearless exercise of the mental faculties, and that self-possession which springs out of well-reasoned opinions and consistent practice. It is for them to honour principles rather than men — to commemorate events rather than days; when they rejoice, to know for what they rejoice, and to rejoice only for what has brought, and what brings, peace and happiness to men. The event we commemorate this day has procured much of both, and shall procure, in the onward course of human improvement, more than we can now conceive of. For this — for the good obtained, and yet in store for our race — let us rejoice! But let us rejoice as men, not as children — as human beings, rather than as Americans — as reasoning beings, not as ignorants. So shall we rejoice to good purpose and in good feeling; so shall we improve the victory once on this day achieved, until all mankind hold with us the jubilee of independence.

A Course of Popular Lectures (1829)[edit]

Devote your leisure day to the study of your own bodies, the analysis of your own minds, and the examination of the fair material world which extends around you!
However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion that until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly.
Opinions are not to be learned by rote, like the letters of an alphabet, or the words of a dictionary. They are conclusions to be formed, and formed by each individual in the sacred and free citadel of the mind, and there enshrined beyond the arm of law to reach, or force to shake; ay! and beyond the right of impertinent curiosity to violate, or presumptuous arrogance to threaten.
  • Let us unite on the safe and sure ground of fact and experiment, and we can never err; yet better, we can never differ.
    • Address III, Delivered at the opening of the Hall of Science, New York, Sunday, April 26, 1829
  • Turn your churches into halls of science, and devote your leisure day to the study of your own bodies, the analysis of your own minds, and the examination of the fair material world which extends around you!
    • Page 74
  • However novel it may appear, I shall venture the assertion that until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that half by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good they will for evil, if they advance not knowledge they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race.
    • Lecture II: Of Free Inquiry, considered as a Means for obtaining Just Knowledge
  • It has already been observed that women, wherever placed, however high or low in the scale of cultivation, hold the destinies of human kind. Men will ever rise or fall to the level of the other sex.
    • Lecture II: Of Free Inquiry, considered as a Means for obtaining Just Knowledge
  • How many, how omnipotent are the interests which engage men to break the mental chains of women! How many, how dear are the interests which engage them to exalt rather than lower their condition, to multiply their solid acquirements, to respect their liberties, to make them their equals, to wish them even their superiors! Let them inquire into these things. Let them examine the relation in which the two sexes stand, and ever must stand, to each other. Let them perceive that, mutually dependent, they must ever be giving and receiving, or they must be losing — receiving or losing in knowledge, in virtue, in enjoyment. Let them perceive how immense the loss, or how immense the gain. Let them not imagine that they know aught of the delights which intercourse with the other sex can give, until they have felt the sympathy of mind with mind, and heart with heart; until they bring into that intercourse every affection, every talent, every confidence, every refinement, every respect. Until power is annihilated on one side, fear and obedience on the other, and both restored to the birthright — equality. Let none think that affection can reign without it; or friendship or esteem. Jealousies, envyings, suspicions, reserves, deceptions — these are the fruits of inequality.
    • Lecture II: Of Free Inquiry, considered as a Means for obtaining Just Knowledge
  • I must intreat your patience — your gentle hearing. I am not going to question your opinions. I am not going to meddle with your belief. I am not going to dictate to you mine. All that I say is, examine; enquire. Look into the nature of things. Search out the ground of your opinions, the for and the against. Know why you believe, understand what you believe, and possess a reason for the faith that is in you…
    But your spiritual teachers caution you against enquiry — tell you not to read certain books; not to listen to certain people; to beware of profane learning; to submit your reason, and to receive their doctrines for truths. Such advice renders them suspicious counsellors. By their own creed, you hold your reason from their God. Go! ask them why he gave it.
    • Lecture III: Of the more Important Divisions and Essential Parts of Knowledge
  • Be not afraid! In admitting a creator, refuse not to examine his creation; and take not the assertions of creatures like yourselves, in place of the evidence of your senses and the conviction of your understanding.
    • Lecture III: Of the more Important Divisions and Essential Parts of Knowledge
  • Religion may be defined thus: a belief in, and homage rendered to, existences unseen and causes unknown.
    • Lecture V: Morals
  • Opinions are not to be learned by rote, like the letters of an alphabet, or the words of a dictionary. They are conclusions to be formed, and formed by each individual in the sacred and free citadel of the mind, and there enshrined beyond the arm of law to reach, or force to shake; ay! and beyond the right of impertinent curiosity to violate, or presumptuous arrogance to threaten.
    • Lecture VI: Formation of Opinions

Quotes about Wright[edit]

Frances Wright was the first woman in this country who spoke on the equality of the sexes. She had indeed a hard task before her. … She was subjected to public odium, slander, and persecution. ~ Ernestine Rose
She was a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate, who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good — public good, private good. ~ Walt Whitman
  • The appropriate character of a woman demands delicacy of appearance and manners, refinement of sentiment, gentleness of speech, modesty in feeling and action, a shrinking from notoriety and public gaze, a love of dependence, and protection, aversion to all that is coarse and rude, and an instinctive abhorrence of all that tends to indelicacy and impurity, either in principles or actions. These are what are admired and sought for in a woman, and your sex demand and appreciate these qualities, as much as my own. With this standard of feeling and of taste, who can look without disgust and abhorrence upon such an one as Fanny Wright, with her great masculine person, her loud voice, her untasteful attire, going about unprotected, and feeling no need of protection, mingling with men in stormy debate, and standing up with bare-faced impudence, to lecture to a public assembly. And what are the topics of her discourse, that in some cases may be a palliation for such indecorum? Nothing better than broad attacks on all those principles that protect the purity, the dignity, and the safety of her sex. There she stands, with brazen front and brawny arms, attacking the safeguards of all that is venerable and sacred in religion, all that is safe and wise in law, all that is pure and lovely in domestic virtue. Her talents only make her the more conspicuous and offensive, her amiable disposition and sincerity, only make her folly and want of common sense the more pitiable, her freedom from private vices, if she is free, only indicates, that without delicacy, and without principles, she has so thrown off all feminine attractions, that freedom from temptation is her only, and shameful palladium. I cannot conceive any thing in the shape of a woman, more intolerably offensive and disgusting; and I believe that in eulogizing her, you did violence to your judgment and your taste, from a natural desire to make a prominent member in your party appear respectable.
  • There is a class of minds, of which I consider Robert Owen and Fanny Wright as specimens, who, while wanting in that fine mental balance called common sense, are supplied with a large amount of enthusiasm. Such a combination, if united with a contemplative turn of mind and lively imagination, often leads to that mysticism whose votaries reside in a world of imagination and feeling. But when united to an active and fearless temperament, and under certain influences, it tends to that practical Atheism, which is exhibited in the projects and visionary efforts of Owen and Fanny Wright.
  • It is far easier to educate for evil than for good, for children since the Fall take to evil as naturally as ducks take to water. The enemies of religion and society understand this perfectly well, and hence whenever in their power they seize upon the schools, and seek to control the education of the young. To accomplish Iheir purposes, they have only to exclude religion from the schools, under the plea of excluding sectarianism, and instead of teaching religion, teach as Frances Wright was accustomed to say, knowledge, and they may soon have a community whose thoughts and affections will be exclusively of the earth earthy.
    It is not without design that I have mentioned the name of Frances Wright, the favorite pupil of Jeremy Bentham, and famous infidel lecturer through our country, some twenty years ago; for I happen to know, what may not be known to you all, that she and her friends were the great movers in the scheme of godless education, now the fashion in our country. I knew this remarkable woman well, and it was my shame to share, for a time, many of her views, for which I ask pardon of God and of my countrymen. I was for a brief time in her confidence, and one of those selected to carry into execution her plans. The great object was to get rid of Christianity, and to convert our Churches into Halls of science. The plan was not to make open attacks on religion, although we might belabor the clergy and bring them into contempt where we could; but to establish a system of state, we said, national schools, from which all religion was to be excluded, in which nothing was to be taught but such knowledge as is verifiable by the senses, and to which all parents were to be compelled by law to send their children. Our complete plan was to take the children from their parents at the age of twelve or eighteen months, and to have them nursed, fed, clothed and trained in these schools at the public expense; but at any rate, we were to have godless schools for all the children of the country, to which the parents would be compelled by law to send them.
  • To this heroic woman, who left ease, elegance, a high social circle of rich culture, and with true self-abnegation gave her life, in the country of her adoption, to the teachings of her highest idea of truth, it is fitting that we pay a tribute of just, though late, respect. Her writings are of the purest and noblest character, and whatever there is of error in them is easily thrown aside. The spider sucks poison from the same flower from which the bee gathers honey; let us therefore ask if the evil be not in ourselves before we condemn others. Women joined in the hue and cry against her, little thinking that men were building the gallows and making them the executioners. Women have crucified in all ages the redeemers of their own sex, and men mock them with the fact.
  • The matter and manner of the dialogue is strictly ancient ... the scenery and portraiture of the interlocutors are of higher finish than anything in that line left us by the ancients; and like Ossian, if not ancient, it is equal to the best morsels of antiqity.
  • Frances Wright, little known to the present generation, was really the spiritual helpmate and better half of the Owens, in the socialistic revival of 1826. Our impression is, not only that she was the leading woman in the communistic movement of that period, but that she had a very important agency in starting two other movements that had far greater success and are at this moment in popular favour, viz., Anti-Slavery and Woman's Rights. If justice were done, we are confident her name would figure high with those of Lundy, Garrison, and John Brown on the one hand, and with those of Abby Kelly, Lucy Stone and Anna Dickinson on the other.
  • She was thoroughly versed in the literature of the day, was well informed on general topics, and spoke French and Italian fluently. She had travelled and resided for years in Europe, was an intimate friend of General Lafayette, and made the acquaintance of many leading reformers, Hungarian, Polish, and others, and was a thorough republican; indeed, an advocate of universal suffrage without regard to colour or sex.
  • Frances Wright was the first woman in this country who spoke on the equality of the sexes. She had indeed a hard task before her. The elements were entirely unprepared. She had to break up the time-hardened soil of conservatism, and her reward was sure — the same reward that is always bestowed upon those who are in the vanguard of any great movement. She was subjected to public odium, slander, and persecution. But these were not the only things she received. Oh, she had her reward — that reward of which no enemies could deprive her, which no slanders could make less precious — the eternal reward of knowing that she had done her duty.
    • Ernestine Rose, in a speech at the National Woman's Rights Convention (1858)
  • You do honor to our species.
    • Mary Shelley to Wright, as quoted in The Neglected Canon : Nine Women Philosophers, First to the Twentieth Century (1999) by Therese Boos Dykeman, p. 277
  • In those days I frequented the anti-slavery halls, in New York — heard many of their speakers — people of all qualities, styles — always interesting, always suggestive. It was there I heard Fanny Wright ... a woman of the noblest make-up whose orbit was a great deal larger than theirs — too large to be tolerated for long by them: a most maligned, lied-about character — one of the best in history though also one of the least understood. She had a varied career here and in France — married a damned scoundrel, lost her fortune, faced the world with her usual courage. Her crowning sorrow was when the infernal whelp who had been her husband tried in France, through the aid of a priest, to take from her her daughter, charging that the child needed to be protected from the danger of her mother's infidelistic teachings. Think of it! ... The scoundrel, through the aid of the French law, which is of all law probably the least favorable to women, got nearly her whole fortune, perhaps the whole of it, so that at the last, when she needed five thousand dollars or so, she had to beg it of him, he even then making the concession reluctantly. But my remembrance of her all centers about New York. She spoke in the old Tammany Hall there, every Sunday, about all sorts of reforms. Her views were very broad — she touched the widest range of themes — spoke informally, colloquially. She published while there the Free Inquirer, which my daddy took and I often read. She has always been to me one of the sweetest of sweet memories: we all loved her: fell down before her: her very appearance seemed to enthrall us. I had a picture of her about here — it is probably somewhere in the house still: a sitting figure — graceful, deer-like: and her countenance! oh! it was very serene.
  • She had all of Ingersoll's magnetism and perhaps more than his tact. ... She was a brilliant woman, of beauty and estate, who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good — public good, private good.
    • Walt Whitman, as quoted in With Walt Whitman in Camden Vol. III (1915) by Horace Traubel

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