Frances Wright writes to an intimate French comrade on the eve of her departure to America (1824)

Frances Wright writes to an intimate French comrade on the eve of her departure to America (1824)

Wright, Frances “Fanny” (1795–1852). Archive of eight (8) ALS in French to Jean-Pierre Pagès (1784–1866). La Grange, Le Havre, and Monticello, 1824. 17 pp. total. [WITH] de Lasteyrie du Saillant, Charles Philibert (1759–1849), One ALS to Pagès, 6 November 1824. Minimal faults to paper; very good condition overall.


A significant collection of substantial, densely-written letters by this pioneering freethinker, feminist and abolitionist, written on the occasion of the decisive trip to the United States with the Marquis de Lafayette that would launch her public career. The letters, written to an intimate friend, offer rich insight into Wright’s state of mind on the eve of her departure, which was deeply troubled. The letters also introduce an important figure in Jean-Pierre Pagès, a French political radical whose connection to Wright was hitherto unknown. One of the highlights of the collection is a breathless letter reporting on her visit to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello; the encounter would inspire her own decision to remain in America and take up the cause of liberty. Shortly after, she would stake out a new public identity becoming both the first woman to gain fame as a lecturer and the first female abolitionist in America.


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Henry Inman, Frances Wright (1824), New-York Historical Society


Born in Scotland, Wright was under the protection of the old Marquis in 1824 when he decided to embark on a triumphal tour of the country that he had helped to found fifty years earlier. Accompanying her was her younger sister Camilla (1797–1831). The journey would prove to be the great turning point in Wright’s life, the catalyst for her metamorphosis from a Tocquevillian observer of American culture to an agent of social and political change. It was during this trip that she determined to take literally Jefferson’s pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal.” Parting ways with her benefactor, she remained in the United States to devote herself to the struggle against slavery, founding a utopian colony for enslaved persons and forging a pioneering career.


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Samuel F. B. Morse, Marquis de Lafayette (1824), Crystal Bridges Museum


            Wright met the Marquis de Lafayette in 1821 shortly after she published Views of Society and Manners in America, a travelogue of her tour of the United States from 1818-20. It was not long before she was a regular guest at his Château, which he called La Grange. Theirs was “a relationship of no ordinary nature,” notes Wright’s biographer Celia Morris. “One that would touch Fanny’s name with scandal, but whose full dimensions remain obscure” (Morris, p. 53). These letters, written in imperfect French, do nothing to simplify the matter. In one breath, Wright speaks of her loyalty and devotion to the revolutionary hero whom she calls “my father.” In another she indicates that she did not always welcome his presence:


Mon père vient de me quitter pour un instant et je profite de ce moment – car vous sentirez comme chaque moment de cette journée est précieuse.


She writes also of Lafayette’s episodes of depression:


Dimanche soir. Mon père rentra hier et je vous quittais pour le rejoindre. Avant de nous séparer il avait trouvé un peu de calme. Grâce à son caractère sanguin il est toujours possible de le ramener à l’espérance. Je voudrais que vous puissiez lui faire une petite visite à La Grange – sinon cette fois-ci quand il y retournera. Il aura besoin de décharger son cœur et de causer sur ses chagrins.


And she indicates weariness at Lafayette's continuous stream of American guests:


Un Américain, être excellent, mais avec qui je ne désire renouveler connaissance dans le moment actuel devant partir ce soir je ne pars que demain à 5 heures du soir.


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Jean Claude Imbert, Landing of Gen. Lafayette at Castle Garden New York, 16th August 1824, New York Public Library


            The letters concern Wright’s agonized decision to accompany Lafayette on his triumphal tour to the country he had helped to found fifty years earlier. They are written in a state of extreme agitation – “Je parle ici avec la résolution du désespoir.” She makes it clear that her ultimate decision to go was less about revisiting the United States than escaping the rumors circulating in London and France about her relationship with Lafayette:


j’aurais beau leur parler des difficultés qui empêchent mon père de se donner au moins aux yeux du monde, un titre fait pour nous tirer de l’embarras. (Les idées les devoirs et je pourrais même dire l’honneur anglais sont sur ce point tellement opposés à ceux de la France que je ne serais pas entendue.) C’est assez dire pour vous expliquer comme j’aurais le cœur déchiré, les sentiments blessés dans ces entrevues. … Je vais en Amérique mais croira-t-on que j’y vais seulement revoir le pays. Le vrai but sera vu de tout le monde et nous n’aurions que le ridicule d’avoir voulu cacher ce qui sera clair comme le jour. Et comment cacher ! À quoi bon être là si nous ne sommes pas auprès de lui et comment être avec lui si ce n’est pas ouvertement – sans embarras sans de faux prétextes – en un mot comme deux filles avec leur père. … Je prendrai volontiers la place d’une fille avec le consentement et l’approbation expresse de la famille mais je ne veux pas le suivre en qualité de je ne sais quoi et recommencer la même vie que je n’ai trainé[e] que trop longtemps.


In a lengthy and candid autobiographical letter, Wright writes about her need to provide for her sister, whom she had protected since they were orphaned in early childhood. Going to the United States, she suggests, is for Camilla’s benefit:


J’attends aussi ma sœur qui aura besoin de repos et qui ne voudrait plus que je m’éloignasse d’elle. Je ne dirai pas que d’après les lettres qui me sont arrivées tout dernièrement, il me paraît avoir exaggerer mes devoirs envers cet être chéri. Je ne saurais exaggerer ces devoirs, mon cœur encore plus que ma raison me le dit. Mais je dirai les avoir peut-être un peu mal entendus. – Quand l’ami de mon enfance me parla au nom de ma sœur – de ce dépôt sacré qu’un sort cruel me confia en entier en frappant de mort celle qui nous donna la vie et dont la perte fit mourir de douleur un père presque aussi jeune et distingué par une âme toute aussi généreuse et élevée, et des talents aussi brillants que précoces. Quand on me parla de ma sœur – toutes ces circonstances que je n’ai appris que peu de temps avant mon voyage de l’Amérique, dans une pèlerinage faite au tombeau de mes parents – toutes les souffrance aussi de ma malheureuse enfance, que je ne supportais que pour consoler et protéger celle d’un enfant encore plus jeune – tous ces souvenirs et bien d’autres encore vinrent troubler ma raison, ébranler toutes mes résolutions et me firent même chercher dans le sacrifice de mon bonheur, des sentiments et des devoirs de mon cœur, les intérêts d’une sœur que je ne voyais pas clairement mais que j’avais besoin au moins de ne pas confondre avec les miens. … Camilla, le désespoir dans l’âme, me jure que j’ai mal compris ses intérêts – que pour tout au monde, elle ne voudrait s’établir en Angleterre ou les préjugés la degoute [dégoûtent] – qu’elle respirerait mieux en Amérique, mais qu’elle ne serait bien là qu’avec mon père. … Si elle est disposée pour un voyage je m’y rendrai avec elle.


“Tourmentés [Tourmentée] par deux sentiments et deux devoirs opposés,” she writes, “je me retirais la mort dans l’âme.”


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Jacques François Llanta, Jean-Pierre Pagès (1837), from Sarrut, v. 3, opp. p. 91.


In the company of Lafayette, who served as the lodestar of the parliamentary left, Wright visited the Chamber of Deputies. It was here no doubt that she first met the recipient of these letters, Jean-Pierre Pagès, a figure whose relationship with Wright was hitherto unknown to modern historians. Morris, who saw at least one of these letters in a microfilm copy in the Louis Gottschalk papers at the University of Chicago, mistook Wright’s correspondent for the much younger Louis-Antoine Garnier-Pagès (1803–1878), who would not make his mark until the 1830s. In contrast, Pagès, ten years Wright’s senior, was by 1824 a notorious firebrand.

Jean-Pierre Pagès, called Pagès de l’Ariège, was trained as a lawyer. A violent opponent of the Restoration government, he was arrested for subversive activities for the first time in 1811. By 1816, police were reporting that


Le sieur Pagès était un des hommes les plus dangereux, favorisait la circulation des bruits les plus alarmants, donnait des espérance aux factieux de l’arrondissement de Saint Girons, était le Centre de toutes les correspondences criminelles…. Il est le fléau, la terreur des fidèles sujets du Roi, l’espoir, le point de mire des factieux et des rebelles. (Ageorges, 42-43)


Facing further arrest, Pagès went underground but he was caught and deported to Angoulême. Though the authorities hoped that removing him from his network would place him out of harm’s way, he remained deeply involved in the movement to overthrow the house of Bourbon. He would later emerge from “ces intrigues souterraines” to pursue a public political career in the Assembly beginning in 1831. His speeches, articulating a strong leftist position, were cited with approbation by John Stuart Mill.

            The 1820s found Pagès working as a writer alongside his “inséparable ami” and frequent collaborator, the journalist and political theorist Benjamin Constant (1867–1830). Pagès had made his own contributions to democratic theory and political economy with a series of publications written in exile, including Principes généraux du droit politique dans leur rapport avec l'esprit de l'Europe et avec la monarchie constitutionnelle (1817) and De la Responsabilité ministérielle, et de la nécessité d'organiser le mode d'accusation et de jugement des ministres (1818), and D'Une association prétendue constitutionnelle contre les acquéreurs de domaines nationaux (1821). At the time of his correspondence with Wright, Pagès was receiving mail at the Paris office of l'Encyclopedie Moderne, a progressive project for which he wrote essays on such subjects as Abdication, Anarchy, Capital, Democracy, Duty, Liberty, Rights, Natural Rights, the Freedom of the Press, Resistance, Revolution, and the Slave Trade (for a full listing of Pagès’s contributions, see Ageorges, pp. 63-65).

            It is remotely possible that Pagès is the romantic figure that captivated Wright in the early 1820s whom she and her confidants referred to by the code name “Eugene.” As Morris writes:


[Wright] was taken with a much younger man [than Lafayette] … who moved her “more than is reasonable” and was somehow involved in The Cause. “He has a noble soul and a sweet nature,” she wrote, “but I see in him a sanguiness of temper and a contempt of danger which makes me apprehensive lest he should some day run upon the enemy’s spear too hastily.” At the same time she wished more were like him: “The game now cannot be won by long-headed calculators: we want hands of steel and heads of flame.” (Morris, pp. 64-65)


Certain references in these letters suggest that Pagès may have been “Eugene.” Morris notes that Wright and “Eugene” spent time together in London, and she offered him money through her banker Jacques Laffitte that he declined to accept. These letters to Pagès reference a rendezvous in London, and she apologizes profusely for a financial gaffe:


Dieu sait ce que j’avais dans la tête quand je demandais le bill sur Londres pour 20 £ sterling. Il faut au contraire que je laisse cet argent à Paris et je me rappelle d’en avoir aussi en Angleterre. Je vais dont [donc] pour remédier à mon erreur vous addresser ou plutôt addresser à Lafitte une autre lettre…


On the other hand, the tone of the letters is not amorous, though it is very warm –


5 heures viennent de sonner, et je perds l’espoir de vous revoir cher et excellent ami. Si nos adieux sont faits, espérons qu’ils ne seront pas longs. Comment exprimer toute la tendre reconnaissance que votre touchante amitié m’a inspirée!


And it appears that by 1824 Pagès appears to have been attached. In one letter Wright refers to "votre chère femme et à notre jeune amie," and throughout the correspondence there is mention of a sick girl under Pagès’s care, probably his (adopted?) daughter Thérèse-Claudine-Eugénie, born in 1811. (Several members of his family died in 1824, and the genealogy is very confusing.) Yet again, as one would expect from the bosom friend of Benjamin Constant, Pagès appears not to have been puritanical with respect to sex. He married Marie Françoise Eugénie Sarny on 19 August 1826, only a few weeks before the birth of their son on 7 September 1826. Towards the end of his life Pagès would become a devout Catholic.


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Pierre-Jean David D'Angers, Marie Geneviève Jeanne de Lasteyrie du Saillant (1856), Louvre Museum


Wright references a few other people in the letters including her friend Marie Geneviève Jeanne de Lasteyrie du Saillant (1759 – 1849), who was a member of the extended Lafayette clan (her husband’s brother had married Lafayette’s youngest daughter). She was, according to Morris, Wright’s “only ally in the family” (p. 73). A letter from her husband Charles to Pagès announces her arrival in America:


Je suis passée deux fois chez vous Monsieur et vous ai écrit pour vous annoncer de la part de Miss Wright, son arrivée à New-York pour être sûre que vous ayez reçu de mes nouvelles.


She refers several times also to an unnamed individual living at 59 Rue de Grenelle, probably the publisher and bookseller Adolphe Bossange, a correspondent of Benjamin Constant. Several of the letters are written from La Havre, where she was the guest of Julia and Harriet Garnett.


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Thomas Sully, Thomas Jefferson (1821), American Philosophical Society


The last letter in the archive is perhaps the most striking. Dated Monticello, 15 November 1824, Wright reports on her visit to Thomas Jefferson. Wright wrote also to the Garnett sisters, and the difference in tone is remarkable. In her letter to the Garnetts, Wright writes as a tourist meeting a celebrity, discussing the statesman's countenance and bearing: "His face has nothing of that elaborate length & breadth of chin invariably attached to it in all the prints & drawings," etc. (Payne-Gaposchkin, 229). To Pagès she writes about being in the presence of an intellectual hero:


Votre lettre est venue nous trouver dans un lieu sacré [i.e., Monticello]. … Avec quel intérêt vous contempleriez ce vieux patriote qui a su réunir les deux caractères d'un philosophe et d'un homme d'état et qui fixa si non les institutions du pays qui doivent leur existence et consistance au peuple lui-même. … A l'âge de quatre vingt deux ans M. Jefferson conserve toute la vigueur de son esprit, mais des maladies violentes et successives lui ont ôté beaucoup de sa force physique. Rien de plus intéressant que de voir notre respectable ami au côté de son vieux confrère [Lafayette] et d'écouter leur réminiscences d'évènements et d'hommes historiques. Mais que ce plaisir est mêlé de tristesse ! Encore quelques d’années et on ne trouvera plus sur cette montagne l'auteur de la déclaration de l'indépendance, le père de la liberté américaine. 


  It was her audience with “the father of American liberty” that would inspire Wright’s own dedication to social justice. Only a few months later, she would take measures to found Nashoba, an experimental farming community predicated on gender and racial equality. By 1829, she would embark upon a lecture tour that marked the first entry of a woman into the American public sphere.

            A rich and revealing correspondence from a transitional moment in the life of this profoundly influential founding mother of the American experiment, who surely is long overdue for a fresh biographical assessment.


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Selected References

Ageorges, Joseph, Une Famille Française Au XIXe Siècle (les Pagès Et Les Bordes-Pagès): Contribution à L'étude Des Moeurs Bourgeoises. Tourcoing: J. Duvivier, 1920.

Bederman, Gail. “Revisiting Nashoba: slavery, utopia, and Frances Wright in America, 1818–1826,” American Literary History 17 (2005): 438–459.

Bowman, Rebecca. “Frances Wright,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Monticello.org, 1996.

Connors, Robert J. “Frances Wright: First Female Civic Rhetor in America.” College English, vol. 62, no. 1, 1999, pp. 30–57.

Courtin, M., ed. Encyclopédie moderne, ou, Dictionnaire abrégé des sciences, des lettres et des arts: avec l'indication des ouvrages ou les divers sujets sont développés et approfondis. 24 vol. Paris: Chez Mongie Ainé, 1823-32.

Gatien-Arnoult, M. "Notice sur Jean-Pierre Pagès (de l'Ariége).Mémoires de l'Académie des sciences inscriptions et belles-lettres de Toulouse, Sixième Série, V (1867) 320-410.

Lee, Elizabeth. “Frances Wright: the first woman lecturer,” The Gentleman's Magazine 276 (May 1894): 518–28.

Mill, John Stuart. “French News” [5 February 1832], Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1986), XXIII: 405.

Morris Eckhardt, Celia. Fanny Wright: rebel in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Payne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia. “The Nashoba plan for removing the evil of slavery: letters of Frances and Camilla Wright, 1820–1829,” Harvard Library Bulletin 23 (1975).

Rémusat, Charles de. Éloge de M. Pagés (de l'Ariège): lu en séance publique, le 12 mai 1867 … Toulouse : Ch. Douladoure, 1868.

Sarrut, Germain. Biographie Des Hommes Du Jour, Industriels,--conseillers-d'Etat,--artistes,--chambellans,--députés,--prêtres,--militaires,--écrivains,--rois,--diplomates,--pairs,--gens De Justice,--princes,--espions Fameux,--savans. Paris: H. Krabe, 1835-41.


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    Frances Wright writes to an intimate French comrade on the eve of her departure to America (1824)


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