Foul Oppression in the Wind of Freedom, 1817–1840
A Tremendous NO
On the morning of August 16, 1824, a majestic flotilla appeared on the water in New York harbor: a series of ships decorated like floating palaces, all in the service of escorting one man safely to port. The Marquis de Lafayette stepped ashore to the sound of fifty thousand people cheering wildly, among them the vice president of the United States and two hundred of the city’s leading citizens. After a month at sea, the cacophony must have been overwhelming: cannons booming, bells ringing, flags flapping, the West Point band in full swing. Militias stood at attention, wearing Lafayette’s portrait over their hearts. Elderly veterans embraced him, openly weeping. Mothers thrust their children into his arms. Men and women fainted. Others approached him so choked with emotion they could not speak. They placed a crown of fresh cypress and laurel boughs on his head and ushered him into a grand carriage drawn by four white horses. The parade proceeded up Broadway to city hall, passing flag-draped buildings and banners stamped with the name of the returning hero, fresh flowers raining down from the windows. The shops were all closed, the business of New York City standing still for the day.1
As a mere teenager, the Frenchman had joined the Americans in their War for Independence, not only risking his life in battle, but volunteering his own money to feed, clothe, and pay his battalion. His leading role in the Battle of Yorktown had earned him a place in the pantheon of military heroes whose victory brought into being a new nation. Now that nation was nearing its fiftieth anniversary, and Lafayette was back to help celebrate: the only general from the Revolutionary army alive, and still a robust presence a month before his sixty-seventh birthday. But underneath all the patriotic pride was an undeniable note of anxiety.
The election year of 1824 was the very first in which no founding father appeared on the ticket. From Washington to Monroe, the first five presidents had been active participants in the conception of the new republic, but the country would soon outlive the men who had created it. To survive, it would need to transition from an experimental republic steered and administered directly by its makers to a permanent state, which would require a particular interpretation of its history. Thomas Jefferson had argued that every generation ought to be able to remake American society and all of its laws so that they would not be tyrannically ruled by his generation’s dead hand. But by 1824, Americans were looking not for constant reinvention but for stability. Most wanted to believe that the words and deeds of the founders were final and the era of insurrection closed. France loomed as a cautionary tale, having torn up a number of constitutions by this time, its revolution followed by periods of terrible violence, a dictatorship, and finally the restoration of the monarchy in 1814. American society bolstered itself in this troubling changing-of-the-guard moment with a near-religious commemoration of the founding generation—a worshipful attitude that Ralph Waldo Emerson would denounce as the tendency to “build the sepulcres of the fathers,” to be “retrospective,” or conservative of what had been, rather than following the lead of the founders in daring to imagine what else might be. In short, revolutionary iconoclasm had been replaced with filial piety in American political culture.2
Lafayette’s return was a landmark event in this culture of commemoration. He and his compatriots were to be remembered no longer as militant radicals, high on Enlightenment theory and ready to die for untried ideals, but as patriarchs of a static lineage that must be revered and preserved. While most of the other founders were dead or nearly so, Lafayette still had the physical wherewithal to reassure the American people at a moment when a certain crucial thread threatened to snap. Congress felt it was so important for him to visit at this time that it offered to send a ship to any port in France to convey him to the United States, to live on America’s dime for two years, and receive payments in stock and land for his contributions to the revolution, a show of largesse that made the young nation feel strong and rich as its semicentennial Jubilee approached.
So they rolled out a welcome like no other. Before he left New York, Lafayette was honored by “the fete” at Castle Garden, which one attendee described as “the most brilliant and magnificent scene ever witnessed in the United States.” This seems to have been the actual party of the century, a dazzling visual spectacle more lavish than anything anyone present could remember, surpassing even royal coronations. Six thousand partiers with two hundred servants in tow danced the cotillion under an arrangement of chandeliers reflecting the light of a thousand torches. Lafayette went on to tour all twenty-four of the states, paraded around in fine style as the “guest of the nation.” Wherever he went, he was greeted with festivals, dances, and speeches. Maidens robed in white and wearing crowns of myrtle marched under newly constructed triumphal arches in choreographed formation with engraved lances aloft. They named streets, towns, counties, and city squares for him; at least one newborn was saddled with the name “Welcome Lafayette.” On one occasion, a young army officer sang some verses he had composed, but when he came to the climax of the song, his voice faltered with emotion and he was unable to say the general’s name. He fell at Lafayette’s feet crying and rushed away.
But on the day of his arrival, Lafayette’s mind was occupied with thoughts of one woman, who was at that moment still in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean en route to the United States. From the center of the celebratory hubbub, he wrote to a friend how eagerly he awaited the coming ship that would reunite him with his “beloved.” A month behind his hero’s welcome in New York, a far less distinguished vessel pulled in to the harbor with no fanfare, with a woman aboard who was too indispensable to Lafayette to be left out of his American tour but already too controversial to have arrived by the same boat or to be mentioned in any of the official accounts of his visit. As the general’s intimate friend, she would soon be entertained in the homes of the nation’s first families, only to be regarded in the years to come as the most notorious radical in its history.
Lafayette was the revolutionary past, but she was the revolutionary future; the press would call her “the female Tom Paine.” No one worshipped the founders more than she did, and for that very reason she refused to regard their accomplishment as mere symbolism, their rhetoric as empty, or their project complete. In 1824, she was the hushed-up younger woman behind the man who was bringing the country they both idolized to its feet. But within five years, her name would be denounced from pulpits and splashed across the front pages of newspapers, shorthand for a festering fusion of interracial sex, Free Love, gender-bending, and atheism that threatened to bring down the Republic: “that she-demon and unprincipled profligate, FANNY WRIGHT.”3
Frances Wright was an orphaned Scottish aristocrat who had been raised, along with her younger sister, Camilla, by a string of relatives in England. She spent most of her youth with an aunt who lived in a twenty-room mansion in a tiny town called Dawlish, on the southern seacoast of Devonshire. When she was seventeen, Wright happened upon a history of the American Revolution in the library of a family member’s estate, later recalling how strange it had been to find a “subject so politically heterodox” in that patrician context. Opening the book had awoken her to “a new existence” in an instant. “From that moment my attention became riveted on this country,” she would later write, “as on the theater where man might first awake to the full knowledge and the full exercise of his powers.” Restless and bored with the limited round of activities available to a genteel young lady under the watch of a persnickety aunt, she began to dream of the United States as a nearly magical new world “consecrated to liberty,” where traditional constraints and distinctions had been abandoned, and vowed to see it in person one day.4
Wright went off to live with one of her father’s relatives, James Mylne, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a hotbed of the Scottish Enlightenment; her uncle held the faculty position that had once been occupied by Adam Smith. In this environment, Wright imbibed a devotion to reason and empiricism, a suspicion of received wisdom, traditions, and religious authority that would animate her activist career. Women would not be admitted as students at Glasgow until 1883, so Wright’s free access to the university library enabled an education that would remain unavailable to other women for generations. She wrote poetry, a philosophical treatise, later a play.
Copyright © 2019 by Holly Jackson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.