Sarah Margaret Fuller was born May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, the first child of Timothy Fuller, an attorney, and Margaret Crane Fuller. The Fullers were descended from Thomas Fuller, a pious and poetry-writing Englishman who settled in Salem in 1638. Timothy’s father, a clergyman, had opposed the signing of the United States Constitution on the grounds that it condoned human slavery.
|Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, 1812|
Sarah Margaret was named after her paternal grandmother and her mother. By the age of nine, however, she dropped "Sarah" and insisted on being called "Margaret". The house in which she was born is still standing, and is known as the Margaret Fuller House.
|Margaret Fuller House|
|Bunker Hill Monument|
I have not formed an opinion; I have determined not to form settled opinions at present; loving or feeble natures need a positive religion—a visible refuge, a protection—as much in the passionate season of youth as in those stages nearer to the grave. But mine is not such. My pride is superior to any feelings I have yet experienced; my affection is strong admiration, not the necessity of giving or receiving assistance or sympathy. When disappointed, I do not ask or wish consolation; I wish to know and feel my pain, to investigate its nature and its source; I will not have my thoughts diverted or my feelings soothed; it is therefore that my young life is so singularly barren of illusions. I know I feel the time must come when this proud and impatient heart shall be stilled, and turn from the ardors of search and action to lean on something above. But shall I say it?—the thought of that calmer era is to me a thought of deepest sadness; so remote from my present being is that future existence, which still the mind may conceive; I believe in eternal progression; I believe in a God, a beauty and perfection, to which I am to strive all my life for assimilation. From these two articles of belief I draw the rules by which I strive to regulate my life; but though I reverence all religions as necessary to the happiness of man, I am yet ignorant of the religion of revelation. Tangible promises, well-defined hopes, are things of which I do not now feel the need. At present, my soul is intent on this life, and I think of religion as its rule; and in my opinion this is the natural and proper course from youth to age.
~ Margaret Fuller, 1832
She should have been part of the Harvard class of 1829, but the college did not enroll women. She realized that, both intellectually and emotionally, she must learn to “be my own priest, pupil, parent, child, husband and wife.” By 1832, she had made a personal commitment to stay single.
|Harvard Square Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1830|
|Groton, Massachusetts, 1831|
|Frederick Henry Hedge|
|Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island|
|Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts|
|Ralph Waldo Emerson|
|"The Great Lawsuit", The Dial, 1843|
Following in the model of the reading parties of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and other women's study groups, she announced a series of public "Conversations", "designed to encourage women in self-expression and independent thinking."
|Elizabeth Palmer Peabody|
|Lydia "Lidian" Emerson |
and her son, Edward Waldo Emerson, 1840
|Lydia Maria Child|
|Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter|
"If you ever know me well, you will feel that the fact of my abiding by you thus far, affords a strong proof that we are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing & forlorn. How often have I said, This light will never understand my fire. … Could I lead the highest angel captive by a look, that look I would not give, unless prompted by true love: I am no usurper. … To L. [Lidian, Mrs. Emerson] my love. In her I have always recognized the saintly element. … Yet I am no saint, no anything, but a great soul born to know all.”
|James Freeman Clarke|
Fuller was also concerned about the homeless and those living in dire poverty, especially in New York. She also supported the rights of African-Americans, referring to "this cancer of slavery", and suggested that those who were interested in the Abolition movement follow the same reasoning when considering the rights of women: "As the friend of the Negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the Friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman."
|Sing Sing Prison, 1850|
|Woman in the Nineteenth Century|
Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit" was written in serial form for The Dial. She originally intended to name the work The Great Lawsuit: Man 'versus' Men, Woman 'versus' Women; when it was expanded and published independently in 1845, it was titled Woman in the Nineteenth Century. After completing it, she wrote to a friend: "I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth." The work discussed the role that women played in American democracy and Fuller's opinion on possibilities for improvement. It has since become one of the major documents in American feminism, and is considered the first work of its kind in the United States. The typically harsh literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote of the work as "a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller", noting its "independence" and "unmitigated radicalism".
|Edgar Allan Poe|
Henry David Thoreau also thought highly of the book, suggesting that its strength came in part from Fuller's conversational ability. As he called it, it was "rich extempore writing, talking with pen in hand".
|Henry David Thoreau|
- “There exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling toward women as toward slaves.”
- “What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded.”
- “[Men] think that nothing is so much to be dreaded for a woman as originality of thought or character.”
- “Let it not be said, wherever there is energy or creative genius, ‘She has a masculine mind.’”
- “Were [women) free, were they able fully to develop the strength and beauty of Woman, they would never wish to be men or manlike.”
- “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
- “Women are the best helpers of one another. Let them think, let them act.”
- “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.”
|Susan B. Anthony|
|Elizabeth Cady Stanton|
Anthony, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in their History of Woman Suffrage that Fuller "was the precursor of the Women's Rights agitation".
|Matilda Joslyn Gage|
The impression it left was disagreeable. I did not like the tone of it—& did not agree with her at all about the change in woman's outward circumstances ... Neither do I believe in such a character of man as she gives. It is altogether too ignoble ... I think Margaret speaks of many things that should not be spoken of.
|Julia Ward Howe|
|Frances Sargent Osgood|
Around this time, she was also involved in a scandal involving fellow literary critic Edgar Allan Poe, who had been carrying on a public flirtation with the married poet Frances Sargent Osgood. Another poet, Elizabeth Ellet, had become enamored of Poe and jealous of Osgood, and suggested the relationship between Poe and Osgood was more than an innocent flirtation. Osgood then sent Fuller and Anne Lynch Botta to Poe's cottage on her behalf to request that he return the personal letters she had sent him. Angered by their interference, Poe called them "Busy-bodies". A public scandal erupted and continued until Osgood's estranged husband Samuel Stillman Osgood stepped in and threatened to sue Ellet.
|Anne Lynch Botta|
|Samuel Stillman Osgood|
She is of the medium height; nothing remarkable about the figure; a profusion of lustrous light hair; eyes a bluish gray, full of fire; capacious forehead; the mouth when in repose indicates profound sensibility, capacity for affection, for love — when moved by a slight smile, it becomes even beautiful in the intensity of this expression; but the upper lip, as if impelled by the action of involuntary muscles, habitually uplifts itself, conveying the impression of a sneer. Imagine, now, a person of this description looking you at one moment earnestly in the face, at the next seeming to look only within her own spirit or at the wall; moving nervously every now and then in her chair; speaking in a high key, but musically, deliberately, (not hurriedly or loudly,) with a delicious distinctness of enunciation — speaking . . . and emphasizing the words . . . not by impulsion of the breath, (as is usual,) but by drawing them out as long as possible, nearly closing her eyes the while — imagine all this, and we have both the woman and the authoress before us.
She interviewed Harriet Martineau, William Wordsworth, and Thomas De Quincey; inspected pubs, country estates, coal mines, castles, steel mills, public laundries, and got lost for an entire night on the Scottish mountain Ben Lomond. She was appalled by the poverty and the class distinctions, enchanted by the English countryside, furious at the working conditions in the mines and factories, shocked by the filth and hopelessness of the poor. Immediately she advocated a “peaceful revolution.”
She met Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile living in England with a sentence of death on his head, an intellectual with intense, beautiful, fascinating eyes. He had organized poor immigrant boys into schools and clubs as part of his “Young Italy” movement. One evening Margaret addressed one of the groups, and Mazzini wrote to his mother that she “made a touching speech.” He wrote other things, too, so glowing that his mother suggested that he should have Margaret live with him and care for him. Margaret for her part was swept entirely into his orbit. She found him “pure music.” She wrote an article for the Tribune about Mazzini and his goals, reminding Americans that Italy was “the mother of our language and our laws, our greatest benefactress.” Unaware of potential dangers, she joined a plot to smuggle Mazzini back into Italy as a member of the Springs’ party—with an American passport. To Margaret his parting admonition was far from political: “Learn to love not only Italy, but the Italians.”
In early spring, 1847, she and the Springs left Paris, heading for Naples. On the way a serious mishap occurred: their English steamer was rammed and nearly sunk by a coastal ship. Fuller described it all for her Tribune readers, but in a letter to Emerson, she admitted the frightening truth: she had “only just escaped being drowned.”
Italy in 1847 was divided into eight separate political states, with the temporal territories of the pope splitting the peninsula in half. Rome and the Papal States were ruled by the pope as a theocracy. The object of Mazzini’s crusade was to unite all Italy into a single republic. In reaction, every frontier post of every state had standing orders for his immediate arrest.
Fuller had letters of introduction to various republicans, who were to help provide information for her Tribune dispatches. She began with a travelogue about Rome, but quickly switched to politics, Holy Week, and Pope Pius IX.
Then she parted with the Springs, and instead of resuming the homeward journey, as planned, hurried from Milan to Rome. Mickiewicz had written that she ought not to “leave your young Italian.” Ossoli himself had predicted to her: “You will return—to me.” Fuller said later, “I acted upon a strong impulse. … I neither rejoice nor grieve. I acted out my character.” She had written, “Woman is born for love, and it is impossible to turn her from seeking it.” She loved him, and unquestionably he loved her. He did not feel that the disparity in their ages was of any significance—though Fuller confided to a close friend that if someday he should love someone else, “I shall do all that this false state of society permits to give him what freedom he may need.” Their affair was kept secret from everyone, including, especially, their families. Obliquely Fuller wrote to her mother: “I have not been so well since I was a child, nor so happy ever.”
The baby, a boy, was born with difficulty on September 5, 1848. Angelo Eugene Philip Ossoli was given his father’s name and title, which was possible in Italy, then and now, even when the parents were not married. Ossoli was able to stay with Fuller only one day, then rushed back to Rome. After several months the baby was placed in a foster home in Rieti, to Fuller’s great distress; then reluctantly she traveled to Rome. She wanted to hide the baby in the city, but Ossoli refused, for fear their secret might become known. They continued to live apart.
Fuller returned on the eve of one of the most stirring revolutions in European history. With her finances exhausted, she resumed at once her dispatches to the Tribune . She resumed, too, the collection of material for the History of Italian Liberation she proposed to write. For her literary task, she had extraordinary sources of information. From Ossoli s contacts she had access to the papal side; from Mazzini’s contacts, the republican side. In addition, she herself had made noteworthy friends among the Italians. And, fortunately, Lewis Cass, Jr., the American chargé d’affaires to the papal court, formed a strong liking for her and passed on much inside information.
The French army, sent by Louis Napoleon, was the first to arrive. The French soldiers were driven back by Garibaldi, but returned with reinforcements to besiege Rome. One of the defenders was Ossoli, now promoted to captain, in charge of a battery of cannon. During the siege, from April 30 to July 4, 1849, Margaret was director of a military hospital, watching every cartload of wounded for the dreaded sight of her Angelo. The last night of the attack she spent on the walls with him, expecting death for them both. Today, a viale —a tree-lined street —within the walls is named for her.
Fuller’s partisanship for Mazzini did not blind her to the primary weakness in his revolutionary program—the lack of economic planning. She wrote: “Mazzini has a mind far in advance of his time in general, and his nation in particular. … And yet Mazzini sees not all: he aims at political emancipation; but he sees not, perhaps would deny, the bearing of some events which even now begin to work their way.... I allude to that of which the cry of Communism, the systems of Fourier, etc., are but forerunners.” In spite of her criticism, her portrayal of Mazzini throughout is warm and deeply sympathetic, as her portrait of Garibaldi is one of respect and admiration.
Ossoli’s father had died, and he was no longer on speaking terms with his brothers. He tried to recoup some of his inheritance, but failed. Rieti, so close to Rome, was dangerous for them. In the autumn, the dispirited revolutionaries moved on to Florence, where their American passports saved them from the Austrian police. There, according to a letter written in Italian by Ossoli's sister Angela, Margaret Fuller and Angelo Ossoli were married. This letter is the only evidence extant that Margaret Fuller became the Marchesa Ossoli.
Horace Greeley, apparently paying heed to rumors of free love, dropped Fuller from his payroll. Her praise of abolitionists had annoyed moderates. And certain judgments in her dispatches had alienated many patriots:
“My country is at present spoiled by prosperity, stupid with the lust of gain, soiled by crime in its willing perpetuation of slavery, shamed by an unjust war [the Mexican War], noble sentiment much forgotten even by individuals, the aims of politicians selfish or petty, the literature frivolous and venal. In Europe ... a nobler spirit is struggling—a spirit which cheers and animates mine.”
Fuller revelled in her child, bathing, dressing, playing with him constantly, writing long letters to her friends about his graces. “Christmas day I was just up, and Nino all naked on his sofa, when came some beautiful large toys: a bird, a horse, a cat. … It almost made me cry to see the kind of fearful rapture with which he regarded them.”
|Cenotaph Plaque in Mount Auburn Cemetery, |
|Portrait of Fuller|