September 2, 1766
March 15, 1842
The businessman and abolitionist James Forten was born free in Philadelphia in 1766. He attended a Quaker school headed by abolitionist Anthony Benezet. At the age of fourteen he went to sea and became a powder boy on the Royal Louis, a colonial privateer under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur, father of the nineteenth-century naval hero of the same name. After one successful sortie against the British, the Royal Louis was captured by a group of British ships, and Forten and the rest of the crew were taken prisoner. Had he not befriended the son of the British captain, Forten, like many African Americans in his situation, might have been sent into slavery in the West Indies. Instead the British captain ensured that Forten would be transferred to the Jersey, a prison hulk in New York harbor, where many prisoners succumbed to rampant disease; Forten avoided serious illness and after seven months was released.
Shortly after his release, Forten began to work under the tutelage of Robert Bridges, a Philadelphia sail maker. Forten's skill and aptitude guaranteed his success in the industry, and by the age of twenty he was the foreman of Bridges's shop. Upon Bridges's retirement in 1798, Forten became the undisputed master of the shop and developed a reputation for excellent service and innovative sail handling techniques. His business grew; some estimates suggest that he had a fortune of over $100,000 by the early 1830s.
Forten used both his fortune and his fame to forward his agenda for the destruction of slavery. One of the most prominent and vocal Philadelphians on the issue, Forten was a lifelong advocate of immediate abolition. In 1800 he was a petitioner to the U.S. Congress to change the terms of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which permitted suspected runaways to be seized and arrested without a warrant or access to due process. Forten refused to rig sails for ships that had participated in or were suspected of participating in the slave trade. In 1812, along with well-known Philadelphians Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, he helped raise a volunteer regiment of African Americans to help defend Philadelphia were the city to be threatened by the British.
In September 1830 Forten was a participant in the first National Negro Convention in Philadelphia. Its goal was to "consider the plight of the free Negro" and to "plan his social redemption." At the next annual convention, Forten used his influence to oppose funding for the American Colonization Society, which supported black emigration to Liberia; at other times, however, Philadelphia's black elite, including Forten, had advocated emigration to Haiti and Canada.
In 1832 Forten and several other African Americans forwarded another petition to the Pennsylvania legislature asking it not to restrict the immigration of free blacks into the state, nor to begin more rigorous enforcement of the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Law. Much of their argument was based on two main principles: a moral argument based on the evils of slavery and an economic argument—that free blacks were extremely productive members of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania communities. As one of the organizers of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, Forten provided support, especially economic, to abolitionist activities. Forten's generous support greatly aided the continuing publication of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist Liberator. Around 1838 he also went to court in a vain attempt to secure the right to vote.
Forten was a founder and presiding officer of the American Moral Reform Society. The society stressed temperance, peace, and other Garrisonian ideals, which included the full and equal participation of women in anti-slavery activism and society in general. Forten's reputation for good works was well known: He received an award from the city of Philadelphia for saving at least four, and perhaps as many as twelve, people from drowning in the river near his shop. When he died in 1842, thousands of people, many of whom were white, reportedly attended his funeral.
Even before his death in 1842, the legacy of Forten's deep belief in abolition was carried on by his family. Forten's children, and later his grandchildren, would figure as prominent abolitionists and civil rights activists throughout the nineteenth century. Forten's son James Jr. and his son-in-law Robert Purvis were active in the abolitionist movement from the 1830s onward and often collaborated with the elder Forten in his various activities. All of Forten's daughters were involved in antislavery affairs, and Charlotte Forten Grimké, Forten's granddaughter, became a well-known author, educator, and civil rights activist.
"The Forten Family." Negro History Bulletin 10, no. 4 (January 1947): 75–79.
Purvis, Robert. Remarks on the Life and Character of James Forten, Delivered at Bethel Church, March 30, 1842. Philadelphia, 1842.
Winch, Julie. Philadelphia's Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787–1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Winch, Julie. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
evan a. shore (1996)
Forten, James 1766–1842
The abolitionist and civil rights advocate James Forten was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766, to Thomas and Margaret Forten. James Forten was born free. His father, Thomas Forten, was born also free. James Forten’s grandfather was born into slavery and gained his freedom. James Forten’s great-grandfather was born in Africa, enslaved, brought to Pennsylvania, and he lived the rest of his life as a slave. Almost nothing is known about his mother. Thomas Forten was a journeyman sail maker in the sail loft of a white craftsman, Robert Bridges. As a child, James learned the rudiments of the sail maker’s trade, and he also spent two years at the Quaker-sponsored African School.
The Fortens remained in Philadelphia during the American War for Independence. In 1781 a mix of patriotic fervor and the need for money induced James Forten to join the crew of an American privateer. His ship was captured on its second cruise and he was taken prisoner. While being held on board a British warship, he was assigned to watch over the captain’s son. The two youths became friends, and the captain offered to take Forten to England and educate him with his son. Attractive though the offer was, Forten rejected it, insisting he could not desert the cause of independence. He was sent with the rest of the American captives to a British prison ship in New York harbor. After a harrowing seven months of incarceration he was released and returned to Philadelphia. Fighting and suffering alongside white men in the same cause shaped Forten’s views about American society. In later years he alluded repeatedly to what he saw as the Revolution’s promise of equality without regard to race.
After the war ended, Forten shipped out aboard an American merchant ship bound for London. Once there, he requested to be paid off, and he remained in the British capital for a year, most likely working in a sail loft. When he returned home he was offered an apprenticeship by Robert Bridges. The relationship between Bridges, a white slave-owner, and Forten, a free man of color, proved mutually beneficial. Bridges recognized Forten’s ability and promoted him to foreman, a position in which he oversaw a largely white workforce. In return, Bridges gained a conscientious junior partner who helped him expand his business. In 1798 Bridges retired and Forten took over the sail loft.
Race relations in Philadelphia at this time were not as tense as they would later become, and the quality of Forten’s work induced many white ship-owners to hire him. He proved a resourceful businessman, investing the profits from his sail-loft in real estate and bank and canal stock. As an employer he insisted on maintaining a racially integrated workforce, and his sail-loft, one of the largest in Philadelphia, was renowned for its harmony and good order.
By the time he was in his early thirties, James Forten had emerged as a vocal champion of African-American rights. In 1799 some seventy black Philadelphians petitioned Congress for action to prevent the kidnapping of free people of color. Congress refused even to consider their petition, however. In his widely reprinted letter of thanks to the lone congressman who had supported the petition, Forten spoke of his fear that the nation was violating its founding principles. He developed this theme in Letters from a Man of Colour. Written in 1813 in response to moves in the Pennsylvania Senate to curtail the rights of black citizens, Forten’s pamphlet eloquently expressed his belief that all Americans were entitled to equal treatment under the law.
The issue that brought Forten to national prominence was African colonization. He was initially optimistic about prospects in Sierra Leone, believing Britain’s West African colony would help stimulate trade in commodities other than human beings, as well as offer a refuge to emancipated slaves from the United States and the Caribbean. He welcomed the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816 and endorsed the idea of an American colony for former slaves in Africa. Others in his community voiced their fear that the ACS’s real aim was to deport free blacks. In a matter of months Forten swung from support to outright opposition. The founding of Liberia, the sufferings of the colonists, and the statements of some ACS leaders that their goal was most definitely not to abolish slavery convinced him that the organization was fundamentally proslavery. When prominent ACS members told him it was his duty to lead an exodus of free blacks to Africa, it only intensified his hostility.
Although freeborn, James Forten was a tireless opponent of slavery. He worked in the African-American community to aid the hundreds of fugitives who flocked to Philadelphia each year, and he collaborated with white abolitionists. In 1830, when he was contemplating founding an antislavery newspaper, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison contacted Forten, who responded with money and advice. Garrison’s paper, the Liberator, gave Forten the chance to reach a wider audience than he could with his speeches and letters, and in his writings for the paper he spoke of the perniciousness of slavery and the evils of racial oppression.
During the last decade of his life, James Forten confronted many challenges. Philadelphia was rocked by repeated outbreaks of racial violence. In an 1834 riot, one of his sons was attacked, and he himself received death threats. He also witnessed a concerted effort to erode the rights of black people. In 1838, Pennsylvania voters ratified a new constitution that disfranchised African Americans. In the face of so much hostility, Forten helped found a new organization, the American Moral Reform Society. The goal of its members was to work for a sweeping restructuring of American society. They rejected racial distinctions and pledged to address the needs of the entire nation. Its critics, however, condemned the AMRS as hopelessly impractical, reasoning that black people were in greater need of aid than the population as a whole. Forten’s reply was that all racial divisions were indefensible.
In 1841 deteriorating health forced Forten to relinquish control of his business to his two eldest sons. Even when he became too weak to speak in public, he continued to write in support of the causes he championed. He died on March 4, 1842, at the age of seventy-five. Despite the tense racial climate in Philadelphia, some five thousand citizens, black and white, lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.
Newman, Richard, Patrick Rael, and Phillip Lapsansky, eds. 2001. Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature, 1790–1860. New York and London: Routledge.
Winch, Julie. 2002. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York: Oxford University Press.
James Forten (1766-1842), one of America's most prominent black abolitionists, was also an inventor and entrepreneur and one of the wealthiest Americans of his day.
James Forten was born free in Philadelphia on Sept. 2, 1766. For a short time he attended a Quaker school, but at 14 he entered the Navy. During the American Revolution, Forten's patriotic zeal was illustrated when his ship was captured by a British frigate and he was taken prisoner. Because of his youth he was offered his freedom—in England. He replied: "I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I never, never shall prove a traitor to her interests!"
After the Revolution, Forten was apprenticed to a sailmaker. He quickly mastered the trade, and by the time he was 20 he was a top sailmaker. Shortly thereafter he invented a device for the improved handling of sails and became the owner of his own sail loft. Soon he was the wealthiest black man in Philadelphia and one of the most affluent Americans of his time. His holdings were estimated at more than $100,000.
Forten used his money for humanitarian causes. He was a strong advocate of women's rights, temperance, and the freedom of African Americans who were still slaves. At first Forten thought the colonization of free blacks in Africa might be the best policy. He reasoned that they could "never become a people" until they were entirely free of the white majority. However, in 1817, when the issue was discussed in a public meeting in Philadelphia, Forten found the sentiments of the 3,000 free blacks who attended overwhelmingly against colonization. They were Americans, and they saw no reason why they should leave America, and Forten sensed that they were right. Subsequently he vigorously opposed the expatriation schemes of the Colonization Society, and he influenced William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld to see that black people should be free—in America, their own homeland.
Forten is best known as an abolitionist, and he spent a good part of his fortune underwriting Garrison's fiery Liberator. But Forten was also a leading citizen of Philadelphia and highly respected by both races. He was president of the Moral Reform Society and was a leader in the "Convention movement," which was started in the 1830s to improve the circumstances of black Americans. He died on March 4, 1842.
The only full-length study of Forten is Esther M. Douty's book for young adults, Forten, the Sailmaker: Pioneer Champion of Negro Rights (1968), which leaves much to be desired. Forten is best seen in the context of his times in John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (1947; 3d ed. rev. 1967). Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1967; 2d ed. 1968), contains an account of Forten. See also William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History (1967), and Ray Allen Billington, "James Forten: Forgotten Abolitionist," in August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, eds., The Making of Black America: Essays in Negro Life and History (2 vols., 1969). □