James Forten is one of the often overlooked heroes of the Abolitionist Movement in the United States. Born in the 1760s in Pennsylvania to an established Keystone family, Forten had a difficult childhood because his dad died when James was still a kid. He was forced into the workforce at an early age, but, like fellow Philadelphian, Ben Franklin, that experience taught him thrift and hard work.
As a teen, Forten served his emerging nation as a powder boy onboard an American frigate during the American Revolution. After his war service, Forten apprenticed with a sailmaker in his hometown. The owner of the company retired after Forten received his mastery papers, and he sold the business to the enterprising young man. It was in this business that James Forten made his fortune in an era when sailing was the nation’s economic life-blood.
He decided to use his money to further the cause of ending African slavery in the United States. You see, Forten had been schooled as a young man in a Quaker schoolhouse, and that sect produced many of the leaders of the anti-slavery effort. He learned his Quaker lessons well. What most people don’t realize is that Forten was a large part of the money behind William Lloyd Garrison’s famous and influential anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and he even wrote opinion pieces for the paper.
In addition, Forten became a vice-chairman of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His wealth gave his time (and money) to devote his life to working for the ending of slavery. Forten was one of the signers of a petition to Congress in 1801 advocating for the ending of slavery in the US (one of the first such petitions to be made public). He and his wife had nine children, and each of them were raised to see the Peculiar Institution as a national evil. They all grew up to work for the rights of former slaves in the post-Civil War American south. When Forten died at age 75 in Philadelphia, his funeral was attended by thousands of people, both white and black.
Forten believed in the fundamental rights of all people. He also advocated for women’s rights 100 years before women got the right to vote in this country. However, it was his work against slavery for which he is most remembered. To him, slaves weren’t property; they were humans. They had rights simply by being humans and by being in this country. It made no difference that they were African-Americans. They had the same rights to life, liberty, and to pursue those things that made them happy, he believed. Those were the rights he had been able to pursue his whole life, and he strongly believed that slaves should be able to do so, also.
You see, James Forten was an African-American, too.