James Forten’s Decision

James Forten

Portrait of James Forten

James Forten was a free African American at the time of the American Revolution who faced an interesting choice at one point in the war. He was born to free parents in 1766, and attended a Quaker school for free black children for two years of his childhood, while also working to help support his family. Forten was 14 years old when he joined the crew of an American warship in 1781. When his ship was captured by the British, he was sent to a prison ship where the captain was impressed by Forten and offered to send him to England and educate him, rather than have him remain a prisoner. What would you have done if you were James Forten?

James Forten was an American and a patriot. He refused the captain’s offer, feeling that to accept it would be a betrayal of his country. He then spent seven months on the British prison ship Jersey, infamous for brutal conditions and daily deaths from hunger and disease. Forten survivedP and was exchanged after seven months. Upon release, he walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia and took up a job as a sailmaker’s apprentice. In time he invented a mechanism that made handling ship’s rigging easier, and the profits from this invention helped him to open his own sail loft on the Philadelphia waterfront.

For the rest of his life Forten used his money and influence to benefit humanitarian and moral causes such as abolition of slavery for all African Americans, women’s rights and temperance. He contributed major funding to William Lloyd Garrison’s publication, Liberator. Although the causes he supported were controversial, Forten continued to prosper and was respected by black and white citizens alike. He was not only the most affluent black man in Philadelphia, he was one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, with holdings estimated at $100,000. His decision in 1781 to stay in America yielded great benefits to the causes he supported, particularly the cause of abolition. He died in 1842, just 18 years before the outbreak of Civil War and 20 years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

 

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