James Forten

Abolitionist James Forten. Public Domain


James Forten may have amassed his financial wealth as a sail maker, but his work as a fighter for national independence, abolitionism and women's rights made him an influential African-American man in early United States' history.

Early Life

Born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Forten was born free from enslavement.

Forten attended the African School which was established by prominent abolitionist Anthony Benezet.

When Forten's father died in 1773, Forten worked as a chimney sweep and later as a clerk in a grocery store. Although Forten stopped attending school at the age of nine to contribute to his household, he used the skills he learned at Benezet's school throughout his life.

During the American Revolution, Forten was able to use the sail lofting skills his father taught him during his childhood. Forten served on the privateer Royal Louis and invented a device to handle ship sails.

Inventor and Businessman

Following the war, Forten worked as an apprentice sail maker with Mr. Bridges, the same man his father worked for before his death. Soon after, Forten became a shop foreman. When Bridges retired in 1798, he loaned Forten money to purchase his business.

Within a few years, Forten was employing 38 people. His sailing loft was considered one of the most successful in Philadelphia and Forten invented a sail for ships that allowed for better maneuvering and greater speeds.

This invention benefited Forten and his family greatly financially. Forten's business acumen and inventions placed him as one of the most prosperous men in Philadelphia--black or white.

Political and Social Activism

Forten's wealth was used not only for his own personal life, but the lives of others as well.

Forten used a good amount of his wealth to support abolitionist causes.

In 1800, Forten signed a petition calling for an end to the slave trade and for the modification of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. Thirteen years late, Forten published a pamphlet entitled, A Series of Letters by a Man of Color. The pamphlet opposed a Pennsylvania Senate bill that wanted to restrict black emigration into the state.

Forten also worked with Richard Allen to establish the first Convention of Color in 1817. The purpose of the convention was to assist fugitive African-Americans resettle in Canada and also to state their opposition to colonization to Africa. This event was the precursor to the National Negro Convention Movement which would begin in Philadelphia thirteen years later.

Forten also helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society and helped sponsor William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Libertarian.

 Forten could not vote or hold political office because his was African-American.  Yet, he used his wealth and influence to spearhead initiatives that would be beneficial to African-Americans not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the North.

By the end of the 1830s, Forten was one of the most prominent voices in the abolition movement.


Forten was married twice. His first wife, Martha Beatty died soon after they were married. In 1806, Forten married Charlotte Vandine. The Forten had nine children: Robert Bridges, Margaretta, Harriet, Sarah Louisa, Charlotta, William Deas, Mary Theresa, Thomas Willing Francis, and James Jr.

Many of Forten's children were influential in their community as well. James Jr. and Robert continued to build the family's sailmaking business. Like Forten, Robert was actively involved in the abolitionist movement. Margaretta, an educator, was part of the leadership of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Daughters Harriet and Sarah Louisa married two brothers--Robert and Joseph Purvis--who were also active abolitionists.

Forten's granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimke was a prominent abolitionist, poet and educator.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "James Forten." ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/james-forten-biography-45220. Lewis, Femi. (2017, February 4). James Forten. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-forten-biography-45220 Lewis, Femi. "James Forten." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-forten-biography-45220 (accessed November 19, 2017).