Long before King, a Philadelphia voice

Philadelphia Inquirer – September 1, 2013

Anniversaries of historical events, such as last week’s observance of the 1963 March on Washington, get us thinking about the past and present. They prod us to reflect on the choices we make, the values we espouse, the dreams that have been realized, and the ones that have not. As it happens, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of another important moment in the struggle for equal rights.

During the War for Independence, a young, black Philadelphian, James Forten, decided to fight on the American side following the passage of a state law titled “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” It convinced him that Pennsylvania, at least, was on the right side of the struggle. Forten survived the war, including several months on a British prison ship.

A couple of decades later, Forten was a leading citizen of the city, the owner of a sail-making operation who was widely known in the black and white communities.

By then, the United States was embroiled in its second war with the British Empire. The crisis created opportunities for reactionary forces to bring more than one bill before the state Senate that would have effectively reinstated slavery in Pennsylvania.

The bills’ sponsors claimed that British military activity in the South would drive hordes of runaway slaves into the commonwealth. To control the situation, they planned to close the border and to require that all people of African descent in the state register with local authorities. If they could not produce the necessary papers on demand, they could be jailed and fined or sold into slavery.

Forten had committed himself early on to the fight against slavery. But he also had substantial financial interests in his shop just off Lombard Street, in real estate holdings, and in private banking. He had important customers, the vast majority of them white, and an integrated workforce to worry about.

In 1813, marches, public gatherings, and speeches by African Americans were not an option. For them, there was no right to assemble, nor could they vote. However, Forten did what he could, despite the considerable risks. He wrote a series of open letters, under a pseudonym, arguing passionately against the proposed legislation. They were published as a pamphlet, “Letters From a Man of Colour.”

These letters still have the power to move readers: “Has the God who made the white man and the black, left any record declaring us a different species? Are we not sustained by the same power, supported by the same food, hurt by the same wounds, wounded by the same wrongs, pleased with the same delights and propagated by the same means? And should we then not enjoy the same liberty, and be protected by the same laws?”

The bills were defeated, but the threat of government action against black Pennsylvanians surfaced repeatedly for the rest of Forten’s life, in response to either economic downturns or social unrest. As William Faulkner noted: “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”

6 thoughts on “Long before King, a Philadelphia voice

  1. I read with interest your article about James Forten. Obviously when one writes an op-ed piece for a newspaper, there is a limit on the number of words. You got a lot into a short piece, but I did have some questions, which I hope you might have time to answer.
    You said that Forten “decided to fight on the American side following the passage of a state law titled “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Was that statute passed after 1776? I thought the legislature of the colony of Pennsylvania had passed that statute, in part because Quakers had come to the conclusion that slavery was immoral. But I don’t know when that was. I also thought that what Pennsylvania had done had no particular influence on other colonies.
    Obviously if a legislature gives a right, the legislature can take it away. That was an excellent point you made. What I didn’t understand was why the War of 1812 would have permitted reactionary forces in Pennsylvania to hope that they could get slavery reinstated.
    Finally, something you wrote made me wonder to whom the bill of rights applied. You said that in 1813, African-Americans had no right to assemble or vote. However, in Pennsylvania they were not slaves, they were free men. But yet they were not covered by the First Amendment. Do you know why? Was there a court decision to that effect? Or was it similar to the status of white women. They were free persons, but they could not vote. I don’t think anything in the Constitution expressly said that (nor something in a state law). But everyone just knew that adult women could not vote. It made me realize that you can read a document (such as the Constitution) but you read it understanding the words the way they are understood now, not the way they were understood over 200 years ago. As such, you really don’t know what you don’t know!
    These are many questions, and I would impose upon you to get a detailed answer. But any response would be appreciated, especially a reference to a book about this.

    • You are absolutely right about the space limitations, always a source of frustration.
      The gradual emancipation act was passed in 1780 by the then “state” legislature which really meant “national” at that point in the sense that each of the 13 colonies had become an independent country in an alliance with the others.
      It’s common during wars to get what I would call “reactionary legislation” proposed, if not passed, simply because people are afraid and they look for scapegoats, for easy solutions to complex problems, for security.
      I would argue that the USA PATRIOT Act, passed after the September 11th attacks, was an example of this phenomenon. It cut deeply into our fourth amendment rights, but the argument was, it’s justified by the need for “safety.”
      There had been no Supreme Court decision relating to the rights of free blacks specifically by 1813. But, sadly, it was the practice of the times. Blacks were “not allowed” to vote in Philadelphia, although there was nothing in the written law to prevent them. The same went for public gatherings.
      Later, in 1857, the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, did state that African Americans (free or slave) were not citizens and therefore did not have the rights of citizens. It was a huge blow to free blacks around the country and made them even more determined to end slavery.
      There is an excellent biography of James Forten called A Gentleman of Color, by Julie Winch and there’s another excellent book that deals with the subject of minority rights later in the 19th century in
      Philadelphia called Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, by Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin.

  2. Is there a point to this story? For more information, see Edward Raymond Turner “The Negro in Pennsylvania: Slavery, Servitude, Freedom 1639-1861” (1911).

    • Two points, at least. One, that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was not the first and may not be the last, because the gains made in the past are never completely secure. And two, that James Forten should be part of the civil rights pantheon. In some ways he has much in common with 1960s activists, such as Harry Belafonte, who used their positions as public figures to draw attention to their cause, and who risked damaging their careers or businesses by doing so.

  3. Forten, who died in 1842, didn’t live to see the end of slavery in Pennsylvania. The state still had 64 slaves in 1840, but no slaves appeared in the 1860 census. So Pennsylvania had no slaves by the time Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettsyburg.

    • No slaves appeared in the census, but allegedly one slave was still held in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the Civil War. I think it’s in Lorenzo Johnston Greene, “The Negro in Colonial New England 1620 – 1776” (1942).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *