Read the Revolution

February 11, 2014

A War of Personal Liberation

In 1781, a 14-year-old boy named James Forten resolved to fight for the Patriot cause. While many boys as young as James made a similar decision, Forten also happened to be African-American, born into a free black family in Philadelphia. His decision reflected a growing sense of optimism that the Revolution would lead to a new society in America, one that would truly provide opportunities for all, regardless of color or station. (Forten also dreamed of the riches he could earn in choosing to go to war as a crew member on board a privateer.) This excerpt from Julie Winch's A Gentleman of Color reveals the wartime life of a boy who would grow up to become a prominent businessman and abolitionist--and a celebrated Patriot.

"In the period after the British evacuation [in June 1778], Philadelphia emerged as a major privateering port. Fully one quarter of the letters of marque and reprisal issued during the war went to vessels sailing out of Philadelphia. In his wanderings down by the Delaware James Forten probably paused from time to time to watch as ships' carpenters overhauled merchant vessels, piercing bulwarks for cannons, strengthening decks to bear their weight, and constructing powder magazines...

"[A]s the war dragged on, James Forten knew another war was being fought. Pennsylvania's lawmakers were debating the future of slavery. Far too poor to subscribe to a newspaper, Forten could still scavenge for papers that others had discarded. He may well have read about the debate, followed the arguments for and against emancipation, and rejoiced in March 1780 when an abolition law was passed. True, it came far short of a declaration immediately liberating every slave in the state. In fact, it did not free any slaves, only the children of slaves, and they would be in service to their mothers' owners until they reached the age of twenty-eight. As for people of African descent who were already legally free, it did not elevate them overnight to full citizenship. Still, the first step had been taken. And the new law explicitly linked abolition to the Patriot cause. Lawmakers spoke of abolition as a debt they owed for their deliverance from the British yoke. They expressed their joy 'that it is in our power to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us...'

"Forten knew many men and women of color in Pennsylvania had not waited for white lawmakers to act. They had transformed the Revolutionary War into a war of personal liberation. They had fled from their masters, petitioned the legislature and the courts, and thrown in their lot with one side or the other in the contest for control of British North America. What the quality of citizenship might be for a black Patriot he would have to wait and see, but the abolition law, with its statements about justice and an end to prejudice, evidently convinced him that society was being reordered, and that merit, rather than complexion or condition, would be rewarded in the new republic. He had made his choice of loyalties.

"Gradually James Forten's desire grew to serve the country and the cause he had come to look upon as his own, to see more than the streets of his native city, and to make money into the bargain. Race was seldom an issue with privateering captains, as slave owners discovered to their intense annoyance when they tried to recover runaways. A tall, athletic fourteen-year-old, freeborn, eager to serve, and blessed with some knowledge of how to repair sails, James Forten was unlikely to be rejected by any captain because of the color of his skin...

"Stephen Decatur, the captain Forten chose to serve with, had compiled an impressive list of victories... Now, as master of the 450-ton, twenty-two-gun Royal Louis, Decatur and first mate George Duck set out to recruit 200 men and boys, the largest crew they had ever commanded. By order of Congress, one third of the crew of a privateer had to be 'landsmen,' and not experienced sailors, so that the state and Continental navies would not be drained of manpower... Even had he been inclined to do so, he was hardly in a position to turn away able-bodied and eager volunteers because they were black. He had lost vessels in the past by skimping on prize crews. He needed a large crew so that, as he took one prize after another, he could assign an adequate number of men to sail each captured ship into port without risking the prisoners regaining control of the vessel or seriously undermanning his own ship.

"James Forten had chosen his captain. Now he had only to persuade his mother to let him go to sea. According to Forten's son-in-law, Robert Purvis, Margaret Forten reluctantly gave her consent after 'earnest and unceasing solicitations' on James's part. His 'young heart [was] fired with the enthusiasm... of the patriots and revolutionaries of that day...'

"After an emotional farewell, James Forten, three months short of his fifteenth birthday, left his native city for the first time, confident he would return covered in glory and with his pockets filled with prize money...

"Despite his inexperience, Forten could make something of his surroundings. He had grown up close to the river and the shipyards. Unlike the true landsman, he knew the names of most parts of the vessel and understood their functions. He knew the standing rigging that supported the masts and bowsprit was blackened with tar to protect it from the elements, while the running rigging, which had to be smooth enough to pass through the blocks, was left untarred...

"On the Royal Louis Forten had to learn how to regulate his day according to the ship's bell and to respond to the bosun's whistle as it sounded the various commands. He would be assigned to a watch and learn to work with his fellows. He would be expected to make the best of his living conditions, to stumble around below decks in the half-light of lanterns, to sleep in a hammock swing alongside a six-foot-long carriage gun, to eat and drink whenever his watch was over, to stomach salt meat and grog, and to get along as best he could with officers and crew. He had exchanged his mother's home for a habitation that was constantly in motion and likely at any moment, day or night, to be attacked by the enemy or the forces of nature...

"James Forten's first cruise had been a great success. He had returned to his mother and sister unscathed; he could take pride in having served his country by capturing a vessel carrying important dispatches, and he had money in his pockets... '[S]haring largely in the feeling which so brilliant a victory had inspired, with fresh courage, and an unquenchable devotedness to the interests of his native land,' he promptly signed on for another cruise..."

Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 35-40.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance. To learn more about the Museum's plans for a national museum in Philadelphia that will tell the complete story of the Revolution, click here.

Read the Revolution is produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor.