James Forten, born in 1766 in Philadelphia, was the grandson of a slave but the son of free blacks. As a boy, he heard the Declaration of Independence read to the people of Philadelphia, and when he was fourteen, he went to sea to fight the British aboard a privateer named the Royal Louis under the command of Stephen Decatur.
In October 1781 the Royal Louis was captured by the British warship Amphion. Forten faced grave danger: the British often sold black prisoners of war to slave traders. But he befriended the British captain’s son in a game of marbles, and the captain took such a liking to the young American that he offered to take him to England.
Forten would have none of that. “I have been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country, and never will prove a traitor to her interest!” he replied. So he spent the next seven months on a disease-ridden prison ship before being released in a prisoner exchange.
After the Revolution, Forten went to work for a Philadelphia sailmaker. Two years later he became foreman of the shop, and in 1798 he was able to buy the business. He invented a device that helped seamen handle sails, and his business prospered. In time he became a wealthy man.
What did Forten do with his success? He used it to protect and better his country. During the War of 1812, he recruited blacks to help defend Philadelphia. He later helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society and contributed money to the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. He aided runaway slaves on their way north, and extended a helping hand to all manner of people, black and white.
Forten did not live to see the end of slavery, but he believed it would come. He helped set his country on the road toward freedom for all Americans.