Reference Entry

Forten, Robert Bridges (1813 - 1864), Abolitionist, Entrepreneur, Union Army Officer, Poet

Julie Winch

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Forten, Robert Bridges (1813 - 1864), Abolitionist, Entrepreneur, Union Army Officer, Poet

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abolitionist, businessman, and Civil War soldier, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the fifth of nine children of James Forten, a sailmaker and Revolutionary War veteran, and Charlotte Vandine. He was named for the white craftsman who befriended his father and gave him his start in business. Of his siblings, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Forten Purvis, James Forten Jr., and William Forten became active in the antislavery movement. Robert Forten received his early education at a school his parents and other affluent black Philadelphians established because of the failure of the city's board of education to provide adequate schooling for their children. Eventually Robert and his brothers transferred to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's Clarkson School, although they may also have studied with the private tutors their parents hired to teach their sisters at home.Growing up, Forten developed a wide range of intellectual interests. Congressman William D. “Pig Iron” Kelley, a childhood friend, remembered him as an accomplished musician and a talented artist. Another friend, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, recalled Forten as “a more than ordinary mathematician, and … gifted with a poetical vein” (Payne, 51). By the time he was in his mid-teens, Forten's formal education ended and he began working in his father's sail loft. Like so many of the members of his extended family, he soon became active in the antislavery cause. He made his debut as a public speaker in 1834, addressing the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society—of which his mother and sisters were founding members—on the role of women as social reformers.On 18 October 1836 Forten married Mary Virginia Wood, a native of Hertford, North Carolina, who had been living in Philadelphia for several years. She was a member of the Female Anti-Slavery Society, and it was probably through his own involvement in abolition that Forten met her. The young couple began their married life in Forten's parents' home, where their daughter Charlotte Forten Grimké was born on 17 August 1837. By the time their son was born in 1839 they had purchased a home of their own.Marriage and a family did not diminish the time and energy Forten devoted to the struggle to end slavery. He continued to speak and write on the need for immediate abolition. As for civil rights, in 1838 he joined other members of the African American community in trying to prevent ratification of the proposed new Pennsylvania state constitution, which categorically barred black men from voting.In 1840 Forten suffered a devastating double tragedy. On 11 May, just a few days short of his first birthday, Forten's son died. As Forten wrote in reply to a letter of condolence, he knew he must soon face another loss, for his wife was suffering from tuberculosis. She died just two months after her son. After Mary's funeral, Forten moved back in with his parents, and his mother and elder sister assumed the responsibility of raising his daughter.Work of various kinds offered some solace. As a member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, Forten helped coordinate aid for the hundreds of fugitive slaves who flocked to the city every year. With his father's retirement in 1841, Forten became more involved in the day-to-day running of the sail loft. He also pursued his love of astronomy, teaching the subject at the school Payne opened and constructing his own telescope, which was accepted for exhibition at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute.Forten clearly found antislavery work and intellectual endeavors more rewarding than trying to keep the family business afloat. The racial climate the younger Fortens had to grapple with by the late 1830s was far more hostile than the one their father had known when he was starting out in business four decades earlier. In addition to growing racism, they had to reckon with the shock waves running through the entire business community as a result of the panic of 1837. Like many firms, James Forten and Sons was left holding worthless notes as customers defaulted.The firm barely survived the death of its founder James Forten in 1842. Creditors apprehensive about its stability hastened to call in their debts, even as Robert Forten and his elder brother James Forten Jr. pressed those indebted to them for payment. Robert loaned his own money to the firm, and the family sold real estate in an effort to stave off the inevitable. Bankruptcy overtook the brothers in the spring of 1844. James promptly fled the state, leaving Robert to salvage what he could. Eventually he negotiated a sale of the firm's remaining assets to two of its employees.Forten regained a measure of financial stability in 1845 through an advantageous second marriage to Mary Hanscome, a wealthy young widow from South Carolina. Her first husband, Joseph Hanscome, had been the son of a Charleston-area planter and a free woman of color. When Joseph Hanscome received his inheritance from his father, he purchased his own plantation, which he operated with slave labor. After his death in 1838, his widow sold the plantation and its slaves and moved to Philadelphia with her late husband's brother and his family. The move was apparently prompted not by unease over the South's “peculiar institution” but by frustration over the increasingly circumscribed status of free people of color in South Carolina.The alliance of an ardent abolitionist and a woman who had knowingly profited from owning slaves was an unlikely one, but it gave Forten and his daughter financial security. Mary Hanscome Forten's money paid for a forty-acre farm in Warminster, Bucks County, not far from Philadelphia. The 1850 census records a household of seven—Robert and Mary Forten, their two sons, Forten's daughter Charlotte, one of Forten's younger brothers, and a servant—and a modestly successful farming operation producing a variety of crops for the Philadelphia market.From his rural retreat Forten maintained his involvement in antislavery activities. He wrote antislavery verse for the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the Pennsylvania Freeman, and other abolitionist periodicals. He publicly condemned what he perceived as the proslavery stance of mainstream American churches. He also differed with Frederick Douglass over the nature of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that it was fundamentally proslavery. In the wake of the Compromise of 1850, though, the two men sank their differences and joined in organizing the short-lived American League of Colored Laborers to promote black economic self-sufficiency.Financial difficulties again overtook Forten in the mid-1850s, possibly because he was a better poet and abolitionist than he was a farmer. Mary decided that the farm, which belonged to her and not to Robert, must be sold so the family could move and start over. Charlotte Forten, at school in Salem, Massachusetts, confided in her journal her hope that her father and stepmother would settle in New England. They did not. The Fortens relocated to London, Ontario.Forten did no better in Canada than he had in the United States, and in 1858 the family moved again, this time to England. They made their home in London's Kentish Town, and Forten found work as a commercial agent for a large stationery firm. In 1860 tragedy again overtook the family when the Fortens' thirteen-year-old son died of typhus.His exile in England did not mean that Forten had abandoned his antislavery work. Soon after his arrival he joined the London Emancipation Committee. He also followed as closely as he could events in the United States, keeping in touch with friends and family there as political wrangling over slavery gave way to secession and then to war. Finally, when he learned that President Abraham Lincoln had authorized the enlistment of black troops, Forten decided he could watch from the sidelines no longer. He must return home and serve in the army. His friends were appalled, but his mind was made up.On 2 March 1864 Forten was mustered into Company A of the Forty-third Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, to serve for three years or the duration. He was rapidly promoted to sergeant major and sent to Maryland as a recruiter. He reportedly persuaded many African Americans in that critically important border state to enlist, but as his friends had feared, army life took a toll on his health. Ordered back to Philadelphia's Camp William Penn, he caught a cold while drilling his men in the rain. He struggled on until he was so sick that he was forced to ask for a few days' leave. He returned to his mother's home, where he succumbed to typhoid. His funeral was notable for being the first in Philadelphia's history in which an African American soldier was laid to rest with full military honors.

Reference Entry.  1470 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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