From Publishers Weekly
Less than a decade ago, Forten remained a footnote in books on U.S. and African-American history. This new critical biography, the first serious work on his life and legacy, not only restores him to his rightful place in American history, but also presents readers with an invigorating and challenging new portrait of pre- and post-Revolutionary race relations and identities. Forten was born in 1766 into a free-born African-American family in Philadelphia, and his ideas and politics were formed by ideals of freedom espoused by Thomas Paine and other colonial writers. He went to sea as a privateer under Stephen Decatur, was captured by the British and, after a stay in London, became apprentice to a sail maker; in 1798, he took over the business, which prospered. His obituary in 1842 noted that he was "the leading sailmaker in the city." But Forten was also noted for his role in public life, particularly his intense involvement in the abolition movement, his close association with William Lloyd Garrison and the 1813 publication of his influential book, Letters from a Man of Colour. Winch, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has done a masterful job of researching and piecing together Forten's life from family and business records, newspapers, tax rolls, letters and journals. But the strength of the book aside from rediscovering Forten is the careful and often surprising research into the complexity of African-American life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Winch never skirts difficult issues: Forten's aunt owned slaves and may have even been involved in the slave trade. And whether she is explicating the role of black freemasonry or how intermarriage with whites and Indians created endlessly complicated social and racial identities for "black" Americans, her scholarship is both outstanding and vital.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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From Library Journal
Winch (history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston), author of Philadelphia's Black Elite and other works on African American life, presents a life-and-times biography of James Forten (1766-1842), an entrepreneur, social reformer, Revolutionary War patriot, and gentleman, who stood as one of the most influential and well-known African Americans of his day. Winch casts Forten as persistent in his pursuit of justice and steady in his habits, turning his masterful sail-making skills into a small fortune that allowed him to hire whites and blacks, educate his family in letters and a life of social service, and promote various reform efforts, especially antislavery. Because of a lack of primary sources for much of Forten's life, Winch inventively uses historical context to find her subject's place in 19th-century Philadelphia and goes deep inside Forten's social and intellectual world to explain his quest for respect as a citizen and a man. Winch offers no new sweeping readings on African American history, nor does she explain why Forten's life dropped from the American historical narrative until now. But this first biography of Forten does much to reveal a complexity and range of experience among 19th-century blacks. Recommended. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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