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A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten Paperback – June 5, 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (June 5, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195163400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195163407
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,548,476 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
There was a Revolutionary War sailor who was captured by the British and was offered British citizenship instead of being a prisoner. He insisted he was a loyal American. He went on, as if in a Horatio Alger story, to become a successful Philadelphia businessman, but he was nonetheless encouraged, because of his heroic service in the war, to apply for the pension that he deserved from the country he had helped make. He replied that he did not want money from his country. He wanted only one thing from America, and if any American deserved it, he surely did. What James Forten wanted was to become an American citizen, and he never in his long life got his wish. The simple reason was that he was black. Forten has largely been forgotten, which is too bad, since as a war hero, businessman, and abolitionist, he played commendable roles which one doesn't have to be of any particular race to admire. He is now rescued from obscurity by a large, detailed, and well-researched biography, _A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten_ (Oxford University Press) by Julie Winch. Winch has dug deep inside such ephemera as the social history of Philadelphia, the economic forces of the time, and even the trade of sailmaking by which Forten made his living, to give the first complete picture of one of the first outstanding black Americans.
After his service in the war, Forten was apprenticed by the white, slave-owning sailmaker who had employed his father. He did so well that upon retirement, the owner left him the business. He branched out into real estate and money-lending. As a successful businessman, he became a civic leader, helping to administer his church and assisting in creating schools for black youth.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kevin G. Lowther on September 8, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a well-researched and absorbing account of an important African-American figure in the formative decades of independence. Because his prime years and influence came well-before the Civil War and the end of slavery, James Forten is largely forgotten except by those who make it their business to know and understand the African component of American history and culture.
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