Forten, James (1766-1842) Letters from a man of colour, on a late bill before the Senate of Pennsylvania.
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An eloquent response to a bill in the Pennsylvania senate to stop the emigration of people of color into the state. Forten wrote anonymously, signing his letters "A Man of Colour." Five letters respond to the Pennsylvania bill, arguing that Pennsylvania has been a refuge for freed slaves and that blacks have unalienable rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence, which are protected by the Constitution. Forten writes, "The dog is protected and pampered at the board of his master, while the poor African and his descendant, whether a Saint or a felon, is branded with infamy, registered as a slave, and we may expect shortly to find a law to prevent their increase, by taxing them according to numbers, and authorizing the Constables to seize and confine every one who dare to walk the streets without a collar on his neck! What have the people of colour been guilty of..."
James Forten was born a free black man in Philadelphia on 2 September 1766. He ran a profitable sail-making business and worked toward equal rights between black and white Pennsylvanians. His belief in equality led him to write this pamphlet, denouncing a racist bill then being considered in the Pennsylvania legislature. Later he became friends with William Lloyd Garrison. He helped to fund Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and contributed letters of opinion. Forten continued fighting against slavery until 4 March 1842, when he died at age 75.
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a Man Of Colour,
A Late Bill Before The Senate Of Pennsylvania.
O Liberty! thou power supremely bright,
Profuse of bliss and pregnant with delight,
Perpetual pleasure in thy presence reign,
And smiling Plenty lead thy wanton train.
We hold this truth to be self-evident that God created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence and in that glorious fabrick of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white Man and the African, and whatever measures are adopted subversive of this inestimable privilege, are in direct violation of the letter and spirit of our Constitution, and become subject to the animadversion of all, particularly those who are deeply interested in the measure.
These thoughts were suggested by the promulgation of a late bill, before the Senate of Pennsylvania, to prevent the emigration of people of colour into this state. It was not passed into law at this session and must in consequence lay over until the next, before when we sincerely hope, the white men, whom we should look upon as our protectors, will have become convinced of the inhumanity and impolicy of such a measure, and forbear to deprive us of those inestimable treasures, Liberty and Independence. This is almost the only
state in the Union wherein the African race have justly boasted of rational liberty and the protection of the laws, and shall it now be said they have been deprived of that liberty, and publickly exposed for sale to the highest bidder? Shall colonial inhumanity that has marked many of us with shameful stripes, become the practice of the people of Pennsylvania, while Mercy stands weeping at the miserable spectacle? People of Pennsylvania, descendants of the immortal Penn, doom us not to the unhappy fate of thousands of our countrymen in the Southern States and the West Indies; despise the traffick in blood, and the blessing of the African will for ever be around you. Many of us are men of property, for the security of which, we have hitherto looked to the laws of our blessed state, but should this become a law, our property is jeopardized, since the same power which can expose to sale an unfortunate fellow creature, can wrest from him those estates, which years of honest industry have accumulated. Where shall the poor African look for protection, should the people of Pennsylvania consent to oppress him? We grant there are a number of worthless men belonging to our colour, but there are laws of sufficient rigour for their punishment, if properly and duly enforced. We wish not to screen the guilty from punishment, but with the guilty do not permit the innocent to suffer. If there are worthless men, there are also men of merit among the African race, who are useful members of Society. The truth of this let their benevolent institutions and the numbers clothed and fed by them witness. Punish the guilty man of colour to the utmost limit of the laws, but sell him not to slavery! If he is in danger of becoming a publick charge prevent him! If he is too indolent to labour for his own subsistence, compel him to do so; but sell him not to slavery. By selling him you do not make him better, but commit a wrong. without benefitting the object of it or society at large. Many of our ancestors were brought here more than one hundred years ago; many of our fathers, many of ourselves, have fought and bled for the Independence of our country. Do not then expose us to sale. Let not the spirit of the father behold the son robbed of that Liberty which he
died to establish, but let the motto of our Legislators be: "The Law knows no distinction."
These are only a few desultory remarks on the subject, and intend to succeed this effervescence of feeling, by a series of essays, tending to prove the impolicy and unconstitutionality of the law in question.
For the present, I leave the publick to the consideration of the above observations, in which I hope they will see so much truth that they will never consent to sell to slavery
A MAN OF COLOUR.
Those patriotick citizens, who, after resting from the toils of an arduous war, which achieved our Independence and laid the foundation of the only reasonable Republick upon earth, associated together, and for the protection of those inestimable rights for the establishment of which they had exhausted their blood and treasure, framed the Constitution of Pennsylvania, have by the ninth article, declared; that "all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying life and liberty." Under the restraint of wise and well administered laws, we cordially unite in the above glorious sentiment, but by the bill upon which we have been remarking it appears as if the committee who drew it up mistook the sentiment expressed in this article, and do not consider us as men, or that those enlightened statesmen who formed the constitution upon the basis of experience, intended to exclude us from its blessings and protection. If the former, why are we not to be considered as men. Has God who made the white man and the black, left any record declaring us a different species. Are we not sustained by the same power, supported by the same food, hurt by the same wounds, wounded by the same wrongs, pleased with the same delights, and propagated by the same means. And should we not then
enjoy the same liberty, and be protected by the same laws. --- We wish not to legislate, for our means of information and the acquisition of knowledge are, in the nature of things, so circumscribed, that we must consider ourselves incompetent to the task; but let us, in legislation, be considered as men. It cannot be that the authors of our Constitution intended to exclude us from its benefits, for just emerging from unjust and cruel mancipation, their souls were too much affected with their own deprivations to commence the reign of terrour over others. They knew we were deeper skinned than they were, but they acknowledged us as men, and found that many an honest heart beat beneath a dusky bosom. They felt that they had no more authority to enslave us, than England had to tyrannize over them. They were convinced that if amenable to the same laws in our actions, we should be protected by the same laws in our rights and privileges. Actuated by these sentiments they adopted the glorious fabrick of our liberties, and declaring "all men" free, they did not particularize white and black, because they never supposed it would be made a question whether we were men or not. Sacred be the ashes, and deathless be the memory of those heroes who are dead; and revered be the persons and the characters of those who still exist and lift the thunders of admonition against the traffick in blood. And here my brethren in colour, let the tear of gratitude and the sigh of regret break forth for that great and good man, who lately fell a victim to the promiscuous fury of death, in whom you have lost a zealous friend, a powerful, an herculean advocate; a sincere adviser and one who spent many an hour of his life to break your fetters, and ameliorate your condition - I mean the ever to be lamented Dr. Benjamin Rush.
It seems almost incredible that the advocates of liberty, should conceive the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery. It is like the heroes of the French Revolution, who cried "Vive la Republick," while the decapitated Nun was precipitated into the general reservoir of death, and the palpitation embryo decorated the point of the bayonet. Ye, who should be our protectors, do not destroy. -- We will cheerfully submit to the laws, and aid in bringing offenders against them of
every colour to justice; but do not let the laws operate so severely, so degradingly, so unjustly against us alone.
Let us put a case, in which the law in question operates peculiarly hard and unjust. -- I have a brother, perhaps, who resides in a distant part of the Union, and after a separation of years, actuated by the same fraternal affection which beats in the bosom of a white man he comes to visit me. Unless that brother be registered in twenty four hours after, and be able to produce a certificate to that effect, he is liable according to the second and third sections of the bill, to a fine of twenty dollars, to arrest, imprisonment and sale. Let the unprejudiced mind ponder upon this, and then pronounce it the justifiable act of a free people if he can. To this we trust our cause, without fear of the issue. The unprejudiced must pronounce any act tending to deprive a free man of his right, freedom and immunities, as not only cruel in the extreme, but decidedly unconstitutional both as regards the letter and spirit of that glorious instrument. The same power which protects the white man should protect
A Man Of Colour.
The evils arising from the bill before our Legislature, so fatal to the rights of freemen, and so characteristick of European despotism, are so numerous, that to consider them all, would extend these numbers further than time or my talent will permit me to carry them. The concluding paragraph of my last number, states a case of peculiar hardship arising from the second section of this bill, upon which I cannot refrain from making a few more remarks. The man of colour receiving as a visiter any other person of colour, is bound to turn informer, and rudely report to the Register, that a friend and brother has come to visit him for a few days, whose name he must take within twenty four hours, or forfeit a sum which the iron hand of the law is authorized to rend from him, partly for the benefit of the Register. Who is this Register? A
man, and exercising an office, where ten dollars is the fee for each delinquent, will probably be a cruel man and find delinquents where they really do not exist. The poor black is left to the merciless gripe of an avaricious Register, without an appeal, in the event, from his tyranny War oppression! O miserable race, born to the same hopes, created with the same feeling, and destined for the same goal, you are reduced by your fellow creatures below the Brute. The dog is protected and pampered at the board of his master, while the poor African and his descendant, whether Saint or felon, is branded with infamy, registered as a slave, and we may expect shortly to find a law to prevent their increase, by taxing them according to numbers, and authorizing the constables to seize and confine everyone who dare to walk the streets without a collar on his neck! - What have the people of colour been guilty of, that they more than others, should be compelled to register their houses, lands, servants and children. Yes, ye rulers of the black man's Destiny reflect upon this our children must be registered and bear about them a certificate or be subject to imprisonment and a fine. You, who are perusing this effusion of feeling, are you a parent? Have you children around whom your affections are bound, by those delightful bonds which none but a parent can know? Are they the delight of your prosperity, and the solace of you afflictions? If all this be true, to you we submit our cause. The parent's feeling cannot err. By your verdict will we stand or fall--by your verdict live slaves or freemen. It is said, that the bill does not extend to children, but the words of the bill are, "whether as an inmate, visiter, hireling, or tenant, in his or her house or room." Whether this does not embrace every soul that can be in the house, the reader is left to judge; and whether the father should be bound to register his child even within the twenty four hours after it is brought into the world, let the father's feelings determine. This is the fact and our children sent on our lawful business, not having sense enough to understand the meaning of such proceedings, much show their certificate of registry or be borne to prison. The bill specifies neither age nor sex--designates neither the honest man or
the vagabond--but like the fretted porcupine, his quills aim its deadly shafts promiscuously at all.
For the honour and dignity of our native state, we wish not to see this bill pass into law, as well as for its degrading tendency towards us; for although oppressed by those to whom we look for protection, our grievances are light compared with the load of reproach that must be heaped upon our commonwealth. The story will fly from the north to the south, and the advocates of slavery, the traders in human blood, will smile contemptuously at the once boasted moderation and humanity of Pennsylvania! What, that place, whose institutions for the prevention of Slavery, are the admiration of surrounding states and of Europe, become the advocate of mancipation and wrong and the oppressor of free and innocent!--Tell it not Gath! publish it not in the streets of Askelon! lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice! lest the children of the uncircumcised triumph!
It is to be hoped that in our Legislature there is patriotism, humanity, and mercy sufficient, to crush this attempt upon the civil liberty of freemen, and to prove that the enlightened body who have hitherto guarded their fellow creatures, without regard to the colour of the skin, will still stretch forth the wings of protection to that race, whose persons have been the scorn, and whose calamities have been the jest of the world for ages. We trust the time is at hand when this obnoxious Bill will receive its death warrant, and freedom still remain to cheer the bosom of
A Man Of Colour
I Proceed again to the consideration of the bill of unalienable rights belonging to black men, the passage of which will only tend to show, that the advocates of emancipation can enact laws more degrading to the free man, and more injurious to his feelings, than all the tyranny of slavery, or the shackles of infatuated despotism. And let me here remark,
that this unfortunate race of humanity, although protected by our laws, are already subject to the fury and caprice of a certain set of men, who regard neither humanity, law nor privilege. They are already considered as a different species, and little above the brute creation. They are thought to be objects fit for nothing else than lordly men to vent the effervescence of their spleen upon, and to tyrannize over, like the bearded Musselman over his horde of slaves. Nay, the Musselman thinks more of his horse, than the generality of people do of the despised black!--Are not men of colour sufficiently degraded? Why then increase their degradation. It is a well known fact, that black people, upon certain days of publick jubilee, dare not be seen after twelve o'clock in the day, upon the field to enjoy the times; for no sooner do the fumes of that potent devil, Liquor, mount into the brain, than the poor black is assailed like the destroying Hyena or the avaricious Wolf! I allude particularly to the Fourth Of July!-- Is it not wonderful, that the day set apart for the festival of Liberty, should be abused by the advocates of Freedom, in endeavouring to sully what they profess to adore. If men, though they know that the law protects al, will dare, in defiance of law, to execute their hatred upon the defenceless black, will they not by the passage of this bill, believe him still more a mark for their venom and spleen.--Will they not believe him completely deserted by authority, and subject to every outrage brutality can inflict--too surely they will, and the poor wretch will turn his eyes around to look in vain for protection. Pause, ye rulers of a free people, before you give us over to despair and violation--we implore you, for the sake of humanity, to snatch us from the pinnacle of ruin, from that gulph, which will swallow our rights, as fellow creatures; our privileges, as citizens; and our liberties, as men!
There are men among us of reputation and property, as good citizens as any men can be, and who, for their property, pay as heavy taxes as any citizens are compelled to pay. All taxes, except personal, fall upon them, and still even they are not exempted from this degrading bill. The villanous part of the community, of all colours, we wish to see punished and retrieved as much as any people can. Enact laws to punish
them severely, but do not let them operate against the innocent as well as the guilty. Can there be any generosity in this? Can there be any semblance of justice, or of that enlightened conduct which is ever the boasted pole star of freedom? By no means. This bill is nothing but the ignus fatuus of mistaken policy!
I could write for ages on the subject of this unrighteous bill but as I think enough has already been said, to convince every unprejudiced mind, of its unjust, degrading, undeserved tendency, one more number shall conclude the Letters from
A Man Of Colour
A Few more remarks upon the bill which has been the subject of my preceding numbers, shall conclude these Letters, which have been written in my own cause as an individual, and my brethren as a part of the community. They are the simple dictates of nature and need no apology. They are not written in the gorgeous style of a scholar, nor dressed in the garments of literary perfection. They are impulse of a mind formed, I trust, for feeling, and smarting under all the rigours which the bill is calculated to produce.
By the third section of this bill, which is its peculiar hardship, the police officers are authorized to apprehend any black, whether a vagrant or a man of reputable character, who cannot produce a Certificate that he has been registered. He is to be arrayed before a justice, who is thereupon to commit him to prison--The jailor is to advertise a Freeman, and at the expiration of six months, if no owner appear of this degraded black, he is to be exposed to sale, and if not sold to be confined at hard labour for seven years!!--Man of feeling, read this!--No matter who, no matter where. The Constable, whose antipathy generally against the black is very great, will take every opportunity of hurting his feelings!--Perhaps, he sees him at a distance, and having a mind to raise the boys in hue and cry against him, exclaims, "Halloa! Stop the Negro!"
The boys, delighting in the sport, immediately begin to hunt him, and immediately from a hundred tongues, is heard the cry--"Hoa, Negro, where is your Certificate!"--Can anything be conceived more degrading to humanity--Can anything be done more shocking to the principles of Civil Liberty! A person arriving from another state, ignorant of the existence of such a law, may fall victim to its cruel oppression. But he is to be advertised, and if no owner appear--How can an owner appear, he is exposed for sale!--Oh, inhuman spectacle: found in no unjust act, convicted of no crime, he is barbarously sold, like the produce of the soil, to the highest bidder, or what is still worse for no crimes, without the inestimable privilege of a trial by his peers, doomed to the dreary walls of a prison for the term of seven tedious years!--My God, what a situation is his. Search the legends of tyranny and find no precedent. No example can be found in all the reigns of violence and oppression, which have marked the lapse of time. It stands alone. It has been left for Pennsylvania, to raise her ponderous arm against the liberties of the black, whose greatest boast has been, that he resided in a State where Civil Liberty, and sacred Justice were administered alike to all.--What must be his reflections now, that the asylum he has left from mancipation has been destroyed, and that he is left to suffer, like Daniel of old, with no one but his God to help him! Where is the bosom that does not heave a sign for his, unless it be callous to every sentiment of humanity and mercy?
The fifth section of this bill, is also peculiarly hard, inasmuch as it prevents freemen from living where they please.--Pennsylvania has always been a refuge from slavery, and to this state the Southern black, when freed, has flown for safety. Why does he this! When masters in many of the Southern states, which they frequently do, free a particular black, unless the Black leaves the state in so many hours, any person resident of the said state, can have him arrested and again sold to Slavery:--The hunted black is obliged to flee, or remain and be again a Slave. I have known persons of this description sold three times after being first emancipated. Where shall
he go? Shut every state against him, and, like Pharoah's kine, drive him into the sea.--Is there no spot on earth that will protect him! Against their inclination his ancestors were forced from their homes by traders in human flesh, and even under such circumstances, the wretched offspring are denied the protection you afford to brutes.
It is in vain that we are forming societies of different kinds to ameliorate the condition of our unfortunate brethren, or correct their morals and to render them not only honest but useful members to society. All our efforts, by this bill, are despised, and we are doomed to feel the lash of oppression:-- As well may we be outlawed, as well may the glorious privileges of the Gospel, be denied us, and all endeavours used to cut us off from happiness hereafter as well as here!--The case is similar, and I am much deceived if this bill does not destroy the morals it is intended to produce.
I have done. My feelings are acute, and I have ventured to express them without intending either accusation or insult to any one. An appeal to the heart is my intention, and if I have failed it is my great misfortune, not to have had a power of eloquence sufficient to convince. But I trust the eloquence of nature will succeed, and that the law-givers of this happy Commonwealth will yet remain the Blacks' friend, and the advocates of Freemen, is the sincere wish of
A Man Of Colour.
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