(1836) James Forten, Jr. “Put on the Armour of Righteousness”

East View of Philadelphia, ca. 1836
East View of Philadelphia, ca. 1836
Courtesy National Archives (NWDNS-208-PR-10E-6)

James Forten, Jr. was the son of Charlotte and James E. Forten, prominent Philadelphia abolitionists and as such was part of a second generation of three generations of political activists. Raised in this remarkable family, James Forten, Jr., became politically active at an early age. While still a teenager, he wrote for the Liberator and was an active member of the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and of the American Moral Reform Society. On the evening of April 14, 1836, nineteen-year-old Forten presented an address to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. That address appears below.

LADIES —There is nothing that could more forcibly induce me to express my humble sentiments at all times, than an entire consciousness that is the duty of every individual who would wish to see the foul curse of slavery swept forever from the land—who wishes to become one amongst the undaunted advocates of the oppressed—who wishes to deal amongst the undaunted advocates of the oppressed—who wishes to deal justly and love mercy. In a word, it is my indispensable duty, in view of the wretched, the helpless, the friendless condition of my countrymen in chains, to raise my voice, feeble though it be, in their behalf; to plead for the restoration of their inalienable rights. As to the character of the ANTI-SLAVERY-SOCIETY, it requires but one glance from an impartial eye, to discover the purity of its motives—the great strength of its moral energies; its high and benevolent-its holy and life giving principles. These are the foundations, the very architecture of Abolition, and prove its sovereignty. In fact, all associated bodies which have for their great aim the destruction of tyranny, and the moral and intellectual improvement of mankind, have been, and ever will, considered as bearing a decided superiority over all others. And how well may this Association, before which I now have the honor to appear, be deemed one of that description; and still more is its superiority increased from a knowledge of the truth that it is composed entirely of your sex. It stands aloof from the storms of passion and political tumult, exhibiting in its extended and Christian views a disposition to produce an immediate reformation of the heart and soul. Never before has there been a subject brought into the arena of public investigation, so fraught with humanity—so alive to the best interest of our country—so dear to all those for whose benefit it was intended, as the one which now calls you together. How varied and abundant—how eloquent and soul-thrilling have been the arguments advanced in its defence, by the greatest and best of the land; and yet, so boundless is the theme—so inexhaustible the fountain, that even the infant may be heard lisping a prayer for the redemption of the perishing captive.

LADIES —The task you are called upon to perform is certainly of vital importance. Great is the responsibility which this association imposes upon you; however, I need scarcely remind you of it, feeling confident that long before this you have made a practical and familiar acquaintance with all its bearings, and with every sentence contained in your society’s sacred declaration; ever remembering that in it is concentrated one of the noblest objects that ever animated the breast of a highly favored people—the immediate and unconditional abolition of Slavery. It is the acknowledgement of a broad principle like this, and recommending it to a prejudiced public, who have been all along accustomed to reason upon the dangerous doctrine of gradualism, viewing it as the only safe and efficient remedy for this monstrous evil which has brought about such an excitement, and convulsed our country from North to South; an excitement which I have every reason to believe will prove a powerful engine towards the furtherance of your noble cause. As to this opposition now arrayed against you, terrible as it appears, it is no more than what you might anticipate; it is a fate which, in this age of iniquity, must inevitably follow such a change as your society proposes to effect. For what else is to be expected for a measure the tendency of which is to check the tide of corruption—to make narrower the limits of tyrannical power—to unite liberty and law—to save the body of the oppressed from the blood-stained lash of the oppressor—and to secure a greater respect and obedience to Him who wills the happiness of all mankind, and who endowed them with life, and liberty, as conducive to that happiness? What else, I repeat, can be expected but opposition, at a time like this, when brute force reigns supreme; when ministers of the Gospel, commissioned to spread the light of Christianity among all nations are overleaping the pale of the church, forsaking the holy path, and sowing the seeds of discord where they should plant the “olive branch of peace.” When liberty has dwindled into a mere shadow, its vitality being lost, shrouded in darkness, swallowed up as it were in the eternal dumbness of the grave. This, my friends, is the present situation of things, and warns you that the desperate struggle has commenced between freedom and despotism—light and darkness. This is the hour you are called upon to move with a bold and fearless step; there must be no luke-warmness, no shrinking from the pointed finger of scorn, or the contemptuous vociferation of the enemy; no withholding your aid, or concealing your mighty influence behind the screen of timidity; no receding from the foothold you have already gained. To falter now, would be to surrender your pure and unsullied principles into the hands of a vicious and perverted portion of the community, who are anxiously waiting to see you grow weak and fainthearted; you would be casting the whole spirit and genius of patriotism into that polluted current just described. To falter now would retard the glorious day of emancipation which is now dawning, for years, perhaps forever. But why should you pause? It is true that public opinion is bitter against you, and exercises a powerful influence over the minds of many; it is also true that you are frustrated in nearly every attempt to procure a place to hold your meetings, and the hue and cry is raised, “Down with the incendiaries-hang all who dare to open their mouths in vindication of equal rights;” still, this would be no excuse for a dereliction of duty; you are not bound to follow public opinion constantly and lose sight of the demands of justice; for it is plain to be seen that public opinion, in its present state, is greatly at fault; it affixes the seal of condemnation upon you without giving you an opportunity to be fairly heard; therefore I think the obligation ought to cease, and you pursue a more natural course by looking to your own thoughts and feeling as a guide, and not to the words of others. Again—in order to promote your antislavery principles you should make it the topic of your conversation amidst your acquaintances, in every family circle, and in the shades of private life. Be assured that by acting thus, hundreds will rise up to your aid. . . .

I rejoice to see you engaged in this mighty cause; it befits you; it is your province; your aid and influence is greatly to be desired in this hour of peril; it never was, never can be insignificant. Examine the records of history, and you will find that woman has been called upon in the severest trials of public emergency. That your efforts will stimulate the men to renewed exertion I have not the slightest doubt; for, in general, the pride of man’s heart is such, that while he is willing to grant unto woman exclusively many conspicuous and dignified privileges, he at the same time feels an innate disposition to check the modest ardour of her zeal and ambition, and revolts at the idea of her managing the reins of improvement. Therefore, you have only to be constantly exhibiting some new proof of your interest in the cause of the oppressed, and shame, if not duty, will urge our sex on the march. It has often been said by anti-abolitionists that the females have no right to interfere with the question of slavery, or petition for its overthrow; that they had better be at home attending to their domestic affairs, &c. What a gross error-what an anti-christian spirit this bespeaks. Were not the only commands, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them,” and “Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you,” intended for women to obey as well as man? Most assuredly they were. But from whom does this attack upon your rights come? Not, I am confident, from the respectable portion of our citizens, but invariably from men alienated by avarice and self-importance from the courtesy and respect which is due to your sex on all occasions; such “men of property and standing” as mingled with the rank, breath, and maniac spirit, of the mob at Boston, men (I am sorry to say) like the Representative from Virginia, Mr. [ Henry] Wise, who, lost to all shame, openly declared you to be devils incarnate. And for what? Why, because the ladies in the several states north of the Potomac, in the magnitude of their philanthropy, with hearts filled with mercy, choose to raise their voices in behalf of the suffering and the dumb–because they choose to raise their voices in behalf of the suffering and the dumb–because they choose to exercise their legal privileges, and offer their time and talents as a sacrifice, in order that the District of Columbia may be freed, and washed clean from the stains of blood, cruelty and crime. It is for acting thus that you received so refined a compliment. Truly, some of our great men at the South are hand and hand in inequity: they are men after the heart of the tyrant Nero, who wished that all the Romans had but one neck that he might destroy them all at a single blow. This is just the position in which these Neros of a modern mould would like to place all who dare to utter one syllable against the sin of slavery–that is if they had the power.

But, Ladies, I verily believe that the time is fast approaching when thought, feeling and action, the three principal elements of public opinion, will be so revolutionized as to turn the scale in your favor; when the prejudice and contumely of your foes will be held in the utmost contempt by an enlightened community. You have already been the means of awakening hundreds from the deep slumber into which they have fallen; they have arisen, and put on the armour of righteousness, and gone forth to battle. Yours is the cause of Truth, and must prevail over error; it is the cause of sympathy, and therefore it calls aloud for the aid of woman.

Sympathy is woman’s attribute, By that she has reign’d—by that she will reign.

Yours is the cause of Christianity; for it pleads that the mental and physical powers of millions may not be wasted–buried forever in ruins; that virtue may not be sacrificed at the altar of lasciviousness; making the South but one vast gulf of infamy; that the affections of a parent may not be sundered; that hearts may not be broken; that souls, bearing the impress of the Deity-the proof of their celestial origin and eternal duration—may not be lost. It is for all these you plead, and you must be victorious; never was there a contest commenced on more hallowed principles. Yes, my friends, from the height of your holy cause, as from a mountain, I see already rising the new glory and grandeur of regenerated—Free-—America! And on the corner stone of that mighty fabric, posterity shall read your names. But if there be the shadow of a doubt still remaining in the breasts of anyone present as to your success, I would beg them to cast their eyes across the broad bosom of the Atlantic, and call to mind the scenes which transpired a short time since. (There shone the influence of a woman!) Call to mind the 1st of August, a day never to be forgotten by the real philanthropist; when justice, mantled in renovated splendour, with an arm nerved to action—her brow lighted up by a ray from Heaven, mounted on the car of Freedom, betook her way to the spot were Slavery was stalking over the land, making fearful ravages among human beings. There the “lust of gain, had made the fiercest and fullest exhibition of its hardihood.” There, Justice looked, on the one hand, to the “prosperity of the lordly oppressor, wrung from the sufferings of a captive and subjugated people;” and on the other, to the “tears and untold agony of the hundreds beneath him.” There, was heard the sighs and stifled groans of the once happy and gay; hopes blighted in the bud. There, cruelty had wrought untimely furrows upon the cheek of youth. She saw all this; but the supplicating cry of mercy did not fall unheeded upon her ear. No. She smote the monster in the height of his power; link after link fell from the massive chain, and eight hundred thousand human beings sprung into life again.

It was WOMAN who guided that car! It was woman who prompted Justice to the work. Then commenced the glorious Jubilee; then the eye, once dim, was seen radiant with joy.