February 12

GUEST CURATOR:  Kathryn J. Severance

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Feb 12 - 2:10:1766 New-York Gazette
New-York Gazette (February 10, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD, For Want of Employ.”

This advertisement was put forth by a master looking to sell a slave due to the fact that they no longer could use their work.  Advertisements for slaves were common since slaves were commodities during the Colonial period.  In the eyes of many at the time, selling slaves was not much different than selling oxen or horses.

Feb 12 - Abolition Map
Map of Slave States and Free States in 1800.

The slave featured within this particular advertisement seems to be nineteen years old.  At twenty myself, I took a look at this advertisement and, for a second, imagine my own life.

I imagine that many members of the public would be interested to know that a newspaper in what came to be known as the North, advertised slavery in the 1760s.  These types of advertisements also continued in New England’s newspapers for at least 10 years until Vermont, inspired by the Declaration of Independence, was the first to ban slavery in its 1777 state constitution.  Other New England states followed suit.  By 1800 all the states within New England’s borders abolished slavery.



Today Kathryn has selected a type of advertisement that surprises many students who enroll in my courses on early America, whether the introductory survey or advanced electives on colonial and Revolutionary America or the capstone research seminar on slavery in America. As Kathryn points out, many are shocked when looking through the pages of eighteenth-century newspapers to discover just how often enslaved men, women, and children were advertised, either to be bought and sold or because they ran away from their masters.

Many students (and I would venture to guess many New Englanders as well as other Americans) imagine a strict North-South divide. Slavery as an institution was something that existed in the South, they assume, but not in the North. Such assumptions conflate nineteenth-century America and earlier periods by grafting the antebellum era over the realities of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America.

Feb 12 - Abolition Map 1821
Map of Slave States and Free State in 1821.  Note that New Jersey and New York merit additional explanation and clarification due to gradual emancipation.

Even the history of abolition is messier than simply stating that after a certain year slavery had been abolished in Northern states. Not every state adopted immediate abolition. New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) each enacted gradual emancipation intended to phase out slavery over time. As a result, slaves resided in New York as late as 1824 and in New Jersey until the Civil War ended in 1865.

This advertisement reminds us of a history of slavery that is all too often hidden: its widespread practice throughout all the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its continuation in some Northern states well into the nineteenth century.

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