December 3

Guest Curator: Nicholas Sears

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

dec-3-1231766-georgia-gazette
Georgia Gazette (December 3, 1766).

“A YOUNG MAN that can write a good hand.”

This employment advertisement sought an assistant or clerk to “copy distinctly” in the “Secretary’s-Office” in Georgia. When I saw this advertisement I was curious to know exactly where a young man would have received the education necessary to know how to write. According to Robert A. Peterson in “Education in Colonial America, children could learn this skill at home or in schools. Before public schools, parents taught their children how to read and write, but only if they knew how.

Peterson also discusses other ways colonists were educated: at church, from voluntary associations such as library companies and philosophical societies, circulating libraries, apprenticeships. Many colonists turned to their church where they could learn through sermons. Pastors would at times speak for hours on end. Families followed sermons closely, took mental notes, and discussed the sermon together on a Sunday afternoon. Adults had the advantage of going to a library or a philosophical society. For example, Peterson discusses the society called “The Literary Republic.” This society, where artisans, tradesmen, and common laborers met to discuss “logic, jurisprudence, religion, science, and moral philosophy,” opened in 1764 in Philadelphia.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

This employment advertisement stands in stark contrast to the ten advertisements for slaves that appeared in the same issue of the Georgia Gazette. A young man with sufficient education to “write a good hand” and “copy distinctly” had an opportunity to work for the colonial government in the “Secretary’s-Office.” Even for a youth of humble origins, this might have been a stepping stone that enhanced his possibilities for social mobility through meeting and working under the direction of the better sorts in colonial Georgia.

The slaves advertised in the Georgia Gazette did not have the same opportunities for social mobility, thought they were certainly mobile in other ways. Of the ten advertisements featuring slaves in that issue, four described runaway slaves and five announced captured slaves who had been “Brought to the Workhouse” until such time that their masters could retrieve them. The final advertisement promoted the sale of “A FAMILY of NEGROES, consisting of a valuable house wench and five well grown boys and girls, country born.” Almost certainly none of them had been taught to read or “write a good hand” or “copy distinctly.”

Indeed, none of those advertisements indicated that any of the slaves possessed even basic literacy, though several pointed out that one runaway or another “speaks very little English” or could not speak English well enough “so as to be understood.” On occasions when advertisements did associate literacy with slaves they usually attributed nefarious purposes to slaves’ ability to read or write, such as warning against passes that had been altered.

The employment advertisement offering employment in the “Secretary’s-Office” to a qualified young man opened up a variety of possibilities and opportunities for at least one colonist. A great many more advertisements, however, thwarted opportunities that slaves had seized for themselves. Masters used the power of print in attempts to return slaves to situations in which their opportunities would be further circumscribed. Side by side, the employment advertisement and the slavery advertisement demonstrate two very different sets of possibilities open to colonists in Georgia in the decade before the American Revolution.

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