GUEST CURATOR: Daniel McDermott
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A VALUABLE NEGROE WENCH and CHILD.”
Scanning through a colonial American newspaper, especially one from Georgia, it is not uncommon to see advertisements selling slaves with other goods. It is appalling to see a woman and her child being sold as property along with carpentry tools and household furniture. Ironically, in the 1730s the Georgia Trustees envisioned their colony as a free settlement. Unfortunately, the economic temptations were too strong and by 1751 slavery was legalized. In contrast, by 1784, the northern states, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, had all abolished slavery. But Georgia remained a slave state after the Revolution.
Two crops dominated the Georgia economy, rice in the eighteenth century and cotton in the nineteenth century. Rice and cotton plantations required an adequate slave labor force, so as Georgia’s plantations grew so did the demand for slaves. A state law passed in 1793 prohibited the importation of slaves, but the law went into effect in 1798. During the 1790s the number of slaves in Georgia nearly doubled. In 1790 Georgia had 29,264 slaves, but then 54,699 slaves in 1800.
What did it really mean to see a slave advertisement in the colonial American newspaper? It means viewing human beings as property that could contribute to the owner’s own economic growth. They were seen just as equal as household furniture and other common goods that could be sold and advertised in a newspaper.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Today is the 251st anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Such an odd number merits little notice in a culture that usually prefers to celebrate landmark numbers of years measured in decades. For the purposes of the Adverts 250 Project, however, March 18, 1767, was the first anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Colonists did not allow that important anniversary to pass unnoticed. Instead, they engaged in commemorations noted in newspapers published throughout the colonies during the week before and several weeks after March 18.
Against that backdrop, today’s advertisement for “A VALUABLE NEGROE WENCH and CHILD” seems especially jarring. The juxtaposition did not go unnoticed during the years prior to the American Revolution. In Taxation No Tyranny, published in 1775, Samuel Johnson famously asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The British author and lexicographer identified a glaring inconsistency in the rhetoric of colonists who claimed they were being enslaved by Parliament.
Although patriots in northern colonies (later states) did not level the same sort of acerbic observations against their southern counterparts, many increasingly applied the rhetoric of liberty to the circumstances of their own slaves. As Daniel notes, several northern states abolished slavery by the end of the eighteenth century. Others adopted gradual emancipation plans. As a result, advertisements offering slaves for sale tapered off in northern newspapers.
For the past six months, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project has demonstrated, however, that advertisements for slaves were common in newspapers printed in New England and the Middle Atlantic, regions not associated with slavery to the same extent as the Chesapeake and the Lower South (in part because the northern regions abolished or phased out slavery after the Revolution). Today’s advertisement lumping together “A VALUABLE NEGROE WENCH and CHILD” with tools, clothing, and furniture appeared in some variation in newspapers printed in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia during its week of initial publication.
As Daniel and his peers in my Revolutionary America class work on the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project, I am encouraging them to contemplate the tensions between liberty and enslavement in eighteenth-century America, as well as the uneven application of the rhetoric of the Revolution when it came to slavery. While it is important to realize that approximately half a million slaves resided in the colonies at the time of the Revolution, the micro-histories embedded in slavery advertisements tell the stories of individuals. They provide further insight into the daily lives and lived experiences of enslaved men, women, and children in early America.