What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RAN away … a Negro Man named Caesar.”
Today citizens of the United States commemorate the 241st anniversary of their independence. To mark that occasion, I have selected an advertisement that tells the story of one man’s efforts to secure his own freedom during the era of the imperial crisis that gave way to the Revolution.
Caesar (almost certainly not the name bestowed on him by his parents) was “a Negro Man” enslaved to Ebenezer Sweet in North Kingston, Rhode Island. Near the beginning of June 1767, he ran away from his master. Nearly a month later he still had not been captured and returned, despite the generous reward advertised in the Providence Gazette.
Why did Sweet offer “Eight Dollars, and all reasonable Charges” (in other words, any expenses incurred in capturing and transporting the fugitive) for this particular slave? In part, he likely wished to recover some of the consumer goods Caesar carried away with him, including “a Pair of Silver Shoe Buckles” and “almost a new Beaverrit Hat.” Beyond those items, Caesar was an especially valuable slave because of the skills he possessed. Not only could he read and write, he was also a skilled artisan. Sweet acknowledged that Caesar was “by Trade a Blacksmith,” although he “principally follows Anchor-making.” This constellation of skills would have made Caesar particularly valuable to Sweet, especially since he could have hired out his services for much more than a common laborer.
Yet Caesar had other ideas. The advertisement does not indicate how well he could read. Perhaps he was literate enough to read the Providence Gazette and other newspapers that reported on recent efforts by Parliament to “enslave” the colonies by charging stamp duties and quartering troops. Even if he did not read the newspapers, he likely overheard discussions and witnessed protests against Parliament’s schemes. Like many other slaves in the 1760s through the 1780s, Caesar could have applied the rhetoric of liberty to his own situation and sought to change it by taking action on his own.
Yet the imperial crisis and the Revolution were not absolutely necessary for Caesar or any other slaves to chafe at their subjugation. They did not need colonists to teach them the value of freedom. Advertisements for runaways populated the pages of colonial newspapers long before the rupture with Great Britain as thousands of enslaved men and women determined on their own that they wanted more than to be held in bondage.
As celebrations of Independence Day take place, remember that the founding generation consisted of many, many more people than just the prominent political and military leaders whose names have been memorialized for nearly a quarter millennium. “A Negro Man named Caesar” was also a member of the founding generation. Using the means available to him, he waged his own campaign for freedom and liberty.