Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, A Likely young Negro Girl.”
John Holt published the New-York Journal on Thursdays in 1768. According to schedule, he distributed a standard four-page issue on Thursday, March 24. A two-page supplement filled mostly with news and a limited number of advertisements accompanied that issue. Two days later, Holt distributed an additional two-page supplement on Saturday, March 26. He explained that it contained “Articles left out of last for Want of Room,” apparently items that either could not wait for inclusion the following week or that would crowd out more recent news if held that long. The March 26 supplement consisted almost entirely of news items. One advertisement appeared at the bottom of the final column on the second page.
That advertisement offered a “Likely young Negro Girl about 13 Years of Age” for sale. It stood in stark juxtaposition to the remainder of the content of the supplement. Holt devoted four of the six columns to news from Boston, including several editorial pieces reprinted from the Boston-Gazette. One reprinted letter, signed “A TRUE PATRIOT,” warned that the colonists “soon will find themselves in chains” if they did not “support their own RIGHTS, and the Liberty of the PRESS” in the face of abuses by Parliament. Another correspondent, “POPULUS,” underscored that there was “nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as FREE PRESS.” The press played such an important role that “it is ever watched by those who are forming plans for the destruction of the people’s liberties, with an envious and malignant eye.”
In addition to these editorials, Holt inserted a circular letter “written by the hon. the House of Representatives” in Massachusetts “in the last Session of the General Assembly and sent to the respective Assemblies on the Continent.” In it, that body expressed “their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the parliament; that the acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements on their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those acts, grant their property without their consent.” In other words, colonists in Massachusetts objected to taxation without representation. Holt amplified their sentiments by reprinting their letter for readers in New York and its hinterlands.
All of this discussion of freedom of the press and theories of constitutional liberty took place alongside an advertisement for a “young Negro Girl.” The revenues generated from that advertisement contributed to the dissemination of the arguments voiced by “A TRUE PATRIOT,” “POPULUS,” and the assembly of the “Province of MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.” As white colonists fretted about their liberties, they also perpetuated a system that enslaved a “young Negro Girl” and countless others, holding their bodies in bondage even as they lamented potential challenges to their own speech. Resistance led to revolution as the imperial crisis intensified over the course of a decade, but many colonists were inconsistent in their conceptions of liberty and applying them to all who resided in the colonies. Even as they challenged Parliament to recognize their “natural constitutional right” colonists continued to purchase and peddle slaves from New England to George. The evidence for each appeared side-by-side in the pages of their newspapers.