What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away from his Master … a well-set Negro Manm Slave, named Isaac.”
By the time the January 21, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette was published, Samuel Rose had been placing an advertisement offering a reward for “a well-set Negro Man Slave, named Isaac,” who had run away in late November of the previous year for an entire month. Isaac had “a Scar on his Forehead” and a “thick Beard.” According to Rose, the enslaved man could “play on a Fiddle, and loves strong Drink,” though savvy readers likely realized that many slaveholder exaggerated when it came to that latter detail. Rose also warned “Masters of Vessels, and others” against providing assistance, whether “carrying off or harbouring” Isaac.
The tone of this advertisement advanced starkly different rhetoric than other items published on the same page and elsewhere throughout the issue. John Carter’s advertisement for “A NEW EDITION” of Abraham Weatherwise’s “New-England TOWN and COUNTRY Almanack” filled the entire column immediately to the right. The notable contents of the almanac promoted in the advertisement included “a beautiful poetical Essay on Public Spirit, wrote by an American Patriot” and a Portrait of the celebrated JOHN WILKES, Esq.,” the radical English politician and journalist considered friendly to the American cause during the imperial crisis that led to the Revolution. In the upper left corner of the page, a poem entitled “ADDRESS to LIBERTY” by “AMERICANUS” appeared before any of advertisements. The poem lamented recent encroachments on colonists’ liberty by “tyrant Lords,” but it addressed only the position of white colonists and not enslaved men, women, and children. The poem did not make room for Isaac the justice that was supposed to be extended to English sons who had “cross’d th’atlantic Seas / To Climes unknown.” News filled most of the rest of the issue, including a “humble Address of the House of Commons to the KING.” Parliament stated that it would “be ever ready to hear any real grievance of Your Majesty’s American subjects,” but insisted it was “one of our most important duties, to maintain entire and inviolate the supreme authority of the legislature of Great-Britain, over every part of the British empire.” Colonists considered this enslavement.
Amidst all of this rhetoric circulating in conversations and the public prints, Isaac determined to seize his own liberty. Although Rose did not recognize it, the enslaved man put into action the ideals that so many of his white neighbors espoused in the late 1760s.