What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of … negroes.”
Colonists who read any of the newspapers published in New York in the late 1760s were likely familiar with John Coghill Knapp and the services he provided at the “Scrivener, Register, & Conveyance Office.” The attorney frequently inserted lengthy advertisements in multiple newspapers simultaneously. When Alexander Robertson and James Robertson launched the New-York Chronicle in May 1769, Knapp was one of the first to place an advertisement in their new publication. Indeed, when the Robertsons distributed their first issue on May 8 it included one of Knapp’s advertisements; the same advertisement appeared each week for the remainder of the month and beyond.
The inclusion of Knapp’s advertisement meant that the Robertsons and the New-York Chronicle were enmeshed in the slave trade as soon as the publication commenced. Among the many services he provided, Knapp consistently advertised slaves for sale or otherwise acted as a broker for clients seeking to find buyers for enslaved men, women, and children. In his advertisement in the inaugural issue of the New-York Chronicle, he advised readers that “A REGISTER BOOK is kept for the regular entry of estates for sale either in land, houses, or ground to build on; negroes, and white servants time; to which purchasers may have fee access.” In other words, he invited readers to visit his office to peruse the listings of enslaved people for sale, neatly organized in a register along with real estate and indentured servants.
Print culture, especially newspapers, played an important role in shaping politics during the revolutionary era, spreading information about the imperial crisis and various modes of resistance adopted throughout the colonies. As a result, printers and the press have long been recognized as agents of liberty and the patriot cause. Depicting the press solely as a progressive instrument, however, misses an important part of the story of the American founding. Advertisements that offered enslaved people for sale or offered rewards for those who had escaped in hopes of achieving their own freedom also testify to the power of the press yet demonstrate that it did not always serve the ideals of liberty for all who resided in the colonies. Even as the press became a significant tool advocating the cause of freedom for some colonists, it helped perpetuate the enslavement of others.