What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A new Non-Importation Agreement.”
“A Likely Negro Man and a Wench.”
The first two advertisements that appeared in the January 25, 1770, edition of the New-York Journal tell very different stories about the era of the American Revolution. The first addressed efforts to resist the abuses of Parliament, the figurative enslavement of the colonies. The second offered a Black man and woman for sale, perpetuating their enslavement rather than setting them free. That one advertisement followed immediately after the other testifies to the uneven rhetoric of the era as well as the stark tension between liberty (for some) and slavery (for many) at the time of the nation’s founding.
The first advertisement called on the “Signers of the Agreement relative to the Traders of Rhode-Island” to meet and discuss how to proceed in their dealings with the merchants in that nearby colony. The trouble arose when Rhode Island did not adhere to nonimportation agreements adopted throughout the rest of New England as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. In response, merchants, shopkeepers, and others in New York decided that they would no longer engage in trade with their counterparts in Rhode Island, broadening the nonimportation agreement to include fellow colonists who acted contrary to the interests of the colonies. When New York received word from Newport of “a new Non-importation Agreement, lately come into at that Place,” those who had ceased trade with the colony met to reconsider once the merchants there had been brought into line.
The second advertisement presented “A Likely Negro Man and a Wench,” instructing “Any person inclining to purchase them” to enquire of the printer. The unnamed advertiser described the enslaved man and woman as “fit for a Farmer, or any private Family” and offered assurances of their health by noting that they “both had the Small-Pox and Measles” so would not contract those diseases again. The advertiser added a nota bene asserting that the man and woman treated no differently than commodities were “Both young,” one more attempt to incite interest from potential buyers. The anonymous enslaver opened with advertisement with an explanation that that Black man and women were “To be sold, for no Fault, but Want of Cash.” In other words, they were not disobedient, difficult to manage, or ill. The enslaver simply needed to raise some ready money; selling the man and woman provided a convenient means of doing so.
One advertisement addressed a widespread movement to use commerce as a political tool to prevent the colonies from being enslaved by Parliament. The other depicted the continued enslavement and disregard for a “Negro Man and a Wench” not entitled to the same liberty that white New Yorkers claimed for themselves. The colonial press, in collaboration with colonists who placed newspaper notices, maintained and even bolstered the contradictory discourse contained in the two advertisements.