What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“I have also made it known that I would never pay any of his Debts.”
Readers regularly encountered “runaway wife” advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers. Aggrieved husbands placed such notices to warn the community not to extend credit to women who absconded from their households without permission. In many instances, husbands complained about various infractions committed by their wives, but such narratives privileged husbands’ perspectives. On those rare occasions when wives responded in print, they described misbehavior and abuses perpetrated by their husbands. For those women, running away from their husbands constituted acts of resistance and self-preservation.
Newspaper advertisements sometimes captured other kinds of familial discord. For instance, in 1771 William Macon, Sr., placed a notice in Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette to instruct others not to extend credit under his name to his son, Hartwell Macon. The elder Macon lamented that his son had, “by his imprudent Conduct, spent all that he had any Right to, and reduced himself to such unhappy Circumstances that he is unable to discharge his just Debts.” The situation exasperated William. “Notwithstanding that this has been well known to the World for some Time past, and that I have also made it known that I would never pay any of his Debts,” he declared, “many People still let him have Things on Credit, expecting I will discharge his Debts, or leave him some Part of my Estate which they may seize upon after my Decease.” Those who made such assumptions were bound to be disappointed, William warned. He placed his notice “to prevent any One from being deceived, or rather deceiving themselves, that I am determined never to give my said Son any Thing during my Life, nor to leave him any Thing by my Will.” William suggested that those who extended credit to Hartwell enabled further misconduct, implying that some of them did so opportunistically for their own financial benefit without taking into account what the community already knew about William and Hartwell’s fractured relationship.
Hartwell may have had his own version of events that differed from the narrative presented by his father, but the story William told made it seem unlikely that his son engaged in the sorts of resistance and self-preservation common among runaway wives who appeared in advertisements in the public prints. Rather than taking place within the household, beyond public observation, Hartwell’s transgressions occurred in full view of the community over an extended period. Readers of the Virginia Gazette had means of assessing and confirming William’s claims about his son that did not rely on competing accounts of what occurred within the private spaces of the Macon household.