October 31

GUEST CURATOR:  Jake Luongo

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Spy (October 31, 1771).

“A YOUNG, sprightly, sober NEGRO BOY … Enquire of the Printer.”

This advertisement offers a thirteen-year-old “NEGRO BOY” for sale, along with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer hereof” for anybody interested in purchasing the enslaved boy slave.  Selling a human being is just abhorrent, to say the least, but to put the advertisements amongst other advertisements for household items and livestock is just utterly disturbing to today’s readers. Unfortunately, it was just another advertisement to most readers of eighteenth-century newspapers.  Advertisements for enslaved people for sale were abundant in number yet often sparse when it came to details regarding the people actually being purchased. If interested buyers needed more information, they were to “Enquire of the Printer.”

Printers acted as liaisons between buyers and sellers of enslaved people. According to Jordan E. Taylor, printers acted as “slave brokers” both before and after the American Revolution.[1]  Once the Declaration of Independence was signed, it seemed contradictory to some Americans to advertise enslaved people for sale, but printers did not agree.  The advertisements continued, along with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer.”  According to Taylor, no matter the backlash printers received for these advertisements in the late eighteenth century, the money made on them mattered more, especially in towns with more than one newspaper that competed with each other for advertisements.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Jake outlines some of the most significant arguments that Jordan E. Taylor makes in “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807.”  In his study of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements, Taylor examined newspapers published throughout the colonies and the new nation in the eighteenth century.  That included newspapers published in New England and the Middle Atlantic, where Taylor identified a concentration of these advertisements before the end of the American Revolution.[2]

Note that the advertisement Jake examined appeared in the Massachusetts Spy, the newspaper published in Boston by ardent patriot Isaiah Thomas.  In the spring of 1775, Thomas fled to Worcester for his safety after repeatedly infuriating British officials with the articles and editorials he published in the Massachusetts Spy.  Even in 1771, when the advertisement for a “YOUNG, sprightly, sober NEGRO BOY” appeared with instructions to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information, Thomas made his political principles known.  The advertisement not only ran among notices promoting consumer goods and services but also in close proximity to Thomas’s own advertisement for the “Massachusetts CALENDAR; or an ALMANACK, for the year 1772.”  Rather than publishing a generic almanac, Thomas made clear his was one for American patriots.  It contained essays “On Liberty and Government” as well as an engraving of the Boston Massacre as both memorial and warning.

Taylor identifies many other instances of the juxtaposition of content advocating liberty for some Americans alongside content that perpetuated the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.  Historians now consider Isaiah Thomas one of the most significant and influential printers active during the era of the American Revolution, in large part because he was such a vocal proponent of American rights, American liberty, and American independence.  Closer examination of the contents of the Massachusetts Spy, however, reveals that he also served as a slave broker, facilitating the purchase and sale of enslaved men, women, and children by publishing advertisements and providing additional information to those who did “Enquire of the Printer.”

Massachusetts Spy (October 31, 1771).

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[1] Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287.

[2] Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer,” 309.

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