GUEST CURATOR: Brian Looney
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RAN away … a Mulatto Man Slave called Stephen Butler.”
Advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who freed themselves by running away were common in American newspapers before and after the American Revolution. This advertisement describes Stephen Butler, “a Mulatto Man Slave” who knew that the system was morally wrong and never stopped trying to break it. Leonard Boarman, the advertiser, stated that Butler worked as a carpenter and “has been pretty well known as a Runaway for these 30 Years.” He also said that Butler would try to “make his Escape” if anyone caught him. Boarman knew that Butler was committed to living as a free man. Many other enslaved people also ran away from their enslavers before and after the colonies fought a war for independence. That caused Congress to pass legislation to enforce the return of enslaved people. George Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, further strengthening the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution. Freedom meant different things to different people during the era of the American Revolution.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Brian has chosen an advertisement that delivers a very rich narrative about “a Mulatto Man Slave called Stephen Butler.” Boarman claims that Butler “RAN away” from his plantation, but he also suggests that Butler lived independently for three decades. Butler possessed several skills that may have allowed him to earn a living away from Boarman’s plantation. He “works at tight coopering, sawing and Wheel-work” and “is by Trade a Carpenter.” Those skills likely helped him to forge relationships with colonizers who cared more about the contributions he could make to their community than whether an enslaver claimed Butler as his property.
Boarman indicated that very well may have been the case. He claimed that Butler “has so great a Correspondence” or interaction “amongst many white People, that he never was once taken only by myself.” Apparently other colonizers accepted Butler as a free man and even aided him in evading Boarman. The enslaver declared that Butler “has confessed to me and many others where he has been harboured and whose Houses he resorted.” In addition, Butler “has worked for several by Stealth,” putting his skills as a carpenter to good use. Boarman declined to name those who had previously assisted Butler, but also threatened that if he could “make Proof either against white or black” accomplices then he would “proceed against them as the Law directs.”
Indeed, the law assessed penalties on anyone who assisted fugitives seeking their freedom. Butler and others often relied on extended communities to aid them in liberating themselves and maintaining their freedom, but that did not prevent the state from imposing measures intended to return them to enslavement. As Brian points out, the U.S. Constitution included a Fugitive Slave Clause that Congress later strengthened with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Such legislation endangered people like Butler who managed to integrate into communities as free men and women, putting the power of the state behind the demands that enslavers like Boarman made in newspaper advertisements and legal documents. This advertisement tells an incredible story of resistance in the face of many challenges presented by both aggrieved enslavers and a legal system that privileged enslavement over freedom.