What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A continuance of the same circumspect conduct and integrity.”
In the late 1760s and early 1770s, John Coghill Knapp regularly advertised the services he provided at the “Scrivener, Register, and Conveyancer’s OFFICE” in New York, including “Writings and conveyances of every kind” and “Different sums of money ready to lend.” He also assisted in recovering debts “in the most civiliz’d easy manner, … at most times without law.” In other words, through negotiation Knapp avoided going to court. For “Executors and administrators,” especially those thrust into unfamiliar roles, he offered instruction “in the due execution of their office,” helping them navigate their responsibilities while “prevent[ing] the expence and difficulties from want of knowledge therein.” In addition, Knapp aided “Seafaring men, and other strangers,” noting that they “often meet with difficulty in matter not altogether relative to the law. Although he did not mention it in every advertisement, Knapp brokered sales of indentured servants and enslaved men, women, and children.
Knapp often composed colorful copy for his advertisements. In a notice in the July 1, 1771, edition of the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, he started with his credentials, stating that he was “ONE of the attornies of his Majesty’s high and honourable court of King’s Bench at Westminster, duly admitted, sworn, and inrolled, the 2d day of June 1755.” After migrating to the colonies, he established his office in New York in 1764. Having gained experience over the years, Knapp proclaimed that he “gives the most candid and satisfactory opinion and advice in all cases of law and equity, founded on such plain truths as are not to be overcome by the alluring arguments of any smooth tongue Causidie.” Yet Knapp possessed a smooth tongue himself, declaring that he effectively met “the loud positive harangue of him who attempts to annihilate the reason of both judge and jury.” The attorney deployed clever turns of phrase to impress potential clients with his competence and effectiveness.
Such flamboyance, however, attracted critiques. In addition to describing his credential and services, Knapp also offered some sort of defense of his conduct in many of his advertisements. He claimed, for instance, that he acted with integrity and requested that manner in which he “executed the business of this office for seven years past, will intitle him to a continuance of that favour and protection” that he previously received from clients and associates in the face of attacks from competitors and rivals. In lively language that only hinted at the particulars of previous controversies, Knapp asserted that “he has so feelingly overcome the many daring assaults and unspeakable injuries done to his person and property, by cruel, invidious and designing men.” He labeled them “hypocrites, pretending with so much ease to see the mote in their brother’s eye, but cannot behold the beam that is in their own.”
Knapp may have been an effective attorney and advocate for his clients, but that did not always win him friends. Alternately, his verbose advertisements may have been the eighteenth-century equivalent of the bombastic marketing campaigns undertaken by many law firms with questionable reputations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Knapp claimed that he tended to his clients’ interests, but his vigorous defense of his own conduct suggested that many readers already possessed knowledge of events that yielded an unflattering reputation. The attorney attempted to establish his own narrative, simultaneously demonstrating his skill in making arguments on behalf of clients.