July 4

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

Jul 4 - 7:4:1768 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (July 4, 1768).

“RAN away … a Mulatto Slave, named HARRY.”

July 4 is the day Americans celebrate their independence from Britain. It is a familiar story about campaigns of resistance to abuses by Parliament that steadily intensified and ultimately led to a revolution against the king, a revolution that created a new nation. In the Declaration of Independence the founders asserted “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founding generation, however, applied these ideals unevenly to various constituencies within the new United States of America. The American Revolution launched a struggle to achieve those ideals, a struggle that has unfolded over nearly a quarter of a millennium and continues to this day. As a nation, the United States has certainly made progress, but those ideals have not been universally achieved. Unfortunately, much of that progress has come under attack in the twenty-first century, making it clear that Americans must be vigilant in safeguarding not only their own liberty but also the liberty of others as they continue to strive to achieve those ideals endorsed in Independence Hall in 1776 and promulgated throughout the new nation.

As Americans once again tell the story of their independence today, consider another story of an American who seized his freedom in the era of the Revolution. Harry, “a Mulatto Slave … about 40 years of age,” ran away from Levin Crapper on September 13, 1767. More than nine months later he had not been captured or returned, prompting Crapper to place an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. According to Crapper, Harry possessed a variety of talents that would allow him to make a living on his own: “He was bred a miller, and understands very well how to manufacture flour.” Crapper also acknowledged, grudgingly, that Harry “understands the carpenter’s and mill-wright’s business middling well.” To offset those indications of his competence at those trades, Crapper accused the fugitive of being “much given to strong drink.”

That was not the entirety of Harry’s story. Crapper also reported that Harry “has a free Mulatto wife, named Peg, and two children.” Of all the motivations that could have prompted Harry to make his escape, reuniting with his family was probably the most compelling. Even though Peg and the children did not depart at the same time as Harry, Crapper stated that he believed “they will endeavour to get together” and flee “to the province of East New-Jersey.” Crapper suspected that Harry had a forged pass that would aid him in his flight from the man who held him in bondage.

Thomas Jefferson had not yet penned the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” when Harry determined to make himself a free man. The Declaration of Independence had not yet been printed in newspapers throughout the colonies or read aloud in churches and town commons. Yet the Revolution had begun. Colonists had protested the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765 and celebrated its repeal in 1766. At the time that Harry made his escape in 1767 white colonists complained about their impending enslavement via the Townshend Act and other laws passed by Parliament. Harry knew something about enslavement. He had likely heard other colonists talking about liberty and the necessity of resistance to an oppressive Parliament. In that environment, he made his own choice to seize his freedom, for himself and for his family.

There are many stories to celebrate on Independence Day. Harry managed to remain free for at least nine months. Hopefully he and Peg and the children made it to safety and he eluded capture for the rest of his life. Harry’s story is one of determination and an individual commitment to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the era of the American Revolution, a story that deserves to be told and celebrated alongside so many of the familiar stories that so many already know so well.

September 3

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Sep 3 - 9:3:1766 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 3, 1766).


It’s Founders Chic day at the Adverts 250 Project! Today’s advertisement was inserted in the Georgia Gazette a decade before Button Gwinnett became one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, one of only three signers from Georgia.

Over time Gwinnett has become famous (sort of) for not being famous. He certainly did not become a household name like other signers of the Declaration, especially John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. This was in large part due to his late entry in politics (he did not become an outspoken advocate of American rights until 1775, the year that fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord) and he died in 1777 (in a duel with a political rival over a failed invasion of East Florida, controlled by the British).

Gwinnett was not a man of letters, unlike so many other founders who left behind extensive correspondence. As a result, only fifty-one copies of his signature (including the one on the Declaration of Independence) are known to exist, making Gwinnett’s signature much more rare, valuable, and sought after than those of his much more famous and influential counterparts who signed the Declaration. (Learn more about the scarcity of Gwinnett’s signature at “Radiolab,” 7:50-14:40.) Gwinnett has remained so unknown compared to other signers that “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” even broadcast a spoof “musical” featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

In today’s advertisement Button Gwinnett issued a cranky warning against others trespassing on his land and stealing his hogs and cattle. He threatened to prosecute offenders and offered a reward to anyone who provided evidence that contributed to a conviction.

This advertisement certainly did not have the historical magnitude of the Declaration of Independence. However, it provides a glimpse of the daily life and concerns of one of the (minor) founders. In 1766 Gwinnett had no way of knowing that he would someday sign the document that officially severed America’s political ties to Great Britain. It’s easy to put the founders on pedestals, but it might be more helpful to remember that they were also men sometimes consumed with ordinary concerns (like “disorderly people” who trespassed on their land). Asserting that only the most exceptional political philosophers have shaped the American experience and that they were inherently more intelligent and more virtuous than subsequent generations implicitly suggests that everyday people, the common folk who comprise the vast majority of the population, cannot even hope to live up to the examples set by the most famous founders. Button Gwinnett, on the other hand, demonstrates that we are all capable of practicing thoughtful citizenship, whether we have penned influential works of political philosophy or not.

May 1

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 1 - 5:1:1766 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (May 1, 1766).

“It will be stamped on the cork with black letters.”

This advertisement caught my eye for two reasons. When he informed potential customers that his “BOTTLED BEER … will be stamped on the cork with black letters,” Timothy Matlack branded his product. He made it easy to distinguish his beer from any competitors at a glance. He also created a mechanism for his product to be recognized or identified long after it left his store on Fourth Street and found its way into public and private spaces in and around Philadelphia. Branding is an important element of modern advertising, a core component of a product’s and a business’s identity, but it is not an invention of modern advertising executives. Some eighteenth-century entrepreneurs experimented with various ways to mark and identify their wares.

May 1 - Timothy Matlack
Timothy Matlack (Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1790).  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This advertisement also caught my eye because of the advertiser himself, Timothy Matlack. Many of the advertisers featured here are fairly anonymous today, having left behind very few documents from their lives. Others played fairly prominent roles in their communities during their lifetimes, leaving sufficient documentation to be traced, to greater or lesser degrees, by historians.

Timothy Matlack, however, was a man of prominence in eighteenth-century America. At least one biographer has chronicled his life as a brewer and politician during the American Revolution. Though he is not as famous today as Samuel Adams, another brewer and popular revolutionary leader, Matlack has entered popular culture as the answer to one of the riddles in the film National Treasure.   While much of the history is that movie is more than suspect, Matlack did indeed engross (write the official copy of) THE Declaration of Independence. His master penmanship lives on, not only in the Declaration of Independence but also in several modern typefaces inspired or influenced by his handwriting.