May 14

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

May 14 - 5:14:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 14, 1768).

“RUN away … a Negroe Man Slave, named Sterling.”

Most of the advertisements in the May 14, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette had appeared in at least one previous issue, but Obadiah Sprague and Joseph Bucklin inserted two new notices. Both notified readers about runaway slaves, providing descriptions and offering rewards for capturing and returning them. A “Negro Man Slave, named Sterling” who “talks bad English” ran away from Bucklin. A “Negroe Man, named Barrow” who “speaks good English” ran away from Sprague.

Considered on their own, each of these advertisements testifies to the choices made by many enslaved men and women, even though their stories have been filtered through narrators who held them in bondage. Sterling and Barrow did not accept their lot; instead, they took action to gain their freedom rather than remain enslaved. Sprague suspected that Barrow might even attempt to board a ship and make good on his escape by putting as much distance between himself and his former master as possible.

Considered in relation to other items on the same page, these advertisements reveal juxtapositions in colonists’ understandings of liberty at the time of the imperial crisis that preceded the American Revolution. These notices concerning runaway slaves appeared immediately to the right of a poem, “On the FARMER’s Letters.” The ode honored John Dickinson, the pseudonymous “Farmer,” who had written a series of letters defending the colonies against abuse by Parliament in the wake of the Townshend Act. The letters had been reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies. The poem described the “Farmer” as “Liberty’s best Friend!” It concluded by proclaiming, “We love Britannia – but we will be free.” To modern eyes, such declarations seem starkly contradictory when positioned next to advertisements inserted expressly for the purpose of returning runaway slaves to bondage. Yet they reveal that most colonists did not think of their freedom in the same terms that they considered the condition of enslaved men, women, and children.

This contrast seems even more stark when taking into account the news item printed immediately above the poem. In a paragraph comprised of approximately the same number of lines of text, the printers reported on news that had just come to hand via “Capt. Winter, from Montserrat.” It told of an attempted slave revolt, one that required fifty soldiers from Antigua to put down. The narrative of events concluded with a gruesome description of the torture and execution of one of the insurrection’s leaders. With no transition at all, this tale gave way to the poem extolling the Farmer’s efforts to protect colonists’ liberty.

Most colonists held contradictory views when it came to their own liberty compared to the liberty of slaves. Barrow, Sterling, and other runaways, on the other hand, were not conflicted in their views on the matter. They did not need a series of letters from the “Farmer” to explain enslavement to them, yet some likely felt bolstered in their decisions to determine their own fates as they listened to debates about liberty that intensified during the imperial crisis. They likely also heard about the brutal measures taken to quell slave revolts, making their choice to escape from their masters all the more courageous for knowing the consequences that others faced when they engaged in acts of resistance.

May 14 - Slave Revolt 5:14:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 14, 1768).

April 2

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

Apr 2 - 4:2:1768 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (April 2, 1768).

Extending Manufactures, appear to be the only Means of saving an injured and distressed Country.”

When Joseph Bucklin and Nicholas Clark placed an advertisement to “inform the Public, that they have set up the Cutler’s Business, in a Variety of Branches” in Providence in the spring of 1768 they imbued their products with political significance. In the wake of the Townshend Act going into effect the previous November, colonists from New England to Georgia continued to lament Parliament overstepping its authority and subjecting Americans to abuses that threatened to enslave them. Almost every newspaper published in the colonies reprinted a series of “Letters from Farmer in Pennsylvania,” twelve essays in which John Dickinson argued that Parliament could not impose taxes on the colonies for the purposes of raising revenue rather than regulating trade because the colonies were supposed to remain sovereign in their internal affairs. Starting in Boston and spreading far and wide, colonists pledged not to import goods from Britain but instead encourage domestic production to benefit the colonies both politically economically.

In that spirit, Bucklin and Clark proclaimed that “They have set up their Business in Confidence that they shall not want proper Encouragement, at a time when the setting up and extending Manufactures, appear to be the only Means of saving an injured and distressed Country.” The cutlers did not need to comment on the current political situation any more explicitly, especially since news and editorial items printed elsewhere in the same issue of the Providence Gazette provided the necessary context for prospective customers to understand their meaning. Even when considered independently of the other contents of any particular issue in which the advertisement appeared, Bucklin and Clark devised an advertisement that addressed discussions that had been taking place in print and in person for more than six months. Having done so, they expected “Proper Encouragement” for their efforts. They commenced their business for “the public Benefit” and called on “the Well-wishers to American Manufacturers” to purchase their wares. At the same time, they underscored the quality of their cutlery. Manufactured locally, their cutlery was not inferior to any imported from Britain or Ireland. Conscientious consumers, Bucklin and Clark argued, did not have to sacrifice quality when their politics guided their purchasing decisions.