What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold … A Healthy active young NEGRO MAN.”
Liberty and enslavement were intertwined in the 1770s, a paradox that defines the founding of the United States as an independent nation. As white colonists advocated for their own liberty and protested their figurative enslavement by king and Parliament, they continued to enslave Africans and African Americans. Even those who did not purport to be masters of Black men and women participated in maintaining an infrastructure of exploitation. The juxtaposition of liberty and enslavement regularly found expression in the pages of newspapers during the era of the American Revolution as news items and editorial letters rehearsed arguments made by patriots and advertisements encouraged consumers to factor political considerations into the choices they made in the marketplace while other news items documented fears of revolts by enslaved people and other advertisements offered Black men, women, and children for sale or announced rewards for capturing enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from those who held them in bondage.
Such contradictory items always appeared within close proximity to one another, especially considering that newspapers of the era usually consisted of only four pages. In some instances, the juxtaposition should have been nearly impossible for readers to miss. Consider two advertisements that ran in the November 22, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. William Bradford and Thomas Bradford, the printers of the newspaper, inserted a short notice about “LIBERTY. A POEM” available for sale at their printing office. Immediately below that notice appeared John Bayard’s advertisement offering a “Healthy active young NEGRO MAN” and an enslaved woman for sale. The word “LIBERTY” in the Bradfords’ very brief notice appeared in all capitals and such a large font that it could have served as a headline for the next advertisement, an exceptionally cruel and inaccurate headline. Both advertisements represented revenues for the Bradfords, the first potential revenues of potential sales and the second actual revenues paid by Bayard to insert the advertisement.
Examining either advertisement in isolation results in a truncated history of the era of the era of the American Revolution. The advertisement for “LIBERTY. A POEM” must be considered in relation to the advertisement for a “Healthy young NEGRO MAN” and woman to tell a more complete story of the nation’s past, even when some critics charge that the inclusion of the latter is revisionist and ideologically motivated. It is neither. Instead, it is a responsible and accurate rendering of the past. The Bradfords positioned these advertisements together on the page 250 years ago. We cannot separate them today.