Who was the subject of advertisements in colonial American newspapers 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD … A likely Negro Man … Enquire of the Printers.”
“TO BE SOLD, A Negro Boy … Enquire of the Printers.”
Timothy Green ran a busy printing office in the early 1770s. In addition to publishing the New-London Gazette, he sold books, some that he printed but most of them imported. In the April 23, 1773, edition of his newspaper, Green advertised one of his own imprints, informing readers that “A Faithful HISTORY OF REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES, IN THE Captivity and Deliverances OF Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS, Minister of the Gospel in DEEERFIELD” was “Just Published, and to be Sold.” Green also did job printing, including broadsides, handbills, and blanks (or forms). Similarly, Thomas Green and Samuel Green oversaw a bustling printing office where they published the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy. In the spring of 1773, they distributed subscription proposals for a new edition of “A Discourse on Justification by Faith alone. BY THE REVEREND JONATHAN EDWARDS.” Those proposals also appeared in the April 23 edition of the New-London Gazette, part of a network of printers and others who cooperated in collecting the names of subscribers who reserved copies.
Among their many other responsibilities, all three printers also served as slave brokers. The same day that they promoted important historical and theological works, they also advised readers to “Enquire of the Printers” to learn more about enslaved people advertised for sale in their newspapers. In the Connecticut Journal, a brief advertisement announced, “TO BE SOLD, (for no Fault, but for want of Employ,) A likely Negro Man, about 26 Years old, fit for Town or Country. Enquire of the Printers.” An even shorter, but equally insidious, advertisement in the New-London Gazette stated, “TO BE SOLD, A Negro Boy, about 13 Years old, lately brought into the Country. Enquire of the Printer.” In both cases, the advertisers declined to identify themselves, instead instructing interested parties to contact the printers for more information. In turn, the printers facilitated the sales of enslaved people twice over and generated revenue from the advertisements in the process. First, they disseminated the notices, undertaking the labor required to print and distribute the advertisements and the rest of the newspapers. Then, they actively participated in the sale of the “likely Negro Man” and the “Negro Boy, about 13 Years old,” responding to messages they received in the printing office and colonizers who visited to learn more. As these advertisements demonstrate, printers in New England participated in perpetuating slavery during the era of the American Revolution, alongside their counterparts in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and other colonies with greater numbers of enslaved people. Such advertisements underwrote the production and dissemination of the news, while those that required readers to “Enquire of the Printers” further enmeshed printers in the slave trade as brokers for sales.
For an extended consideration of such advertisements, see Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 287-323, and the companion website.