What do newspaper advertisements published 250 years ago today tell us about the era of the American Revolution?
“LIBERTY. A POEM.”
“RUN-AWAY … a Negro Boy named SAY.”
Like every other newspaper printer in colonial America, William Bradford and Thomas Bradford published advertisements about enslaved people. The pages of the Pennsylvania Journal contained advertisements offering enslaved men, women, and children for sale as well as notices that described enslaved people who liberated themselves and offered rewards for their capture and return to their enslavers. The Bradfords generated revenues from both kinds of advertisements. In the process, they facilitated the buying and selling of enslaved Africans and African Americans. Their newspaper became part of a larger infrastructure of surveillance of Black people, encouraging readers to scrutinize the physical features, clothing, and comportment of every Black person they encountered in order to determine if they matched the descriptions in the advertisements.
Simultaneously, the Bradfords published news about politics and current events that informed readers about colonial grievances and shaped public opinion about the abuses perpetrated by Parliament. In addition, advertisements underscored concerns about the erosion of traditional English liberties in the colonies when they underscored the political dimensions of participating in the marketplace. Purveyors of goods encouraged consumers to support “domestic manufactures” by purchasing goods produced in the colonies as alternatives to imported items. News, editorials, and many advertisements all supported the patriot cause.
Those rumblings for liberty, however, stood in stark contrast to advertisements that perpetuated the widespread enslavement of Black men, women, and children. The two ideologies did not appear in separate portions of the Pennsylvania Journal or any other newspaper. Instead, they ran side by side. Readers who did not spot the juxtaposition chose not to do so. Consider, for instance, two advertisements in the February 21, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. The Bradfords advertised “LIBERTY. A POEM” available at their printing office. Their advertisement appeared next to a notice about “a Negro Boy named SAY,” a chimneysweeper born in the colonies. Isaac Coats offered a reward to whoever “secures [Say] so that his Master may have him again.” For his part, Say seized the liberty that so animated the conversations of those who attempted to keep him in bondage.
That was not the first time that the Bradfords placed advertisements about liberty and slavery in such revealing proximity to each other. Three months earlier, they advertised the same poem and placed an advertisement offering a young man and woman for sale immediately below it. “LIBERTY” in capital letters and a larger font appeared right above the words “To be sold by JOHN BAYARD, A Healthy active young NEGRO MAN, likewise a NEGRO WENCH.” This paradox of liberty and slavery was present at the founding of the nation, not only in the ideas expressed by the founding generation but also plainly visible among the advertisements in the public prints.