Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RAN away … a Negro Man Servant, named CAESAR … sometimes pretends to be free.”
On July 4, 1772, American colonizers did not know that on that day just four years later the Continental Congress would declare the independence of a new nation. They did know that for the better part of a decade they experienced an increasingly turbulent relationship with Great Britain. Following the empire’s victory in the Seven Years War and the expulsion of France from North America, the George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In it, the king decreed colonizers were not to settle west of the Appalachians. Instead, he reserved that territory for the crown’s new Indian subjects. Colonizers felt betrayed. They fought and died to gain access to that land, but the king chose favor the Indians who allied with the French. After the war, Parliament sought to regulate trade more systematically, imposing first the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Acts a few years later. Colonizers responded with protests of various sorts, including boycotts of imported goods. In addition, Britain quartered troops in American cities. On March 5, 1770, some of those troops fired into a crowd in Boston, killing several people. Colonizers continued to protest, sometimes resorting to violence. On June 9, colonizers in Rhode Island boarded and burned the Gaspee, a British customs schooner, when it ran aground in Narragansett Bay.
Throughout this period, colonizers discussed their rights and demanded their freedom. They did so in the town square, in taverns, in coffeehouses, in newspapers, and in petitions. Simultaneously, enslaved people liberated themselves throughout the era of the American Revolution. Black men and women “RAN away” from their enslavers rather than endure bondage. Caesar, “a Negro Man Servant” enslaved by “Mrs. Payson, Widow,” in Woodstock, Connecticut, liberated himself in June 1772. He “RAN away” at the same time that word spread about colonizers striking a blow against Britain by burning the Gaspee. The Providence Gazette carried Caesar’s story, at least a truncated version of it as written by enslavers and their accomplices, in an advertisement that ran for several weeks, including on July 4. That notice described Caesar, “a Fellow well made, about 5 Feet 8 Inches high, between 50 and 60 Years of Age, his Hair grey, speaks tolerable good English,” and offered a reward for his capture and return. In so doing, the advertisers encouraged colonizers to participate in the surveillance of Black men they encountered to determine if any of them matched the description in the newspaper. They also threatened legal penalties for anyone who assisted Caesar, warning that “All Persons are hereby strictly forbid to entertain or employ the above described Negro, as they would avoid being prosecuted with the utmost Rigour of the Law.”
The advertisement also mentioned that Caesar “sometimes pretends to be free.” As colonizers proclaimed that they deserved freedom from British oppression and participated in protests of various sorts, Caesar determined that he was done pretending. He did not need a Declaration of Independence to assert his freedom. Instead, he declared independence by refusing to remain enslaved in Woodstock. He was one of countless enslaved men, women, and children who liberated themselves in the eighteenth century.
For other stories of enslaved people liberating themselves originally published on July 4 during the era of the American Revolution, see:
- An account of Caesar, a blacksmith (Providence Gazette, July 4, 1767).
- An account of Harry, his wife Peg, a free woman, and their two children (Pennsylvania Chronicle, July 4, 1768).
- An account of Guy and Limehouse, two youths (South-Carolina and American General Gazette, July 4, 1769).
- An account of Jack, a Black man, and Tony, an Indian man, who took a boat when they made their escape (South-Carolina and American General Gazette, July 4, 1770).
- An account of Violet, a woman who eluded capture by her former enslaver for at least nine years (Pennsylvania Journal, July 4, 1771).