J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 08, 2020

“I would hope that you are the Sons of Liberty from principle”

I want to highlight the web version of Jordan E. Taylor’s Early American Studies article “Enquire of the Printer: The Slave Trade and Early American Newspaper Advertising.”

Produced using ArcGIS’s Storymaps platform, the article displays many newspaper ads from the eighteenth and nineteenth century pertaining to slavery, showing how printers were part of the process of selling people and hunting them down when they escaped.

The earliest newspaper ads about slavery in America appeared in the earliest ongoing newspaper in America, the Boston News-Letter, in 1704.

Taylor also documents a shift around the Revolution as some people began to speak out against slavery, or at least against the slave trade: “In 1777, as the American revolutionary war exploded around him, a man named William Gordon wrote a letter to Edward Powars and Nathaniel Willis, the editors of a Boston Patriot newspaper called the Independent Chronicle.”

Gordon’s letter said:
Messieurs PRINTERS,

I WOULD hope that you are the Sons of Liberty from principle, and not merely from interest, wish you therefore to be consistent, and never move to admit the sale of negroes, whether boys or girls, to be advertised in your papers. Such advertisements in the present season are peculiarly shocking. The multiplicity of business that hath been before the General Court may apologize for their not having attended to the case of slaves, but it is to be hoped that they will have an opportunity hereafter, and will, by an act of the State put a final stop to the private and public sale of them, which may be some help towards eradicating slavery from among us. If God hath made of one blood, all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth, I can see no reason why a black rather than a white man should be a slave.

Your humble servant,
Roxbury, May 12, 1777.

N.B. I mean the above as a hint also to the other printers.
Gordon (shown above) wasn’t just any man in Roxbury. He was one of that town’s ministers, so when he made a moral claim and dropped a phrase from the Bible, he spoke with religious authority.

Gordon was also a strong supporter of the Massachusetts Patriots, despite having arrived from England only a few years before. He was close to political leaders, whom his letter mildly chided for not having taken up the 13 January “petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of Slavery in the Bowels of a free & christian Country” before the end of the legislative session. 

As Taylor’s article shows, printers Powars and Willis went right on running advertisements about slaves. But they also printed this letter. They knew the morality of slaveholding was under debate and were ready to promote that debate, just as they promoted the trade. They may also have felt ready to give up slavery advertisements—so long as they knew all rival printers would do the same.

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