One of the earliest newspaper advertisements in what would become the United States read, simply, “A Negro Woman about 16 Years Old, to be Sold by John Campbell Post-master, to be seen at his house next door to the Anchor Tavern.” In addition to being Boston’s postmaster, John Campbell was the publisher of the Boston News-Letter, the continent’s earliest long-running newspaper. As the originator of the American newspaper, Campbell created a template for the editors who followed him. One of the ways he did that was by selling enslaved people.
In recent years, many institutions have begun to grapple with slavery’s role in their formation. Elite colleges like Harvard, Brown, and Georgetown have addressed the ways that slavery shaped their beginnings. Corporations such as Aetna and New York Life have acknowledged selling life insurance policies for enslaved human beings. One institution that has largely escaped this scrutiny has been journalism. Yet the trafficking of enslaved people provided an essential foundation for the American news media.
It was almost midnight on a December evening when I was looking through an early American newspaper database and stumbled across an advertisement much like the one Campbell published. By the time I went to sleep many hours later, I found hundreds of similar examples: in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, “A likely young Negro Man, fit for Plantation Work, to be sold very reasonable. Enquire of the Printer hereof, and know further”; in the Hartford Connecticut Courant, “A Likely, active healthy Negro Boy, about 15 years of age, to be Sold. Enquire of the Printers”; and in the New-Hampshire Gazette, “A Very Likely, Healthy Negro Lad, About Seventeen Years of Age, To Be Sold. Enquire of the Printers.” Eventually I found thousands of these advertisements.
It’s hard not to imagine the lives of these enslaved people and how these advertisements affected them. But for the most part, imagining was all that I could do. These advertisements were short, and rarely revealed anything more than the gender, age, and skills of the people they were selling. While these notices offered little information about the lives of the enslaved, they nevertheless raised a number of questions about the newspapers that published them. The ads invited me to “enquire of the printer,” and that’s what I did.
Someone seeking to sell an enslaved person in early America needed to find a buyer. This was not as simple as it sounds. Especially in the northern colonies, the process of buying and selling enslaved people was not yet fully professionalized with regular auctions or trading firms. Instead, the market for enslaved people was decentralized and personal. A newspaper advertisement was a convenient tool in this marketplace to allow a buyer and seller to find each other. But if a buyer lived in the city and the seller lived miles away in the country, it would not be realistic for a buyer to spend hours traveling to find out the price or other details.
This is where newspaper editors came in. Located conveniently in cities and market towns, they mediated between buyers and sellers, providing information on the price of an enslaved person, setting out other terms of sale, helping to decide if a buyer was creditworthy, and providing opportunities for a buyer to search an enslaved person’s body for hidden clues about their health and history. A Philadelphia notice, for example, offered a man of “uncommon Strength,” and added that “Any Person that wants such a one may see him by enquiring of the Printer.” Newspaper printers did not just share advertisements—they actively brokered sales. Some of them may have even taken brokerage fees.
Just about every newspaper in early America that lasted for more than a couple of years printed advertisements like these. Benjamin Franklin, the only printer from this period whom most people know, was deeply involved in brokering trades. He published more than a hundred advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette for enslaved people directing readers to speak to “B. Franklin, and know further.” Franklin learned the practice while an apprentice to his older brother, James, who published the short-lived New-England Courant and brokered several sales of enslaved people. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin was the first newspaper printer outside of Boston to regularly broker sales. By teaching this practice to a new generation of printers who’d worked as his apprentices and eventually founded newspapers across the continent, he helped to popularize the printer-brokered slave trade.
Though later a critic of slavery, Franklin profited handsomely from chattel slavery. Some of his advertisements disclose the kinds of tragedies that he created. In a 1733 issue, for example, he offered a “very likely Negro Woman aged about Thirty Years,” and mentioned that “She has a Boy of about Two Years old, which is to go with her.” Below this was a brief paragraph noting that there was another “very likely Boy aged about Six Years, who is Son of the abovesaid [sic] Woman. He will be sold with his Mother, or by himself, as the Buyer pleases.” While we don’t know if anyone ever answered this advertisement, its callous alignment of the buyer’s pleasure with the pain caused by a possible family separation suggests that Franklin accepted his participation in the slave trade without much hesitation.
Most of the newspapers that directly engaged in brokering sales of enslaved people no longer exist. Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, for example, ceased publication in 1800. But a few newspapers that participated in the sale of enslaved people still exist. Most of these, including the Hartford Courant, the New Hampshire Gazette, the Poughkeepsie Journal, the Augusta Chronicle, and the Charleston Post and Courier are relatively small local or regional newspapers.
The New York Post, though, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton, maintains one of the highest circulations of any American newspaper today. In only its sixth issue, its founding printer Michael Burnham published this advertisement: “To Be Sold, The services of a Negro Man, for Four Years—He is honest and sober. Enquire of the printer.” Over the next few years, Burnham offered to broker dozens of sales of enslaved people. It is not an exaggeration to recognize him as one of the city’s busiest human traffickers.
Yet Burnham was hardly exceptional. The earliest print shops all operated at razor-thin profit margins, often just at the edge of extinction. Without the revenue derived from advertising and brokering the sales of enslaved people, many of these newspapers would have gone bankrupt. In this sense, the American news media was built in part on the pain and displacement of enslaved people. A reckoning is long overdue. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how the profession of American journalism can address and repair the damage that it has caused to thousands of enslaved people and their descendants.