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The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser was a paper founded in 1742 in Philadelphia by William Bradford, a printer, publisher – and eventually a leading participant in the American Revolution. He was the first to publish the journalism of Tom Paine (in 1775) and an outspoken critic of the wildly unpopular Stamp Act of 1765, which forced America’s British colonists to pay a tax on most printed materials.
Historians of colonial America often turn to papers like Bradford’s to get a feel for the society that fostered the American Revolution. Take for example the issue of July 11, 1765. In one column we find a vehement attack on the Stamp Act, which Britain’s Parliament had passed without consulting the colonists. In loaded language, the anonymous author lamented that Great Britain’s action “has lately turned all the white men on the continent into negroes, and not one freeman is now to be seen on this half of the globe.”
In an adjacent column we find the following advertisement: “TO BE SOLD, A NEGRO WENCH, about 18 years of age, has had the small pox and measles…She is sold because her master is gone to settle where negroes is plenty, and therefore has left her to be sold here.”
What are we to make of these two pieces, sitting side-by-side in the middle of this newspaper? What did colonial readers make of them?
Scholars have long demonstrated how colonial authors, when employing the terminology of enslavement to add gravitas to their protests against British policy-making in the run-up to the American Revolution, inadvertently called attention to the institution of slavery itself.
Different colonists responded in different ways. Some blamed Britain for slavery and the slave trade, while others justified slavery based on various grounds. Some were moved to advocate for abolishing the slave trade if not slavery itself. And many – perhaps the person who published this issue of this journal – seemed unaware of what seems to us a glaring contradiction.
It is striking how a single document can bring to life a bygone era, in all of its complexities, with all of its inconsistencies on stark display. It is also striking how the historiographical conflict that has been waged in scholarly circles for roughly the past half-century often manages to paper over these complexities.
For example, should we praise the “founders” for their enlightened defense of equality, trial by jury, religious freedom, and liberty from monarchical government? Or should we rather condemn them for tolerating slavery tacitly – even in supposedly enlightened Pennsylvania in 1765? (Of course, the founders were all unique individuals, with different beliefs, actions, and visions regarding both “Enlightenment” ideas and slavery, and the American Revolution was an imperfect, violent, and at times irrational event).
The 1619 Project, developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times, centers slavery in American history. It argues that slavery was a cause of the American Revolution (many white Americans, it claims, feared that Britain would abolish slavery in the 1770s) and was fundamental to the development of American capitalism. The 1619 Project has already started to influence the curriculum in schools in Chicago and California.
The 1776 Commission – convened explicitly to counteract the influence of The 1619 Project – seeks to reform American education to become more “patriotic” by eschewing a focus on race, recasting American history as a series of marches towards progress against the dangerous forces of “Fascism,” “Communism,” and “Progressivism.”
This debate over the meaning of the past holds a mirror up to the current fissures that divide America, between two perceived realities of race and racism in America. As a recent article by Joan Wallach Scott in the History News Network stated, “we are in a moment in which the very history of our nation is at stake” all the more important because “the interpretation of the meaning of the past will influence the direction of the future.” Certainly, such a statement rings even more true after seeing photos of rioters waving the Confederate battle flag in our nation’s Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
Let me be very clear. The 1619 Project offers much more truth than does the work of the 1776 Commission, a project that has been derided by professional historians.
But both projects miss the reality of this country’s founding, a reality that a close reading of one colonial journal starkly reveals. The revolutionary generation fought for self-government at the same time that it continued to enslave its fellow human beings. Indeed, it has been argued by some historians – Edmund S. Morgan, for one – that Americans developed their revolutionary understanding of freedom in part because many had a firsthand experience of what slavery meant.
Ideally, historical education should emphasize this complexity. In recent years, we have too often taught our students about the radical republican press, but not the advertisements for slaves that subsidized the arguments for freedom from colonial domination. We, as historians, need to do better going forward.
R. Grant Kleiser is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Columbia University studying the early modern Atlantic world. He has served as an instructor for classes on early America, Caribbean history, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. His work has been featured in the History News Network and the Junto, and he has a forthcoming piece in the Journal of British Studies.