How Did Colonial Printers Profit from Slavery?

Gordon Bond's picture


I am working on a book about the business and personal relationships between Benjamin Franklin and printer James Parker. Among the areas I am exploring is their associations with the slave trade.

Obviously, as printers of newspapers, both would have profited from running ads for people looking to buy or sell slaves, or seeking the return of runaways. I have some questions, however, about how such transactions would have been carried out. Ads frequently asked the reader to "apply to the printer," or "enquire of the printer." I presume the printer was acting as a go-between. Would the advertiser pay for the ad space up-front or at the end? Would the printer receive a commission for a successful transaction?

In 1759, in a broadside protesting the New York provincial stamp tax, Parker added how printers in the city "cannot well teach Negroes our Trade; but [we] are obliged to work like Negroes, and in general are esteemed but little better, on many Accounts." It is a telling sentence. It is known Parker owned slaves in his native Woodbridge, New Jersey, and likely had servants for his three-story home and shop in New York City. I am curious to understand if and to what degree enslaved labor was used in the printing trade at the time, especially given the supply of apprentices and journeymen.

Additionally, there is evidence Parker may have been in New York for at least part of the so-called slave uprising on 1741 and Parker paid a debt to Franklin by sending him a slave named George.

Thanks in advance for any information or suggestions where I might find out more.


Gordon Bond

This article may have some useful info:
Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquirer of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the moral economy of the North American slave trade, 1704-1807.” Early American Studies 18 (3), 287-323, 2020.

Felicia Y. Thomas
Morgan State University

Hi Gordon,

I can recommend a few especially useful pieces of scholarship here. One is David Waldstreicher's 2004 book _Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution_. Another is Robert Ernest Desrochers, Jr., “Every Picture Tells a Story: Slavery and Print in Eighteenth-Century New England,” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2001). I also wrote about "enquire of the printer" slavery advertisements in “Enquire of the Printer: North American Newspaper Printers, Advertising, and the Moral Economy of the Slave Trade, 1704–1807,” Early American Studies (Summer 2020).

Good luck with your research!

Thank you for the suggestions. I was able to find a copy of Waldstreicher's book on eBay and am reading it now.

Mr. Taylor, I found your website and would like to contact you directly via the email on it in a day or so when I have time, if that is okay.