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Origins: Slavery, Religion, and Family
Runaways and Self-Made Men
In 1723 Benjamin Franklin was a seventeen-year-old apprentice printer and the servant of a master in serious trouble. James Franklin, who was also his brother, had printed sharp criticisms of the Massachusetts authorities in Boston and had twice been taken to jail. The General Court decreed that he "should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant." The elder Franklin brother escaped worse punishment in part because of the laws of servitude. His inquisitors chose not to badger young Benjamin for information about who had written the offensive articles, reasoning that the younger Franklin was bound to do the bidding of his master and remain silent.
The magistrates of Boston valued their domination of public institutions, but they also valued the rights of masters. To them, the two were inseparable--so inseparable, in fact, that they missed the loophole that James Franklin would seize to keep his paper afloat and himself out of the hands of the law. He signed the back of the old indenture, or servant contract, that Ben had signed binding himself until the age of twenty-one, with a "full discharge." This seemed to free Ben, but meanwhile James had him sign "new Indentures for the remainder of the Term," another four years. These were kept secret, to be produced if necessary--that is, in the event that Ben decided that, as a servant no longer, he could do what he pleased. The Courant appeared to adhere with the letter of the decree: the name of Benjamin Franklin, not James, now graced the masthead as printer. At seventeen, Benjamin Franklin appeared to the public as what he was not--a free man--to serve his brother's dreams of success.
Almost fifty years later Franklin remembered James's "harsh andtyrannical treatment," his grasping at every advantage he could get. "Tho' a Brother, he considered himself as my Master, & me as his Apprentice; and accordingly expected the same Services from me as he would from Another." Hoping for "more indulgence," Benjamin complained to his father--a tactic that succeeded, for a time. When Josiah Franklin turned arbitrator, his youngest son came out ahead, perhaps because James had "often beaten" his brother-servant. But now another kind of authority, the General Court, in the very act of putting a rebellious printer in his place, had affirmed James's power over his brother. Even under threat of incarceration, he was a master. The collective power of masters, in the end, trumped even the authority of Josiah Franklin over his sons.
Benjamin edited the paper while James remained incarcerated for libel and contempt. As printer, Benjamin got credit for what he had begun to do without even his brother's knowledge: writing pseudonymous articles for the paper, exercising his considerable intellectual talents and his "Turn for Satyr." For the first of many times, he invented personae and set them to speak and act in the marketplace. The experience emboldened him. The next time he and his brother argued, perhaps the next time he received blows, he proclaimed himself free, daring James to admit publicly that he had shown false indentures.1
By speaking to his fellow master printers--men with whom he otherwise competed--James saw to it that Benjamin could not find printing work in Boston. And father Josiah sided, this time, with his elder son. So Benjamin Franklin, free or not (or free and not), did what unfree people did at last resort. He made up stories. He ran away.
A master in jail. A servant playing master. Both playing author--anonymously. An artisan manipulating the letter of the law, trying to keep his business going. A talented young apprentice, knowing he was being exploited, telling a succession of tales to serve his master, to gain advantage with reigning patriarchs, to preserve himself, and finally to escape. A friend helped him concoct a likely story to tell the ship captain, about getting a "naughty girl" pregnant and needing to escape a marriage forced by "her friends." He sailed to New York. Only after failing to find work there did he turn to Philadelphia.
Writing the first part of his Autobiography in 1771, Franklin took great pleasure in narrating the moment when, after various nautical mishaps,he finally strolled off Philadelphia's Market Street wharf in his sodden, filthy clothes. Stopping at inns, he was "suspected to be some runaway Servant, and in danger of being taken up on that Suspicion."2 The humor in such scenes derives from what we, and Franklin, know happened afterward.
Benjamin Franklin quickly impressed some important Philadelphians with his hard work and his skills as a printer. He went to England to learn the trade, as his brother had done, and returned with a Quaker merchant who taught him business skills. Within a few years he had his own printing operation. He survived a number of competitors, and potentially ruinous debts, by making his newspaper and general store efficient operations that well served the larger community in a region that, just at that moment, was experiencing its first major growth spurt. He made friends, married the hardworking Deborah Read, founded a series of mutual improvement societies and public works projects, and by his thirtieth birthday in 1736 could consider himself a prosperous artisan.
Franklin sent his own former apprentice to open the first printing operation in Charleston, South Carolina, to be followed by others up and down the coast. He cultivated the patronage of great men, observed their doings as clerk of the colony's General Assembly, and subtly commented on public affairs in his Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1740 he risked his good relations with the pacifist Quakers and exhorted the citizens to defend themselves against a possible Spanish attack. He invented a stove and founded America's first scientific society. By the age of forty he was experimenting with electricity and could afford to devote more and more time to such projects. He had made enough money to hand over the day-to-day operations of his printing shop to a partner in exchange for half of the profits. In twenty-five years he had turned himself from a servant into a gentleman, a learned man, a statesman.
Franklin worked for himself and yet had time to work for the public good. He was nobody's servant; nobody was his. Imagine Benjamin Franklin being mistaken for "some runaway Servant"! It is enough to make one forget that he was a runaway servant, at least as far as his master was concerned. He could well have been arrested, had James Franklin decided that his claim to four more years of Ben's labor was important enough to risk exposure of the fraudulent indentures and his own manuevers. And then Ben's life story might have turned out quite differently.
How did Benjamin Franklin become free? Through ingenuity, byseizing opportunities. But also by trickery. By lying. By taking advantage of distance, of the newness of the seaboard colonies and their lack of legal comity or economic integration. Out of Boston, out of Massachusetts, young Franklin could rely on appearances and on skill--not on what was already known, already said about him on the streets of Boston. It took a real crime, the stealing of his own labor, to make the self-made man.
In the nineteenth century Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, and his life, were read as a story about how in America ingenuity, virtue, and hard work were rewarded. But when we see only that part of Benjamin Franklin's America, the rise of a self-made man and a nation of strivers, we miss the other side of the story, that of the runaway Benjamin Franklin, the unfree Benjamin Franklin. America is also the story of the James Franklins, the not-so-fortunate sons who tried to become self-sufficient and found that other people's unfreedom was one of the few resources at their disposal.
In so many ways, American freedom often depended on running away and on keeping others from running away. The flip side of the self-made man in eighteenth-century America was the servant and the slave. In some cases they were the same people. In others, one person might play different roles in an ongoing drama of personal liberation and subjugation, freedom and unfreedom. But even those who never served or ran away were touched by the remarkable extremes of freedom and unfreedom that characterized the Atlantic littoral.3 When Franklin fled to New York and Philadelphia, he entered a changing social world. It was a world of new opportunity that depended on the unfreedom of a great many people, people just as mobile, and often just as creative and skilled, as Franklin. Some were able to use those skills to reinvent themselves. Others found that masters got the best of them.
Franklin's Autobiography is the culmination of the self-inventions that he began when he wrote anonymously for his brother's newspaper and that continued when he ran away. The book, in turn, inspired many self-made men of the nineteenth century and the development of the secular memoir as a popular genre--how-to books for the making of self-made men.
For the other runaways of eighteenth-century America, though, we have few memoirs.4 Rather, we have other kinds of printed stories about the daring fugitives: the advertisements that their masters publishedin newspapers like the one Franklin printed, the Pennsylvania Gazette. The ads from the mid-Atlantic region show us a world of remarkable freedom and unfreedom. In brief but revealing fashion, they tell the stories of self-transforming Franklinian characters, and in doing so they give the lie to stereotypes about white and black, slave and free, in early northern America.5
Consider the advertisement Nicholas Everson placed in 1751, ten months after the disappearance of his slave, Tom:
Run away in July last, from Nicholas Everson, living in East-New-Jersey, two miles from Perth-Amboy ferry, a mulatto Negroe, named Tom, about 37 years of age, short, well-set, thick lips, flat nose, black curled hair, and can play well upon the fiddle: Had on when he went away, a red-colored watch-coat, without a cape, a brown coloured leather jacket, a hat, blue and white twisted yarn leggins; speaks good English, and Low Dutch, and is a good Shoemaker; his said master has been informed that he intends to cut his watchcoat, to make him Indian stockings, and to cut off his hair, and get a blanket, to pass for an Indian; that he inquired for one John and Thomas Nutus, Indians at Susquehanna, and about the Moravians, and the way there. Whoever secures him in the nearest goal or otherwise, so that his master may have him again, shall have Forty Shillings reward, and reasonable charges, paid by
Who was Tom? We like to think that the early American past was composed of discrete groups of people who largely hewed to their communities, who belonged to one culture. But Everson's ad paints a portrait of someone very much aware of the diversity and complexity of his world, a diversity that was reflected in his own background as a mulatto and, more important, evident in the path he took to liberty. Somehow Everson learned that Tom planned to pass for Indian, possibly among the Moravians, which must have made sense to someone as multilingual and multiracial as Tom.
Tom's savvy use of clothing is also typical of successful runaways. Slaves and servants themselves owned few changes of clothes, and those they wore, though of low quality, might be so distinctively combined or patched as to render them easily identifiable. Slaves who stole their masters'clothes, to which they often had access because of their household duties, might more easily evade capture--or if they sold the clothing on the ubiquitous informal market, they might provide themselves with needed capital. Tom's particular use of clothing to aid his racial camouflage was only one variant on the ways runaways used popular stereotypes about color and deportment to their advantage. A man who made shoes, Tom probably knew exactly how to dress to avoid suspicion.
Tom was more, even, than a "good shoemaker": he had multiple skills. Like many other runaways, he could fiddle--a talent that could bring in surplus income and, like other learned skills, made him more valuable. If Tom made the most of his rural existence, urban slaves took advantage of the city's more market-oriented opportunities to stretch the bounds of servitude. Evan Powel, a Philadelphia master, found it necessary to place an ad to prevent "Molatto Bess, who used to go about selling Cakes," from "borrowing of and taking up Goods upon Trust in her Master's Name, and unknown either to her Master or Mistress."7 Powel's moneymaking scheme--to turn a domestic into a freelance baker, a hawker of pastries, or both--had backfired, because Bess was at least as (and possibly more) aware of the possibilities of the marketplace as her owners.
Runaways, whose descriptions at times took up several columns of newspaper space, were adept at role-playing. Many had traveled or worked at different tasks or jobs. These characteristics were not limited to urban slaves like Bess. One Kent County, Maryland, mulatto had "worked some Time in a Mill, in a Tan-Yard, and on a Plantation." A Virginia slave advertised in a Pennsylvania paper could "turn his hand to many sorts of trades, and particularly that of a Carpenter." Benjamin Hill, a master from North Carolina, thought enough of the skills of Virginia-born Tony, a "good sawyer," that he sought to track him as far as Pennsylvania two years after he absconded.
Hill underlined the fact that Tony also "pretends to making and burning Bricks." Why is this detail important? Had Tony been seen at a brickyard? Slaves who ran and sought to use their skills mirrored the efforts of runaway apprentices and indentured servants escaping a system that squeezed profit out of scarce labor. Remembering his own efforts to stay in the class of independent artisans, Benjamin Franklin described how, in order to appear industrious, he theatrically wheeled his purchases of paper back to his shop. People who worked with their handshad to prove their value in public demonstrations. The more one could pretend to do, the greater one's chances of employment or status.
These skills and experiences made slaves and servants valuable and gave masters an incentive to rent them out and sometimes to overwork them. The irony, for the masters, is that these skills also made it easier, and more attractive, for their laborers to run away. As a result, masters were reluctant to admit that their fugitives filled the ranks of the skilled--or aspired to do so. Disinclined to grant servants and slaves the status of artisan, they would say that a runaway "pass[es] for a currier," "pretends to be a Tanner," "pretends to be a Black-Smith," "professes to be a Barber, Cook and Sailor."8
Even when masters had to admit to such skills and aspirations in a runaway (for mentioning them increased the chances that readers would recognize the person), they still disparaged the fugitive. A rhetoric of pretense suffuses the ads: as Simon, for one, "talks good English, can read and write, is very slow in his Speech, can bleed and draw Teeth, Pretending to be a great Doctor and very religious and says he is a Churchman." The "famous infamous" Tom Bell, the best-known confidence man of the day, pretended to gentility, traveling up and down the seaboard in the guise of various gentlemen of note. The unfree most often pretended to the freedom associated with having a trade and owning it--while sometimes developing less common skills on the side, like Simon the practicing doctor or a well-known fugitive from Philadelphia named Preaching Dick.
Another master insisted on describing how his "very talkative" slave Anthony "pretends to be a preacher," even while acknowledging that Anthony "sometimes officiates in that capacity among the Blacks." These accusations of false piety epitomize the masters' desire to strip the runaways of their hard work and skill, their respectability and successes as self-made men and women. Christianity, after all, was a source of strength and self-determination for many poor people, black and white, in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. And Christian piety shown by some people of African descent had already become an argument against slavery. The very markers of slaves' assimilation and acculturation had to be denied lest their cultural as well as economic creativity imply, where it did not create, the possibility of freedom.9
Like the slave preachers who were already appearing in Philadelphia during the 1740s, many runaways were as adept in the use of their mouths as in the use of their hands. They had experienced travel and often knew more languages and dialects than their masters. Hailing from all over the Atlantic world, the slaves and mixed-race servants of the mid-Atlantic were remarkably cosmopolitan; like other commodities, they were forced to move in the commercial circuits of the maritime empires. Like the produce they grew, the goods they shipped and cared for, and the clothes they wore, unfree laborers moved among colonies regularly. As a result, there were "French negroes," "Spanish negroes," "country born" English speakers who were fluent in Dutch or German, and West Indian--born slaves who knew the pidgins of trade as well as distinct local lingos. These multilingual slaves had long greased the wheel of maritime commerce.10
There were distinctly African-tinged and discernibly Caribbean ways of speaking in the mid-Atlantic. Later in America's history of slavery and race, whites would seize on such a dialect as a sign of black inferiority common to both slaves in the South and freedmen in the North. The runaway ads of the colonial era tell a different story. Advertisers for runaways commented on language proficiency, or lack thereof, without ascribing it to a racial essence. Masters had not yet developed reasons to pretend they did not know that everyday encounters in the colonies were meetings of tongues, or at least of accents.11
Generally, masters valued their slaves' and servants' multilingualism, finding it a potential problem only when they ran away. Runaways who spoke multiple languages, or could write, had the most success. Advertising masters hoped that fugitives could be marked by their very proficiency in language, as in the case of Jamaican Cato--who "speaks English as if country born"--or of George, whose Staten Island master believed that his tendency to "tal[k] a good deal upon the New-England Accent" would make him conspicuous. If George was in fact a spectacle when he spoke Yankee, the Chester County, Pennsylvania, slave who "speaks Swede and Mulatto well" certainly had more options. Richard Swan of Philadelphia did succeed in recapturing his stereotypically named Cuffy after describing him in print as "a Creole, born at Montserrat, and speaks good English and French." This slave (or indentured servant--the ad, like many, does not say) was marked by a scar and slowed down by "sore feet." Yet these handicaps did not keep him from runningaway again, two months later, under the almost comically Anglo-Irish sounding name of Billy Farrell.12
Like fast-talking confidence men, linguistically proficient slaves and servants could make a mockery of attempts to fix accents on them or even to define their fluency or lack thereof. Heterogeneity, as elsewhere in the slave societies of the Americas, divided the slaves; it also meant that masters did not hold all the cards. A 1726 advertisement described a New York slave who "talks no English or feigns that he cannot." This owner, himself probably a Dutch speaker, associated the uncertainty of his slave's language skills with the runaway's insistence on "calling himself Popaw," his African name.
The advertisements often catalog the known aliases of runaways with a sense of injury and outrage. Masters wished to reserve the privilege of naming property: "He always changes his name, and denies his master." One particular slave, an "excellent hammerman" from an iron forge who had run before and would later be rented out only to run again, was known to his master by the rather generic moniker of Cuff Dix. But the jailer who advertised having him in custody six weeks later noted that "he says his name is Willies Brown." When arrested, he carried a bolt of striped linen, presumably to sell or to make into clothing for disguise. The jailer associated both the cloth and his acts of speech with his transformation into "a preacher, as he says, among the Indians."13
Likewise Robbin, a fifteen-year-old belonging to Noah Marsh of Westfield, New Jersey, chose the right nickname in "call[ing] himself Levi alias Leave." In the master's mind, at least as revealed in the ad he wrote, there was some relationship between this insistence on self-naming and Levi's ability to "frame a smooth story from rough materials." The ability to change names, and thus identities, seemed of a piece with other feats of speech--skills that masters admired and desired in their chattel even as they posed a capital risk. Even though he "stammers in his speech," Robert Freeland's slave would probably "change his name [and be] at no loss for a plausible story." A "Guinea Negroe" accent was no obstacle to Cuff, a Dutchess County, New York, slave whose master described him as "very flippant; he is a plausible smooth Tongue Fellow." In calling their runaways smooth talkers, some owners tried to capture their mixed feelings about their human property. The master of Buck lurched between seemingly contradictory descriptions of Buck's personal and linguistic abilities, trying and failing to separatevaluable skills from their use by one who seemed "sensible, artful, and deceptive in conversation, firm and daring in his efforts to perpetrate villainy, though of mild temper, and plausible in speech." More often masters veered between narrating the runaways' daring speech acts and cursing them for an increasingly racial propensity to lie and steal, a proof of their dishonor and servile status.14
In Franklin's world, these contests between masters and servants marked slavery and indentured servitude alike. The permeable boundaries of freedom, of servitude, and even of slavery could work to the advantage of canny masters. Their stories about runaways could help their own prospects--especially when they had something of their own to hide. Who was the rogue, the confidence man, and who the follower of law, the teller of harsh truths? For both masters and bondsmen, freedom turned on the answer.
The best example of all ran straight across Franklin's path in the person of one of his later printer protégés. John Holt eventually became an important patriot printer in New York City. He began his career not as an apprentice or artisan, however, but as a Virginia gentleman. By the late 1740s Holt had established himself as a merchant operating in the English trade. He must have acquired some significant patronage and trust, because in 1752, at the young age of thirty, he was elected mayor of Williamsburg, the colony's most important city. He married the sister of William Hunter, the Virginia printer who, with Franklin, shared oversight of the postal system in the mainland colonies.15
Yet all was not right with John Holt. Like many in the speculative shipping and consignment businesses of the tobacco economy, he got himself into serious financial trouble. In one near scandal, he accused a shopkeeper of selling alcohol to slaves, only to have the accusation turned onto him. A few weeks later the shopkeeper found his house and store on fire, and Holt, as mayor, not only refused to provide him with aid but ordered slaves to tear the burning building down immediately as a public hazard.16
The perquisites of office and family did not keep Holt solvent. In the spring of 1754 he went bankrupt and fled to escape legal proceedings and perhaps jail. In these straits Holt, a sometime author of essays for the Virginia Gazette, asked his brother-in-law William Hunter to appeal to Franklin, his co--postmaster general for the colonies, on his behalf. As it happened, Franklin was looking for someone to take on the newpostmastership in New Haven and perhaps edit a newspaper there. Franklin's longtime partner and protege in New York, James Parker, agreed to do so. Holt, upon contributing a bond, cosigned by Hunter, for his part of the investment, came on as a junior partner. After a few months setting up the New Haven establishment, Parker returned to New York. Holt was left in charge.17
The Virginia merchant seemed to have transformed himself into a New England printer-editor--two different breeds, according to our standard images of the past; yet his financial problems and his means of evading them remained strikingly consistent. On June 21, 1757, someone broke into the New Haven post office and stole a pocketbook containing £260 of lottery tickets, along with "a considerable sum of Connecticut paper money" collected for paid tickets already sold. Holt placed an ad in his paper offering a reward for the tickets. Fifteen months later, on September 27, 1758, he formally accused his mulatto servant, Charles Roberts, and George, a slave belonging to Yale College president Thomas Clap, of the theft.18
From here the story becomes worthy of a detective novel.
The family of Humphrey Avery, New Yorkers who legally owned the tickets because their land (Fisher's Island) was the prize in the state-commissioned lottery, did not believe that Roberts or George had acted alone. Suspecting that Holt had framed Roberts even to the point of forging documents, or had put him up to it and profited from the scam, they refused to prosecute the servant. So Holt prosecuted George and Charles Roberts himself.
George pleaded guilty--as a slave, he had little to lose. But his would-be accomplice, Roberts, pleaded innocent. Despite their mixed pleas, George and Charles broke out of jail together a few days later. Holt, in an advertisement for their recapture, described Charles as "a Molato about 25 years of Age, pitted pretty much with the small-pox, well set, talks good English, and is a smooth tongued Fellow." That description must have been sufficient, for the prisoners were back in custody a month later to stand trial.
The court records do not tell us much about the trial itself besides the pleas. But a brief filed fourteen years later by the Avery heirs, at a time when Holt had become a very successful printer in New York, accused Holt of forging documents relating to the tickets and Roberts's involvement. In response Holt maintained that Roberts was "a great dealerin lottery tickets," but he could never explain why, if Roberts stole the tickets, he had not produced a winning ticket and collected a prize, when he had months to do so before he was accused.
Roberts was either framed or outmaneuvered. Avery's brief existed only because Holt won his case against Roberts, who--because he was a servant and not a slave--bore the full weight of Holt's alleged financial loss. (Holt actually withdrew his case against the slave George.) Having no funds to offset the £240 judgment plus court costs, Roberts was sentenced on November 18, 1758, to have his indenture extended from its remaining three years to forty, in effect a term of enslavement to his nemesis, John Holt. He also received ten stripes across his bare back.19
Holt took Roberts with him when he moved to New York in 1760 to run Parker's newspaper there. Less than two years later, in April 1762, Charles Roberts, who would have just about then become free by the terms of his original indenture, ran away. John Holt immediately published a combined legal warning and runaway advertisement:
WHEREAS My Servant Charles Roberts, alias German, a Mulatto, has villainously abused the liberty I allowed, and the Trust I placed in him [upon a Supposition that the frequent Punishments his Crimes has brought upon him having several Times been Whipped at the public Whipping Post, and the narrow Escapes he has had from the Gallows, would have made him act Honestly from a sense of his own Interest] and has embezzled Money sent by him to pay for Goods, leaving them charg'd to me, borrow'd Money, and taken up Goods in my Name unknown to me, and also borrow'd Money and taken up Goods on his own Account, pretending to be a Free Man. All persons are here forewarned, not to have any dealings with the said Servant, not to trust, harbour, or entertain him on any Account whatever without a Note from me. And whereas he has frequently absented himself on various plausible Pretences, which I have since discover'd to be absolute Falsities, all persons who see him abroad without a Note from me, shewing his Business, or the Reasons for his being from home, are desired to take him up and send him to me as a Runaway, for which they shall be well and thankfully paid. He is a likely, well set fellow, about 5 feet and a half high, 30 years of Age, and has had the Small Pox. He has a Variety of Clothes, some of them very good, and generally wears a wigg. He is excessivelycomplaisant, speaks good English, smoothly and plausible, and generally with a smile, is extremely artful and ready at inventing a specious Pretence to conceal a villainous Action or Design. He plays on the Fiddle, can read and write tolerably, and understands a little of Arithmetick and Accounts.
RUN AWAY, on Monday last,
The above Servant. Whoever brings him home shall be handsomely rewarded. All Masters of Vessels and others are warn'd not to entertain, conceal, or carry him out of the Province, as they will answer it at their Peril.
Holt paints a dark picture of the runaway as a knave and confidence man. Yet if Roberts was such a criminal, a deadbeat, and a headache, why did Holt want him back? Why indeed, again and again?
This was the question the Averys asked in their 1772 lawsuit, in which they still sought to get some money back on the lost lottery tickets. They maintained that they were entitled to some if not all of Holt's award against Roberts--the award being, of course, a cash estimate of Roberts's value. To make the case that Holt owed them money, they had to prove that Roberts was worth something. In his own brief, Holt maintained that Roberts was worth little. But the Averys gathered impressive testimony that Roberts was not only skilled but literate, the backbone of Holt's printing operation: he "worked at the press, wrote on the papers, etc." Holt's former partner and employees maintained that Roberts's labor was worth eighty pounds a year. One even said that he would have been glad to have Roberts himself as a partner.
Holt had in fact admitted as much himself. Shortly before the lottery theft in New Haven, and perhaps not at all coincidentally, Charles Roberts had apparently tried to buy his remaining time with money he had earned fiddling, only to have Holt demand £200 for his three remaining years. Other witnesses held that Charles, contra Holt, had never wronged his master before his alleged theft of the tickets: a direct rebuttal of Holt's testimony in the New Haven court and in print when Roberts ran off five years later. Roberts certainly had motive to steal from Holt and to run away. But apparently Holt had motive to implicate Roberts in crime.20
Perhaps by telling this other side of the story, Roberts gained allies; he remained at large, despite Holt's placement of similar advertisements in other New York papers. Holt then responded by running an evenlonger advertisement denying Roberts's story about being or deserving to be free. This notice goes even further in trying to fit Roberts into the already well-known stereotypes of the black slave and the runaway confidence man. Charles "effects to dress very neat and genteel," yet his style is "obsequious and insinuating": he not only smiles but speaks "with a cringe." The ad also implicates Roberts in a Gotham crime wave that Holt himself had blamed just two weeks earlier, in his paper, on black chimney sweeps. Holt depicts himself as a virtuous, innocent, wronged patriarch. "Deceived by [Charles's] seeming Reformation," he "took him into my family on trial" in New Haven, even after "he was guilty of various Crimes and Felonies." Holt describes Roberts's life as the pathetic history of a bad former slave, with a series of near escapes from the gallows, or from shipment to the West Indies. The lottery ticket affair is not mentioned, and neither is the location of Roberts's quite profitable labor: the print shop. The ad transforms Roberts into an unskilled domestic who holds no rights and deserves no sympathy. At great length, Holt sought to turn "one of the most artful of Villains" back into a slave whose value he denied even as he made his claim.21
Holt had placed "amasing confidence" in Roberts, as the Averys asserted and as Holt actually admitted in his second advertisement, because Roberts had earned that confidence. Perhaps Holt had little choice: he was a struggling printer with debts; he needed Roberts's cheap, and apparently remarkably useful, labor. The situation placed him in a bind that in 1757, in 1762, and again in 1772 became public and controversial. Each time he resolved the problem--in his published portraits, and courtroom performances--by reenacting the well-worn contemporary drama of the runaway servant as a villainous confidence man.
For in the end it was not only Roberts's status but Holt's own that was tied up in their struggle. By the time Holt moved to New York in 1760, his own failings, his flights, and his reputation as a debtor, a liar, and even a drunk had caught up with him. In New Haven he had taken money from the postmaster's fund and the printing business to erect an expensive house--debts he never paid after moving to New York, presumably with Roberts, to run James Parker's newspaper. In April 1762--at the very moment when Roberts ran away--Parker was desperately seeking to get a settlement out of Holt and end their partnership, which he did upon getting a promise of more cash, most of which Holt never remitted.By the mid-1760s, Parker and others described Holt in the same terms--"Smooth tongued," a "deceitful knave and Villain"--that Holt had used to describe Roberts.22
Holt recognized no kinship with Charles Roberts, although there are good reasons to believe that Roberts was far less the knave than Holt. That Charles Roberts was a mulatto made it easier for Holt to argue, and for a time to see to it, that he be treated like a slave. One thing is certain: we cannot understand the one without the other. Who was the real printer, the self-made man, and who the runaway, the confidence man? Charles Roberts is lost to history after 1762--probably the better for his sake. The qualities that made him valuable made it easier for him to disappear. Holt's quest for freedom and even gentility went on, a quest that continued to depend on his mastery of the very skills, and crimes, he sought to pin on Roberts.
The newspapers of provincial Philadelphia and New York, supported in part by the cash generated by advertisements for runaways, connect John Holt, Charles Roberts, and Benjamin Franklin in far fewer than six degrees of separation. Franklin especially had much in common with the slaves and servants whose descriptions ultimately filled the advertising columns in his newspaper. Later, he was one of the reasons why John Holt was in New Haven and New York in the first place. And yet it goes deeper still. When we suspend for a moment the old, legally true story of the master's property rights, or the newer, morally true drama of the servant's trampled-on human rights, we can see that in many cases like that of James and Benjamin Franklin, master and servant mirrored each other in acts of resourcefulness and guile. One's freedom was, after all, another's misfortune, even ruin.
The enduring image of colonial Pennsylvania, like our picture of Franklin's early life, belies this simple truth. In part because of Franklin's own autobiography, we think of a thriving region of agriculture and trade, a "best poor man's country," where immigrants might begin as indentured servants for seven years but most if not all people became self-sufficient, land-owning men, like Franklin.23 Recent research suggests that this rosy image has been exaggerated. Pennsylvania and the adjacent colonies of New York and New Jersey were exceptional only in having large numbers of both servants and slaves. This trend, along with the region's economic role in the larger Atlantic economy, actually set thestage for Franklin's own emergence as a master printer, a facilitator of the trade in persons, and before long, a slaveholder.
Slavery and servitude came over with some of the first ships to the new world: they were present at or soon after the creation of each North American colony. Yet in Pennsylvania and New York as much as in Virginia and South Carolina, the enduring pattern of labor relations did not emerge until significantly later, when the colonies became more prosperous and populated.24 Because of still later developments--the rise of antislavery in the North, and the decline of indentured servitude in the years following the American Revolution--we associate slavery with a colonial, preindustrial, even precapitalist past. Like antebellum southern slavery, northern slavery is seen as distinctly premodern, even antimodern.
It helps to remember that slave societies like the Caribbean sugar islands and the Deep South came to appear premodern only after slavery declined in other parts of North America. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the presence of slaves signified healthy, wealthy empires and viable colonies. The planter aristocracy of early-nineteenth-century South Carolina defined itself as modern, even scientific in its use of up-to-date agricultural techniques. It was the abolitionists of the early nineteenth century who first began to argue that slavery was a relic of a barbarous past and unworthy of a modern capitalist America. In defense, southerners began to develop the proslavery image of their pastoral America as an alternative to a rapacious northern and British industrial capitalism.25
To see eighteenth-century America through the necessarily biased eyes of the nineteenth century and its struggles of North versus South and free (wage) labor versus slavery is to miss the meanings of distinctively early modern--yet still modern--imperial and colonial struggles for prosperity and freedom. If only those content to be self-sufficient had settled in the colonies, the North American mainland colonies would have remained fairly small and economically insignificant, as they did in fact remain in comparison to the West Indies during the seventeenth century. The development of staple crops on the mainland, however, changed all that. Virginia led the way with tobacco, followed closely by the South Carolina low country with rice and later indigo. New England entered the booming Atlantic trade with fish and timber and ships to carry everyone's goods. The mid-Atlantic lagged behind until its farmersand merchants discovered the market potential of the colonies to their south, so busily growing their sugar and tobacco that they found it unprofitable to even try to feed themselves and their increasing numbers of slaves.26
As a result, New York's first big boom occurred in the 1720s, and Pennsylvania's in the 1730s. Philadelphia and Manhattan soon rivaled and then surpassed Boston as seaboard entrepôts, thanks to their ability to bring cheaper grain to their nearer neighbors in the empire. During the years that followed, the mid-Atlantic region turned decisively from a frontier backwater into a dynamic partner in production and trade, a sterling example of a "golden age" of prosperity for white men and women in colonial America. The free inhabitants of the mid-Atlantic enjoyed the "best-balanced" economy anywhere; they probably also began to experience the highest standard of living in the Western world, as economists measure such things. The 1740s saw a remarkable increase in the amount of imported exotic produce (including sugar and its by-products) as well as manufactured items, many of them previously considered luxuries available only to the most wealthy. The ever-lengthening lists of goods advertised in Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette tell the story eloquently.27
Some of those lists of goods included slaves. The first noticeable leap in the mid-Atlantic's slave population occurred in New York during the 1720s and in Philadelphia during the 1730s--the first decades of the trade boom. Initially the introduction of more slaves may have been a side effect of increased trade, as enterprising shippers looked for any commodity that would bring a good price. Slaves themselves, in other words, constituted "part of the larger system of exchange." But both slave and servant imports increased rapidly afterward in response to a very real and widely perceived labor shortage.28
The most fundamental difference between the colonies and the mother country, after all, lay in the relative shortage of labor in the new world, a shortage that spelled opportunity for some and bondage for many. The enclosure of British estates and England's recovery in population growth created an increasingly footloose, "strolling" poorer class in the newly united United Kingdom. Yet freeborn Englishmen did not choose to emigrate in large numbers, especially when times were better. As a result, over the course of the eighteenth century immigrants tended to come from the provinces--Ireland, Scotland, the Continent--andmore and more of them came as indentured servants bound for five to seven years.29
In the longer run, because of its fertile hinterland less encumbered by granted estates, Pennsylvania drew unusually large numbers of these "redemptioners," often whole families who sold themselves to raise the price of their passage but hoped eventually to own their own farms. The existence of these people underwrites the image of the "best poor man's country": that was the way things looked from the perspective of those able to procure some land on the frontiers of settlement. William Moraley, an indentured servant, saw it differently. He wrote that former servants had been made landholders "to encourage them to continue there; but [they] were likewise obliged to purchase Multitudes of Negro Slaves from Africa, by which Means they are become the richest Farmers in the World, paying no Rent, nor giving Wages either to purchased Servants or Negro Slaves; so that instead of finding the Planter Rack-rented, as the English Farmer, you will taste of their Liberality, they living in Affluence and Plenty."30 Pennsylvania, in other words, was only the "best poor man's country" because of the labor of unfree people.
Every servant turned freeman, moreover, was one less in the labor pool. Even as Pennsylvanians freed themselves, they turned to indentured servants and slaves. During Benjamin Franklin's years in Pennsylvania, servants and slaves became more and more "interchangeable." Masters learned to rely on an incredibly broad variety of servants--apprentices, those bound to servitude for debt, and imported convicts as well as slaves. Their relative numbers in the labor pool waxed and waned according to supply and prices, a trend that repeated itself across the colonial North. When Spain revoked the asiento, the exclusive contract allowing England to supply its colonies with slaves, the price of Africans already on the market plummeted, and New Yorkers gladly bought large numbers. Indentured servants became cheaper in the 1750s, until the disruption of shipping and the empire's increased manpower needs during the Seven Years' War--a war provoked, it might be added, by the pressure of land-hungry immigrants on the frontier--when masters turned to African slaves again.31
The entire system, in other words, was predicated upon the continued flow of unfree labor and the master's ease in switching between one supply and the other. The interchangeability of slaves and servants in Benjamin Franklin's America made good economic sense. Colonialfarmers, artisans, and merchants could not control the flow of scarce labor from abroad as easily as they could minimize the risks of their investment in relatively expensive workers. The great opportunity of bound labor, of course, was that the investment is guaranteed, which seemingly limited turnover cost--the expense of replacing workers. The problem was that capital investment in bound labor could make turnover costs all the higher. Turnover costs might seem to favor indentured servants--who cost less than slaves--but in some areas it favored slaves, who after all never became free and were less likely to run away because, as racially marked individuals, they were more likely to be caught. As a result, in places like rural Monmouth County, New Jersey, slaves became a "core labor force." Even as slaves remained a significant percentage of the urban population (6 to 10 percent in Philadelphia, 15 to 20 percent in Manhattan), slavery became a rural, even more than an urban, institution.32
The ruralization of slavery in the North should not be mistaken for its premodernity. The mid-Atlantic labor market showed remarkable efficiency and resiliency precisely because of the ways it made slaves and servants into performers of every kind of toil. Recall the sheer number of occupations runaway slaves could "pretend." Mid-Atlantic masters turned the scarcity of skilled laborers to their advantage by setting different kinds of workers against one another. Slaves and servants drove down wages, as free artisans often complained. At least some colonial American masters proved quintessentially capitalist in segmenting the working classes to their great advantage. The owners and managers of the most industrial American enterprise--the burgeoning mid-Atlantic iron industry--systematically introduced slaves to their forges in order to undercut the independence of forgemasters and the demands of their skilled free workers.33
Perhaps more innovatively, masters developed a remarkably fluid internal market for bound workers. The striking mobility of runaway slaves reflects their experience of often having served several masters, for slaves and servants alike were regularly sold and rented. In a booming economy, strikingly modern mixes of bondage and wage labor emerged. Slaves sought to rent themselves out on behalf of their masters, often gaining some real autonomy in the process. A slave could rent for half the cost of a free wage laborer and still bring in a 10 to 30 percent annual return on the master's investment. The tendency for masters to treattheir slaves as well as their servants as "short-term speculation" led to some remarkably modern innovations. In 1764 a convicted, transported felon and lawyer named John Coghill Knapp opened a "Scrivener's office" on the Manhattan dockside and advertised in the local newspapers. His main service, it seems, was to register servants, and especially slaves, for sale and rental. Putting himself forward as a neutral market agent matching up buyers and sellers of laborers, Knapp prospered for at least six years--even after his own criminal past as a convicted "cheat" and "fraud" saw print in the same paper in which he placed his ads. In America, Knapp's past mattered less than his canny ability to rationalize the market in the unfreedom of others.34
The results were as contradictory as the realities described in the runaway ads. The seemingly unslavelike mobility of unfree laborers created more profit for the masters and at the same time posed an ever greater capital risk. It is tempting to stress the very liberating potential in the market-driven lives of these people. Certainly the market for workers helped runaways: employers looking for casual, cheap help regularly looked the other way when hiring fugitives. Yet much available evidence suggests that the risks to and possibilities for profit drove masters to treat their bondsmen with a cruelty and lack of care more often associated with the slave societies of the Caribbean and early South.35
The interest of the master class in keeping slaves and servants "footloose" helps account for their ubiquity and, at the same time, their historical invisibility. Moreover, it was no merely local phenomenon. The proper context for gauging the nature of slavery and servitude in Benjamin Franklin's America is the larger British Empire in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There "liberty came to be associated with private property; and private property came to be concentrated in the hands of fewer people." Those people increasingly had capital to invest in overseas ventures, and they found the nonpropertied to be an ever greater threat to their orderly acquisition of more property. In early-eighteenth-century England the laws of vagrancy and impressment turned an increasingly picaresque working class into an increasingly mobile unfree population, who could look forward to a life of servitude in households or on the high seas. In the broadest perspective, this "picaresque proletariat" was an international phenomenon comprised of numerous races and nationalities. The slaves and servants of the mid-Atlantic were part of this depressed class, a group of people whopaid the price of British imperial glory, drive for profits, and capital formation on the eve of the industrial revolution.36 Indentured servants expressed the truth of their situation by repeatedly calling themselves "white slaves" and describing that phenomenon as a departure from traditional liberties. It may be unwise to conflate the fate of indentured servants in Western history with that of slaves: servants were not as often chattel but rather household dependents. Yet it would be equally inappropriate to ignore the chorus of voices who noticed that servants and slaves during this period, in many places, had a great deal in common, even as the law distinguished between them.37
If mid-Atlantic masters did not always or even often act as a class, they did share the techniques of their peers among the "better sorts" in England who sought to contain an increasingly footloose poor population during the same period. The laws they fashioned worked to their advantage in numerous ways: servants who ran away, for example, had to serve from two to five days for every day they missed. Masters could also rely on the powers of the state to enforce not only their ownership but their specific commands. In light of the slave revolts that rocked the Atlantic world in the 1710s and 1730s, special laws prevented blacks from gathering together. Free people of color were targeted for special surveillance. Many were driven back into servitude or slavery. William Moraley blamed "the Severity of the Laws, there being no Laws made in Favour of these unhap[p]y wretches" for the "very bad" state of Africans in Pennsylvania: "For the least Trespass, they undergo the severest Punishment." 38 One can read in the sources contrary trends: resistance and punishment, fleeings and beatings. As masters sought to control their increasingly sophisticated and market-oriented charges, they relied all the more on every means available to them.
These means included the ads themselves. The proliferating advertisements for the sale and recapture of slaves and servants are best seen as a missing link between capitalism and servitude in Benjamin Franklin's America. Masters, of course, did not need print to keep slaves, collectively, in place. The law, despite uneven enforcement, accomplished that. As Franklin intimated in his memoir, strangers of the wrong look, dialect, or color were regularly committed to jail and, if their masters did not appear, were sold to recoup the expense of their incarceration. But even country jailers began to rely on the newspapers to help the long arm of the law across counties and colonies.
Benjamin Franklin's newspaper succeeded because it spread crucial information between participants in translocal markets. The news and advertisements served similar functions, letting people know what goods were available, where and when. His Pennsylvania Gazette very quickly emerged as an important institution for the sale and recapture of unfree laborers. When Samuel Keimer started the paper in 1728, he offered each subscriber a free advertisement every six months: the first three ads to appear in the paper were for land, a runaway servant, and the sale of a Negro man. The latter ad epitomized the epistemology of market life that the paper advanced: "enquire of the printer, and know further."39
During the nineteen years Franklin owned and managed the paper, growing wealthy enough to retire at the remarkably young age of forty-two, the Gazette carried such ads in every issue. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of the paper's advertisements directly concerned unfree labor. The profit generated was considerable, not to mention essential to the life of Franklin's entire printing business, for ad revenue was far more dependable than subscriptions, which so often remained uncollected. Indeed, Franklin kept extremely careful records of moneys collected for ads. By the early 1730s ads cost five or, for longer ones, seven shillings, as compared to ten shillings for a full year's subscription. If only because of the ads for the sale and capture of slaves and indentured servants, Franklin, from a young age, was deeply invested in the system of unfree labor: its profits helped make him free, property owning, and wealthy.
Masters seeking fugitives encouraged those who caught a runaway and claimed a reward to bring the slave or servant to the print shop, where, presumably, he or she would be held by Franklin himself, much as a merchant might store or transport retail goods for a customer. He participated directly as well as indirectly in the local slave and servant trade, selling goods and persons alike and acting as a true middleman--not just a provider of information--in their exchange. In his own advertisements for his printing shop he offered soap, goose feathers, sugar, coffee, servants, and slaves, sometimes in the same ad: "TO BE SOLD, A Dutch Servant Man and his Wife, for Two Years and Eight Months, a genteel riding Chair, almost new, a Ten Cord Flat with new Sails and Rigging, a Fishing Boat, and sundry sorts of Household Goods." The language of the ads was the same whether the commodity was sundry or genteel, indentured like the German couple or enslaved like the "Twolikely Young Negroes, one a Lad about 19. The other a Girl of 15, to be sold. Inquire of the Printer."40
Sometimes Franklin acquired these goods as payment, and sometimes on speculation; sometimes he held them as a favor. Especially in the case of slaves for sale, masters often used Franklin as a screen, asking prospective buyers to contact them through Franklin--a strategy that kept information from the human commodity who might try to affect the conditions of his or her sale. Printers like Franklin, and the market-oriented people who read their newspapers, increasingly celebrated the free market in information that the spread of print seemed to represent. Anyone who read the paper could gauge opportunities in public life: the republic of letters and its polite rules came to seem a counterpoint to promising, but often corrupt, political and economic systems.41 Those rules and opportunities simply did not apply to the unfree.
And what of Franklin's own household? Franklin's ownership of slaves has traditionally been seen as a function of his middle-aged rise to wealthy status. The first mention of household slaves in his letters appears in the late 1740s, when he was beginning to remove himself from the daily workings of the print shop. Seen in this way, Franklin's investment in and ownership of slaves becomes an unthinking and late decision. Franklin took a long time to let go of his slaves, but they were never especially important to him. Slavery was a larger moral issue, and his conversion to antislavery a larger process, a "sea change" by which a provincial Pennsylvanian became a cosmopolitan philosophe. As in other realms, the comforting conclusion goes, he did not always apply his principles to his private life.42
One problem with this admirably humane view of Franklin's limitations and his eventual progress is that it underestimates the economic importance of slavery and unfree labor in Franklin's Boston and Philadelphia. Franklin's involvement with slavery was actually quite typical of Pennsylvanians. For all his expressed distaste for the work habits of Peter and Jemima, the slaves who worked for him and his wife Deborah in the 1750s, the Franklins never sold or freed them, probably because the scarcity of labor simply made it against their interest to do so. The Franklins divested themselves of slaves gradually, over several decades,through their slaves' own mortality and escapes. It was emancipation, not slaveowning, that was an unthinking decision.43
The humane view of Franklin also dates his initial ownership of slaves at the very moment when he began to speak of divesting himself (and America) of slaves.44 Two bills in his surviving papers suggest, in fact, that he did hold slaves or mixed-race indentured servants earlier. A shoemaker named Warner itemized Franklin's purchase of a pair of shoes for his "negro boy" in December 1735. Charles Moore, a hatmaker, sent him an outstanding bill for a beaver hat for "your man Joseph" in 1742 and another made of raccoon "for your Negro" in 1745.45
Who was "Joseph"? Who were Franklin's "negro boy" of 1735 and his "Negro" of 1745? Were they one person, two, or three? Joseph may have been Joseph Rose, the son of a printer who died in 1723 and an apprentice of Franklin's from 1730 until at least November 1741. The other person or persons could also have been servants, through clearly they were of African descent. This ambiguity itself suggests the gradations of unfreedom and race in Franklin's Philadelphia. These documents are no smoking gun, no DNA test, proving some kind of transhistorical guilt. They tell us, however, that we do not know as much as we think we do about Franklin's early life. Very soon after he became a self-sufficient property owner, before his thirtieth birthday, and at a time when he might still be described as a rising artisan, Franklin probably invested in at least one slave. Perhaps his name was Joseph.
Or perhaps Joseph was an indentured servant, white or mixed race or black. It did not greatly matter. It mattered so little that it went almost unrecorded: only another tradesman to whom Franklin owed a few pounds thought to record it. The absence of Franklin's first servants and slaves from the otherwise vast documentation of his life, including his autobiography, is striking. It suggests that there are unplumbed dimensions to Franklin's experience in a world of runaways and self-made men. Like other freemen, and like other fugitives, he had reasons to tell only part of the story.
Copyright © 2004 by David Waldstreicher