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ISO: Did Colonial Printers Profit from Slavery?

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I am working on a book about the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his business partner and friend, James Parker. Among the areas I am exploring are how both had owned slaves. Parker was in New York City in 1741, for example, and may have been around for at least parts of the so-called slave conspiracy. Later, Parker would pay off a debt to Franklin by sending him a slave named George. I have two questions that I was hoping to find answers to here.

1)When an ad for selling, buying, or returning runaway slaves ran in colonial newspapers, they were often concluded with “Apply to the Printer,” or “Inquire of the Printer,” etc. I presume the printer was acting as a go-between between the advertiser and prospective buyer/seller. My question is how was this handled financially? Did the advertiser pay for the ad up-front, or only if they sold/bought a slave? Did the printer get a commission for a successful transaction?

2)In a 1759 broadside protesting a NY provincial stamp act, James Parker complained how printers “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.” Did colonial era printers use slave labor, even peripherally if not in typesetting or operating the press? I would think the apprenticeship and journeyman system provided that labor, but could Parker have used a slave for more menial tasks in the print shop proper (as distinct from his home)?

Thank you!
Gordon Bond


  1. For coverage on the economy and coordinating role of printers in slavery see: Taylor, Jordan E. “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704–1807.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 18, no. 3 (2020): 287–323.

    The answer to the second question is a definitive yes. For example, Philadelphia Printer William Dunlap enslaved a man named Priamus between 1758-1763 at Newest Printing Office on Market Street in Philadelphia. In April 1768 William Brown and Thomas Gilmore (proprietors of the Quebec Gazette) wrote to William Dunlop (their former employer) asking him to purchase and send an enslaved person to Quebec who was “fit to put to press.” Later, Brown and Gilmore enslaved a man named Joe, forcing him to work in their printshop. Joe was listed as a “pressman” in some of the fugitive slave ads Brown ran about him when he resisted his enslavement through flight.

    For coverage on Joe, see Charmaine A. Nelson’s forthcoming publication Joe the Pressman. See a brief abstract here:

    For coverage on the April 1768 correspondence between Brown, Gilmore and Dunlop see: Charmaine A. Nelson, “A ‘Tone of Voice Peculiar to New-England’: Fugitive Slave Advertisements and the Heterogeneity of Enslaved People of African Descent in Eighteenth-Century Quebec,” Current Anthropology 61, no. S22 (October 1, 2020): S310.

    For differences between guild system in Britain and British North American Colonies, with coverage on role of enslaved people in the colonial printing trade, see: Colonial Williamsburg, Live from the Printshop, YouTube, July 17, 2020, video, 36:09,

  2. Paul Moxon, Website Editor 8 July, 2023 at 9:20 am

    Please see a recent related post on Instagram by our current Vice President for Publications:

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