In the earliest history of US stock brokerage, one stock stood out both in nature and the revenue it generated – humans. The more preferred name for the merchandise was slave, and the stock market were the first US newspapers.
Before Wall Street had a name and the New York Stock Exchange became a formal organization, the earliest US newspapers were involved in the brokerage of many stocks which ensured their survival and sustenance for as long as they existed. Publication of adverts were constantly used to broker business deals, including slave sales.
The involvement of newspapers in slave trade facilitated the distribution of slave labor. It was a shocking reality that the tendrils of early American industries were staked by pillars reinforced by the tibias and femurs of unpaid slave labor. But it took longer time to see slavery itself as a full-blown industry despite the fact that it manifested the features of one.
For over a century, beginning from the 1700s, the publication of slave sales ads was among the most lucrative sources of income for newspaper owners. It was also common to find slave owners who pay newspapers to publish the description of runaway slaves with named rewards for their return.
Jordan Taylor was a visiting assistant history professor at Smith College. He published a paper in the journal, Early American Studies, regarding the activities of these newspapers. He found over 2,100 ads which showed that the newspapers were fully committed into facilitating the sales and purchase of up to 3,400 slaves.
Furthermore, Taylor noted that most of the ads for that century appeared in Northern newspapers, hence he titled his paper, “Enquire of The Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade.”
One of the ads chronicled by Taylor was found in the Independent Gazetteer in 1792. It boldly read “For sale, A young Negro Woman, With three Children. Inquire of the Printer.” The normal proceeding was that interested buyers would go to the office of the newspaper to get further information on the sale like the price, specific features of the slaves and how to contact the seller.
Meanwhile, the legacy of slave brokerage by the newspapers continued until the early 1800s when transatlantic slave trade was outlawed by the federal government. At this point, the natural expectation was for trade activities to stall, and it did. But that was only until the market adjusted to the change through such diabolic concepts as Slave Breeding and active trading across state lines following the prohibition of international supply. Gradually, slave trade transformed into a complexly structured market facilitated mainly by the slave brokers – the newspapers.
Historically, the northern states developed and industrialized faster than the southern states. Consequently, most newspapers were located in the north with new ones mushrooming and withering out like phantoms. Before the Civil War, the Independent Gazetteer and other newspapers that drove the slave industry collapsed. Despite this, Taylor claims that the histories of a good number of present-day news media can be traced back to the operational tenets laid by these early newspapers.
Also, Taylor noted that objectivity was one feature most colonial newspapers had in short supply. This is understandable especially because most newspapers then were family-owned and have profit as their top priority. At that time, it was easy for media outlets to close down at the heat of a loss.
Consequently, the mad rush by these newspapers into the business brokerage that centralized most markets, including the slave industry, was all in a bid to keep afloat. It wasn’t long and what was done to keep afloat became the main motive for printing. Business owners were willing to pay the newspapers to publish the stocks they have for sale, including the number and features of slaves they want to dispose.
From his research, Taylor found a total of 563 ads published in New England newspapers, 950 ads appeared in mid-Atlantic newspapers and 597 ads appeared in newspapers of the West and South. These slaves were men, women and even children harvested through slave breeding.
According to Taylor, one of the nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, owned a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette where he published about 277 slave-brokerage ads in the mid-1700s. Taylor estimated that these ads earned Franklin about 90 pounds which is about half the price he bought the newspaper in 1729. According to Taylor’s findings, Benjamin Franklin was listed as the slave broker in 113 of these ads.
The Pennsylvania Gazette was described by Taylor as an “unusually profitable” newspaper.
While profitmaking remains the primary driving force of even present-day news media, one grace that was not lost is the incorruptible power of the media to localize information in a place it is readily available for everyone. The years of slave brokerage did not introduce anything new to the newspapers aside that it emphasized that the true nature of these papers is to sell information.