America’s Blind Spot

Slavery is a dark stain on America. Yet Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson proudly ran newspaper ads for runaway slaves. If they could not see the evil of slavery, what are we missing in our time?

Jefferson sought to find his escaped slave by pointing out that the man was a left-handed shoemaker who “swears much.”

Andrew Jackson’s ad is more horrifying with a $30 bonus for torturing the runaway with 300 lashes:
“Stop the Runaway.
Eloped from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th of June last, a Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes—will pass for a free man, as I am informed he has obtained by some means, certificates as such—took with him a drab great-coat, dark mixed body coat, a ruffled shirt, cotton home-spun shirts and overalls. He will make for Detroit, through the states of Kentucky and Ohio, or the upper part of Louisiana. The above reward will be given any person, and deliver him to me, or secure him in jail, so that I can get him. If taken out of the state, the above reward and all reasonable expenses paid—and ten dollars extra for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.
Near Nashville, State of Tennessee.”
(Tennessee Gazette, 1804 October 3, page 3.)

The Freedom on the Move project at Cornell University is digitizing tens of thousands of such ads. They expose the blindness of slave owners such as James Norcom who offered $100 for 21-year-old Harriet who “absconded from the plantation of my son without any known cause or provocation.”

We can sneer down our pious, Pinocchio noses, or we can pause to ask ourselves in a moment of humble reflection: If our nation’s founders could not see the evil of slavery, what are we missing in our time?


About Ben Unseth

Migrant executive and professor.
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