restricted access Levelers and Fugitives: Runaway Advertisements and the Contrasting Political Economies of Mid-Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts and Pennsylvania
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Levelers and Fugitives:
Runaway Advertisements and the Contrasting Political Economies of Mid-Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts and Pennsylvania

In the early nineteenth century colonial Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had sharply different political economies and labor systems that were only partly blended with violence. These two political economies are reflected in various stories about Benjamin Franklin, who encountered a markedly different labor system when he moved from Boston to Pennsylvania.

Seventeen-year-old Franklin slipped out of Boston easily in 1723 by getting a friend to tell a sea captain that he impregnated a girl and wanted to leave quietly. The mariner thought it was more credible that young Franklin was running from a woman and her family than from a master. Few sought white servant runaways in eighteenth-century Boston. In the year Franklin ran only six runaway-inspired advertisements appeared in the Boston papers. Five masters sought three men of color and three white men.1 In Boston, Franklin did not arouse suspicion.

Upon arriving in the Delaware Valley, though less than three hundred miles away, Franklin encountered a watchful society [End Page 1] that created and then sought many black and especially white fugitives. Near Burlington, New Jersey, Franklin worried, "I cut so miserable a figure . . . that I found by the questions asked me, I was suspected to be some runaway servant, and in danger of being taken up on that suspicion." A few days later, while eating dinner at the Crooked Billet in Water Street, Philadelphia, "several sly questions were ask'd me," wrote Franklin, "as it seemed to be suspected from my youth and appearance that I might be some runaway."2

It made sense to interrogate him. Delaware Valley masters in 1723 were looking for twenty-six white runaways, all of whom had substantial bounties connected to them. Franklin might have been John Amyer or Joffa Bealey, Charles Brown, John Cliff, Thomas Coomes, James Henson, Cornelius Lynch, Dennis McGenoully, James McCurvey, David Reeves, or Richard Skelton—all advertised white men under twenty-two years of age who fled that year from masters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.3 The Boston youth was now on the defensive. If he was held as a runaway, Franklin would have been sold as a servant by the gaoler for a term in order to pay the costs of his detention. He would need to beg his Boston family to come and bail him out.

Franklin's migration from Boston to Philadelphia bears out two runaway stories, one well known and another hidden. In the known narrative, Franklin left a tired, premodern city and social order, Boston, that ridiculed, resented, and denied his youthful ambition, to resettle in an upwardly progressing, diversified city, Philadelphia, where self-fashioning was available to all white males and where consequently Franklin gained wealth and worldwide fame.

Another story exists, however—as factual and believable—that highlights the power of working people in Boston and their weakness in Philadelphia. Briefly put, when the seventeen-year-old printer's apprentice and prodigy ran from his work brethren and family in Boston to Philadelphia in 1723, he left a society in which labor and work were carefully and politically empowered, protected, and dignified for a society in which laborers had far less political and economic power and were therefore often oppressed by property-holders. Franklin used Pennsylvania's exploitative labor regime, and his Boston education, to create a new persona.4

In this version, more complicated than the other, Franklin was less a runaway servant than a hasty, ambitious, and ungrateful adolescent fleeing an unusually organized society of empowered workers, owners, and families who cooperated to block or decelerate his youthful ambitions, just as they had cooperated to educate him and protect his opportunities. After getting a nearly free education in Boston and then apprenticing himself to his printer [End Page 2] brother James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin fell in love with newspaper writing and printing. However, his brother was jealous of his gifts and often beat him. Franklin gained a chance for legal escape when New England magistrates tried to silence his brother for ridiculing them; they placed James in prison and ordained that James...


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