New York City's Forgotten Past Barry Dancer
Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. New York: Vintage Books, 2005, 323 pp. ISBN 1-4000-3226-1. $15.95.
In the spring of 1741 fear gripped the Manhattan as fires burned all across the island. The suspected culprits were New York's slaves, some two hundred of which were arrested and tried for conspiracy to burn the town and murder its white inhabitants. In the end, over 100 people were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake. Jill Lepore's New York Burning tells the tale of this grisly chapter in New York's history, doing much to illuminate a largely forgotten episode in the city's past.
The plot" to burn and murder was actually a hodgepodge of designs and intrigues, and as Lepore makes clear, it is impossible to ascertain just exactly what happened. What began as an inquest into the plotting of disgruntled slaves at the tavern of John Hughson, in which they allegedly planned to burn the town, kill the white men, and take the white women as their wives, expanded to a larger plot to burn and murder in conjunction with a feared for Spanish attack on the city. Embroiled in a war with England in 1741, Spain had promised freedom to any slaves who would desert their English masters. For the prosecution, it was quite plausible that the city's slaves would rebel and aid the Spanish in order to gain their liberty. By the end of the investigations, however, these previous conspiracies became subordinate to a larger religious fear, as the "master plot" became a Roman Catholic crusade to enlist slaves in exterminating their white Protestant masters. Indeed, all the other plots and investigations fit neatly into this new idea of Catholic intervention, which the prosecution used to their advantage. Summing up the Crown's case, one lawyer argued that "'horrible Plot, to burn and destroy this City,' had at last been explained as the result of 'a Foreign Influence': 'a Spanish and Popish Plot,' for 'What can be expected from those that profess a Religion, that is at War with God and Man?'" (196).
Reading through Lepore's narrative of arrests, accusations, and interrogations one is eerily drawn back further in time to the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. As each new slave was implicated and arrested, he in turn named even more slaves that were involved in the alleged conspiracy. One can easily see how personal vendettas could be waged by the accused. Indeed, the principal witness for the prosecution seemed to magically come up with new names and facts at the drop of a hat. And much like Salem, the trials and accusations did not truly end until the more prominent members of New York society began to be accused of aiding in the plot to burn the city. Unfortunately, as Lepore points out, "what happened in New York was worse, and has been almost completely forgotten" (xvii).
Much of the contemporary records and evidence of the arrests and court proceedings has been lost. The main surviving source of events is a collection of confessions, court records, and other documents written and compiled by Daniel Horsmanden, Third Justice of the Supreme Court and one of the chief proponents of the existence of a slave plot, as well as the chief interrogator of prisoners. Lepore supplements Horsmanden's accounts whenever possible with contemporary letters and newspaper accounts.
Lepore is an excellent writer, and is able to make the history she is relating highly readable. The problem comes in the book's structure, which is sometimes disjointing. In linking the activities of the city's slaves to an emergent political identity among New Yorkers at large, Lepore continually refers back to previous political events, such as the famous libel trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735. Oftentimes, these digressions into past events serve to illuminate points Lepore is making about the slave plots to burn the town. Just as often, however, the reader is left wondering why she is diverting from the narrative. For instance, the chapter titled "Stone" begins with a recounting of the construction of City Hall and shortly continues with a history of the New York court system, describing cases and judges who have little or nothing to do with the larger theme of the 1741 fires.
New York City is not usually what comes to mind when people think of slavery in America. Perhaps, then, the chief contribution of New York Burning is to shed light upon New York's slave past, a past which the author concedes is largely forgotten. The prejudices of the judges and white New Yorkers, the treatment of the slave prisoners, as well as their brutal executions serve to show that the depravities of the slave system were not confined to south of Mason and Dixon's Line. It is a past that, with the recent excavations of the old Negro Burial Ground in Manhattan and exhibits by the New York Historical Society, it is a past with which New York is only recently coming to terms.
Barry Dancer is an M.A. candidate in American Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York.