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Jill Lepore, new york burning

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New York Burning, by Jill Lepore, is an interesting yet flawed study of a 1741 conspiracy among New York’s slaves, which authorities discovered in the wake of ten fires started by African Americans.  While the work claims to examine the slave revolts and ensuing trials (in which over a hundred blacks were executed by hanging or burning) as evidence of how political opposition formed and functioned, it succeeds much better as a study of race relations and the culture of paranoia.

Lepore’s thesis is that the 1741 conspiracy, while based more on hearsay and forced confessions than on actual evidence, occurred within a climate of political and intellectual ferment that made political pluralism (and, ultimately, the American political system) possible.  Indeed, the New York she describes was already politically divided in the wake of the landmark Zenger trial of 1735, in which printer John Peter Zenger was charged with printing libelous attacks against the arbitrary, heavy-handed colonial governor.

His acquittal laid the foundations for free speech but also caused a political schism, as two rival political factions formed – the Court party, which supported the royal governors, and the Country Party, an opposition group which demanded greater liberties.  (However, she makes clear that liberty was reserved strictly for whites and pertained more to the press and taxation than to individuals, certainly those of color.)  Mutual mistrust between the two parties lingered for years.

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The 1741 conspiracy took place, says Lepore, within a rather tense and paranoid context.  It began in March with a fire at the city’s only military outpost, Fort George.  Subsequent blazes over the next few weeks broke out at houses and businesses belonging to Court party members, and these were quickly followed by a series of arrests and trials that lasted into the summer.

Twenty whites and 152 blacks (slave and free) were arrested and over a hundred people executed, including many Country Party members’ slaves and servants.  Lepore claims that the end result of these events was greater acceptance of political opposition, but her work does less to connect the slave plot to politics than it does to describe a place beset by racism and paranoia.

In tracing the plot’s evolution, Lepore offers the reader a detailed description of New York in 1741.  A former Dutch colony with a multilingual population and sizeable slave population, New York had considerable political division and a strangely paranoid culture.  Not only were fears of slave rebellions prevalent and population politically split, but novels and plays about intrigues were common and highly popular.  (She notes that George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem was then the city’s most popular play.)

New Yorkers were thus highly sensitive to anything resembling a plot and unusually prone to imagine such things; Lepore writes, “Nothing ‘just happened’ in the early eighteenth century.  There was always a villain to be caught, a conspiracy to be detected.  The century was lousy with intrigues” (51).

In addition, she asserts that the black plotters may have been misunderstood by white witnesses who overheard them in Hughson’s tavern, taking oaths and swearing revenge on New York.

She demonstrates that, much like New England’s slaves staged mock “election days” to both mimic and satirize white culture, the New York plotters may have been imitating their masters, many of whom were Masons (and thus mistrusted in an early America which saw wrongdoing in their secrecy and rituals).  Horsmanden, says Lepore, viewed the trial like a conspiracy novel and, “In an anxious empire, he found monstrous black creatures . . . [and] political plotters” (122) from whom he thought he could save the city.

The 1741 plot was thus tailor-made for the age.  It involved a group of New York blacks who swore oaths to burn down the city, kill its white men, take their wives, and to install a tavern keeper and small-time criminal named John Hughson as the new governor.  After the arsonists were captured and confessions extracted (in some cases with torture, which could not legally be used on whites but was freely used against blacks), the colony’s Supreme Court was eager to demonstrate its authority and regain some of the credibility it lost after the Zenger trial.  In particular, Lepore devotes considerable attention to Daniel Horsmanden, the English judge who prosecuted Zenger and was eager to redeem himself.

Lepore relies heavily on his own journal of the trial, pointing out its biases and distortions, and she comments that Horsmanden considered losing the Zenger trial “a gross humiliation” and that the 1741 plot offered him “an unrivaled opportunity to consolidate the court’s power.  He could make a name for himself” (118).

Indeed, his handling of the trial shows not only his zeal but also how poorly colonial courts handled evidence and how grossly they mistreated black defendants.  Four whites and over a hundred blacks were executed, often in a grisly manner that assuaged the nervous city.  According to Lepore, whites enjoyed public executions and attended “out of hatred, out of obligation, out of fascination” and, “like imprisonment, interrogation, and trial, an execution was a pageant” (105).  Trials and executions of rebellious slaves were especially celebrated, as the racial order was preserved.

Though the book claims to examine the 1741 slave plot’s meaning in terms of politics, is actually spends little time doing this and her analysis is thus somewhat underdeveloped.  However, Lepore offers an excellent picture of colonial New York’s race relations, which were volatile and tense, adding that “however much ‘liberty’ some enslaved New Yorkers might have enjoyed, it was always fragile and nearly always illicit” (155).

Whites so feared blacks that they passed laws regulating their right to gather freely and set grossly unfair standards for sexual conduct (white men could exploit black women without penalty, but black men were sternly discouraged from consensual relations with white women).  It is little wonder, then, that blacks resented their white masters and neighbors.  Also, at the same time, though, the court was quick to attribute the plot’s leadership to Hughson, a smuggler and thief on the side, because few believed blacks intellectually capable of hatching such a scheme.

Lepore ends the book by claiming that the 1741 plot demonstrates how New York’s colonial politics operated.  Horsmanden, who exacted a vicious justice on the conspirators, was stripped of his political offices in 1747 and then became a champion of the liberties he had denied as a judge.  His activities redeemed him and one of his posts was restored to him in 1755.

Lepore uses this, along with the Zenger trial, as evidence of how New Yorkers became more tolerant of opposition politics, but she does not tie this very convincingly to the slave plot.  Indeed, her discussion of New York’s colonial politics pales in comparison to her picture of New York’s social and cultural landscapes.

New York Burning appears to be two different histories in one, with its study of race relations and fear of conspiracies submerged within its examination of how the plot influenced politics.  The political aspects are not as well-developed and Lepore does not argue very convincingly that the Zenger trial and slave conspiracy demonstrate how New Yorkers handled the question of political opposition.

The author devotes much of the book to exploring race and culture, and she creates a vivid, convincing picture of how early New Yorkers combined fear of their slaves with their taste for (and sensitivity to) conspiracy and intrigues.  Had the book been a study of race and paranoia, instead of claiming these were only parts of a developing political culture, it would likely have been a stronger piece of scholarship.  The book succeeds as a cultural history while failing to connect race and culture to the developing political landscape of early America.

Lepore, Jill.  New York Burning.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

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