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New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and…

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century… (2005)

by Jill Lepore

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315254,744 (3.97)16
The untold story of the little-known Manhattan slave rebellion of 1741 and the white hysteria that resulted in thirty black men hanged or burned at the stake, over a hundred black men and women thrown into the dungeon beneath City Hall, and many more shipped into bone-crushing slavery on Caribbean plantations. Was this a brutal and audacious rebellion prevented just in time or a far more horrible and unjust version of the Salem witch trials?… (more)

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Lepore offers a well-researched reconstruction of the alleged conspiracy of the 1741 arsons in New York. Is this an important book? I imagine so. Is it a “good read”? Not necessarily. Her narrative and style of writing is commendable – having to sift through, quote from, and reinterpret the Ye Olde cruddy English syntax of the day. Necessarily relying on the printed Journal produced by Daniel Horsmanden – a lawyer in charge of the trials – she, and thus we, get exposure to such run-on gems as, ”lopping off from them, what, in print, he thought would be a superflouous Formality, such as The Deponent further saith, and such like, which he thought would have been a needless Incumbrance to the Book.” Wow. At least Lepore’s writing is much more lucid and some of the non-lawyerly quotes are translatable. Perhaps if you’re English it’s less bothersome? I read this in The Independent just the other day: “ The Prince of Wales, accused of similar interference over the Chelsea Barracks development, must be dunking his Duchy Highland All Butter Shortbread into the steaming Assam with unusual pleasure.” Makes a little more sense I suppose, especially if one knows what any of the food references are.

The two areas of the book I found most interesting were the appendicies and the reconstruction of New York’s mid-eighteenth century environment. The former documents how she and her assistants approached the research of this era and the process of reconstructing the “city” circa 1741 using scarce census records, maps, and other data. This reconstruction evidenced just how small and provincial New York was at that time. Other than a fairly diverse populace and fledgling port this was something like the 37th largest town in Arkansas today. As the fires were still smoldering, the leaders called forth the emergency action of inspecting every individual house and place of business to round up any potential strangers or non-residents that needed accounting for…to no avail. Yeah, nobody happened to be visiting “The City” that day. Trippy. Seems more like an episode of The Smurfs than a piece of New York’s history. It’s an evocative aspect of the book but unfortunately most of the text revolves around the trials (obviously the intent), which gets quite cumbersome for those not specifically interested in that era’s contorted legal machinations.

One thing I found a bit problematic was the sub-theme about political parties. Early on she broaches the subject by mentioning the emergence of the Country Party as a potential rival to the established political leadership of the Court Party – perhaps the first such threat in the Colonies. Much later she exhumes the speculation by considering the purported plotting of slaves might be seen – or was by Horsemanden – as the equivalent of another rival party (in addition to, I suppose, a force hell-bent on total extirpation of white New Yorkers in general). Then this theory reemerges with one or two paragraphs at the book’s conclusion; the institution of slavery is an equivalent to the suppression of “Party Flames,” therefore slave conspiracies and later abolitionist sentiment had a correlation with political opposition. Perhaps this is a great insight? I can certainly buy it. Nonetheless it’s a mostly dormant thesis throughout the text and seems tacked on out of fear that the main story needed some additional academic juice. Overall I would rate this as a sophisticated construct resulting from important research that is not going to hold the interest of most. ( )
  mjgrogan | Jun 14, 2010 |
An interesting and detailed look at a forgotten episode in American history - the execution of over 30 slaves accused in a series of arsons in New York City in 1741. Not unlike the Salem witch trials, the theory of a conspiracy was developed from the testimony of a girl, an indentured servant. The book also provides rich detail about life during a period of American history, the decades prior to the Revolution, often neglected. It also develops the irony of the rise of a love of liberty by the colonists with the reality of bondage for a full fifth of New York's population. ( )
  theageofsilt | Dec 23, 2006 |
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