Synopses & Reviews
A gripping tale and groundbreaking investigation of a mysterious, and largely forgotten, eighteenth-century slave plot to destroy New York City.
Over a few weeks in 1741, ten fires blazed across Manhattan. With each new fire, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. Tried and convicted before the colony's Supreme Court, thirteen black men were burned at the stake and seventeen were hanged. Four whites, the alleged ringleaders of the plot, were also hanged, and seven more were pardoned on condition that they never set foot in New York again. More than one hundred black men and women were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall, where many were forced to confess and name names, sending still more men to the gallows and to the stake.
In a narrative rich with period detail and vivid description, Jill Lepore pieces together the events and the thinking that led white New Yorkers to make "bonfires of the Negroes." She reconstructs the harsh past of a city that slavery built and almost destroyed. She explores the social and political climate of the 1730s and '40s and examines the nature and tenor of the interactions between slaves and their masters. She shows too that the 1741 conspiracy can be understood only alongside a more famous episode from the city's past: the 1735 trial of the printer John Peter Zenger. And, weighing both new and old evidence, she makes clear how the threat of black rebellion made white political pluralism palatable.
Lucid, probing, captivatingly written, New York Burning is a revelatory study of the ways in which slavery both destabilized and created American politics.
"With riveting prose and a richly imagined re-creation of a horrible but little-studied event, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) deftly recounts the circumstances surrounding a conspiracy in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In 1741, its teeming streets erupted into fire in at least 10 locations. At first, rival political parties blamed each other for the conflagrations, but they joined forces against black slaves when a young white woman named Mary Burton testified that she had witnessed several slaves conspiring to kill whites and gain their liberty. The colony's leaders arrested and tried at least 100 black men and women. Eventually, the colonial Supreme Court sentenced 30 men to death; 17 were hanged (along with the four supposed white ringleaders) and 13 burned at the stake, based solely on Burton's testimony. Out of fear, several slaves testified against others, and the bulk were sent into brutal slavery in the Caribbean. Drawing primarily on New York Supreme Court justice Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, Lepore demonstrates that whites' fear of black rebellion led them to blame any threat to the colony on the activity of slaves. In this first-rate social history, Lepore not only adroitly examines the case's travesty, questioning whether such a conspiracy ever existed, but also draws a splendid portrait of the struggles, prejudices and triumphs of a very young New York City in which fully 'one in five inhabitants was enslaved.' 17 illus., 1 map. (Aug. 29)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Lepore's...narrative...is a stellar performance....Previously a recipient of the Bancroft Prize (for The Name of War, 1998), Lepore may once again win that prestigious honor in American history for this searing work." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[Lepore] seeks to distinguish between the kind of liberty achieved by literate whites (e.g., freedom of the press) and the kinds of liberty that proved elusive for blacks....Recommended..." Library Journal
"Lepore...is here an engaging storyteller. She has re-created a little-known but significant incident in Colonial history, skillfully unraveling the threads of conspiracies." Boston Globe
"New York Burning is worth the price of admission simply for its narrative power....[A] gripping tale...the author tells the story with subtlety and verve....It is the type of book...that historians need to write, more often." Newsday
"Jill Lepore has written a vivid and convincing account of the 'plot' and its aftermath." Washington Post
From the award-winning author of The Name of War: a gripping, illuminating account of an alleged, and largely forgotton, 18th-century slave conspiracy to destroy New York City. Over a few weeks in 1741, ten fires blazed across Manhattan. With each new fire, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. Tried and convicted before the colony's Supreme Court, 13 black men were burned at the stake and 17 were hanged. More than 100 black men and women were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall, where many were forced to confess and to name names, sending still more men to the gallows and to the stake. In a narrative rich with period detail and vivid description, Jill Lepore pieces together the events and the thinking that led white New Yorkers to make bonfires of the Negroes. She reconstructs the harsh past of a city that slavery built and almost destroyed. In a groundbreaking investigation, she explores the social and political climate of the 1730s and 1740s and examines the nature and tenor of the interactions between slaves and their masters. And she makes clear how the threat of black rebellion made white political pluralism palatable. Lucid, probing, captivatingly written, New York Burning is a revelatory study of the ways in which slavery both created and destabilized American politics.
About the Author
Jill Lepore is Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, which won both the Bancroft Prize and Phi Beta Kappa's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
A Conversation with
New York Burning:
Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
Q: What led you to investigate the New York City slave conspiracy of 1741?
A: I had read about the conspiracy years ago, and was struck both by how important the story was, and how little it was known. What happened in New York in 1741 was worse than the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, but very few people, including most historians, had paid any attention to it. I found that intriguing.
Q: Do you think the account written by New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden has been dismissed as a useful resource by previous historians because of the extreme racial bias that is evident from his prose?
A: Horsmandens account, his compilation of all the court proceedings and trial testimony, is often dismissed because of his racial bias, but if we start throwing out racist documents well have very little left in the archives. I decided to try to understand Horsmandens motives, which turned out to be deeply political.
Q: How important was it for you to recreate the Citys population in 1741 by combing through the census data and other primary sources?
A: One way to avoid relying on Horsmandens account is to use other sources. I used tax lists, maps, censuses, and a host of other data to reconstruct the citys population in database form. It provided me with a way of seeing the city other than through Horsmandens eyes.
Q: You show that Daniel Horsmanden's court was criticized fairly soon after the trials were completed, and he was the subject of ridicule within a few years. Why was there no objection during the investigation and sentencing?
A: In Salem in 1692, there was immediate remorse, followed by rather public contrition on the part of some of the judges. In New York in 1741, a few slave owners grumbled that their property had been destroyedtheir slaves had been executedon insufficient evidence. But there was never anything like the profound regret and self-examination that followed in the wake of the Salem witchcraft trials. While a few white New Yorkers objected to the trials and executions, none objected on moral grounds, mainly because they didnt value their slaves lives enough, except as a matter of cash, to be overly concerned about any miscarriage of justice.
Q: How did New Yorkers like James Alexander, who were very concerned about maintaining the principles of Liberty, justify owning their own slaves?
A: Historians have debated this question for decades: how colonists who embraced liberty could own slaves. One of the best explanations is that the very fact of owning other human beings called attention, in the eyes of slave owners, to the importance of liberty, and led them to more passionately defend it.
Q: What effect did the fear of black rebellion have on party politics in the City? And do you think politicians played upon that fear to maintain control over their white constituents?
A: It seems to be more than coincidence that the same New Yorkers who were terrified at the prospect of citizens forming an oppositional political party in the 1730s detected, in 1741, a party of slaves who had conspired to kill the governor. The conspiracy Horsmandens investigation uncovered in 1741 looks a lot like a political party, and the execution of its leaders, I think, served to heal divisions among whites created by the fractious political climate of the previous decade.
Q: The hysteria of accusations and confessions that occurred during the course of the trial were compared at the time to the Salem Witch Trials. Why isnt there a museum and literature devoted to the New York conspiracy, which involved many more people and far greater injustice?
A: Many of the women and men who were executed in Salem in 1692 came from prominent families. They were also convicted at a time when belief in witchcraft was declining. There was, in short, a good deal to regret about what happened in Salem, and the people who regretted it included many in positions of power and authority. In New York, the victims of the 1741 trials were mainly black slaves, and slavery was only growing in economic importance to the city. Slavery wasnt entirely abolished in New York until the very late date of 1827, after which time white New Yorkers quickly determined to forget the citys slave past.
Q: Do you feel that you have finally given the Accused the defense they deserved 264 years ago?
A: No one could do that. The sources are just too scant to know with any certainly what really happened in 1741. But I hope Ive told the story in a way that is true to the evidence that survives.