New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
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.
New York Burning is a well-told tale of a once-notorious episode that took place in Manhattan in 1741. Though, as Jill Lepore writes, New York’s “slave past has long been buried,” for most of the 18th century one in five inhabitants of Manhattan were enslaved, making it second only to Charleston, South Carolina, “in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom.” Over the course of a few weeks in 1741, ten fires burned across Manhattan, sparking hysteria and numerous conspiracy rumors. Initially, rival politicians blamed each other for the blazes, but they soon found a common enemy. Based solely on the testimony of one white woman, some 200 slaves were accused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder the resident whites, and take over the local government. Under duress, 80 slaves confessed to the crimes and were forced to implicate others. When the trial was over, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 more were hanged (along with four whites accused of working with them), and 70 others were shipped off to the Caribbean where slavery conditions were even worse.
By necessity, Jill Lepore bases much of her research on a journal written in 1744 by New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden, which she describes as “one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history” and “a diary, a mystery, a history, and maybe one of English literature’s first detective stories.” Adding cultural and political context to the available evidence, Lepore questions whether there was a conspiracy at all, or if it was blind fear run amok that led to the guilty verdicts for so many slaves. As she points out, fear of slave revolt was a real and consistent theme throughout the early days of the colonies. Crisply written and meticulously researched (the book includes several detailed appendices), New York Burning is a gripping narrative of events that led to what one colonist referred to as the “bonfires of the Negroes.” —Shawn Carkonen