The Roots of Political Liberty Unearthed in Old Manhattan

New York Burning, Jill Lepore’s exhaustive history of the trial and execution of 30 slaves accused of plotting to set fire to Manhattan and kill their white owners in the spring of 1741, isn’t exactly a whodunit; it’s more like a what happened, anyway? “The trial,” Ms. Lepore writes, “between the opening of the Supreme Court on April 21 and its closing on August 31, 1741, is both richly documented and maddeningly unknowable.” To her credit, she refuses pat or surefire answers. Instead, taking this little-known incident and looking at it from a wider perspective, she speculates upon and illuminates the roots of political liberty that would later flower into revolution.

But first, the facts we do know: On March 18, 1741, fire erupted at Fort George on the southern tip of the island, burning the lieutenant governor’s mansion to the ground. Over the next few weeks, nine other major fires occurred, all of them involving properties owned by slaveholders. At one scene, a slave named Cuffee was seen running away and later apprehended. Another slave, Quack, was heard walking through the streets, exclaiming, “ Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A Little, Damn it, By-And-By.” In addition, two weeks before the first fires, a burglary was committed by two slaves, Caesar and Prince; the loot later turned up in the cellar of John Hughson’s tavern, where Peggy Kerry lived, an Irish prostitute who had just given birth to Caesar’s child. Months before, Hughson also seems to have played host to a gathering of slaves over Christmas dinner. Just what was said and sworn to at that meeting would become the tinder for the panic, fear and revenge that would sweep through a city with 10,000 inhabitants, one-fifth of whom served as human chattel.

The meager facts wouldn’t seem to justify assumptions about an organized conspiracy—assumptions which soon led to the arrest of 152 black New Yorkers (80 of whom signed confessions), followed by the death by hanging and burning at the stake of 30 blacks and four whites, including Hughson. However, Ms. Lepore demonstrates that history happens not out in the open, but under the floorboards: Beneath the public’s fear that slaves were plotting lay the nascent infighting of Colonial party politics.

Daniel Horsmanden, the presiding Superior Court judge who led the investigation and would later write the only account that survives of the events, was after more than just truth in the proceedings. His own political gain rested upon asserting “not only the authority of the Supreme Court but also its transcendence over party loyalties.” The latter were created in the 1730’s, when James Alexander founded the opposition Country Party in protesting the repressive reign of Governor William Cosby. Cosby’s successor, George Clarke, whose authority was also challenged for a time, later appointed Horsmanden judge, while Alexander also served as an attorney in Horsmanden’s court. Thus, 40 years before the Revolution, partisan politics was born.

Ms. Lepore argues that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that perhaps the most troubling paradox of the conspiracy trials of 1741 is how the fundamental liberty of the American political system was nurtured into existence by slavery. “Alexander’s political party plotted to depose the governor; the city’s slaves, allegedly, plotted to kill him,” Ms. Lepore observes. “The difference made Alexander’s opposition seem, relative to slave rebellion, harmless, and in so doing made the world safer for democracy.” Troubling as this last phrase has come to sound, there’s a clarity to the author’s insight that opens up the episode to the long view that history can sometimes grant us. Meanwhile, the tragedy lies in the human price paid. Put another way, the liberty gained seems in itself hollow when leading so quickly to court cases argued by posse and confessions obtained at the end of a rope.

Compelling as Ms. Lepore’s thesis may be on the growth of American political liberty, her focus upon it often gets skewed or distracted amid the clutter of her narrative. Too often, she interrupts her argument to provide deep background that, although interesting, makes it hard to keep the sequence of players and events straight. Writing about the fire at Fort George, she stops to tell the history of fire brigades and firefighting equipment in New York. After observing that Horsmanden owned no slaves, she goes on for two pages about the legalities of willing slaves as property and the nature of slave burials. In addition, her conflation of alleged meetings and events before the trials and the unfolding of the cases themselves is at times kaleidoscopic, while even the linkages between 1730’s party politics and the conspiracy come to feel tenuous amid too much forced shuffling back and forth. This, of course, supports the observation that what actually happened is “maddeningly unknowable,” but Ms. Lepore risks making it even more so.

She writes: “That abject bondage contributed to the creation of the world’s first modern democracy, however true and even self-evident, is, finally, so painful a truth as to be nearly unfathomable.” Nearly unfathomable, but not entirely—the urge to comprehend painful truths is one reason why history is written and read. And the fact that racism and human degradation contributed to this country’s good fortune is inarguable. Jill Lepore’s history of a few months of mass hysteria in Colonial New York underscores the fact that our legacy is a troubled one.

A final irony: The human remains excavated in 1991 from the 18th-century Negroes Burial Ground were almost lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center. They were at last reburied in 2003, at the original site on Chambers Street—a Pyrrhic victory for those lost to a history they never had the chance to write.

Peter Filkins teaches writing and literature at Simon’s Rock College of Bard.