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Reviews in American History 34.3 (2006) 281-290

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Of Slavery and Sources

Jill Lepore. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. New York: Knopf, 2005. xx + 323 pp. $26.95.

Nineteenth-century American historians developed a dramatic grand narrative of a nation founded on a rising tide of liberty. This is the story we want as a people, and in various guises, historians have provided it for two hundred years, albeit at times in forms nineteenth-century historians would find strange or even unrecognizable. Since the time of the civil rights movement, though, more than one historian has asked how a society with an expanding sense of individual liberty could have been so dependent on race-based slave labor. This paradox has helped inspire a major trend in early American history over the last two decades or so: the writing, and rewriting, of the history of slavery and its relationship to the rise of democracy.

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore is based on the premise that a bloody repression of slaves and poor whites following a series of fires in New York City in 1741 was related to pre-existing political tensions among the colony's elite. Specifically, Lepore believes that the divisions caused by the Zenger Crisis, a political upheaval in the colony in the mid-1730s, may have intensified white fears of disorder and rebellion. The trials that followed the fires allowed members of the elite whose authority had been challenged earlier to reassert control over their opponents white as well as black.

Colonial New York's chronic factional fighting provided the backdrop to the drama of 1741. Politics in the province had been defined by discord since the 1680s, and the 1730s were no different. When William Cosby, a newly appointed royal governor, arrived in the city in 1732, he exacerbated a power struggle between rival factions in the colony's elite that had begun in the 1720s.1 Cosby, a former soldier who had married the Earl of Halifax's sister, a cousin of the powerful Duke of Newcastle, was determined to get as much money as he could from his position in New York. Shortly after his arrival Cosby began demanding that acting governor Rip Van Dam turn over fees collected before Cosby's arrival. When supreme court justice Lewis Morris refused to cooperate with Cosby in these efforts, Cosby removed Morris from the court. Cosby [End Page 281] eventually removed Morris's close political ally, a Scottish-born lawyer named James Alexander, from the colony's Council and disbarred him as well.

The subsequent bitter struggle saw the opposition Morrisite (or Country) faction develop a critique of Cosby's actions based on a strain of English libertarian thought that warned of the danger of overreaching state power. Morris and Alexander founded a newspaper to disseminate these writings, nominally published by an immigrant printer named John Peter Zenger. Zenger was eventually arrested, and in the trial that gave the crisis its name, the printer was acquitted, based on the defense that what was published about the governor was indeed true, a departure from English common law precedent. Tensions continued even after Cosby's death in 1736, until a royal proclamation confirmed his subordinate, George Clarke, as lieutenant governor.

Scholars have generally understood the Zenger crisis as an important way station on the road to a freer society. Specifically, the crisis has been seen as the wellspring of freedom of the press, jury nullification, and Country ideology's introduction to America, as well as being credited with the appearance of a bourgeois "public sphere" in British America. To this list, Lepore adds the 1741 events. In seven chronologically organized chapters, she explores several lines of thought about what was occurring in New York in 1741 in an effort to show how the bloody repression was linked to the rise of liberty. Mainly, she argues that several overlapping but largely discrete incidents involving the city's slaves and servants were tied together by unreliable witnesses...


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