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Dangerous Economies

Status and Commerce in Imperial New York

By Serena R. Zabin

Publication Year: 2011

Before the American Revolution, the people who lived in British North America were not just colonists; they were also imperial subjects. To think of eighteenth-century New Yorkers as Britons rather than incipient Americans allows us fresh investigations into their world. How was the British Empire experienced by those who lived at its margins? How did the mundane affairs of ordinary New Yorkers affect the culture at the center of an enormous commercial empire?

Dangerous Economies is a history of New York culture and commerce in the first two thirds of the eighteenth century, when Britain was just beginning to catch up with its imperial rivals, France and Spain. In that sparsely populated city on the fringe of an empire, enslaved Africans rubbed elbows with white indentured servants while the elite strove to maintain ties with European genteel culture. The transience of the city's people, goods, and fortunes created a notably fluid society in which establishing one's own status or verifying another's was a challenge. New York's shifting imperial identity created new avenues for success but also made success harder to define and demonstrate socially.

Such a mobile urban milieu was the ideal breeding ground for crime and conspiracy, which became all too evident in 1741, when thirty slaves were executed and more than seventy other people were deported after being found guilty—on dubious evidence—of plotting a revolt. This sort of violent outburst was the unforeseen but unsurprising result of the seething culture that existed at the margins of the British Empire.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

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Introduction: Imperial New York City

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pp. 1-9

First, a picture. Looking north into Manhattan from the East River, one sees a panorama of boats: dinghies, sloops, and three-masted schooners. The mass of ships, many with sails billowing, nearly obscures the modest collection of buildings in the background. A more careful inspection of the ships reveals that ...

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Chapter 1. Where Credit Is Due

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pp. 10-31

In the winter of 1737 a New York City shopkeeper named Nathaniel Hazard hauled Thomas Harris, a Connecticut laborer, into court. The shopkeeper claimed that Harris had forged a letter, purportedly written by a minister living seventy miles away, that asked Hazard to give the bearer more than four pounds in cash. ...

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Chapter 2. Webs of Dependence

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pp. 32-56

In 1724 Cadwallader Colden, a member of the New York Council and the colony's surveyor general, asked his London agent for help setting up a game for his young children. In exchange for a small bag of specie, Colden hoped his correspondent would be willing to send over a few goods as a "small Adventure." ...

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Chapter 3. The Informal Economy

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pp. 57-80

In the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century, New York tavern keepers were frequently accused of running "disordered" or "disorderly house[s]."1 The New York Supreme Court indictment against Elizabeth Anderson in 1754 is typical of these accusations: "Elizabeth Anderson late of the said City of New York ...

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Chapter 4. Masters of Distinction

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pp. 81-105

In the early summer of 1731 the New-York Gazette convened a "court of manners" for its readers, printing semiserious essays on topics such as tea tables and the taking of snuff. Within this discussion appeared a farcical petition from "the young Tradesmen and Artificers of the City of New-York" who ...

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Chapter 5. Black Cargo or Crew

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pp. 106-131

In 1713 Stephen Domingo, an Afro-Spanish native of Carthagena in Colombia, was being held in slavery in New York City. Domingo had been sold to a New Yorker by a British privateer as part of the loot from a Spanish ship captured during Queen Anne's War (1702-13). Domingo petitioned the New York Common ...

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Chapter 6. Status, Commerce, and Conspiracy

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pp. 132-158

On the day after St. Patrick's Day in 1741, the tinderbox that was New York's concoction of status, race, and commerce literally went up in flames. On that day the roof of the New York governor's mansion caught fire. His house was completely destroyed, as were several other buildings adjoining it within ...


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pp. 159-192


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pp. 193-196


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pp. 197-202

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pp. 203-205

The networks that crisscrossed the British Empire are nothing compared to the networks of support I have had over the many years I have worked on imperial New York. My first and most grateful thanks go to Jan Lewis, who taught me so beautifully by both word and example how to be a historian and a teacher. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206111
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812220575

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies