- Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York
In this bold attempt to reconceive the history of British New York City, Serena Zabin directs attention to the city’s situation as an imperial port deeply involved in the commerce and warfare that defined the empire in the eighteenth century. To understand the actions of New Yorkers, she asserts, one must understand the economic and military imperatives that guided the lives of Britons in the years up to 1763 and, more specifically, the burgeoning commercial culture in which they were enveloped. Less concerned with tracing the evolution of imperial New York than in exploring its various facets, Zabin eschews a chronological approach in favor of a topical strategy that consecutively examines what turn out to be the constituent elements of the alleged 1741 slave conspiracy, a notorious incident in the city’s history that serves to introduce her work. In a sense, then, the book proceeds in a circular fashion, with the culminating chapter consisting of an analysis of this cataclysmic event informed by the insights into New York society revealed in the preceding chapters.
For generations, New Yorkers have struggled to come to grips with the horrors of 1741, when enslaved Africans were burned at the stake. In 1857 poet Walt Whitman, haunted by the enormity of this atrocity, felt compelled to jolt the conscience of city dwellers as they strode along Wall Street. “You who come down town to business in the morning! you little think of the horrid spectacle that corner more than once exhibited! the iron pillar—the chains—the fagots of dry wood and straw—the African negro in the middle—the pile touched off—the yells and howls and agonized shrieks—the crowd around stolid and indifferent.” (Walt Whitman, “Broadway, the Magnificent!” quoted in Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999], 7). A parade of modern historians, most recently Jill Lepore in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Knopf, 2005), has sought to make sense of this terrible episode. Zabin does not substantively engage with this historiography, though she dutifully surveys it in an extended note (chapter 6, note 1) at the beginning of a final chapter devoted to the conspiracy. (The book has no concluding chapter.) This decision leaves the reader with the nagging question of whether the primary goal of the book is to fashion a new interpretation of the 1741 conspiracy or, as the title hints, to reinterpret New York City’s eighteenth-century history through the lens of cultural history. [End Page 527]
After spelling out her thesis that the evolving commercial culture linking New York to the Atlantic world definitively shaped the imperial port, Zabin plunges into an analysis of city life as seen through several interrelated frameworks, all of which reveal the precariousness of status in this volatile microcosm of British society. The fragility of credit and credibility in an economy increasingly dependent on transatlantic bills of exchange emerges in her analysis of the confidence men who preyed on New Yorkers’ customary trust in persons of genteel appearance and seemingly solid personal connections. Encounters with such tricksters no doubt accentuated the preoccupation of the city’s leading men and women with burnishing their credentials as members of polite society. Ironically, as Zabin shows, those who claimed elite status came to rely on dancing masters, itinerant teachers of proper deportment, to instruct them in the skills that prepared them to perform flawlessly at the increasingly common assemblies, where men and women danced, exhibited their social graces, and demonstrated the sociability that was the sine qua non of polite society. The commercialization of gentility thus became indispensable in validating claims to social superiority that formerly had been predicated on lineage.
Family still counted for a great deal in eighteenth-century New York City, as Zabin makes clear in her discussion of female merchants whose activities, though belying the restrictions of coverture, nonetheless flowed through channels established by male family...