- Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York
Zabin’s history of New York City in the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century explicitly sets out to interpret the experience of its residents from an imperial rather than a colonial perspective. Zabin puts stress on the commercial ties of empire, arguing that they were crucial to the ways in which social identities were shaped (as well as undermined and contested) in the period before the Seven Years’ War.
The book’s analysis revolves around the slave conspiracy trial that gripped the city in the spring and summer of 1741. Zabin’s addition to the already rich historiography about these show trials is to interpret them as a manifestation of a persistent uncertainty about status that operated both at the social and individual level. At the social level, concerns about status among the city’s commercial and political classes, particularly as related to slaves and foreigners, help to explain their willingness to give countenance to the avalanche of accusations. At the individual level, Zabin finds status to be a particularly fruitful explanation for the behavior of the two principles in the conspiracy trials—Daniel Horsmanden, the judge/prosecutor, and Mary Burton, the chief witness. Horsmanden’s position made him part of the city’s political elite, but he lacked the financial bottom to be truly at home in that role; for him, the trials were a means of securing his status. Burton was an indentured servant whose prospects, even in the rosiest of scenarios, were limited; for her, the trial was a chance to cast off her dependency.
The chapter that details the conspiracy trials is the book’s last, but it might have been better as the first, since the other chapters really come into their own as analyses of questions and issues that emerge during the course of the trials. The first chapter examines the uncertainties surrounding commercial credit in imperial New York, an analysis that serves to inform Zabin’s reading of Horsmanden as a man who manipulated image to gain credit. Another chapter examines the informal economy [End Page 464] of second-hand clothes, pawn shops, and stolen goods. Zabin’s research supports work by Hunt, Lemire, and others in emphasizing the important role that women played in the informal economy, but it also serves to place Burton in her social setting.1 Similarly, the chapter on dancing masters discusses the services offered by peddlers of status, setting up Zabin’s discussion of the unfortunate John Ury, an itinerant schoolmaster who was executed as a Catholic spy. Another chapter covers the plight of free black sailors who served on Spanish ships and were captured by privateers and then sold into slavery as part of the prize goods. These men vigorously contested their free status, but the doubts that existed provide useful background for the ways in which the slave conspiracy trial unfolded. (One of the book’s best chapters, a fascinating account of how restrictions on married women’s property paradoxically gave them an opening into transatlantic trade, does not appear to be closely linked to the 1741 trials.)
Because the disparate topics of each of these chapters are not connected until the analysis of the 1741 slave conspiracy trials, the book reads more like a collection of essays than a unified argument. Moreover, when taken out of context in this fashion, the claims made in some of the chapters seem overstated. For example, the chapter about commercial credit dwells at some length on the problem of fraudulent bills of exchange. The significance of the confidence tricksters who passed these bills eventually makes sense as a foil against which to appreciate Horsmanden’s (fraudulent) pursuit of the slave conspiracy, but the chapter overlooks the more pedestrian problems of late or stopped payments by genuine correspondents that were of much more concern. Likewise, Zabin’s discussion of dancing masters describes the elite’s desire for instruction in manners without giving any real information about who these elites were...