Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City by Joyce D. Goodfriend
Events are overrated in colonial New York City's history. So are imperial regimes, governors, and political factions. Frankly, so too are the English. Social hierarchy, however, requires more careful consideration, and delineating a community's social hierarchy has been a core concern of colonial social historians. Rather than focus on social structure, however, Joyce D. Goodfriend's nuanced, empirically driven study Who Should Rule at Home? emphasizes the ways in which an array of New Yorkers challenged the cultural authority of men—wealthy, white, not always English—who ostensibly held sway over institutional and family life.
Goodfriend's overarching thesis is elegant and yet subtle, as are the metaphors she uses to render her analysis tangible. By examining what she labels the "microsociology of power" (2), Goodfriend finds that all sorts of ordinary people advanced cultural agendas of their own in spheres as diverse as language, religion, marital relations, and labor. Words such as "thinning" (146) and "brittle" (161) describe the inability of masters to compel obedience or to completely determine how wives and servants lived their lives. That brittleness applied broadly during the century from the 1664 English conquest of New Amsterdam to the crumbling of British authority in the revolutionary crisis, but it had little to do with formal politics. Neither English authorities nor members of the Anglo-Dutch elite could prevent ordinary Dutch inhabitants from speaking or reading in Dutch. Church fathers and traditional ministers could not stop parishioners from seeking more heartfelt spiritual expressions, nor could they stamp out new sects. Slaves discovered the interstices of power through personal defiance, their own social networks, education, and religion.
All of this activity did not prevent elites from developing a genteel culture that made manifest their wealth, their claims to labor, and their control of public institutions. For Goodfriend, the test of cultural authority was not whether all this subaltern activity coalesced into an ideology or a movement rejecting the rights of husbands, fathers, ministers, white people, or English speakers to govern. The test was whether generations of ordinary New Yorkers fashioned their own cultural alternatives, in the process loosening the grip of authority over ordinary interactions and daily lives. To varying degrees, Goodfriend successfully demonstrates that the denizens of southern Manhattan passed this test. Historians already had a good idea, in part thanks to Goodfriend's previous scholarship, of what it means to say [End Page 161] that the population of colonial New York was diverse and created a form of American pluralism.1 The well-wrought structure of this book propels a fresh representation of the city's cultural variety. Each chapter deploys carefully etched examples drawn directly from primary sources to transmute abstractions into experience.
The argument starts, as it must, with the Dutch. The failure of English rule and English cultural strategies to act as a solvent for Dutch culture ensured that elite cultural hegemony would remain incomplete. The English launched "a massive cultural offensive" (28) in the wake of Leisler's Rebellion, the one standard New York City political timeline event to which the book assigns special significance, for that crisis intensified English efforts to establish cultural control. With the construction of Trinity Church and the arrival of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Anglicanism installed itself as a vital, officially backed presence. Furthermore, falsely identifying the rebellion as a Dutch one, stigmatizing Dutch culture, and deemphasizing the religious roots of the conflict made it easier for the English to make common cause with the wave of Huguenot refugees arriving in the city. The English-French alliance may have had political advantages for the elite, but being political outsiders did not prompt Dutch cultural capitulation. As Goodfriend effectively demonstrates, ordinary Dutch New Yorkers used their inherited tongue to maintain their distinct identity long into the eighteenth century. Rather than follow the Dutch elite's path of cultural Anglicization, ordinary Dutch colonists successfully forged an ethnic community. Steadfast resistance to the use of English in the Dutch Reformed Church demonstrated this popular insistence on Dutchness. Whereas generations of historians have marginalized the Dutch influence, Goodfriend shows that Dutch speakers had ample secular and religious resources to maintain a strong and distinct cultural presence. There were no Dutch newspapers, but bibles, almanacs, and other reading materials were readily available. John Peter Zenger, famous for his role in libel law, published items for the local Dutch market.
The spiritual choices available to eighteenth-century New Yorkers further weakened elite hegemony. Goodfriend's periodization of the Great Awakening in New York City allows her not only to advance her thesis about cultural contestation but also to attribute to the city a more exemplary role in colonial religious history. It may have taken George Whitefield a while to transform Manhattan's religious landscape, but over the course of about twelve visits from 1739 to 1770, he helped provoke a new set of expectations among the city's Christians—white and black; English, Dutch, and otherwise. The appeal of his spirited evangelicalism led to demands for new kinds [End Page 162] of preaching and new preachers in existing churches. In time, a competitive upsurge in church building took place to draw members of the laity who, to use Goodfriend's chapter title, had developed into "religious consumers" (110). With this increased range of choices available, genteel elites and ministers could not impose their own preferences, even in the Anglican Church. Moravians, whom historians do not usually associate with this urban milieu, made their presence felt. Methodism emerged. The appeal of the awakened style of preaching finally led to the acceptance of English as the language of the Dutch Reformed Church over the objections of a vocal faction. An insurgent theology, not top-down mandates, delivered this belated victory for the English language. Although Goodfriend does not say so explicitly, New York City provided an ideal place for a religious marketplace to flourish. Rather than travel several miles to seek out an alternative church or foment the redrawing of town boundaries, unsatisfied parishioners in lower Manhattan could readily vote with their feet to consume the presentation of the gospel they found most compelling.
The private sphere did not give white male elites a respite from the challenges of their supposed dependents. Drawing on the classic colonial source of information on resistance, the runaway advertisement, Goodfriend documents how wives and servants enlisted a range of strategies to deny the authority of husbands and masters. Men complained that their estranged wives stole from them and disavowed debts these mobile women might incur. A disgruntled servant could hop a ship as a sailor or use purloined clothes and a name change to alter an identity. None of these actions meant that the "patriarchal household" (146) was in crisis, but tensions suffused New York City homes, and those who felt abused or developed an alternate vision of themselves had opportunities to change the script. Poor and laboring people had other ways of acting out their rejection of authority. Transgressions—ranging from prostitution to robbing churches and breaking the Sabbath—constituted rejections of the norms, codes, and institutions sanctioned by elites. Authorities, of course, had ways of responding to such "oppositional behavior" (214). Denominationally organized charity schools were meant to implant compliant values. The wooden cage into which authorities thrust lowly Sabbath breakers physically expressed the limits of elite tolerance and the power that authorities continued to wield.
No account of the city's diversity or of challenges to privileged authority would be complete without a consideration of slavery, but in this sphere the author's vision of resistance should have been further developed. Goodfriend states that scholars have focused too much on the "grand gestures" (173) of attempted slave rebellions in 1712 and 1741, which, one might add, prompted grand gestures of white authority. Maybe the uprisings have elicited too much attention, but the value of much of that scholarship has been to elucidate the more quotidian features of black life that Goodfriend [End Page 163] wishes to prioritize.2 To poignantly illustrate the ravages of racial inequity, the author draws attention to the dissection of black bodies in college anatomy classes and to instances of infanticide and suicide. The emphasis of the chapter is on how enslaved people took advantage of evangelical conversions and opportunities to become literate, demonstrating that the enslaved also made their own cultural choices and moral judgments. But beyond these specific acts, Goodfriend says surprisingly little about African retentions and adaptations. Hewing closely to selected primary sources while not engaging directly with a burgeoning literature unnecessarily limits the analysis of slavery and of how that institution shaped subaltern culture more broadly.
In general, the book eschews theoretical or historiographical grand gestures in order to showcase a kaleidoscope of groups in a uniquely composed population in a colonial North American seaport city. In neither the text nor the endnotes will the reader find a literature review or deeper meditations on structure versus agency, the spectrum of accommodation and resistance, or the consumer revolution—even though the book's themes beg for additional contextualizing commentary. The author places maximal emphasis on individual and small group action, with the partial exception of Dutch cultural coalescence. To be sure, most of the ordinary people in this narrative had modest, largely personal goals. But establishing the myriad ways that New York's diverse population could not be fully mastered ultimately cannot remove the powerful from center stage.
In the preface and the conclusion, Goodfriend indicates that all this resistance—all these "microbursts of defiance" (239)—paved the way for the American Revolution. Ordinary New Yorkers, as this stimulating study documents, had for generations found ways to contest authority. Goodfriend's careful social analysis provides historians with fresh incentives to connect the historiographical and narrative dots, explaining how this panoply of nonelite New Yorkers perceived and experienced the British Empire and what effect this had on rupturing elites. [End Page 164]
1. Joyce D. Goodfriend, Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in New York City, 1664–1730 (Princeton, N.J., 1992), 221.
2. See especially Richard E. Bond, "Shaping a Conspiracy: Black Testimony in the 1741 New York Plot," Early American Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 63–94.165
See especially Richard E. Bond, "Shaping a Conspiracy: Black Testimony in the 1741 New York Plot," Early American Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 63–94.165