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African-American history has always been embedded in various controversies. Whether a slave rebellion plot did take place in New York City in 1741 remains an open issue to this day. Certain historians tend to question the credibility of sources describing this event. Some of them even go as far as to call it “paranoid style”. Nevertheless, the position adopted by Jill Lepore and expressed in her book “New York Burning” provides interesting insights into the matter.
The author interprets the political situation at the time in a way that makes us think whether the slave rebellion was not a logical point in a chain of events. Lepore argues that even though facts have not been definitively established, these events are a dark reflection of history (Lepore), and had far-reaching socio-political implications. The events of the 1730s and 1741 are believed by the author to be largely intertwined or even linked in a cause-effect chain of events. Based on Lepore’s arguments, we can conclude that a slave rebellion plot did take place in 1741, even though the complete scheme of conspiracy may remain unknown.
Events Before 1741
Lepore claims that certain events prior to the 1741 fires are crucial in order to understand the socio-political situation of the time. In 1732, the arrival of a newly appointed governor, William Cosby, led to a series of events. As his governing style was unjust, abusive, and therefore left much to be desired, a famous lawyer, James Alexander started collaborating with a German immigrant, John Peter Zenger.
The latter printed the New York Weekly Journal, where Alexander published his editorials outwardly criticizing Cosby’s administration. As a result, Zenger was arrested and tried on charges of libel. Due to the efforts of his lawyer, asserting that printing truthful criticism cannot be construed as libel, the governor himself was put on trial. Cosby did not stand a chance in front of the jury due to his abuse of power and an overall bad reputation. Thus, Zenger was acquitted of all charges, and together with Alexander, they published A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger.
Lepore pinpoints an interesting phenomenon that occurred because of the mentioned trials. In early eighteenth-century New York, parties were considered an obstacle for a good government administration. New Yorkers were rather suspicious of any political opposition. However, with Cosby’s infamous deeds and his eventual trial, parties started to form on the political arena of New York.
Lepore contends that the significance of these events extended far beyond the issue of freedom of the press, as they outlined the character of the political opposition (Lepore). The author emphasizes the reputation of New York as a city of flourishing opposition, which eventually led Cosby’s successor, Clarke, to state that the people of New York believe it was possible to depose a governor in case they find that the administration does not meet certain requirements.
The Fires of 1741
Lepore contends that the problem of slavery has always been a political issue. The political situation described above and the chain of events leading up to 1741 give reason to believe that the fires that swept New York were a logical development of the political struggle at the time. Ten fires blazed in the city that year, destroying many areas, and even burning the Governor Clarke’s house to the ground. Lepore claims that Supreme Court evidence obtained in the course of investigation pointed clearly at the possibility of a large and thorough conspiracy.
The author points out how dangerous this opposition movement was. Rather than fighting through newspapers, the conspirators used arson, as well as murder. They planned to depose the current governor and set up a black governor instead while murdering every white in the city, and burning it to the ground. Twenty white men and one hundred and fifty-two black men were arrested, with a subsequent series of trials and executions.
According to Lepore, events of the 1730s and 1741 are tied more closely than it is commonly understood. These events revealed two aspects of political opposition and the nature of the process of the formation of political parties. Even though Alexander’s methods were significantly more moderate, the violence of the slave plot may be seen as proportionate to the treatment they received at the time. In a way, Lepore argues, these events gave rise to political differentiation and eventually to revolution bringing about democracy.
Lepore emphasizes that the attempts to interpret the fires as an accident, rather than an elaborate and politically significant plot, were made shortly after the events took place. In an attempt to correct the spreading public opinion, Daniel Horsmanded published a document in 1744 entitled Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New York in America, and Murdering the Inhabitants, providing a detailed account of the events, as well as of subsequent investigation and trials.
However, the document focused on presenting the slaves as dangerous people requiring additional supervision and giving a recommendation as to the further limitation of their rights to protect the society. Horsmanden’s report was abundant in racial hatred, thereby contributing to the general dismissal of the interpretation of events that includes a conspiracy plot.
However, Lepore emphasizes that the dubious credibility of this document should not lead to a complete dismissal of this version of events. An essential part of the report was based on what the lawyers at the time called “Negro Evidence”, i.e. testimony provided by slaves. The author points out that without serious analysis of this evidence, albeit tangled in the eighteenth-century contradictions between liberty and slavery, the facts cannot be established.
It is rather unsurprising that more than half of the accused slaves pleaded guilty of plotting to burn the city and murder its inhabitants. Either real or phantom, rebellious slaves were a sign of the ongoing process of political diversification (Lepore). The mere possibility of a slave rebellion was perceived as a menace, thereby accepting it as a valid social movement that was eventually bound to develop further.
Lepore describes the phenomenon as a curious paradox, in which slavery ensured that liberty is possible. A threat of slave rebellion made the events of 1730 acceptable, and even natural, as Alexander’s political criticism seemed mild and harmless in comparison. The events of 1741 paved the way for further exploration of the opportunities for political change. In the following years, Daniel Horsmanden’s Journal was subject to a great deal of criticism and even ridicule, as was the author himself. The racial hatred underlying this document zealously outlines the inferiority and degeneration of the black slaves.
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The author emphasized the fact that their conspiracy seemed like a political association, but rather more menacing and sinister. Admittedly, Lepore also points out that the emergence of the “phantom black party” proved to be a logical result of Alexandre’s work in the 1730s, as well as an eventual termination of these experiments. Hanging and burning at stake that followed the fires of 1741 as a punishment for rebels, with a certain number of white conspirators pardoned, contributed to the gradual redefinition of the human values that eventually led to revolution, as well as to the abolition of slavery.
In the 1730s, Alexander and Zender have made a significant step towards creating a plural political landscape. Their efforts were rather moderate, compared to the events of 1741. They experimented with the possibility of establishing an oppositional party, which would benefit the governance system, rather than damage it. The “phantom black party” (Lepore) as a mere idea spurred this process significantly.
Overall, even though the whole scope of the conspiracy was not fully established, nor was the fact of an actual plot having taken place, it does not diminish the graveness of the socio-political implications. As the slave rebellion remained in the shadow, its inevitability was a menace to the existing order of things, contributing eventually to the revolution and the development of democracy. The events that took place in the first half of the eighteenth century, even with many experts questioning the conspiracy as its main cause, provided an additional impetus for the historic socio-political change in the years to come.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning, Kindle ed., New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.