Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy

in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

By Jill Lepore

Knopf. 323 pp. $26.95 In the bitterly cold winter of 1741, strange things happened on the island of Manhattan. Though fires were not uncommon in those days of wooden structures and fireplaces, the 10 fires that broke out within a few weeks seemed to many people more than just coincidence. It was a time when conspiracy theories flourished: "There was always a villain to be caught, a conspiracy to be detected. The century was lousy with intrigues. Nearly everyone, and enlightened, reasonable people most of all, spotted plotters lurking behind nearly every shadow, and arsonists in the flicker of almost every flame." It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that a conspiracy was quickly detected, and it is not much less surprising that the accused were black slaves.

New York two-and-a-half centuries ago was "a slave city," as dependent on slave labor as any of the Southern colonies, as fearful of slave uprisings, and as quick to suppress real or imagined threats with whatever violence it deemed necessary. The "plot" of 1741 was deemed threatening indeed, and the response was brutal:

"Nearly 200 slaves were suspected of conspiring to burn every building and murder every white. Tried and convicted before the colony's Supreme Court, 13 black men were burned at the stake. Seventeen more were hanged, two of their dead bodies chained to posts not far from the Negroes Burial Ground, left to bloat and rot. One jailed man cut his own throat. Another 70 men and women were sold into yet more miserable, bone-crushing slavery in the Caribbean. Two white men and two white women, the alleged ringleaders, were hanged, one of them in chains; seven more white men were pardoned on condition that they never set foot in New York again."

It is one of the bloodiest and most shameful incidents in the history of a city that prefers to think of itself (and represent itself to the rest of the world) as a beacon of enlightened progressivism, and the episode is almost entirely lost in the shadows of history. Relatively few documents survive, and many of those that do are unreliable. The names of the accused slaves are recorded, but little else is known about them, and there is not much more evidence about the whites who supposedly egged them on. Even the most prominent white on the side of the law, Daniel Horsmanden, has now slipped almost entirely past history's attention.

Yet working with such evidence as she has been able to accumulate, Jill Lepore has written a vivid and convincing account of the "plot" and its aftermath. For the general reader, the principal interest of New York Burning lies in the story of the slaves and their prosecutors, and the account Lepore presents of life in Manhattan in that day.

Obviously it bore almost no resemblance to the Manhattan of today. Its population of about 10,000 was clustered at the southern end of the island, around the Battery, and was very much under the heavy thumb of British rule. In some respects, though, even then the town was echt New York: It "was a jumble of cultures, languages and religion," it was "a frenzied, fractious place," it "had a certain buzz" even though it "still had the feel of the frontier." It was also part of a larger "world of enlightenment, of exuberance in the arts, of confidence in man's capacity to reason the ways of nature and of nature's God, and of ardent embrace of political liberty in the face of tyranny's slavery."

This last was of course in stark contrast to its dependence on slave labor, but then hypocrisy and slaveholding have always gone hand in hand, as witness the freedom-loving slave planters of the South and, half a century later, the venerated Founding Fathers, who found ways to write slavery into the Constitution. About 20 percent of New York's population were slaves, mostly from West and Central Africa. They came from different places in Africa, but in the New World that mattered less than the suffering and deprivation they shared; their instinct was to bond rather than to squabble.

One of the places where they bonded was at John Hughson's house. He was "a cobbler, tavern keeper and petty criminal who fenced stolen goods for black men who were also thieves." Evidence (again) is somewhat slender, but it appears that there was "a loose and at times poorly coordinated network of black and poor white thieves [who] apparently brought their takings to Hughson in exchange for the occasional feast and the more reliable dram of rum or bowl of punch." According to confessions extracted from some of the alleged conspirators, it was during one such occasion that the scheme to kill all of New York's whites was devised.

Lepore believes, though she cannot say for certain, that what became known as "Hughson's Plot" may well have been a parody of Masonic rituals. Unquestionably there was anti-white feeling among blacks, for obvious reasons, and economic inequity not merely between whites and blacks but also within the white community. Plenty of resentment was on hand to fuel social unrest, and fearful whites didn't have to look far to see, or imagine, violent uprisings among the dispossessed.

Principal among the white alarmists was Daniel Horsmanden. He is a strange and mostly unattractive figure. A native of London, born in 1694, he sought a legal career and a wealthy marriage to no avail, and came to the American colonies in 1732. He had little money but good connections and managed in short order to acquire the first of a succession of political appointments, including high judicial office. In the trial of the accused slaves and their alleged white allies, he served as both prosecutor and judge, and was merciless. ("That one of the judges headed the investigation was not, by eighteenth century standards, wholly unusual," the author explains.) With a careful eye to the judgment of history, he kept an account of the episode. Lepore writes:

"The trail of [slaves named] Quack and Cuffee, like nearly everything else that happened in City Hall, upstairs and down, between the opening of the Supreme Court on April 21 and its closing on August 31, 1741, is both richly documented and maddeningly unknowable. Of 133 days of arrests, interrogations, accusations, confessions, retractions, testimony, cross-examinations, judgments, verdicts, executions, pardons, threats, promises, whispers, cries of despair and shrieks of pain, almost the sole surviving record is what Daniel Horsmanden included in his Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy."

Horsmanden "was something of an expert at interpreting sedition, at 'fixing meaning' to words," and in bristling italics he dramatized what he saw as the difficulties of his assignment: "an Examiner must expect to encounter with much Perplexity; grope through a Maze of Obscurity; be obliged to lay hold of broken Hints, lay them carefully together, and thoroughly weigh and compare them with each other, before he can be able to see the Light, or fix those Creatures to any certain determinate Meaning." That Horsmanden believed himself to be in righteous pursuit of the truth seems reasonable to assume, but it is equally reasonable to assume that what he ended up writing was fiction. He was looking to confirm white fears rather than to allay them, and -- consciously or not -- he cooked the evidence to suit his purposes.

What "had animated Horsmanden's investigation from the beginning" was "fear of black rebellion" among New York's whites. The city's "simmering racial and political tensions" left little room for fairness and objectivity, and Horsmanden seems not to have been the man to supply either. He's been given a brief reprieve from history's neglect in Lepore's sober, meticulous, balanced book, but he'll be back where he deserves to be -- in the shadows -- before long. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

Firefighting in New York, ca. 1753