It may be that, in some ultimate sense, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Then again, fear is a pretty all-encompassing foe. It is also, and always has been, a political tool. If Islamic terrorism is today’s unseen source of collective fear, at once justified and manipulated, in the first half of the eighteenth century it was the slave revolt. Anyone familiar with New York’s colonial history has likely come across an event that is typically referred to as “the so-called slave rebellion of 1741.” The qualifier says two things: The facticity of the facts is in question, and the real story is either too complicated to go into in detail or its features have been swallowed up by time. Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, has taken it upon herself to excavate the ground beneath the “so-called,” and she has unearthed two varieties of grimly fascinating stuff. The first is slavery itself: Hers is the sort of photo-realistic portrait of a time and place that shows the shoulder-rubbing closeness of blacks and whites coexisting in the most naked form of inequality; the detailing is fine enough that you can see the RN, for “runaway,” branded into the black shoulder.
The other–Lepore’s main subject, and the reason this book ought to be read even by those with no particular taste for colonial history–is the complex dance of power and fear. The basic facts are these: In March and April of 1741, a series of ten fires erupted in Lower Manhattan, the most significant one within the walls of the fort at the southern tip of the island, the center of power in the British colony of New York. A plot was uncovered: Slaves, together with some downtrodden whites, were found to have conspired to burn down the whole city and murder the white population. Arrests were made: 152 blacks and twenty whites. A trial was held; people were convicted and sentenced. Thirty black men were hanged or burned at the stake; two white men and two white women were hanged. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, one black and one white, were gibbeted, the corpses left to rot for weeks on public display. One resident called the episode the “Bonfires of the Negros.”
The word “unfair” can hardly do justice to the treatment visited upon New York’s slave population in the aftermath of the fires. The episode might be dismissed as an outcome of a cruder age were it not reminiscent of more recent terrorist detainments. Literally every lawyer in New York was engaged on the side of the prosecution, while the defendants–the city’s official nonpeople–had no representation at all. Confessions were extracted at the stake. And as the confessions piled up, they lent themselves to a conspiracy theory of fantastical proportions. The richest white New Yorkers were to have been murdered; the slaves would become the masters. The royal governor of New York was to be replaced by a slave–named Caesar, no less.
The prosecutors wove all of this into a horrific tale of topsy-turvy, but they didn’t stop there. The decorative wrapping on the conspiracy theory was that the whole black-on-white uprising was really orchestrated from Rome. It was a papist plot on white Protestant civilization, with blacks acting as the pope’s minions and a disguised Catholic priest (“To be a Roman Catholic priest was illegal in New York in 1741,” Lepore notes, “a crime punishable by death”) as their field captain.
The ungainly plot began to unravel even before the first bodies swung. The comic absurdity–the fact that such a tortured piling-on of invention could be believed long enough to convict–points to the special nature of the threat and to the fear that those in power manipulated. But the credulity of New York’s elite also betrayed an implicit understanding that their heavy exertion of power over the relatively powerless would result not in an equal and opposite reaction but in an asymmetrical one. One person’s terrorism is another’s struggle to be free, and during slavery’s heyday the lurking, grinding fear in every white colonial mind was of smoke, flame and the flashing blade: the slave uprising.
Uprisings did happen. One had occurred in New York in 1712, another on Antigua in 1736. And less than two years before the episode in question came the so-called Stono Rebellion, in which 100 or so slaves armed themselves and marched south from Charleston, South Carolina, toward Florida, where they may have hoped to win freedom under the Spanish there. Before being hunted down, they torched and murdered and otherwise burnished the fear that gleamed in the heart of white society.
By one reckoning, then, the slaves in New York in 1741 were simply following a well-established model of revolt. But the scope of the plot presented by the prosecution, the elaborate and painstaking stitching-together, points to something else. This is what Lepore is after. The story as she tells it weaves together three seemingly disparate episodes of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: the 1692 Salem witch trials, the free-press trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735 and the events of 1741. The last two of these events point toward the American Revolution. Their legacy is still with us.
The chain connecting the Salem witch trials and the “Bonfires of the Negros” (not to mention the 2001 Patriot Act) is mass hysteria: the conviction that a dark enemy lurks among us and extraordinary measures must be taken to defeat it. Some in 1741 saw the connection to what was then a shameful occurrence in the not-so-distant past, and regretted it. The events surrounding the Zenger trial, meanwhile, bear directly on 1741, in Lepore’s reckoning, and amplify what has long seemed a grim but small event in American colonial history.
In the 1730s there were no political parties in America. The British governor of a colony was its politics. With the arrival in 1732 of William Cosby as New York’s governor, however, the colony undertook its first experiment in organized political opposition. Cosby’s abuses and excesses were such that some influential New Yorkers, led by James Alexander, a bewigged lawyer who also just happened to be the city’s second-wealthiest taxpayer, floated the radical idea that political parties, formerly seen as fatally divisive, might be beneficial. Alexander set up Zenger, a printer, as publisher of a newspaper–the New-York Weekly Journal–that was to be a first: an opposition mouthpiece. Cosby arrested Zenger for printing “seditious paragraphs” about him. The subsequent trial was historic because of the radical and novel arguments the defense advanced: that Zenger should be let off since what he printed about the governor was true; and that a free press was an inherently good thing.
Zenger was acquitted, and in the minds of the British rulers a dangerous precedent was established: the idea of a legitimate opposition, a “Country Party” against the “Court Party.” In Lepore’s reading, this, combined with the heavy weight of slavery on colonial life, formed the backdrop to the events of 1741, and these two episodes foreshadowed the revolution that was to come: “Slaves suspected of conspiracy constituted both a phantom political party and an ever-threatening revolution.”
Lepore thus sees the 1741 trial of slaves and poor whites as a reaction to the political upheavals that had shaken the city in the previous decade. Certain-ly the same people played roles in both. The lead prosecutor in 1741, Daniel Horsmanden, was Chief Justice of New York’s Supreme Court; in the 1730s he had been city recorder, Governor Cosby’s right-hand man.
There may well have been a meeting of slaves and poor whites in John Hughson’s tavern, and a plan to set fire to the fort. But what Horsmanden came up with as he carried out his investigation, and what white New Yorkers bought, was a scapegoating fiction fueled by fear and crafted in part for political purposes: “Hughson’s Plot, of men meeting in a tavern plotting to replace the governor–looked to [Horsmanden] so much like a blacker version of the Country Party of the 1730s that he dedicated himself to the task of exposing these ‘latent Enemies.'” In the account of the trial that he later wrote, Lepore adds, “Horsmanden made his political point: a slave conspiracy is like a political party, only even more sinister.” The subtext of the prosecution, then, was this: There are forces opposed to our society that live among us; the government is justified in using all available means to squelch them, for the good of all. The “Bonfires of the Negros,” by this argument, were meant to signal a crackdown on both slave terrorism and upstart political opposition.
Lepore–the author of books about King Philip’s War and the use of language in early America–has chosen an exquisite puzzle for a historian. There is a load of colorful material detailing the events of 1741, but all of it is from one side–largely from Horsmanden’s account. The challenge is to tease out what isn’t there, to give a voice to those whom history has rendered mute. She does this with great skill. The story of the conspiracy that Horsmanden tells has slaves forming a secret society; oaths are sworn, a secret book is kissed and elaborate meals are consumed, all while the plotting goes on.
Each of these features, Lepore shows, directly parallels the features of the gentlemen’s clubs that were de rigueur in New York’s elite white society of the time (the Freemason lodge in New York had been founded four years earlier). So while slaves and poor whites did meet throughout the city amid the privations of the harsh winter of 1740-41, joined by their common misery, there was no feasting on veal, mutton and goose, no elaborate scheme to “take the Country.”
The whole town was suffering that winter; and the image of slaves gorging themselves in a way that whites couldn’t afford while being waited on by white women, one of them pregnant with a black man’s child, speaks to the darkest fears of white society. The story that Horsmanden sold, Lepore says, was “a plot dripping with plot, ripe to bursting with familiar characters and contrivances.” Lepore’s exposure of it shows the affair of 1741 as an important nexus in American history: a place near the nation’s core where race and revolution–slave rebellion and colonial rebellion–are joined.
One of the challenges for both the writer and reader of history is to excavate a given era’s beliefs: when it comes to a society’s fear, to see to what extent it rests on something real (here, slave rebellion) and to understand both what lies beneath it (oppression) and how much the fear may have been magnified and rechanneled for the purposes of those in power. Of course, this also applies to the present. Lepore’s unwillingness to relate the fear-and-power play of her particular story to history more broadly–to make it relevant–may limit her readership to those with a special interest in the era. That would be unfortunate, because the lesson at the heart of her book–how those who abuse power become haunted by the nightmare of retribution–could hardly be more timely.