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New York Burning


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About the Author

JILL LEPORE is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include the New York Times best seller The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Prize-winning author Lepore (history, Harvard Univ.; The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) offers new analysis of an episode in Colonial New York that revealed the city's racism, the so-called New York Conspiracy, or Negro Plot, of 1741. At the time, New York's pluralistic white community depended upon slaves, who constituted 20 percent of the population. When ten suspicious fires broke out, one white accuser claimed that they were set by black slaves, and the populace panicked at the perceived uprising. The trials resulted in 26 blacks and four whites being hanged or burned at the stake, with numerous other blacks punished with deportation. Lepore cites Thomas J. Davis's A Rumor of Revolt and Peter Hoffer's The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741 but aims for something different. She seeks to distinguish between the kind of liberty achieved by literate whites (e.g., freedom of the press) and the kinds of liberty that proved elusive for blacks. She also argues that the New York Conspiracy may in fact have been imagined by a white populace all too aware of its oppression of blacks and conversant with its own factional politics. Recommended for university history students and specialists, although it will also benefit the informed lay reader. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/05.]-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

With riveting prose and a richly imagined re-creation of a horrible but little-studied event, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) deftly recounts the circumstances surrounding a conspiracy in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In 1741, its teeming streets erupted into fire in at least 10 locations. At first, rival political parties blamed each other for the conflagrations, but they joined forces against black slaves when a young white woman named Mary Burton testified that she had witnessed several slaves conspiring to kill whites and gain their liberty. The colony's leaders arrested and tried at least 100 black men and women. Eventually, the colonial Supreme Court sentenced 30 men to death; 17 were hanged (along with the four supposed white ringleaders) and 13 burned at the stake, based solely on Burton's testimony. Out of fear, several slaves testified against others, and the bulk were sent into brutal slavery in the Caribbean. Drawing primarily on New York Supreme Court justice Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, Lepore demonstrates that whites' fear of black rebellion led them to blame any threat to the colony on the activity of slaves. In this first-rate social history, Lepore not only adroitly examines the case's travesty, questioning whether such a conspiracy ever existed, but also draws a splendid portrait of the struggles, prejudices and triumphs of a very young New York City in which fully "one in five inhabitants was enslaved." 17 illus., 1 map. (Aug. 29) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

"A fascinating social and political history." --The New York Times Book Review

"Vivid and provocative; [Lepore] evokes eighteenth-century New York in all its moral and physical messiness." --The New Yorker

"A vivid and convincing account of the 'plot' and its aftermath. . . . [A] sober, meticulous, balanced book" --The Washington Post Book World

"A historical study that is both intellectually rigorous and broadly accessible. . . . The type of book that we need to read and historians need to write, more often." --Newsday

"[Lepore] brings this terrifying period vividly to life. . . . A gripping read that shows how quickly fear spread through a city resting upon a terrible imbalance." --Newark Star-Ledger
"The most vivid and telling description of life and death in a colonial seaport yet produced by a historian. With a lacerating attention to detail, Lepore reveals teh tragedies endured and inflicted in a colonial society that combined freedom and slavery in crowded towns of start cruelty and vaunting ambitions." --
The New Republic

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