Lepore: A look at the Roots of Racism in NYC
In a modern investigative history, Harvard?s Jill Lepore narrates and analyzes New York?s 1741 uprising and the white reaction to fear and violence. In 2005?s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Professor Lepore acts as crime sleuth and societal analyst in tandem. The author links the interaction between races in an unsettled slave culture with the need for dominant races to fear and blame traditionally subjugated races. Even more, Lepore explores the need to create a scapegoat in order to calm fear, and relates that need to present race relations in New York. Her tale is one of political and social intrigue, of fear and violence, in a setting created by colonial slavery and the resulting class and social distinctions. Her tale is, in reality, a tale of modern America, set in colonial New York.
In the early to mid 1700?s, New York City was a model for class disparity and potential violence. In 1734, the wealthiest 105 taxpayers owned 39% of the taxable property; the poorest 30% owned 7% in a city based on shipping and commerce. This separation of classes-and races-is vital to Lepore?s monograph. Groups in New York were polarized, and this split became the dividing point for race relations. After a harsh winter laced with discontent, Fort George caught fire in what at first was an accident. Shortly after, a series of suspicious fires plagued the city, and panic took hold as a slave named Cuffee was brought into custody. New York residents either remembered or knew about the 1712 slave uprisings, as well as South Carolina?s Stono Rebellion and Cudjoe?s rebellion in Jamaica. 20% of New York?s population was Black, and whites reacted by looking for conspiracy.
That conspiracy was to be found through the coupling of fear and subjugation with the political machinations of astute politicians. As fear gripped the city, slave codes became tighter, with legislation that ?is a brutal testament to the difficulty of enslaving human beings, especially in the cities.? All slaves, all Blacks were suspect. The architect of the conspiracy story and resulting trial was Daniel Horsmanden, an aspiring politician and judge who saw his chance to crush the troublesome slaves while earning the confidence and reliance of the population. Much of the only remaining official records were rewritten and constructed by Horsmanden, yielding a tenuous analysis of events for Lepore. As Cuffee and more slaves came under suspicion and were summarily tried and convicted, a long string of suspects and confessions resulted. Servant Mary Burton, under pressure and enjoying the spotlight, testified that a number of slaves and whites had indeed conspired to burn New York City, kill the rich whites, and construct a new government while taking advantage of the white women. After that revelation, true or not, the wheels for a witch hunt were in motion.
Once the public sensed a conspiracy, a hunger for scapegoats and punishment ensued. In fact, Lepore?s research yields at least two different conspiracy stories which were molded into one for the prosecution?s convenience. The manipulation of truths, falsehoods, and forced confessions leaves such a mess of constructed and created history that, according to Lepore, ?it remains to disentangle them, to unravel strands of fiction, from strands of truth.? As Cuffee and another convicted slave, Quack, approached their execution, they continued to claim innocence. Upon viewing the pyre at which they were to be burned alive, the two suddenly named thirty conspirators, yet were executed at the insistence of the crowd. As with any witch hunt, prosecutors cast their net wider, adding sympathetic whites and Catholic priests to the mix. As the conspiracy theory moved well out of hand, New Yorkers finally began to question the validity of some of the charges and confessions. The damage, however, had been done, and the legacy of racial hatred, divisiveness, and subjugation had been cemented in New York?s way of life.