In her nonfiction account of the 1741 lynchings of slaves, New York Burning, what is Jill Lepore’s argument: which factors does she weigh the most, and is her argument persuasive, and what are the most important factors at work in the events of the spring and summer of 1741, based on the evidence Lepore provides?
Underpinning Jill Lepore’s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan is her interest in what she terms the central paradox of America’s founding: the emphasis on liberty while New Yorkers were second only to Charleston, South Carolina for number of slaves. Lepore is also interested in the well-known libel case involving newspaper publisher Pete Zenger, who published articles illuminating the profligacy and corruption of New York’s England-appointed governor, William Cosby. Lepore's interest in the Zenger libel case was grounded in the political divisions that case wrought, with political parties forming on either side of the trial. The importance of political parties to New York politics is Lepore’s other main focus, in addition to the paradox of wide-scale slavery in the land of the free and the threat to press freedom emanating from the Zenger case. At the time of the Zenger trial, 1735, New Yorkers largely considered political parties “sinister, invidious, and destructive of good government.” The divisions created between loyalists – those loyal to the Crown – who backed Cosby, and colonialists more akin towards severing the relationship between Crown and colonies, who supported Zenger, were manifested in the establishment of the very organizations previously held in contempt: political parties. As Lepore notes,
“Parties they may have despised, but, with William Cosby in the governor’s office, New Yorkers formed them, dividing themselves between the opposition Country Party, and the Court Party loyal to the governor.”
The series of fires that mysteriously burned across New York in 1741, and which precipitated the chain of events leading to the execution of 30 slaves and the four whites accused of leading the conspiracy to revolt against the white rulers, remained unsolved, but the damage was done, with white fears of a slave revolt driving emotions and hardening New Yorkers to the fact that slavery was seriously anathema to the ideals driving the revolutionary movement that would, in time, give birth to a country founded on principles of freedom and rights to speech, religion, assembly, etc. One of Lepore’s findings, informed speculation is a better description, is that white fears of a slave rebellion may very well have been grounded in reality. The inhumane conditions associated with slavery unsurprisingly compelled slaves to consider the alternatives, including revolt against their Caucasian masters. Slave revolts had recently occurred in the Danish island of St. John and in Jamaica, as well as in New York. Additionally, Lepore draws parallels between the 1741 hunt for conspirators to the 1692 Salem witch trials, astutely noting the far greater death toll associated with the New York executions (34 dead, 13 of whom were burned at the stake, the rest hanged, against 20 executed during the witch trials). The same dynamics, Lepore argues, existed in both cases: mass hysteria leading to the deaths of innocents.
The history of slave revolts, the improbable occurrence of ten fires set within a brief period of time, and the racism inherent in the practice of slavery all contributed to the atmosphere that led to a horrific episode in American history that few Americans today even know about.