In the preface of New York Burning, historian Jill Lepore argues that colonial “New York was a slave city” that was “second only to Charleston, South Carolina, in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom.” What does she mean by these claims, and what evidence does she present? Why?

In New York Burning, Jill Lepore presents evidence that slavery was widespread in Manhattan in the middle of the eighteenth century. One in five Manhattanites was a slave, and the white population lived in fear of uprisings and conspiracies.

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In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore examines the evidence surrounding a suspected slave uprising in New York in 1741. Fires were lit all over Manhattan island, and almost 200 slaves were arrested and tried by the Supreme Court of the colony. Thirteen of them were burned at the stake, and another seventeen were executed by hanging. Many more were jailed in circumstances of extreme squalor.

The claim that New York at this time was a slave city "second only to Charleston, South Carolina, in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom" serves as background to the situation of race-based paranoia which Lepore describes, and is a simple matter of numbers. Lepore points out that one in five of the inhabitants of Manhattan in the mid eighteenth century was enslaved. She also argues that atrocities against slaves were common enough for the events of 1741 to have gone unremarked by historians, citing other suspected plots and the harsh punishments meted out for them in the 1730s.

Lepore comments that the trials and executions of 1741 in New York happened more recently and in a more prominent location than the Salem Witch Trials, which have become infamous. At the same time, the history of slavery and the slave trials in New York have been largely forgotten, despite being well-documented.

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