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New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Vintage) Paperback – 8 Aug 2006

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 26 reviews
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Search for Scapegoats 8 Jun. 2006
By Rocco Dormarunno - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jill Lepore's "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan" is a valuable and admirable examination of one of the darkest episodes in New York's history: the so-called slave rebellion of 1741 and the brutal vengeance that was extracted. Professor Lepore's painstaking research confronts the reader with a terrible conclusion: even the most respectable of people in society will consent to the deaths of human beings, based on even the tiniest shreds of evidence.

Focusing primarily on the actions of Daniel Horsmanden, the City's Recorder, Lepore provides the reader with a background on the attitudes of New York's whites toward their slaves. She makes clear that Gotham was neither the first nor only city to have witnessed slave uprisings. (It had suffered a similar uprising a couple of decades earlier.) But the events of 1741 were unique for several reasons:

--the shifting finger-pointing at various groups;

--the inconsistency of Mary Burton's testimony, which essentially was the case against several slaves;and

--Horsmanden's bizarre behavior toward Mary Burton.

Admittedly, I've only superficially studied this dark time in New York's history, so I was shocked to learn that there were actually several "conspiracies": the Negro Plot, Hughson's Plot, the Spanish Plot, the Roman Plot, etc. Each plot was hatched depending on who confessed to what. Worst of all, the white population of New York--fueled by racism, xenophobia, paranoia, and, not the least of all, bloodlust--went right along with it. And, with the exception of an intriguing anonymous letter from Massachussetts, it seems the rest of the colonies went along with it, too. While Horsmanden is just short of villified in this book, he is not alone in his culpability.

Professor Lapore's "New York Burning" will disturb many readers. The accounts of the slaves and the few whites burning, hanging, begging, and praying are graphic and heartbreaking. Still, this in an incredibly important book for anyone interested in the history of our nation and/or the all-too-tragic fragility of race relations in America. For this, Professor Lapore deserves our appreciation
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Skip--er, skim--the book; read Appendix A instead. 3 April 2009
By Lover of non-fiction - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition
Lepore resurrects a dark chapter of Colonial New York history. In doing so, she offers intriguing speculations about what really happened when New York burned in 1741 and why events may have been misperceived by many white New Yorkers and misrepresented by her chosen villain, Daniel Horsmanden. If only there were enough evidence to get much beyond speculation.

While Lepore is capable of writing very well, many sections of the book are repetitious to the point of tedium. I often got the sense that the publisher was pressing Lepore to "Make it longer! We'll never be able to sell it for anything close to $30 at that length." The Preface, particularly, seems hastily written and superfluous. It's bloated with poorly edited sentences like: "The difference made Alexander's opposition seem, relative to slave rebellion, harmless, and in so doing made the world safer for democracy, or at least, and less grandly, both more amenable to and more anxious about the gradual and halting rise of political parties."

Appendix A, on the other hand, is a wonderful addition. I was fascinated to learn about Lepore's research methodology and am very glad she included that section.

Based on the paucity of evidence available, it deserved to be a 125-page monograph and would have been fine as such. Sadly, there's apparently not much call for those in the popular history market.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Stylistically unsettling but worthwhile 25 Jan. 2008
By David Liebers - Published on
Format: Paperback
The subject of American slavery presents numerous challenges to the modern historian, not the least of which is its heterogeneous nature. The experience of a slave on a rice plantation in the Carolinas certainly would have contrasted that of a slave on a tobacco plantation in Maryland. Temporal, geographic, and other less grounded factors might have influenced the condition of human servitude in colonial and post-Revolution America. The distinction of urban slavery in the eighteenth century, particularly in the north, is relatively understudied. In New York Burning, Jill Lepore recreates early eighteenth century Manhattan, recounting the decisions of the court, the common talk on the streets, the comings and goings of sloops of trade and war, the livelihoods of its people, the menace of slavery, and a conspiracy that threatened to burn the city to the ground.

The books is truly a great read, but objectivity and fact are sometimes brought out of focus making for interesting but questionable conclusions. Though the use of literary license, which is scattered between summary of the conspiracy trial and its proceedings, helps to contextualize events and enliven eighteenth century New York in the mind of the reader, it sometimes borders on fictive. The summer of 1941 is characterized in an imagined description: "The wind blew hot. In the streets, hogs sweated and dogs panted, seeking the shade of doorways and market awnings and the smooth coolness of the marble steps of fashionable houses."(Lepore, 171) The language animates the New York heat, working to contrast with the previous winter which was described in stylistically similar prose, however as hogs cannot sweat, some of the magic is lost.

Perhaps Lepore's greatest success is her reconstruction of the social underworld of unsupervised black slaves, some whites, and other captives in the streets and taverns of New York. Lepore leaves an open ended conclusion and brings recent events, such as the treatment of slave burial grounds in NYC to light. In the end, I give this book praise but am not totally sold on this brand of scholarship.
34 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Somehow disappointing 4 Oct. 2005
By Roberto Munguambe - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I had high expectations towards this book. The subject seems to be a fascinating episode of New York's history with all the ingredients to a good historical thriller. Yet, after reading the first couple of chapters, one cant help feeling somehow disappointed. The trouble with this work, as Jill recognises herself, is that although the incident of the 1741 fires caused great upheaval there is very little documental materiel for a thorough historical research. As a result, for much of the book, Jill Lepore relies on rough guessing and dwells on matters which are of little relevance to the conspiracy. When she does focus on the conspiracy, the examination of the trial reports gets boring and quite confusing as names and statements are confronted over and over again. And while the author does her best to show the failings of the colonial judicial system, the question remains wether the condemned slaves actually did start the fires, however ill-treated they were.

Once you get through the first 100 pages you end up thinking the subject could have made a good research paper but there really isn't enough to it to make a good book. Not with such limited historical sources anyway.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
DAMN, this is a great book! 20 May 2008
By John Warren - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
All history books should be this detailed, this readable, this humane. Lepore knows how to write about a horrible, nearly forgotten episode in NYC history. Unlike many historians, she steps away from overt politics or raw emotion. She knows that this subject is too serious to be shouted. It is the rare history book that is packed with facts as well as knowledge.

I felt like Lepore was taking my hand and leading me through the smelly streets of lower Manhattan in 1741, like I could almost see the faces of...what were they, anyway? The victims of a horrible hoax? The demented planners of a plot to burn the city? Or something in between, where thieves can also be the keepers of ancient rites from a distant homeland, where the world is turned upside down?

I could go on and on, but just buy the book!
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