By 1730, even as municipal officials prepared to receive the new city charter, New York was sliding into a deep recession. Part of the problem was that cheap flour from Pennsylvania had cut into New York’s share of the West Indian trade. Merchants and farmers, now heavily reliant on wheat production, responded by cutting prices—then expanded output in order to maintain their profits, glutting the market and driving prices still lower. At the same time, climaxing years of overproduction on West Indian plantations, the price of brown sugar at the London Custom House fell off sharply. Pressed by their creditors, numerous planters failed, and those who didn’t fail retrenched. Trade between the islands and the mainland colonies slumped for the first time in nearly two decades, then sagged further still when the Molasses Act of 1733 took effect. Being part of an international commercial network, it was clear, could bring severe dislocations as well as create opportunities. An alarmed Lieutenant Governor George Clarke advised New Yorkers to consider manufactures as the solution to their dilemma. “The markets for your flour, the present staple of the Province, are already so much overdone by the great importations that are made of them from this and the other northern colonies,” he warned, that unless New York could begin to produce goods “that are wanted in Great Britain” (and didn’t interfere with British manufactures), then soon “there will be no way to employ the people to any advantage.”
In New York, the ramifications of the recession were multiplying quickly by the mid-1730s and continued for the remainder of the decade. The city offered “nothing but the melancholy Scene of little Business, and less Money,” it was reported in 1732. Shipyards languished; by 1734 only one or two vessels were under construction, and the governor was seeking ways to “give life to the expiring hopes of ship carpenters.” Indeed everyone whose livelihood depended on overseas trade was in trouble. “The Baker, the Brewer, the Smith, the Carpenter, the Ship-Wright, the Boat-Man, the Farmer, and the Shopkeeper”—all were suffering, “John Scheme” wrote to the New-York Weekly journal in 1734. Many residents had been forced “to seek Other Habitations so that in these three Years there has been above 300 Persons who have left New York.” Sailors were hit hard as the town’s merchant fleet, 124 ships strong in 1700, shrank to fifty in 1734. Residents wondered how the prosperity of the previous decade could have ended so quickly. As one poetically inclined writer asked in the pages of the New-York Gazette in 1733: “Pray tell me the cause of trade so dead,/Why shops are shut up, goods and owners fled, / And industrious families cannot get bread?”
Disease made matters worse. Epidemics of measles and smallpox claimed 549 victims, some 6 percent of the population, before running their course at the end of 1732. “Many Children dye . . . and the Country People are afraid to come to Town which makes Markets thin, Provisions dear, and deadens all Trade, and it goes very hard with the Poor.” Between 1731 and 1735, almost four hundred people required public assistance—twice as many as a decade earlier—while the poor rate soared to £649 (although the churchwardens and vestrymen were unwilling to raise taxes to support able-bodied artisans out of work). Prosecutions for larceny, fencing stolen goods, and prostitution rose swiftly, accompanied by a skittish clamor for a new jail and a better watch. Courts imposed increasingly severe exemplary punishments, and the municipal gallows were moved up to the Common to accommodate larger crowds.
Hard times increased racial animosities. In 1737 Lieutenant Governor Clarke received petitions from skilled craftsmen who “complain with too much reason of the pernicious custom of breeding slaves to trades. The honest and industrious tradesmen are reduced to poverty for want of employ” and must “seek their living in other countries.” For this too Clarke had a solution. New York, he said, needed to be “replenished with white people” and made an all-white city. But white outmigration continued, the flow of white immigrants fell off, and the city—its economy and society now hooked on slavery—continued to import African slaves. By 1741 nearly one in five New Yorkers would be black.
THE PARTY OF THE PEOPLE
In the summer of 1731 Governor John Montgomerie died unexpectedly. His replacement was William Cosby, formerly governor of Minorca, who regarded his appointment as an invitation to gorge at the public table. No sooner had he reached New York in 1732 than he forced the Assembly to give him a “present” of a thousand pounds and sued Rip Van Dam, president of the council, for half the salary that Van Dam had collected as acting governor in the months since Montgomerie’s death. Van Dam’s lawyers, William Smith and James Alexander, persuaded Chief Justice Lewis Morris to throw out the governor’s suit, over the objections of Associate Justices James De Lancey and Frederick Philipse. Cosby, in a rage, kicked Morris off the bench and named De Lancey to be chief justice instead.
This was no routine dispute over political spoils. Nor was it the usual dispute over who should pay the bulk of the tax burden—the gentlemen of New York’s mercantile interest (who advocated a tax on land and were now in favor) or those of the landed interest (who championed a tax on imports and were now out). Cosby was a protege of the duke of Newcastle, a great Whig nobleman, secretary of state, and staunch ally of Robert Walpole—the canniest and most controversial politician of the era.
During the 1720s, as lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, Walpole had acquired such influence over both cabinet and Parliament that he became known as the “prime” minister, Britain’s first. He also earned the implacable hatred of “country party” Tories and old-fashioned True Whig “commonwealthmen.” Despite their differences, they were unanimous in the belief that Walpole’s lavish use of patronage had corrupted Parliament, the last bastion of English liberty, and infected the nation with avarice, speculation, luxury, and sloth.
By 1730 attacks on Walpole permeated British literature and public discourse. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, two radical libertarians, won renown for their savaging of Walpole in The Independent Whig (1720) and Cato’s Letters, a series of essays that first appeared in the London Journal (1720-22) and were widely reprinted in the colonies. At the other extreme of the political spectrum stood the Craftsman (1726-76), in which Bolingbroke, William Pulteney, and other Tories flayed Walpole as the “man of craft” who had driven the country to the brink of moral and political ruin. When Walpole proposed a new excise on wine and tobacco in 1733, angry crowds thronged the streets of London chanting “No slavery, no excise!” and— The Craftsman’s motto—“King George, Liberty, and Law!”
The gentlemen of the landed interest in New York, who knew all about the ties between Walpole, Newcastle, and Cosby, decided that Cosby’s venality possessed a deeper, more sinister meaning than first met the eye—that its real purpose was to accelerate the subversion of English liberty by exporting ministerial corruption to America. Their response was to reach out for public support, drawing upon the full range of anti Walpole “opposition” rhetoric. By the spring of 1733, against a background of epidemic disease and the most serious economic depression in the town’s history, the stage was set for New York’s first broad-based political confrontation in decades.
The struggle began in Westchester County, where Morris mounted a campaign against the Philipses for possession of a vacant Assembly seat. When the polls opened in the village of Eastchester on the appointed day in October, hundreds of Morris’s supporters, many on horseback, converged on the village green behind “two Trumpeters and 3 Violines” and a banner emblazoned with the motto of the Craftsman:KING GEORGE on one side, LIBERTY & LAW on the other. After circling the green three times, they retired for refreshments supplied by Morris and his friends. Morris’s rival, a schoolmaster appointed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, then made his appearance, escorted by Frederick Philipse, James De Lancey, and nearly two hundred horsemen. They paraded twice around the green and likewise trooped off for refreshment. The high sheriff, “finely mounted” in the scarlet and silver regalia of his office, then summoned the electors back to the green and began to record their votes.
Morris won handily and returned to New York City, where his supporters had just arranged for William Bradford’s former apprentice, John Peter Zenger, to launch a new newspaper in opposition to Bradford’s semiofficial Gazette. The Morrisites hoped to crack the government’s virtual monopoly on the dissemination of information and to create a means for mobilizing the city’s artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers.
Zenger’s Weekly Journal proceeded to belabor Governor Cosby and his circle for “tyrannically flouting the laws of England and New York and .. . setting up personal henchmen with unlawful powers to control the judicial system of New York.” Over the next year the Morrisites, billing themselves as “the party of the people,” widened their popular appeal by calling for the adoption of electoral procedures already in place in Boston and Philadelphia: annual or triennial Assembly elections, the reapportionment of that body to reflect population growth, and adoption of the secret ballot (which would allow ordinary people to vote “for the Man they Love, and not for the haughty Tyrant they fear, and consequently hate”). They further proposed that mayors, sheriffs, and other officials be popularly elected and that judges be appointed during good behavior, protecting them from gubernatorial whim. They promised the city’s artisans to build a permanent almshouse (a project that would promote employment). They also pledged to issue paper money for the construction of fortifications (yet another public works project that would have the additional benefit of easing credit, bringing down interest rates, and affording relief to debtors).
The Morrisites swept the hotly contested municipal elections of September 1734, capturing control of the Common Council. Laboring New Yorkers voted for the upperclass candidates who most convincingly claimed to be favorable to their interest. But they elected men of their own kind as well. Among the popular party’s councilmen that year were a painter, three bakers, a bricklayer, and a bolter—“the meanest labourers, tradesmen and Artificers” in town, Cosby sniffed. At no time since the suppression of the Leislerians a generation earlier had working people been so actively engaged in city politics, or so successful.
THE CASE OF THE POOR PRINTER
Nor had political rhetoric been more strident. Week after week, Zenger’s Weekly Journal lashed Cosby for incompetence, influence peddling, corruption, collusion with the French, election fraud, and tyranny. His confederates were sycophantic politicians, rich merchants, “people in Exalted Stations,” and haughty “courtiers” who regarded their opponents as “Canaille or Dregs of the People.” By contrast, the “industrious poor” who backed Morris were truly “the support of any country.” Writers named “Timothy Wheelwright” and “John Chisel” urged honest working men—men like “Shuttle” the weaver, “Plane” the joiner, “Drive” the carter, “Mortar” the mason, and “Tar” the mariner—to defend their “rights and liberties” from “Gripe” the merchant, “Squeeze” the shopkeeper, and “Spintext and Quible” the lawyers. To be sure that his readers would see all this in its wider, British frame of reference, Zenger also reprinted essays from the Craftsman as well as lengthy excerpts from Cato’s Letters. Stylistically, too, the Journal imitated the Craftsman by treating its readers to the same outrageous lampoons, brutal caricatures, mocking ballads, and double-entendre advertisements that had delighted the denizens of London’s coffeehouses year after year.
The Gazette labored to respond in kind. It attributed the Weekly Journal to “a parcel of griping lawyers” who had failed to receive the patronage they hoped for from the governor. It reprinted selections from the standard English defenses of the established order and itemized the journal’snot infrequent errors of omission and commission. Others in the gubernatorial party issued pamphlets denouncing Morrisite appeals to “unthinking” people who were “of no Credit or Reputation, rak’d out of Bawdy-Houses and Kennels.”
Soon, however, Cosby and De Lancey tired of bandying words and resolved to silence the Journal by force. De Lancey asked a grand jury to indict Zenger for two “scandalous” songs published after the “popular” party’s victory in the 1734 elections. The jurors balked, claiming they couldn’t confirm the printer’s identity. Cosby then ordered the sheriff to arrest Zenger for “seditious libel” and burn four especially offensive issues of his paper. Both the Assembly and Common Council objected, to no avail. Zenger went to jail in mid-November 1734. De Lancey set his bail at a preposterously high four hundred pounds, which not only ensured that the printer would remain behind bars until the end of his trial, eight months later, but also enabled the Morrisites to portray him as a martyr to the cause of liberty. James Alexander and William Smith (both of whom bore some responsibility for getting Zenger into trouble in the first place) began to prepare his defense.
In April 1735, Smith and Alexander made their first move on Zenger’s behalf by challenging the legality of Cosby’s commissions to De Lancey and Philipse. De Lancey found them in contempt, ordered them disbarred, and assigned John Chambers, a skilled attorney but one of Cosby’s men, to represent Zenger instead. Shrewdly, Alexander then enlisted the help of Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia—the best trial attorney in the colonies. Hamilton’s decision to participate in Zenger’s defense changed everything.
Zenger’s trial began in August 1735. Hamilton’s strategy, from a strictly legal point of view, was extremely risky. As the English common law then stood, “seditious libel” meant simply the publication of any material undermining the authority of government. The truth or falsity of such material was irrelevant; juries were to determine only whether, as charged, it had been made public and referred to the persons or institutions in question. Hamilton conceded that Zenger’s articles were malicious, seditious, and scandalous—which should have ended the matter then and there. But in a dazzling appeal to “reason” and “natural rights,” Hamilton argued that truth must be accepted as a defense against the charge of libel. What was at stake, he told the jury, was nothing less than the right of a free people to criticize their rulers. “It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone, which you are now trying. No! It may in its consequences affect every freeman that lives under a British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of liberty.”
The New-York Weekly Journal, December 17, 1783. Ten months after it appeared, this issue was burned by order of Cosby and the provincial council. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Hamilton’s oratory carried the day. Despite De Lancey’s insistence that they stick to the law, the jurors took only minutes to acquit Zenger of all the charges against him. The crowded courtroom burst into cheers, and the jubilant Morrisites marched the Philadelphia lawyer off to the Black Horse Tavern (at what is now the corner of William Street and Exchange Place) for a feast. Shortly thereafter, the Common Council hailed Hamilton for “his learned and generous defense of the rights of mankind, and the liberty of the press” and made him a freeman of the corporation. Additional plaudits followed as word of the verdict percolated throughout the Anglo-American world, moved along by James Alexander’s Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger, which came off Zenger’s press in 1736. Often reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic, it was probably the most famous book yet published in America.
No one imagined that Zenger’s acquittal set a legal precedent for the elimination of restrictions on the press—it was an instance of jury nullification, not a judicial opinion—and indeed decades would pass before printers in either America or Great Britain were safe from official scrutiny. What made the case so significant to contemporaries, rather, was that it sent a clear warning to judges and prosecutors that the law of libel was out of step with popular sentiment and that they could no longer rely on juries to shield government from public censure. In doing so, moreover, the Zenger verdict endorsed assumptions about relations between “the people” and their rulers long familiar to readers of Cato’s Letters or the Craftsman—that executive power tends to expand at the expense of liberty, and that to protect themselves, freemen must be able to speak their minds without fear of official retribution.
“SUCH A STRUGLE I NEVER SAW”
Although the Morrisites had won an important skirmish, the war still raged. Governor Cosby died of tuberculosis in 1736, and George Clarke, one of the richest men in New York, was installed as acting lieutenant governor. Clarke dissolved the Assembly, issuing writs for new elections in 1737, and the Morrisites embarked on what Cadwallader Golden remembered as one of the city’s wildest campaigns on record. On election day, “the sick, the lame, and the blind were all carried to vote,” Golden said. “Such a strugle I never saw and such a hurraing that above one half of the men in town are so hoarse that they cannot speak.” Morris and the popular party won handily. Lewis Morris Jr., who with his father swept to victory in Westchester, was chosen speaker of the new Assembly. John Peter Zenger got the nod as official printer.
Clarke now discovered, however, that if the Morrisites couldn’t be beaten, their leaders could be bought off. He won over Smith and Alexander by having them reinstated to the bar, he endorsed a few Morrisite reforms (including a one-year revenue bill and a triennial election act), and he appointed key Morrisites to public offices in Westchester and other counties. Morris himself accepted an offer from Newcastle to become the royal governor of New Jersey and promptly turned into an advocate of executive authority—which only proved, as Walpole liked to say, that every man has his price. Abandoned by its founders, the “popular party” fell into disarray, and when prosperity returned, it disappeared altogether.
The Morrisites had nonetheless opened the door to a new and potentially more turbulent political environment in the city. The freemen had returned to politics, books and newspapers were full of talk about threats to “liberty,” and gentlemen—as one assemblyman put it—increasingly had to think of public office as “a fine laced Livery coat of which the vain Lacquey may be stript at the pleasure of his proud Master [i.e., the electorate] & may be kikt out of Doors naked.”
What was more, the Morrisites had actually delivered on some campaign promises, establishing yet another precedent. To alleviate the shortage of specie and attendant high interest rates, they issued twelve thousand pounds of paper money in 1734 and added another £48,350 three years later, to repair “the Decay of Trade & other Difficulties which this Colony has the Misfortune to have Laboured Under.” In 1737 the first Assembly elected in the colony in a decade remodeled the militia, agreed to hold triennial elections, and reduced the legal interest rate.
The Morrisites also made good on their promise to construct New York’s first permanent almshouse. Completed in 1736, the two-story stone and brick building stood on the Common at the very outskirts of town (the northern end of what is now City Hall Park). Although a boon to its contractors, it was greeted with considerably less joy by those for whom it was intended. Really three institutions under one roof—a Poorhouse, a Workhouse, and a House of Correction—its inmates were a cross-section of the city’s lower classes, ranging from “Poor Needy Persons and Idle Wandering Vagabonds” to “Sturdy Beggars,” petty criminals, rogues, and “parents of Bastard Children.” All inhabitants of the city had “free Liberty and Lycence to send to the said House all unruly and ungovernable Servants and Slaves there to be kept at hard labour.” Despite rudimentary attempts to separate them—one basement room was reserved for the inmates at forced labor, another for those considered “unruly”—the vestrymen were soon expressing concern at mixing the elderly sick with incorrigible rogues.
Whatever the reasons for their confinement, all inmates were held, insofar as possible, to a strict daily regimen calculated to teach them self-discipline, industry, and deference. Inmates were supplied clothing “marked with the first letters of their names,” deprived of meals if they refused to attend prayer sessions, and set to work carding wool, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops. The idea, according to the Common Council, was that “such Poor as are able to work, may not Eat the Bread of Sloth & Idleness, and be a Burthen to the Publick.” Inmates who learned “decorum” and exhibited a “bashful, modest, humble, and patient temper” would be “encouraged and comforted”; “troublesome and discontented” inmates would get a “moderate whipping.”
The rigid order imposed on inmates of the almshouse was quite different from what the poor experienced when they were lodged in rented private dwellings. This might explain why the new institution drew only nineteen people its first year (twelve adults and seven children) and why some inmates, though prohibited from leaving without permission, fled at the return of clement weather—only to come back “almost naked,” as the Common Council complained in 1738, when winter again approached.
Once the almshouse was in operation, moreover, the city drastically slashed outdoor relief—the traditional system of granting aid to the poor in their own homes. By 1747 it had been all but eliminated, and the gulf between those who enjoyed the privileges of membership in the municipal corporation and those who didn’t was wider than ever.
The transformation of public life in New York received further impetus during the depression from that outpouring of piety known as the Great Awakening. Linkages between politics and evangelical religion were nothing new. Nearly two decades had now passed since Theodore Frelinghuysen began drawing on the pools of Leislerian resentment that still lay under the Dutch churches in the Raritan Valley. In the mid-1720s William Smith (Zenger’s sometime attorney) and Gilbert Livingston led a faction within the New York Presbyterian Church that struggled against clerical orthodoxy and managed the installation of the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton as pastor.
After 1710, moreover, Baptists began gaining ground among the city’s laboring population when the Rev. Valentine Wightman came down from Groton, Connecticut, to preach. Wightman kept a low profile, speaking only at private homes and performing baptisms by night, until several converts, disdaining further subterfuge, demanded daylight baptism. Governor Hunter offered his protection and even went to the waterfront to watch, accompanied by other gentlemen. By 1715 Baptists in the city were meeting at the Broad Street home of a brewer named Nicholas Eyres. In 1724 the Baptist Church was formally organized and moved into a new building atop Golden Hill, along what is now Cliff Street (near John).
Enter now George Whitefield, a young preacher from Oxford University who had been closely associated with Charles and John Wesley in the budding Methodist movement. Whitefield was an unusually talented orator and within a few years after his graduation in 1736 became renowned in England for his attacks on clerical laxity as well as for his ability to awaken the slumbering religious fervor of popular audiences. So large were the crowds that flocked to hear him—and so hostile were the established clergy to his speaking in their churches—that Whitefield took to preaching outdoors, a practice that soon became his trademark.
In the summer of 1739, aware that many of his printed sermons had already aroused great interest in America, Whitefield crossed the Atlantic for a tour of the colonies. His first stop was Philadelphia, where he spoke to excited multitudes of as many as six thousand people. In mid-November he went up to New York, staying at the home of William Smith, the prominent Presbyterian layman. Seeking a pulpit from which to speak, Whitefield approached the Rev. William Vesey, now in his forty-fifth year as rector of Trinity and more doggedly conservative than ever. Vesey refused the use of his church, charging Whitefield with various violations of canon law (to which Whitefield replied that the aging cleric spent too much time in the taverns). Faithful to the arrangement struck years before with the Anglicans, Dominie Henricus Boel likewise refused to let Whitefield speak in the Dutch Reformed church. Whitefield had his sympathizers, however, and when the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton granted him permission to use the Presbyterian church, everything was in place for a dramatic confrontation between the Awakeners and their critics.
On the afternoon of November 15, Whitefield launched his New York tour with an open-air prayer meeting in the Common. His theme was the need for a “New Birth”—a reawakening of the faith without which there can be no salvation. According to a newspaper account probably written by Pemberton, “many Hundreds of People” turned out to hear him. Most were “very serious and attentive,” but a fair number of hecklers also gathered on the fringes of the crowd, “Giggling, Scoffing, Talking and Laughing.” Whitefield faced them down, delivered a blistering attack on “the boldness and Zeal with which the Devil’s Vassals serve him,” and left the entire crowd “hush’d and still,” their faces glowing with “solemn Awe and Reverence.”
Pemberton was hard-pressed for words to describe what had taken place. “A mighty Energy attended the Word,” he said. “I heard and felt something astonishing and surprizing.” So, evidently, had many others. Over two thousand people jammed into the Presbyterian church that evening, during which an awed Pemberton reported, “The Peoples Eyes and Ears hung on his Lips. They greedily devour’d every Word. I came Home astonished!”
Whitefield continued for four days, speaking at least twice a day, afternoons in the Common and evenings in the Presbyterian church. Despite chilly weather, the crowds grew ever larger and more emotional. People who couldn’t find a seat or get close enough to hear him wept openly with disappointment. One member of the audience, finding himself seated next to a lady who sobbed loudly through the entire service, later asked “which part of the sermon had most particularly affected her.” “Oh! Sir,” she told him, “it was when he said Gethsemane! Gethsemane!” Whitefield himself wrote in his journal that “the people seemed exceedingly attentive, and I have not felt greater freedom in preaching, and more power in prayer, since I came to America, than I have had here in New York. I find that little of the work of God has been seen in it for many years.”
It was the same story when he returned the following year, once in the spring and again in the autumn. Five, six, and seven thousand people at a time allegedly thronged the Common to hear him speak, now from a specially constructed scaffold. New York—polyglot, urbane, skeptical New York—appeared to be in the throes of a full-scale religious revival.
Whitefield was probably tapping the same vein of popular restiveness mined by the Morrisites just a few years earlier. His chief targets—complacent and even corrupt leaders, a loss of old-time zeal, indifference to basic principles, the advent of a heartless, legalistic formalism—echoed almost exactly, albeit with a religious rather than political vocabulary, the opposition to Cosby. If there was a difference it lay in the breadth of Whitefield’s audience/The crowds that flocked to hear him in 1739-40 included numerous representatives of the city’s lower classes—apprentices and laborers, the poor and the enslaved—whose exclusion from the municipal corporation rendered them invisible to the Morrisites. During his 1740 tour, indeed, Whitefield had called openly for the humane treatment of slaves and for instructing them in the Christian religion, issues that had never troubled Morris (one of the city’s leading slaveowners) or his followers.
Leaders of New York’s Anglican-Reformed establishment were horrified. As one conservative Dutch dominie declared in 1741, Whitefield’s attacks on the sincerity of the orthodox clergy struck at the authority of all organized religion. A “spirit of confusion is ever blazing up more and more,” he wrote. Many went further and insisted that the revivalists had called into question the authority of all institutions—a not unreasonable fear, it turned out, for only months after Whitefield’s last visit, it appeared that scores of slaves and poor whites had banded together in a frightful plot to burn the city.
“G—D D———N ALL THE WHITE PEOPLE”
On March 18, 1741, the soldiers of Fort George—Irish and non-Irish alike—were recuperating in the barracks from their hearty celebration of the Feast of St. Patrick the day before. The garrison was undermanned as well as under the weather, for the Empire was at war again. In the autumn of 1739, after years of heavy losses to Spanish privateers, West Indian planters demanded action from London. Walpole wanted to avoid costly foreign conflicts, but Pulteney roused Parliament to a declaration of war by waving around the pickled ear of one Captain Robert Jenkins—cut off, it was said, by an arrogant Spaniard who told him to give it to King George as a warning. The so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear reached New York during the summer of 1740, when an expedition of six hundred troops left the city for an assault on Cuba. Now, six months later, only a relative handful remained on Manhattan.
Shortly after noon on the eighteenth, smoke and flames poured from the governor’s house; soon the adjoining chapel was ablaze as well. A bucket brigade and the town’s recently purchased hand-pump fire engines failed to control the wind-whipped flames, and by late afternoon the Fort’s buildings were in cinders. Precisely a week later, on March 25, another fire broke out, at the home of Captain Peter Warren, brother-in-law of Chief Justice De Lancey, but this one was successfully contained. Another week passed, and then another fire incinerated Winant van Zant’s warehouse near the East River docks on April 1; astonishingly, given its contents of hay, fir, and pine, this conflagration too was kept from spreading farther. Three days later fire flared again, this time at a Maiden Lane cow stable filled with dried fodder. On the following day a passerby sniffed smoke and discovered coals burning at the base of a haystack in attorney Joseph Murray’s stables on lower Broadway, just in time to prevent the wealthy neighborhood from going up in flames.
Fires were common in the mid-eighteenth century, so the first catastrophe had aroused few suspicions. But as the number of incidents mounted, so did the conviction that they were the product not of accident but of arson. Perhaps (one council member hypothesized) “a combination of villains” was creating diversions, under cover of which they could make “a prey of their neighbor’s goods.” Most white residents suspected the slaves, however. All New York had heard about the massive uprising that had rocked Stono, South Carolina, in September 1739 and of the ongoing disturbances in that colony that culminated, in November 1740, in an apparent attempt to destroy Charleston by fire.
Then another round of fires broke out on April 6—four in one day. A black man was spotted near one of them, running. A white tried to catch him, yelling, “A negro, a negro.” The cry, swiftly taken up, soon turned into terrified screams of “The negroes are rising”! The man seen running—Adolph Philipse’s slave Cuffee—was quickly captured and incarcerated. This did nothing to quiet the hysteria. Crowds of white vigilantes rounded up more blacks and threw them in jail with Cuffee.
Although the City Council launched an intensive investigation, two weeks of examining the blacks in custody and searching for evidence of arson yielded nothing except increased anxiety among the white townspeople. The council now turned the inquiry over to Daniel Horsmanden. Horsmanden was the city’s recorder as well as a justice on the supreme court of the province (a position he had gained through loyalty to the late Governor Cosby). Horsmanden, who had long believed that New York was far too lax in its handling of slaves, set out to track down the conspirators he was sure were behind the fires.
A special grand jury was convened and directed to investigate whites who sold liquor to blacks—men like tavern keeper John Hughson. A poor and illiterate cobbler from Yonkers, Hughson had come down to New York in the mid-1730s with his wife, Sarah, his daughter, and his mother-in-law. Unable to find employment, he opened a tavern on the East River waterfront that “very much offended his neighbors” by catering to a disreputable clientele. This was at the height of the Morris-Cosby struggle, and according to a number of witnesses, Hughson soon became convinced that “the country was not good,” that there were “too many gentlemen” in the city, that they “made negroes work hard.” Some even said he had urged slaves to burn the town and kill their masters.
In 1738 Hughson opened a new tavern on the Hudson River waterfront, not far from the Trinity churchyard. This establishment, like its predecessor, acquired immediate notoriety as a rendezvous for slaves, free blacks, poor whites, soldiers from the nearby fort, and even (as rumor had it) the occasional “young gentleman” inclined to after-hours carousing and gaming. (In the winter of 1740–41, after constables raided his tavern, Hughson had been convicted of illegally “entertaining Negro slaves” but let off as a first offender.) Hughson’s also became the residence of one “Margaret Sorubiero, alias Salingburgh, alias Kerry, commonly called Peggy, or the Newfoundland Irish beauty,” said to be a prostitute “of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes.” Her room and board was paid by a slave of baker John Vaarck, named Caesar, by whom Peggy had recently had a child.
Hughson also fenced stolen property. He got to be so well known in this line of work that city slaves laughingly referred to his place as “Oswego,” after the Indian trading post on Lake Ontario. Although the constables had their eye on him, they had as yet failed to catch him red-handed. Nor had they caught John Romme, a publican-shoemaker and friend of Hughson’s whose tavern stood on the Battery near Fort George. Like Hughson, Romme trafficked in stolen goods—protected, perhaps, by his kinship with a member of the Common Council and connections in the right places. Yet he too had been heard to speak bitterly of “how well the rich people at this place lived” and likewise advised slaves to “burn the houses of them that have the most money, and kill them all, as the negroes would have done their masters and mistresses formerly”—an obvious allusion to the abortive 1712 uprising.
Two weeks before the fire in the fort, Hughson had been arrested for receiving goods stolen by Caesar and Prince (slave of merchant John Auboyneau) from Rebecca Hogg’s general store on Broad Street. The crime came unraveled when on March 3 the Hughsons’ sixteen-year-old indentured servant, Mary Burton, had been enticed to give evidence against John, Sarah, and Peggy by a promise to free her from her indenture.
Caesar and Prince were arrested—and not for the first time. The two, along with Cuffee, had been caught stealing barrels of Geneva (Dutch gin) back in 1736 and denounced as “the ringleaders of a confederacy of negroes who robbed, pilfered and stole whenever they had opportunity.” Caesar and Prince had faced the death penalty then—burglary committed by slaves was a capital crime—but had been let off with a public whipping. They had carried on, however, boldly assuming the name “Geneva Club.” (According to one observer they had even had the “impudence to assume the style and title of Free Masons, in imitation of a society here: which was looked upon to be a gross affront to the provincial grand master and gentlemen of the fraternity. . . and was very ill accepted.”) Caesar languished in jail; the Hughsons and Prince were freed on bail; and all were awaiting trial on burglary-related charges when the fires started.
Horsmanden’s grand jury now called Mary Burton to testify. She confirmed her earlier account of the Hogg burglary but refused to talk about the fires. When ordered jailed for contempt, however, she quickly agreed to cooperate and proceeded to describe what she said was a conspiracy between slaves and poor whites to burn the city. To Horsmanden’s delight, Burton declared that the three Geneva Club members had met frequently at Hughson’s, that they had often talked of burning the fort and town, and that the Hughsons had agreed to help. Though Burton’s testimony didn’t prove that a crime had actually been committed, it did constitute evidence of criminal conspiracy. Seeking additional corroboration, the Common Council posted rewards for anyone coming forward with information about the fires—one hundred pounds to whites (an amount equal to at least five years’ wages for anyone lucky enough to be working steadily during the hard times), forty-five pounds to a free black or Indian, and, for a slave, twenty pounds plus freedom.
On May 1 the court found Caesar and Prince guilty of burglary and condemned them to death. The next day, just across the river in Hackensack, New Jersey, seven barns were set ablaze; two blacks were caught and immediately burned at the stake. On May 6 the Hughsons and Peggy were found guilty of receiving stolen goods, and Peggy, in fear of her life, decided to talk. So did some of the blacks crammed in the dungeons below City Hall. Two who didn’t confess to anything were Caesar and Prince: on May 11 they were hanged for burglary. Caesar’s corpse was then dangled from a platform near the city’s powder house, on the little island between the two arms of the Fresh Water Pond.
Now, “witnesses” in hand and with the backing of the mayor, governor, and Common Council, Horsmanden proceeded to trial against Cuffee and Quack, a slave belonging to butcher John Roosevelt. He summoned all the town’s lawyers and got each of them, including William Smith and James Alexander, to agree to assist Attorney General Richard Bradley with the prosecution. Eleven witnesses were called for the prosecution. They reported on conversations they’d overheard, such as the time Cuffee declared “that a great many people had too much, and others too little, that his old master”—Adolph Philipse, wealthy merchant, speaker of the Assembly, and prominent supporter of Governor Cosby—“had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less.” The defendants, who had no legal counsel, called witnesses, including their owners, who offered at best limited support to avoid rousing the wrath of their neighbors. The jury returned a guilty verdict in minutes, and Horsmanden instantly pronounced sentence—death by fire the following day. Chained to the stake, faggots piled at their feet, Cuffee and Quack both confessed to burning the fort. They also began naming names, eventually accusing some fifty others of complicity. Horsmanden, thrilled, considered saving them as future witnesses. But the crowd was howling, and the sheriff said it would be unwise to stop. So, as Horsmanden later recounted, “the executions proceeded.” The two screaming men, having bought but a few extra hours of life, were soon engulfed in flames.
Trials followed quickly now. The Hughsons and Peggy were sentenced to hang, with John Hughson’s body to be suspended in chains next to Caesar’s rotting corpse. More verdicts, more burnings, more confessions, more verdicts. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city’s male slaves over sixteen years of age were in jail.
From Horsmanden’s point of view, however, something was still lacking: a white mastermind who could be held accountable for the whole diabolical conspiracy (given that Africans, in his view, clearly lacked the intelligence for such a scheme, and the illiterate Hughson didn’t quite fit the bill). As candidate for head conspirator, Horsmanden nominated John Ury. Only recently arrived in town, Ury had been working as a private tutor and schoolmaster. Because his expertise in Latin made him conspicuous around town, he now found himself under arrest on the suspicion of being a Roman Catholic priest and a secret agent of the Spanish. Arrested with Ury were several soldiers from the garrison—among them Peter Connolly, Edward Kelly, Edward Murphy, and Andrew Ryan—who were also suspected of being Catholics and conspirators. The everobliging Mary Burton now remembered that Ury, too, had been among the plotters at Hughson’s; William Kane, another of the soldiers, offered a corroborative confession.
Ury’s grand scheme, the prosecution now proposed, had been to have Hughson purchase arms and organize all participating slaves into two companies, the Long Bridge Boys and the Smith’s Fly Boys, who would set fire to the fort, slay their masters, and burn their homes. Led by Hughson and Caesar—the former as king, the latter as governor—they would hold the city until the arrival of Ury’s Catholic masters, the Spanish or French. After that, the conspirators would divide up their booty and make their way to freedom.
During the unfortunate Ury’s trial, a hysterical warning arrived from Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia, saying that Spanish agents were “preparing to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in the English North America” and that some were priests “who pretended to be physicians, dancing masters, and other such kinds of occupations.” That sealed Ury’s fate, and he too was dispatched to the gallows at the end of August.
Gallows of the 1741 conspirators. Note also the stake with flames on it. Detail of a map drawn from memory by David Grim in 1813. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
By then, all told, some 160 blacks and twenty-one whites had been arrested. Four whites—John Hughson, Sarah Hughson, Peggy Kerry, and John Ury—were hanged, as were seventeen blacks; one white, sentenced to be hanged, escaped. Thirteen Africans were burned at the stake. Seventy-two were subsequently banished from the colony, twenty-seven to the Portuguese island of Madeira, and most of the rest to colonies in the West Indies.
But had there in fact been a conspiracy? Certainly the autumn and winter of 1740-41, the time when Hughson, Romme, and the Geneva Club allegedly began planning a rebellion, had been a miserable period in the city. To the effects of years of depression were added dwindling supplies of fuel and food, the result of record snowfalls and the lowest temperatures in memory. By February 1741 the Hudson was a solid mass of ice all the way up to Poughkeepsie, and huge drifts blanketed the smaller houses and shacks that were home to New York’s poorest inhabitants. Funds for the relief of the needy had already run out, and many were in imminent danger of freezing or starving to death. City bakers had gone on strike to protest what they considered the unfairly low price of bread set by the city. Zenger’s Weekly Journal reported that their refusal to bake caused “some Disturbance, and reduced some, notwithstanding their Riches, to a sudden want of Bread.” (Similar shortages had also led to rioting in Wales and England, the paper reported.)
Certainly the slaves were angry enough, particularly those forced to live apart from their spouses. Quack resented Lieutenant Governor Clarke for prohibiting him from visiting his wife, the governor’s cook, and he had had several fights with the fort’s sentry during repeated attempts to visit her. Quack might well have fired the governor’s house, as he confessed to doing. And the sailors and soldiers in town, particularly the Irish, had grievances of their own. Private Edward Murphy reportedly said, “Damn me if I won’t lend a hand to the fires as soon as anybody.” Moreover, this milling, interracial discontent might well have been brought into sharp focus by the recent outbreak of war. By 1741 so few troops remained in Fort George, one slave reportedly said, that only “an hundred and fifty men might take this city.” If the Spanish or French did come to their aid, they stood a reasonable chance of getting away with it.
The actual evidence, however, is less than convincing. John Hughson, Hughson’s wife, John Romme, and more than a few of the most important blacks denied to the very end that a conspiracy existed. Key witnesses against them—Mary Burton, Peggy Kerry, Hughson’s daughter, Sarah, an indentured servant named Arthur Price, the soldier William Kane—gave confused, frequently contradictory, and invariably self-serving testimony. Equally suspect were the sixty-odd “confessions” wrung out of terrorized slaves. Much of the trial testimony vital to the official conspiracy theory is likewise tainted. The presiding judges—Horsmanden, De Lancey, and Frederick Philipse—took pains to follow accepted rules of evidence and procedure. Yet none of the accused, slave or free, had legal representation. As a result, key witnesses weren’t cross-examined, obvious exculpatory evidence was ignored, and no alternative explanation of events was ever presented to the juries. Only Ury, the suspected Catholic priest, mounted anything like an informed and organized defense, explaining that he was just a dissenter from the Church of England and had no knowledge whatever of any conspiracy. Bradley and his assistants got a conviction by haranguing the jury on the dangers of Catholicism—a “hocus pocus, bloody religion,” cried Bradley—but Ury’s calm eloquence, first in the courtroom and then on the gallows, threw a shadow of doubt across the entire business.
So, in the end, did Mary Burton herself, by hinting that the conspiracy had involved “some people in ruffles (a phrase as was understood to mean persons of better fashion than ordinary).” Incredulous, the court demanded names, whereupon “she named several persons which she said she had seen at Hughson’s amongst the conspirators, talking of the conspiracy, who were engaged in it; amongst whom she mentioned several of known credit, fortunes and reputations, and of religious principles superior to a suspicion of being concerned in such detestable practices.” Knowing that the veracity of its star witness would crumble if Burton kept talking, the prosecution began to wrap up the proceedings soon after Ury’s execution. One who escaped the hangman as a result was Hughson’s friend John Romme. “The devil couldn’t hurt me,” he had boasted, “for I’ve a great many friends in town, and the best in the place’ll stand by me.” Although he was arrested in New Jersey after fleeing to escape prosecution, the New York authorities made no attempt to bring him back.
If the official conspiracy theory cannot be taken at face value, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of some less widespread or well-organized coup—by slaves against their masters, by the poor against the rich, or a combination of both. It’s quite likely that Hughson and a number of slaves often speculated casually about their chances of getting away with some such project. Alternatively, Hughson and perhaps another half-dozen or so whites and blacks may have planned the rash of fires in February and March to cover up multiple burglaries.
Whether or not they had really planned an uprising, the mass of casual, incidental evidence—corroborative detail supplied in page after page of depositions, confessions, and trial testimony—makes it apparent that by 1741 New York’s two-thousand-odd slaves had the organizational ingenuity and the political sophistication to do so. Over and over again, witnesses testified to the inability or unwillingness of their masters to keep them under close supervision. They regularly held clandestine meetings, passed long hours drinking, gaming, and dancing together away from the prying eyes of whites, easily got away with petty larceny and the small-scale destruction of property, and even managed to own weapons.
Conspiracy or no, moreover, the Geneva Club and its mock-Masonic rituals had been real enough. The existence of two paramilitary companies said to have been formed by the conspirators—the Long Bridge Boys and the Smith’s Fly Boys—undoubtedly made perfect sense to prosecutors because they corresponded to groups or affiliations or divisions within slave society. Judging by reactions to the departure of the expedition to Cuba and the hopes of a Spanish or French attack, at least some slaves knew a good deal about international events and their ramifications for the city. Many clearly remembered or knew of the 1712 revolt, how it had been organized, and what came of it. A few had participated in revolts elsewhere; one was a veteran of risings on both St. John’s and Antigua. No doubt some of them were ready for a revolt in New York too, despite the tremendous odds against success. “G—d d———n all the white people,” one was said to have cried, “if he had it in his power, he would set them all on fire.”
Prosecution of the alleged conspirators also disclosed the numerous points of contact and mutuality between the city’s slaves and its burgeoning population of poor whites. Witness after witness reported blacks and whites as partners in crime, partners in drink, partners in bed, partners in survival, partners in their contempt of the rich and well-born few who dressed in ruffles and ran the town—a vast, restless, interracial underworld.
One response by municipal authorities to these discoveries was to demand increased vigilance on the part of slaveowners. Another was to insist on closing down the sleazy disorderly houses whose owners, like Hughson, observed the “most wicked and pernicious practice . . . of entertaining negroes, and the scum and dregs of white people in conjunction.” Yet another was to accuse “Suspicious, Vagrant, Stroling Preachers” of stirring up the lower classes, especially “Youths and Negroes.” George Whitefield’s tumultuous revivals in 1739 and 1740 drew particular criticism in this regard. As one SPG missionary put it, Whitefield’s “impudence and indiscretion” in advocating the conversion of blacks to Christianity—still a very unpopular idea among slaveowners—gave “great countenance” to the plot. Even Ury was said to have blamed “all the disturbances” on “the great encouragement the negroes had received from Mr. Whitefield.”
But the ultimate response, one on which prosecutors often fell back in their final summations, was to drown out the noise of class conflict by beating the drums of racial hatred. Bradley berated city slaves as “silly unthinking creatures.” Horsmanden called them “cannibals.” Not only did they dare to think of killing white men, Smith ranted, but they intended to make white women the victims of their “rapacious lust” as well. “The monstrous ingratitude of this black tribe is what exceedingly aggravates their guilt,” he added. As for Hughson, he “could not be content to live by the gains of honest industry, but must be rich at the expense of the blood and ruin of his fellow citizens! miserable wretch!” His crimes “have made him blacker than a negro.”
It was indeed mysterious, Horsmanden reported, that the rotting cadavers of Hughson and Caesar, after hanging on the gibbet in the summer sun for several weeks, had changed color—the former becoming “a deep shining black, rather blacker than the negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest hue of his kind,” while the latter “somewhat bleached or turned whitish.” Crowds gathered to ponder the meaning of these “wonderous phenomenons,” and “many of the spectators were ready to resolve them into miracles.”
Mindful that many slaves implicated in the “conspiracy” had come by way of the West Indies, white New Yorkers concluded they would be safer with chattel imported directly from Africa, a decision that in time would significantly alter the composition of the city’s servile population. The mass deportation of male slaves also helped transform the city’s gender balance. During the depression the outmigration of unemployed artisans and seamen had changed the sex ratio from 117 white men for every 100 white women in 1731 to 91:100 in 1731, then to 89:100 in 1741—producing a substantial excess of white women. At the same time, male-heavy slave imports had continued. While in 1731 there had been 99 black men for every 100 black women, by 1737 the ratio was 111:100, and by 1741 it was 119:100—a substantial excess of black men. Demographics like these, together with well-known sexual alliances between black men and white women, like that of Caesar and Peggy, had given rise during the hysteria to lurid fantasies of bondsmen seizing white mistresses. The post-hysteria shift in slaveholders’ preferences from males to females, together with the opposition of white male artisans to the use of skilled black labor, had by 1746 diminished black males to under 47 percent of the African population.
New York didn’t soon forget the “Great Negro Plot” of 1741. A printed version of Ury’s last words from the gallows was a standing reminder of the panic that had gripped the city, and it was rumored for years that Hughson’s ghost haunted his place of execution. When renewed political squabbling began to dissolve the united front forged by racial and religious fear, critics of the governor’s party hinted that Horsmanden had imagined the whole conspiracy and committed judicial murder. Stung by such rumors, he defended himself by writing a book. It appeared in 1744 bearing the unwieldy if accurate title of A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America, and Murdering the Inhabitants.