A RUMOR OF REVOLT: The ""Great Negro Plot"" in Colonial New York by Thomas J. Davis

A RUMOR OF REVOLT: The ""Great Negro Plot"" in Colonial New York

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The first full-length study--and a pretty good one--of the alleged ""conspiracy"" between several dozen black slaves and poor whites in 1741 to burn the city of New York. Davis (History, Howard) deftly separates the story's tangled roots--the growth of slavery and slave discontent in the city, the outbreak of war between England and Spain, economic depression, bitter political factionalism, a hard winter, mysterious fires, and the personality of Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden, whose published account of what happened remains everyone's main source (the most recent edition, edited by Davis himself, appeared in 1971). Better still is Davis's painstaking reconstruction of the judicial proceedings between May and August 1741 that led to some 35 executions. Where previous scholars have seen only mass hysteria and drumhead justice, indeed often denying the existence of any conspiracy at all, Davis makes an effective case that a conspiracy had existed (though not quite on the scale described by Horsmanden) and that the court had done its work with due care and restraint (though hardly in accordance with later, stricter standards of jurisprudence). Would that everything here were equally effective. Its major defect is an ambiguous treatment of the whites who allegedly took part in the conspiracy: were they implicated only because racist prosecutors could not believe slaves capable of organized defiance, or were they really in it, too (in which case class conflict is a bigger part of the story than Davis allows)? There are errors (e.g., the location of Stone Street), strangely neglected subjects (e.g., the recent visits of revivalist George Whitefield, whose preaching was said to have stirred up the city's slaves and poor whites), and some simple carelessness. There is also a lot of dreadful writing (about events that ""opened all the old sores whites nursed against blacks"" or about the young women who had ""bitten into the sweet promise. . .and the taste lay too thick for her to mince words""). A fascinating study despite itself.

Pub Date: June 17th, 1985
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan