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New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan Hardcover – August 23, 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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New York Burning is a well-told tale of a once-notorious episode that took place in Manhattan in 1741. Though, as Jill Lepore writes, New York's "slave past has long been buried," for most of the 18th century one in five inhabitants of Manhattan were enslaved, making it second only to Charleston, South Carolina, "in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom." Over the course of a few weeks in 1741, ten fires burned across Manhattan, sparking hysteria and numerous conspiracy rumors. Initially, rival politicians blamed each other for the blazes, but they soon found a common enemy. Based solely on the testimony of one white woman, some 200 slaves were accused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder the resident whites, and take over the local government. Under duress, 80 slaves confessed to the crimes and were forced to implicate others. When the trial was over, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 more were hanged (along with four whites accused of working with them), and 70 others were shipped off to the Caribbean where slavery conditions were even worse.

By necessity, Jill Lepore bases much of her research on a journal written in 1744 by New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden, which she describes as "one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history" and "a diary, a mystery, a history, and maybe one of English literature's first detective stories." Adding cultural and political context to the available evidence, Lepore questions whether there was a conspiracy at all, or if it was blind fear run amok that led to the guilty verdicts for so many slaves. As she points out, fear of slave revolt was a real and consistent theme throughout the early days of the colonies. Crisply written and meticulously researched (the book includes several detailed appendices), New York Burning is a gripping narrative of events that led to what one colonist referred to as the "bonfires of the Negroes." --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With riveting prose and a richly imagined re-creation of a horrible but little-studied event, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) deftly recounts the circumstances surrounding a conspiracy in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In 1741, its teeming streets erupted into fire in at least 10 locations. At first, rival political parties blamed each other for the conflagrations, but they joined forces against black slaves when a young white woman named Mary Burton testified that she had witnessed several slaves conspiring to kill whites and gain their liberty. The colony's leaders arrested and tried at least 100 black men and women. Eventually, the colonial Supreme Court sentenced 30 men to death; 17 were hanged (along with the four supposed white ringleaders) and 13 burned at the stake, based solely on Burton's testimony. Out of fear, several slaves testified against others, and the bulk were sent into brutal slavery in the Caribbean. Drawing primarily on New York Supreme Court justice Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, Lepore demonstrates that whites' fear of black rebellion led them to blame any threat to the colony on the activity of slaves. In this first-rate social history, Lepore not only adroitly examines the case's travesty, questioning whether such a conspiracy ever existed, but also draws a splendid portrait of the struggles, prejudices and triumphs of a very young New York City in which fully "one in five inhabitants was enslaved." 17 illus., 1 map. (Aug. 29)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1St Edition edition (August 23, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400040299
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400040292
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #954,413 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Rocco Dormarunno on June 8, 2006
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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