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March 17, 2013

Sample Essay Paper on US History

The discrete dramatic narratives of historical importance of the early American life have always been of great interest to the historians.  This helps in tracing the path and ideology followed by the newly found colonial state.  This same desire of unraveling the past events has focused renewed attention on New York City and the “Great Negro Plot of 1741” which had been ignored to a great extent by the historians. The theatrics, which unfolded in the streets, inns, and courtrooms of New York, were as gory and brutal as any incident in colonial America.  Even though the New York conspiracy trials against the blacks have many features common with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, they were much worse-and have never been so widely addressed.

Historian Jill Lepore in her book New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan recreate the brutal and unknown past of a city that slavery played an important part to build and nearly destroyed.  She not only uncovers the horrors of slavery in the eighteenth-century but also gives dramatic descriptions of the way slaves and their masters lived and interacted.  She investigates the social and political climate of the times, and exposes how slavery both damaged and shaped American politics.
The book not only has explicit overtones of questioning the slavery practice going on in those days but the most important and unusual findings are concerned with the response of white people towards it.  “It is impossible to understand how faction and party worked in New York, and could have been embraced with both such passion and such shallowness, without considering slavery, and how real and imagined slave conspirators functioned as a phantom political party” (p. 219).  When James Alexander, an American slave owner, argued and defended the right of liberty for all he was unaware of the extreme and unexpected effect of his “experiment in political liberty.”  But as Lepore says  “in eighteenth-century New York, slavery made liberty possible” (Lepore, 219).  This is what the book talks about in the preface.
The preface also talks about Edmund S. Morgan’s thesis about slavery and freedom in Virginia (American Slavery, American Freedom, 1975) which is one of the rare mentions of the sources by the writer because she avoids referring to them directly throughout the book.  But evidently the primary source of Jill Lepore’s gripping story from where she has drawn heavily as it is the central account of this ghastly affair, is 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, for Burning the City of New-York in America, And Murdering the Inhabitants. Horsmanden was one of the three judges on New York’s Supreme Court, under which the trials proceeded. He was also the main examiner of the indicted and the key witnesses. He was responsible for recording all legal proceedings, which he later on assembled for publication in his Journal. Since its publication, the Journal has been referred to by every scholar who has approached this story as it is the main surviving account of the incident. However Lepore stands out as the only scholar who has searched arduously for additional evidence. She went as far as to examine the few scorched trial records in the New York State Library at Albany that survived the library fire of 1911.
Even though Horsmanden’s Journal remains the key document for evidence of what happened in 1741, it has tended to enclose, even limit, the scholars’ investigations. And admittedly Lepore’s production of the textual information does not differ much from that of  the previous accounts of the trial, but she makes use of the Journal as a point of departure from where she moves beyond its evidences. In her movement from the formal record, she goes on to a series of historical forays, laying out setting, atmosphere, and sensibility. She examines New York City not only in the light by “bonfires of Negroes” so not be “blinded by the brightness of the flames” but steps back and start her foray from the 1735 trial so as to achieve her objective of unveiling the “American paradox” of talking about liberty while keeping Negro as slaves.   
One of these explorations is a literary direction, as Lepore surveys contemporary novels, pamphlets, newspapers and New York City for their representation of conspiracy and discovers the pure conventionality of the story set in New York. It appears "conspiracy plot dripping, ripe to bursting with familiar characters and fireworks" (Lepore, 10) derived from folk tales of robberies, pirate raids, and massacres of Indians. Revolts slaves were added to such by the late seventeenth century. A pamphlet published in London in 1676 a detailed plot of Barbados in which a black "king" would be chosen to lead the slaves to "kill white men, burning their houses and taking white women as wives "(Lepore,11), all elements often repeated in the testimony of New York. These agreements were reinforced by slave revolts in Jamaica, St. John's, Antigua, Virginia in 1730, and Stono, South Carolina, in 1739. Zenger's New York Weekly Journal had reported extensively on the slave conspiracy of 1736 Antigua. Thus, the formula of the black revolt was familiar to New Yorkers. To top it all, the plot of 1741 even included the most sinister of stereotypical characters, a Catholic priest.
So Lepore more or less speculates the degree of truth and the influence of previously made stereotypes on the verdict set by the court which convicted “nearly two hundred slaves were suspected of conspiring to burn every building and murder every white…..tried and convicted thirteen black men were burned at the stake. Seventeen more were hanged, two of their dead bodies were chained to post…left to bloat and rot. One jailed man cut his throat another eighty-four man and women were sold to yet more miserable slavery..Two white men and two white women, the alleged ringleaders, were hanged…seven more white men were pardoned on condition that they never set foot in New York again.”( Lepore, xii)
Surprisingly, Lepore offers no explicit finding as to whether there really was a conspiracy, if it finds that the publication of the Journal of Horsmanden acquired a reputation little and soon he was " remaindered, at 3 shillings a copy" (Lepore, 220). Yet her own research leaves little doubt that the accusation was false. Horsmanden, its chief architect, lamented the chore of collecting evidence of blacks: their "unintelligible jargon" needed to " grope through a Maze of Obscurity; be obliged to lay hold of broken Hints . . . before he can . . . fix those Creatures to any certain determinate Meaning” (Horsmanden,115).. For the modern reader, this remark is cold, knowing that the record was seated on the page by a man apparently predisposed to conclude conspiracy when facing a combination of arrogant slaves, whites with low lifetime, and a Popish priest.
            Lepore also casts serious doubt on the authenticity of the confessions, saying that prosecutors, backed by common traditions, urged the denomination and description of the plots as the best way for the accused to escape execution. Lepore also described the testimony of Mary Burton's, sixteen year old servant under contract who won her freedom and a reward of 100 pounds serving as the court’s main witness, as "comic corrupt" (Lepore,178). Lepore still sometimes seems to drift with the story of the conspiracy as it unfolds, as if it was true or at least partly true. This may be simply a literary device, adding drama as it merges its voice to those witnesses. This is also partly because of the speculations Lepore made on the basis of the various trials she studied and refers to, to make the reader understand the 1741 burnings.
The tale has already had its legal documentation in the form of Horsmanden’s Journal and Lepore does not seek to deliver the most recent of these accounts.  Instead, it places the events in a richly textured world of political plots and plotters of all kinds by delving into the records of trials of colonial America.  So Lepore has not produced another of microhistories by relying on the previous researches of other historians but has actually delved into the history of the incidents of colonial crime.  So we see history moving back and forth in time and place during a century.  It also examines the primary sources with great care, providing a kind of literary thriller in the larger narrative.
            So it can be said that New York Burning is a good book that uses imagination with a rare combination of extraordinary research and outstanding writing.  Lepore dramatically shows how, in a city beset by intrigue and state terror, the threat of black revolt united the white political parties in a frenzy of fear and racial violence.  In this way Lepore has introduced the plot of the New York trial from 1741 to the world in a new light from where it can soon take its rightful place alongside or even above, trials in Salem.     
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