The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741
Slavery, Crime, and Colonial Law
Peter Charles Hoffer
Three and a half decades before the city of New York witnessed the first great battle waged by the new United States of America for its independence, rumors of a massive conspiracy among the city's slaves spread panic throughout the colony. On the testimony of frightened bondsmen and a handful of whites, over seventy slaves were convicted and a third of these were executed.
The suspected conspiracy in New York prompted one of the most extensive slave trials in colonial history and some of the most grisly punishments ever meted out to individuals. Peter Hoffer now retells the dramatic story of those landmark trials, setting the events in their legal and historical contexts and offering a revealing glimpse of slavery in colonial cities and of the way that the law defined and policed the institution.
“Hoffer pieces the story together in a way that erases all reasonable doubt that a good many slaves were indeed ‘guilty as charged.’ . . . The size of this book, together with Hoffer’s elegant prose and artfully crafted argument, make this study a natural for classroom use.”
—American Historical Review
“Given the current ‘war on terrorism,’ this volume is timely and deserves the widest possible audience. Highly recommended.”
—ChoiceSee all reviews...
“Peter Charles Hoffer is one of the very best historians of colonial American law. . . . This book contains a brief but excellent discussion of criminal procedure in colonial New York. It also contains a concise,illuminating account of the early yeas o slavery, and about how the courts of New York dealt with slaves who came before them. . . . This is a powerful narrative, powerfully told. . . . This is a fine piece of scholarship, a fine addition to the Landmark Law Cases in American Society series, and a fine contribution to American legal history. It would also be useful reading for social scientists and others concerned with what we might call social epidemics.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“Did slaves and poor whites conspire to destroy New York in the summer of 1741? If you thought the case is closed, think again. Hoffer’s meticulous reconsideration of the record builds convincingly toward a conclusion that is both sensible and original. A landmark study by one of our top legal historians.”
—Edwin G. Burrows, coauthor of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
“With sensitivity to deadly conspiracy heightened by 9/11, Hoffer deftly wraps the events of 1741 in a context packed with the tension of producing swift and sensible justice in a society bedeviled by racial and religious bigotry and by unreliable rules of evidence and procedure. . . . Provides teachers, students, and general readers quick entry to still troubling issues in American history.”
—Thomas J. Davis, author of A Rumor of Revolt: The Great Negro Plot in Colonial New YorkSee fewer reviews...
Among other things, Hoffer reveals how conspiracy became a central feature of the law of slavery at the same time as it reflected the white belief that slaves were always conspiring against their masters. He draws on uniquely revealing firsthand accounts of the trials to both retell a gripping story and open a window on colonial American justice. He leads readers through a chain of events involving robbery and arson that culminated in the trials of a group of white men suspected of inciting the slaves to revolt.
The episode, so vital to our understanding of a time when slavery was an entrenched institution and the law made even the angry muttering of slaves into a criminal act, has much to tell us about current affairs as well. African slaves in colonial times were viewed by authorities and citizens much as some foreigners are today: inherently dangerous, easily identifiable, and constantly conspiring.