Serena R. Zabin


On her book Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York

Cover Interview of October 01, 2009

In a nutshell

In Dangerous Economies, I explain a shocking moment in eighteenth-century America.  250 years ago, New York was gripped by a terrible fear: that resident slaves were conspiring to torch the city, murder its white inhabitants, and hand over the smoldering burg to the Catholic king of Spain.  Based on the testimony of one sixteen-year-old girl, New York’s Supreme Court burned thirteen enslaved men at the stake, hanged seventeen more, along with two white men and two white women, and banned nearly 100 people from the colony.

The force that drove this eighteenth-century witch-hunt was not so much racism as the newly unleashed power of capitalism.  By looking at economic growth as a cultural phenomenon, and not just a fiscal one, I explain how the colony’s courts could come to believe this fantastic story.

250 years ago New York was enjoying an economic boom as impressive as the one of the 1990s—complete with confidence artists and unrestrained consumption—and everyone tried to exploit a corner of the market.  The result was the creation of a scandalously dangerous economy: one with multiple opportunities, great risks, and sometimes devastating consequences.