Market booms, whether in the 1740s or in the 1990s, are largely imaginary

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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.

“It was this world, of uncertain status distinctions, underpinned by the easy flow of credit, money, and people, that allowed fears of an international papist slave uprising to flourish.”

The wide angle

Other historians, especially in the last ten years, have written about this suspected conspiracy. Indeed, as an undergraduate student, I myself abridged the one extant judge’s account of the trials. But no one had yet explained how such an enormous cause célèbre could just melt away with no discernable aftermath. When the trials ended, the colony did not enact a tough new slave code (unlike the South Carolina legislature, which passed new laws after the 1739 Stono uprising). The only piece of new legislation with an explicit connection to the suspected conspiracy was the establishment of a military watch. Six months later the assembly admitted that it could not find enough inhabitants to staff the shifts, and it did not bother to renew the law. How could such a ghastly incident fade so quickly from view?

As I dug into the background of this story, I wondered if the answer lay not in the trials themselves but in their setting. So before I could explain how this conspiracy came to seem feasible, I had to come to a better understanding of eighteenth-century New York City. As I came to know the city, I realized that its three most important characteristics were intertwined.

First, this was an imperial city. New Yorkers, free and enslaved, were proud members of the British empire. Before 1765, British provincials, far from desiring colonial independence, clung to their powerful empire in the face of nearly constant threats from the rival French, Spanish, and Native American empires that surrounded them. Indeed, even in their most mundane interactions, New Yorkers were essential components of the expanding British empire.

Second, this was a slave city. Its population was roughly eighteen percent enslaved—the highest proportion of slaves north of Maryland.

Finally, New York’s economy was based on trade—not on production, not on self-sufficiency. New York was a commercial place with an economy that expanded hand in hand with the increasing power of the British empire.

Reading letters, newspapers, business ledgers, and court records, I realized that the inhabitants of the city looked outwards, towards the Atlantic. These days, we pay little attention to New York’s wharves and ports, and they’re easy to overlook. But in fact, it was precisely the port culture of New York that tied together empire, slavery, and trade. I started to pay attention to fluidity—of people, and of ideas. And then I started thinking about whether a rising tide really did lift all boats.

For most of the eighteenth century, New York really was on a rising tide of an economic boom, in the middle of an enormous economic and imperial expansion. And I certainly found all sorts of people trying to make the most of this newly accessible market: people with very little disposable income, including poor women and slaves, people who would do anything for the most obscure markers of social distinction. It was this world, of uncertain status distinctions, underpinned by the easy flow of credit, money, and people, that allowed fears of an international papist slave uprising to flourish.

October 2, 2009

A close-up

Examining how the actions of individuals come together to create an immense commercial empire, Dangerous Economies is studded with the stories of a diverse array of New Yorkers, from slaves to royal officials.

One of the most compelling of these stories is that of a mother and daughter named Elizabeth and Mary Anderson. Elizabeth Anderson, like many widowed women, opened a little shop of imports in New York for which her Boston-based brother supplied the goods. One day, some wealthy young men stopped into the shop and saw Elizabeth’s 14-year-old-daughter. In a drama that seems borrowed from a Samuel Richardson novel, they invent a plan to get Mary alone in a tavern and attempt to rape her. When her mother asks the attorney general to bring charges of attempted rape against the four young men, the perpetrators turn to the risky world of the market to try to entrap and discredit the mother by accusing her of illegal trading, dealing in stolen goods, and trafficking with slaves. Not only do they succeed in having her, in the attorney general’s words, “whipped most inhumanly” until she fainted, but they manage to acquit themselves of the charge of attempted rape. Even the attorney general himself is brought up on charges of maladministration of office—with prosecution basing its case on his championing of the Andersons.

Just as the suspected slave conspiracy trials were not solely about race, this attempted gang rape cannot be explained simply as an attempt to solidify early American patriarchy. Although the attempted rape of Mary Anderson is an unambiguous story of an effort to assert power through gendered violence, the attempted destruction of Elizabeth Anderson shows a very different use of power. The physical violence that the gang of men used was only partly successful; they achieved true success by harnessing the power and the system of trade.

The tale of Elizabeth and Mary Anderson’s persecution reveals both the potential and the hazards of the corners of the marketplace open to poor women. For although Anderson may have been a legal trader, the court records reveal a flourishing interracial economy in secondhand goods. Goods were acquired (sometimes stolen, sometimes not) by enslaved men and then pawned to female tavern-keepers, who ran pawnshops as side business.

In taverns that were often no more than front rooms or in tiny shops “above stairs,” women and men, both free and enslaved, pawned and fenced goods that had little practical value in their hardworking lives. Punch bowls and velvet cloaks became currency in their own economy, to be exchanged for a drink, a room, or even a search warrant. And yet consumer goods represented more than mere cash, for these informal pawnbrokers resold them to customers eager for fashionable wares.

Such a desire fueled both firsthand and secondhand production of consumer goods. However, not everyone benefited from this loose and underground economy. The possibilities it offered for improving one’s personal lot could come at a price. Fourteen-year-old Mary Anderson was the victim of an attempted gang rape; her mother, in trying to defend her daughter, was whipped until she lost consciousness. Every attempt the Andersons made to survive in this informal economy was viewed with hostility and suspicion by members of the elite and the courts.

There were other, wider implications to the informal economy as well. By redistributing used and stolen goods, making them accessible even to the poorest of New Yorkers, the women and men operating in the informal economy inadvertently undermined the meaning of those consumer goods as indicators of status. As both buyers and sellers, these poor and enslaved New Yorkers entered into a wide world of Atlantic goods and commerce. At the same time, their involvement in this market ended up undercutting exactly the sorts of status divisions that consumer goods were intended to create and support.

These men and women rarely intended to create a social revolution, however, and their trading and purchases often came at great personal costs to themselves. Moreover, status distinctions did not disappear with the emergence of a secondhand consumer market. Instead, elite New Yorkers found other ways to turn the presentations of their bodies into markers of distinction.

“Women and men, both free and enslaved, pawned and fenced goods that had little practical value in their hardworking lives. Punch bowls and velvet cloaks became currency in their own economy, to be exchanged for a drink, a room, or even a search warrant.”


Of papist spies and slave uprisings, these tales carry the marks of long ago, of a time when chattel slavery was normal and people were burned at the stake. But Dangerous Economies tells a story that has a lot to do with today: the book is a study of an economic boom time.

As in the Clinton era, economic and imperial expansion happened hand in hand. So it is essential to probe the relationship between the everyday lives of ordinary people, political power, and market-forces most of us can’t quite comprehend.

What I found was that the eighteenth-century marketplace could be a place where even the most marginal of actors—poor women, for example, or slaves—really could exploit the market to live in ways that they wanted. Slaves were, of course, legally considered property themselves. But I found an example of a slave who had made so much money on the black market that he himself was able to keep a woman—in fact, a white woman—as a mistress, paying for her room and board, and supporting their child. But it was risky. That same enslaved man was hanged for running a larceny ring in which he and some accomplices stole luxury goods and then fenced them to a dealer who sold them second-hand to other, marginally wealthier New Yorkers who wanted those latest consumer goods without actually paying full price for them.

This was not a story that could be explained through the traditional approaches to studying capitalism: it needed a cultural history. And this cultural history reveals that concepts such as money and credit, which economist imagine to be quantitative and objective, have actually been embedded in people’s lives from the very beginning of market capitalisms.

Market booms, whether in the 1740s or in the 1990s, are largely imaginary. They are not just based on the exploitation of some people (slaves then, sweatshop workers now) by others but rather on the collective fantasy that financial credit is somehow real and fixed rather than subjective and imaginary. Boomtime New York created a world in which thirty-four people could be judicially murdered—and then forgotten.

But just because credit is imaginary does not mean it’s not meaningful. This world did terrify people who wanted to fix people’s status: a slave as property, a woman as a dependent, a well-dressed man as a good financial risk. And so, for those who were killed or banished, the cultural meaning of economics had great, even final meaning.

© 2009 Serena Zabin
Serena R. Zabin Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York University of Pennsylvania Press 216 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0812241600

Serena Zabin is an associate professor of history at Carleton College, where she teaches the history of early America and the Atlantic world, as well as American Studies. Her new work is a cultural study of the military occupation of Boston that culminated in the Boston Massacre.

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October 2, 2009