JillLepore.jpgThe NEH’s magazine, Humanities, has a terrific interview this month with one of my favorite historians — and favorite people — Jill Lepore. A Harvard prof (and chair of the school’s History and Literature program) and award-winning author, Lepore also, along with our friend Caleb Crain, has become a key writer on American history and culture for the New Yorker. And she’s an active parent of small children. And she’s only a few years on the other side of 40. As Ari over at Edge of the American West asked, “Jealous?”

The whole interview is worth reading, but especially relevant to this site is the bit about her book New York Burning, a gripping read about the city’s purported slave revolt of 1741:

HUMANITIES: In New York Burning, you wrote about … the fires that swept through Manhattan in 1741.

LEPORE: … Another long-forgotten
episode in early American history. It’s a little like Salem witchcraft,
which everyone knows about, the 1692 witchcraft trials in which twenty
people died, except that what happened in New York was a lot worse.
Thirteen black men were burned at the stake; seventeen more were
hanged. No one was burned at the stake in Salem. That’s just a figment
of our collective imagination. What happened in New York was also,
historically, far more significant. It played a role in how slavery
evolved in the North. And it played a role, I think, in how American
politics evolved and how Americans came to tolerate partisanship and
the two-party system.

I had wanted to write about this episode for my dissertation but
decided against it because, while the prosecutors left behind a rich
documentary trail (nearly two hundred black men were arrested and
interrogated and many of them were brought to trial), the confessions
aren’t admissible as historical evidence, since they were confessing to
avoid being burned to death and, under those circumstances, who
wouldn’t lie? I couldn’t quite figure out how to deal with that
evidentiary problem.

Then, in 1991, workers excavating the foundation for a new federal
office building in Manhattan came across the African burial ground from
the colonial period. And I thought, ‘Oh, this will be incredibly loud,
noisy, great historical evidence.’ Except it wasn’t. The burials and
the remains were highly controversial, and the reports were not
altogether forthcoming about what scholars ought to conclude from the
analysis of those remains. But I wrote the book anyway.

HUMANITIES: In The Name of War
[her first book, about “King Philip’s War”] you showed how New Englanders described their humiliation and their
suffering in language identical to how they described the Indians. In
this book you showed pre-Revolutionary Americans describing the
restraints on their political liberties in terms so drastic that they
actually better describe the bondage in which they keep African slaves
and the slaves then referred to as Spanish Negroes. There seems to be
this kind of very careful, subtle argument about how we take our
enemy’s attributes and apply them to ourselves when we think we’re in a
really bad place.

LEPORE: I’m interested in our
capacity to justify acts of tremendous, unspeakable cruelty. It’s not
obvious, at least not to me. And the way I have always tried to puzzle
it out is by thinking mainly about language. What, literally, is the
vocabulary of justification?

In eighteenth-century New York, a lot of people want to depose the
governor. He is a tyrant. What they write about him, what they write
about their right to get rid of him, is, to me, as a citizen, quite
moving and inspiring. And yet those same people deploy that very same
rhetoric to justify enslaving Africans. How do they manage that? How,
honestly, is that possible? I don’t know that we have ever really
reckoned with that, with what Edmund Morgan called the “American
paradox,” that our democracy rests, at some level, on the idea of
enslavement. It doesn’t anymore. But that history matters. And I think
we’d be stronger for seeing it more clearly.

You also make the argument that slavery is
somehow crucial to understanding the development of political parties
in America. How does slavery help illuminate the development of
political parties?

LEPORE: I tried to make that argument, but I’m not sure it worked. The day that New York Burning
was published, Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans. I had a
new baby, and I was home with him, and found myself glued to the
television. Talking heads would come on–news anchors, commentators–and
say, while looking at the footage of nobody but black people on the
roofs of those houses, as if shocked, as if this had never occurred to
them, ‘Oh, my God. Race still exists in this country. There still is
racism. Oh, my God. New Orleans is segregated!’

I’m trying to convince people that it matters that black men were
burned at the stake in New York City in 1741, and people are surprised
that black people are marooned on the roofs of New Orleans in 2005?
Here I am, trying to make an argument about eighteenth-century
politics, attempting to illustrate, with all manner of exhaustive
archival research–charts about the census and the tax lists–and close
readings of Blackstone’s Commentaries
and Restoration drama, trying to argue that the constant, ever-present
threat of black conspiracy made white political pluralism possible.
Because compared to that, having a two-party system was a piece of
cake. And I had to go give some goofy book talks, and I’m thinking, at
these bookstores, Sheesh, there’s just this huge gap between what I’m
trying to say and what people kind of need to know or where we can
enter the conversation together, and that’s my fault, all mine. What am
I doing here in 1741? At the level of imagining our national past and
wrestling with the consequences of slavery, the wages of slavery, well,
that didn’t even begin to happen until the last election where there
was a genuine national conversation about what slavery has done to
American politics.

To go back to the eighteenth century for just
a second: So the threat or the partly imagined threat of a slave
rebellion, it encouraged people to find a more friendly system of
opposition, which was the beginnings of the party system?

LEPORE: History doesn’t always
work that way, neatly. And when it seems like it works that way,
usually someone is being facile. But here’s what I argued: In New York
in the 1730s there was an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of
political opposition, including the founding of an opposition political
party. In 1735, a printer named John Peter Zenger was tried for
sedition, for publishing a newspaper that opposed the policies of the
royally appointed governor. Zenger’s trial is one of the most thrilling
episodes in early American political history, and it nearly tears the
colony apart.

Six years later, an alleged slave conspiracy brings together these
two political parties, who, I argue, heal the political divisions
between them by burning black men at the stake. And, I think, like
decapitating Philip and putting his head on a pike, this is a
constitutive moment for a pluralistic politics. It’s as if those
executions say, ‘You and I, we can disagree. We can disagree–a
lot–because we are not beyond the limits of our own politics, we are
not Indians on the warpath, we are not black men talking about burning
the city down.’ It’s a dark story, I don’t like that story, I sometimes
wish the past were prettier, but it’s how I read the evidence.

More on the African Burial Ground here.