Benjamin L. Carp—
When you write a book, you have to promote it. When you promote a book, they ask you to pitch ideas to news outlets. When you pitch an idea to a news outlet, they say you should have a “hook” that relates to contemporary events.
I do not want there to be a hook for my book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, because I don’t want a major city to catch fire.
My book is about an awful disaster—a fire on September 21, 1776, that burned about a fifth of New York City, which was then the second-largest town in the rebelling colonies that became the United States. I think the evidence shows that American rebels burned the city deliberately—and perhaps with George Washington’s blessing. The British had just occupied New York six days earlier, and the Americans had talked about depriving the British of headquarters for the winter. After the fire, however, the rebels insisted that Washington and his men had nothing to do with the fire, and they launched a campaign of correspondence and newspaper items to counteract any suggestion that the Americans were to blame. They succeeded, too: for years, most historians said the fire was either an accident or a mystery.
Our world is currently filled with destructive warfare, climate disaster, and disinformation. It shouldn’t be too difficult for me to connect a tragic event from the past to the catastrophes we face today. But I keep hoping the world won’t give me a hook.
Still, historians are always influenced by present-day events when they write. Issues like abortion and police violence cause us to question whether women and people of color can safely claim equal citizenship in the United States. The debate over “1619” and “1776” have politicized the ways we talk about the Founding Fathers and the soldiers who won the Revolutionary War.
These questions get to the heart of how Americans celebrate their history, and with the 250th anniversary of American Independence approaching, it’s important to figure out who we are to one another as a nation. A scuzzy calamity like the Great New York Fire forces us to adopt a different perspective on the Founders, soldiers, and people of 1776. There has always been more to the United States than our smartest and wealthiest patriarchs. And there has always been more to the story of 1776 than the uplifting tales we still teach our children. Our early history was also filled with radical words and deeds that belie the sanitized, unifying story of the country’s origins.
A few scraps of evidence suggest that a woman—maybe more than one woman—helped to set New York City on fire. The newspapers said she was martyred when British soldiers threw her into the flames. At the time, American men were claiming citizenship because they shouldered arms and committed radical acts on behalf of their country. American women, of course, waited until 1920 for the Constitution to guarantee their right to vote. What did it mean, then, that a woman had also helped to burn New York City in 1776? Did people treat her as a heroine or a monster?
Some third-hand testimony also mentions that a mixed-race Connecticut soldier also helped to burn New York City. He was also slain by the British. Because he was from the area around New London, it’s conceivable that he was of Black or Native descent, or both. Meanwhile, another Black man “betrayed” a rebel captain, revealing his hiding place. The captain spent eighteen months in prison for his involvement in the plot to burn New York. How might we reflect on people of color choosing different political commitments in the midst of a civil war?
The British and their Loyalist allies mentioned a number of other suspects who might have burned New York—rebel soldiers as well as officers. Many of these accusers argued that Washington himself was behind the deed. Yet while Washington applauded the fire (his only complaint was that too much of New York remained standing), he declined to be associated with it. He knew it posed a risk to his reputation. The officers in his camp did everything they could to tamp down any rumors of American involvement. Benjamin Franklin also joined the campaign to argue that the fire was an accident.
A mixed-race, mixed-gender group of Americans probably burned New York City, revealing a radical faction within the revolutionary movement that was willing to use radical methods. The Founders apparently winked at their actions, which may well change our opinion of them as well. Some of us might admire their willingness to sacrifice an American city to deprive the British army. Others might well decry the destruction of civilian property in wartime, particularly since the Founders themselves complained loudly whenever the British burned an American town.
We should examine our own attitudes toward the Founders and soldiers. Through the smoke and ruin, my book opens a more expansive view of what it means to be American. Despite generations of great history, we still default to an empty sort of hero worship. We still tell the same stories. Most Americans have heard the story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree—a complete fiction!—but they haven’t heard about the fire that almost destroyed New York City. Our nation was born in war, with all the misdeeds that war carries with it. Perhaps a bit more clarity will help us face the disasters in our own day.
Benjamin L. Carp is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. He lives in New York City.