America's Heart

A History of New York City to 1898

HOW a trading post in the wilderness grew to be New York City is one of the great stories of American history, and in this billowing volume Edwin G. Burrows, a Brooklyn College historian, and Mike Wallace, of the City University of New York, tell it stirringly. The dominant urban center on the North American continent since 1800, the metropolitan region of New York has attracted one of the largest populations in the world. New York's economic institutions eclipsed domestic competitors by the early nineteenth century and foreign competitors after the First World War. The city was, in the words of Walt Whitman, "the great place of the Western Continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond of the new world."

New York's wealth lured people from everywhere. The populations of ancient Athens and Rome, early modern London and Paris, twentieth-century Tokyo and Mexico City, were enormous but homogeneous. In contrast, New York was at different times the largest Irish, Jewish, Italian, and black African city in the world. By 1860 nearly half of Manhattan's population was foreign-born, making New York the most polyglot metropolis on the globe. It remains so today.
The city's complexity has frightened not only residents and visitors but historians as well. Although multi-volume histories by Martha Lamb (1877-1896), Benson John Lossing (1884), and James Grant Wilson (1892-1893) celebrated and memorialized the "rise and progress" of the nineteenth-century metropolis, twentieth-century historians have avoided the topic. Chicago and other cities have generated larger and richer bodies of historical study.

Not any more. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 represents the most comprehensive examination to date of the city's history prior to 1900. Indeed, few historians today attempt synthetic and comprehensive interpretations of this magnitude. The authors weave together the unique details of New York's history with a generation's worth of recent and original scholarship, insightfully reconceptualizing the city's past. With the publication of a second volume (scheduled for 2000, covering the twentieth century, and written by Wallace alone), Gotham may rank in importance with the multi-volume works on Thomas Jefferson by Dumas Malone and on the Civil War by Allan Nevins.

"Globalization" is repeatedly invoked to explain contemporary economic developments. For New York, however, globalization is hardly new. Burrows and Wallace persuasively argue that New York was "crucially shaped by ... an evolving global economy" from its founding, as New Amsterdam, in 1626. At first the settlement was of little import, especially in view of the wealth available to the Dutch from Asian spices, South American sugar, and African slaves. New Amsterdam offered modest profits in the fur trade, particularly in beaver pelts, which were its first significant commodity.

By the eighteenth century sugar and war had transformed New York's economy. By about 1720 a fifth to a quarter of the city's adult males worked as mariners, and half of the ships that used New York's port traveled from or to the Caribbean. During King George's War (1744-1748) and the French and Indian War (1754-1763) the city's economy boomed. Not surprisingly, African slavery grew with it. By 1750 Africans made up more than 20 percent of the settlement's populace, and only Charleston, South Carolina, surpassed New York in the number of slaves and slave owners in a North American city. Legal slavery endured in New York until 1827.

New York's globally dependent economy in no time produced a multicultural city. Amsterdam, New York's original namesake, was a magnet for outcasts of every denomination: Walloons, Huguenots, Baptists, Quakers, Sephardic Jews, and English Calvinists (whom we remember as the Pilgrims). In less than two decades that legacy was apparent in the Dutch settlement of North America. By 1640 the New York region was the most heterogeneous in what would soon become British North America. The Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues complained about the "confusion of tongues," counting eighteen different languages spoken by New Amsterdam's 400 to 500 inhabitants. For Jogues, the community was "Babel." Outside the city, Swedes, Germans, French, Belgians, Danes, English dissenters, Africans, and Indians lived in scattered settlements and on farms, resisting the comparatively ordered, homogeneous villages of Puritan New England. Half a century later the majority of New York's populace were religious "nonconformists." The absence of a uniform denominationalism and religious orthodoxy continued into the eighteenth century, weakening imperial power and advancing individualism, pluralism, and anti-authoritarianism. The city was ripe for revolution by the 1770s.

After the American Revolution the Napoleonic Wars and American neutrality enabled New York's port to become the continental entrepôt. From about 1790 to 1807 the value of imports entering the city rose from $1.4 million to $7.6 million. By then New York's imports were almost double those of its rival Philadelphia. More noteworthy were exports, whose value increased tenfold, from $2.5 million to $26 million. By the 1820s customs duties collected in New York were so abundant that they subsidized the entire operation of the federal government, excepting interest on the national debt. At mid-century the port of New York accounted for a third of the nation's exports and half of its imports. Most significant, the flow of commodities linked New York to the three economic engines of the century: the manufacturing Midlands of Great Britain, the cotton-producing American South, and the agricultural Midwest, the breadbasket of America. New York, according to the writer George Train in 1857, was "the locomotive of these United States."

NEW YORK'S economic ascendancy was not simply the product of "natural" economic forces. Consider the rise of manufacturing. By 1860 the city's 4,375 factories employed 90,204 workers and led the nation in industrial output. Indeed, more than 10,000 labored in the city's 539 ironworks alone. But why did the republic's industrial core emerge on the little island of Manhattan? As Burrows and Wallace reveal, no single explanation suffices. For instance, banks were reluctant to lend to small manufacturers, limiting entrepreneurial artisans to cheap rental spaces in the warehouse districts. Manufacturers wanted to be near the port and thereby to their distant markets -- and they wanted access to one another. Cabinetmakers located adjacent to sawmills, dealers, and auction houses. Iron foundries made steam boilers for shipyards, tanks for gas companies, and architectural ornaments for builders, all of whom relied on importers, machine shops, and repairmen. Finally, the Manhattan economy was labor-intensive; "people-power" was the main source of energy. Firms found it convenient to set up shop near the low-wage proletariats stacked in the city's tenements.

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