Freedom's First Con

Historians of the United States have traditionally shown little curiosity about American money in anything more than an abstract sense. In a salutary exception, Shane White,  the author of several noted books on African-American history, published an article in last fall’s Journal of the Early Republic that looked at the intersection of race and money in nineteenth-century New York City. The chaotic monetary system of the antebellum United States and the panoply of paper money in circulation, no small part of which was counterfeit, created a variety of problems for ordinary people engaged in commerce. Everyday transactions could turn into fraught affairs as the parties negotiated over the value and validity of the money being proffered. Matters only became more charged when race was added to the mix.

As detailed in the landmark exhibition at the New-York Historical Society a few years back, New York City has a long, and generally overlooked, history as a capital of slavery. In 1790, one in five white households in the city owned a slave, and although there was a growing free black community, it was not until over a half-century after the American Revolution that the state of New York formally abolished slavery on July 4, 1827.

ANS, 0000.999.39313
ANS, 0000.999.39313

The city was home to the American Anti-Slavery Society, which distributed the copper token above, and abolitionist sentiment was certainly on the rise in the 1830s and 1840s. And yet racism was hardly in abeyance, and the asymmetrical power relationship between white and black was something that African-Americans had to confront and deal with on a daily basis.

New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society

Shane White focuses on how this power dynamic played out in the course everyday monetary transactions, making use of a wealth of material drawn from legal records in the Municipal Archives. One commonality that emerges is of the problems that black businesses had dealing with white customers, who variously ran up and out on charges, tried to pay with counterfeit money, or otherwise abused black owners. The resulting conflict all too often resulted in violence, as with the following episode detailed in the article:

One evening in February 1835, William Dunbar tried to pay his bill of one shilling in a cook cellar in Cherry Street with a three-dollar note. Aaron Jacobs, the black proprietor of the establishment not only refused to accept it, claiming it was from a ‘‘broken bank,’’ but also would not return the note to his customer, making it clear that he intended to hand it over to the police the next day. Furious, Dunbar pulled out a loaded pistol, pointed the weapon at Jacobs, and squeezed the trigger. Although the cap exploded, fortunately for the black man, the pistol did not fire. Dunbar told the authorities that he had ‘‘no explanation to give that he was drunk & don’t know what he had done.’’

But African-Americans were not always on the losing side in these conflicts, and the article documents the way that the resolute black restaurateur Thomas Downing ably dealt with patrons attempting to pass counterfeit notes like the one below.

ANS, 1945.42.37
A well-circulated counterfeit five-dollar note from Tradesmen’s Bank of the City of New York. ANS, 1945.42.37

White also shows how some African Americans turned the complicated monetary system to their advantage. The titular “first con” refers to the the practice of “burning,” a scam wherein black men took money off white “marks” by offering to change their bank notes for silver and gold coins at friendly rates. Gangs of black “burners” often employed white confederates, and lurked around the city’s docks and exchange offices, looking for new arrivals with fat pocketbooks. A variety of tricks were used to induce the mark to take out their money, but once they did the burners simply grabbed the cash and ran. This rather crude con first emerged in the 1830s, but the article traces how the scam was refined over the years. For the full and fascinating story, click on the link below.

Shane White, Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in Antebellum New York CityJournal of the Early Republic 43:3 (Fall 2014): 385-409.

Matthew Wittmann