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The Life and Times of Gotham, the City by the Sea

11:00 PM, Feb 7, 1999 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Lankevich's American Metropolis, ideal for classroom use, is a political history that moves from one mayoral administration to the next. Burrows and Wallace's far more ambitious Gotham is a history in which the star actors are the conflicts and crises that shaped the social landscape. New York had contended with numerous riots well before 1789, when a Parisian mob's storming of the largely empty Bastille marked the beginning of working-class participation in the French Revolution. Gotham is particularly good at showing how the revolutionary example of the French cast a shadow over New York for a century, deepening class cleavages in the city's politics.

The backdrop to the arrival in New York of news of the French Revolution was a major lower-class riot all New York's own. In 1788, as Federalists and anti-Federalists were arguing over the new American Constitution, some boys, peering through a window at Columbia College (then located in lower Manhattan), discovered physicians holding up the arm of a dissected cadaver. The boys fled screaming, and a mob returned, outraged that graves had been violated. Rumors flew, and there were threats to kill every doctor in town. When the surgeons were taken to jail, a lynch mob five-thousand strong was dispersed only after the militia killed three of the rioters.

New York was nearly unanimous in supporting the onset of the French Revolution as a blow against monarchical tyranny. With the regicide of Louis XVI, well-to-do Federalists like Rufus King decided that the revolution was being "conducted with so much barbarity & ignorance" as to have become an enemy of liberty. But not even news from France of the 1793 Reign of Terror could turn most of the mechanics and small merchants of New York against the French Jacobins. The newly founded Tammany Society, soon to be a bulwark of the Democratic party, changed the "'Glorious Fourth' into a celebration of international revolution singing choruses of 'La Marseillaise.'" "The lower class of citizens," noted Peter Livingston approvingly, are "almost to a Man . . . Frenchmen."

It was a time in New York when one man in seven was jailed for debt in the course of a year but only one in ten had the property qualification to vote, and the toast at a mechanics' dinner struck a dangerous chord: "A cobweb pair of breeches, a porcupine saddle . . . to all the enemies of freedom." The divisions deepened when France declared war on the England still much hated in America, producing a wave of Francophilia in which French sympathizers adopted "the bloused shirts, linen cravats, and baggy pantaloons that were the uniform of the continental revolutionaries."

Mike Wallace, the principal author of Gotham's chapters on the nineteenth century, is torn between his identification with the French revolutionary and socialist tradition and his considerable abilities as an historian. In describing the marked influence in New York of the Parisian revolts of 1789, 1848, and 1870, the reader can feel hope rising -- only to be dashed by sobering sentences on why New York, the most European of American cities, never followed its French exemplar. The tension is part of what makes Gotham so intriguing, but it is also what leaves the book unable to answer the question of why New York, for all its violence, was never ripe for revolution.

When, in 1848, news reached the United States that France's "bourgeois monarch," Louis Phillipe, had been overthrown, there was again widespread support for the revolutionaries. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke for most Americans when he said, "So long as a King is left upon his throne there will be no justice on earth." But when red republicans like Louis Blanc called upon the French government to establish a right to work in government-organized cooperative workshops, American attitudes changed. The citizens of a wide-open United States found it hard to identify with neo-Jacobin calls for a more governed society. The sometimes radical New York Tribune (which would later employ Karl Marx as a correspondent) mocked the merchants' fear of socialism but ceased to support the Parisian revolutionaries. The Tribune would even come to endorse the ferocious suppression of the 1848 revolt, in which thousands of Parisian workers were injured or killed.