Yes, Virginia, the Patriots did burn New York City.
On September 21, 1776, a fifth of New York City caught fire, hollowing out Trinity Church and leaving thousands homeless. Six days had elapsed since the rebels evacuated the city, and the British and their Loyalist allies concluded that enemy saboteurs had done the deed. The Reverend Benjamin Moore, assistant rector of Trinity Church, testified in 1783 that he found the church’s door unlocked that night; he also saw British troops arrest someone carrying a tub full of matches. Moore believed that the fire had been set deliberately.
The rebels under George Washington had repeatedly threatened to burn the city; the flames appeared to break out in several places, and the British found combustible materials (like the tub of matches) before, during, and after the fire. British soldiers caught several perpetrators in the act (allegedly including rebel soldiers and officers) and summarily executed a few of them. The fire emerges as a radical act that intentionally disrupted the British military advance, destroyed Loyalist property, and damaged the Church of England (a hated rival among many Protestant Dissenters).
Yet this history remains forgotten and distorted. Supporters of the rebellion, from Benjamin Franklin to Washington’s inner circle, claimed that the fire was a mere accident; they argued that the Continental Congress had refused to give Washington permission to burn the city and that the army had already evacuated when the fire occurred. Decades later, this was the story Americans told themselves. Although Boston and Philadelphia crafted glorious, sanitized stories about their contributions to the American Revolution, the earliest chroniclers of New York City, such as John Pintard and Washington Irving, shied away from New York’s more troubling past as a British garrison. Later historians, such as Benson Lossing, George Bancroft, Mary Booth, and Martha Lamb, relied on these earlier accounts.
Modern scholars mostly accepted that the Great Fire was an accident, or that we’ll never know the truth. But we should take a closer look at the patrician writers who formulated such an untroubled story of the Revolution, because they included the same men who crafted another myth: the existence of Santa Claus.
The Knickerbocker set was troubled by the bumptious radicalism of the new nation. They hoped to replace a radical story of Revolution with a safer tale of origins, just as they replaced Europe’s raucous winter festivals with a comforting holiday legend. Armed with its myths, Gotham became a haven for American capitalism.
Pintard helped establish the New-York Historical Society in 1804. Around 1809–10, he and his friend Irving (the author of “Rip Van Winkle”) proposed St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. Over the next twenty years, they shifted his special day from December 6 to December 25 and emphasized his tradition of gift-giving. Along the way, their friend Clement Clarke Moore (Benjamin’s son) wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822, inventing the “jolly,” non-threatening reindeer driver who appeared amid the sugarplum dreams of Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus was born as the fiftieth anniversary of 1776 approached, and we can learn from the entwined myths that arose in New York City at this moment. As Americans embraced the iconic St. Nick, they also celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence and ignored the fire that ravaged New York City two months later. Pintard did mention it in an unsigned newspaper article; although the Great Fire was “supposed to have been perpetrated by the Americans,” in fact it “was, undoubtedly, accidental, and occasioned by a party of drunken sailors in a grog shop at Whitehall.” There was no political valence to the fire, he argued—it was just a boozy accident. For sources, Pintard drew upon Washington’s correspondence with Congress and also probably consulted with a German immigrant named David Grim. Pintard dismissed the fire’s damage (perhaps following what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls “formulas of banalization”); he lamented that all of lower Manhattan hadn’t burned and then been replaced by a more regular, geometric grid. This grid had initially disturbed Moore when Ninth Avenue cut through his Chelsea estate, but he came to embrace the profits he could make from the city’s development. To wealthy landowners, the remaking of New York City, in infrastructure and in myth, was proceeding smoothly.