Mythmaking in Manhattan: Stories of 1776 and Santa Claus

By Benjamin L. Carp

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.[1]

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).[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

Grim’s tale of the New York Fire was an important part of this mythmaking. At first glance he appears to have been a helpful “antiquarian” with useful maps and sketches of the city’s bygone days. Yet Grim was just as much a sharp-elbowed city father as Pintard and Moore. Like Moore’s own parents, Grim had been a Loyalist who integrated into the wealthy circles of New York life.[5]

Grim’s map and recollections suggested that the fire’s flames spread naturally; if any incendiaries existed, they were “men and women of a bad character” and not rebel soldiers. He stated that 493 houses were destroyed; it’s unclear how he arrived at this precise figure, but the number was lower than most contemporary estimates. Grim and Pintard also described how British troops arbitrarily arrested suspects on the night of the fire and executed a carpenter for no reason. So much for the credibility of British eyewitnesses.[6]

People forgot the incendiaries that Benjamin Moore and others had seen. Instead, they spoke of “helpless patriots” whom the soldiers had slain. The blaze began at a “low groggery and brothel,” set by wives of British soldiers, they said. High winds had done the rest.[7]

Irving was born near “Canvas Town,” the slum of barren chimneys that emerged from the ashes. In the same book where Irving popularized St. Nicholas, “Knickerbocker” Irving wrote that great cities truly arose once they “passed through the furnace.” They show their greatness when they “burst forth in some tremendous calamity—and snatch as it were, immortality from the explosion!”[8] Years later, Irving would conclude about the Great Fire: “The act was always disclaimed by Americans, and it is certain their commanders knew nothing about it.”[9]

Irving, Pintard, Grim, and Clement Moore were patrician Federalists, eager to reunite Loyalist and Patriots in a new ruling class. They hated the Jeffersonians, immigrants, and mobs that they saw taking over the city, and they crafted a history that celebrated a more conservative heritage. Their story of the Great Fire was part of that project, because it ignored any radical intent that might have struck the matches. Their invention of Santa Claus was also part of that project, because it helped to make Gotham the center of a peaceful holiday grounded in stable commerce and led by a benevolent father figure. From Thomas Nast to the New York Sun to Tin Pan Alley carols, New York City invented and cemented the celebration of Christmas in America. 

The Christmas holiday draws on pagan rituals, legends, and secular inventions that have little to do with the nativity, but most people today would say, who cares? It brings joy (and presents) to families all over the world. People should also wonder about the Great Fire of New York. Perhaps rebellious Americans did burn the city. Should we care? Americans prefer the fable of 1776—that the Americans distinguished themselves from other revolutionaries by conducting themselves with more honor and humanity than their enemies. Their righteous revolution against the Crown established a nation based on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And to all a good-night!


Benjamin L. Carp holds the Daniel M. Lyons Chair of American History at Brooklyn College and teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, will be published by Yale University Press in 2023. He has also written about nationalism, firefighters, wet nurses, Benjamin Franklin, and Quaker merchants in Charleston.

Title Image: “Representation du feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck,” Source: Library of Congress Digital Collection.

Further Readings:

Bradley, Elizabeth. Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Burstein, Andrew. The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Carp, Benjamin L. The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2023.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon, 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Minutes of a Commission to Investigate the Causes of the Fire in New York City, New York City Misc. MSS, New-York Historical Society, 44–47.

[2] Benjamin L. Carp, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2023).

[3] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Knopf, 1996), chap. 2.

[4] New-York Advertiser, Aug. 25–28, 1826 (“supposed,” “undoubtedly”); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), esp. pp. 26, 83, 96 (“formulas of banalization”), 97, 102–7, 147–48; Nissenbaum, Battle, 67–71, 88–89; for attribution, see John Pintard to Eliza Davidson, Aug. 23, 1826, in Letters from John Pintard to His Daughter, Eliza Noel Pintard Davidson, 1816–1833, vol. 2, 1821–1827, in Collections of the New York Historical Society 71 (1938): 294–295, 295 n35; Reminiscences of the Early Life of John Pintard, 1841, John Pintard Papers, New-York Historical Society, pp. 79–81.

[5] Philander D. Chase, “Grim, David (1737–1826), tavern keeper, merchant, and antiquarian,” American National Biography, Feb. 1, 2000 (Accessed 22 May. 2020) (“antiquarian”).

[6] William Dunlap, A History of New York, for Schools (New York, 1837), 2:111–12 (“bad character”); John Fanning Watson, “Appendix: containing Olden Time Researches and Reminiscences of New York City,” in John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia: Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, & Incidents of the City […] (Philadelphia, 1830), 47, 56, esp. 57–58 [second pagination].

[7] Benson J. Lossing, Life of Washington: A Biography Personal, Military, and Political, 3 vols. (New York, 1860), 2:300, 300n (“groggery”); Martha J. Lamb, History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise and Progress (New York and Chicago, 1880), 2:136.

[8] Diedrich Knickerbocker [Washington Irving] A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (New York, 1809), 2:186 (“furnace”), 187 (“burst”).

[9] Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (New York, 1855), 2:361–62.

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