“Infinitely Dangerous to the Revenue of the United States”: The Great New York Fire of 1835 and the Law of Disaster Relief in Jacksonian America


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




In the wake of the “Great New York Fire” of 1835, the most destructive fire ever to afflict New York City, wealthy merchant sufferers moved quickly to recoup their losses, filing lawsuits and seeking public relief from both the state and federal government. This project traces the debates that followed, exploring the ideological fissures that emerged as Jacksonian ideals of federalism and small government clashed with the realities of urban life and commercial interconnectedness. In a world in which individual financial fates were inextricably linked, debates over the government’s responsibility to the fire’s sufferers had particular resonance. As a legal history that uses a single natural disaster to examine the constitutional implications of risk and commercial interconnectedness, this project proceeds from the premise that instances of crisis provide singular political opportunities, enabling the implementation of permanent shifts in governmental practice to meet the perceived exigencies of the moment.