Historical records of Atlantic hurricane activity, extending back to 1851, show increasing activity over time, but much or all of this trend has been attributed to lack of observations in the early portion of the record. Here we use a tropical cyclone downscaling model driven by three global climate analyses that are based mostly on sea surface temperature and surface pressure data. The results support earlier statistically-based inferences that storms were undercounted in the 19th century, but in contrast to earlier work, show increasing tropical cyclone activity through the period, interrupted by a prominent hurricane drought in the 1970s and 80s that we attribute to anthropogenic aerosols. In agreement with earlier work, we show that most of the variability of North Atlantic tropical cyclone activity over the last century was directly related to regional rather than global climate change. Most metrics of tropical cyclones downscaled over all the tropics show weak and/or insignificant trends over the last century, illustrating the special nature of North Atlantic tropical cyclone climatology.