It would now be a good time to take a look at the American “origins’ story through the eyes of, perhaps, the most influential force in the creation of this nation that almost nobody considers – the Dutch settlers of the New Amsterdam colony on Manhattan Island who created what we now call New York City – and what some refer to – both then and now – as the “Island at the Center of the World”.
If “… the business of the American people is business” as president Calvin Coolidge famously said, then New Amsterdam was certainly the prototype. If American is, indeed, the “melting pot” for the world’s diversity, then New Amsterdam was the kitchen.
The Virginia colonies of that time were home to those who would morph from wastrels to gentlemen farmers and Enlightenment scholars somewhat aloof from the masses. The Massachusetts colonies were theocratic enclaves who were intolerant of “others” – those who were different or those who didn’t toe the party (a strange term for the Puritans) line.
New Netherland, in contrast, “was a Dutch trading post and the ragtag assemblage of people who were its first settlers. New Netherlanders were there to trade with the Indians, make as much money as they could, buy land or establish businesses and enjoy life with the proceeds. Religious tolerance in the colony (anathema almost everywhere else) was encouraged because, after all, it was good for business. From its earliest years, the colony on (what is now) Manhattan, represented a remarkable ethnic diversity, and it was the vibrant tension of heterogeneous rivalry which energized the early colony.
When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed: 12,000 pages of its records – recently declared a national treasure – are now being translated and inform a story of global sweep centered on a wilderness called Manhattan – that transforms our understanding of early America.
The Dutch colony pre-dated the “original” thirteen colonies and thus, America itself, yet it seems strikingly familiar. Its capital was cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, and its citizens valued free trade, individual rights, and religious freedom. The Dutch Republic – a voluntary union of seven provinces, united by common interests, governed from the bottom up and totally unique in a Europe covered in monarchies – was the most progressive and culturally diverse society in Europe, attracting the best minds – and hence, the biggest dreamers (Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, etc.) – of the age. Bertrand Russell described it “…as the one country where there was freedom of speculation.”
The early 17th century was a time of change and tumult. Not the least part of that tumult was Dutch political and legal progressivism, “their matter-of-fact acceptance of foreignness, of religious differences, of odd sorts.” The young and vibrant Republic had been formed under the guidance of a founding father, Willem I, known to history as William the Silent, after a long war for independence (from Spain), a hard-nosed (some say hard-headed) but practical populace that distained monarchies – unlike their neighbors, a frank acceptance of differences, a belief that individual achievement mattered more than birthright and an appreciation for and tolerance of the importance of true religious freedom – not the mandated religious conformity of their Puritan neighbors.
Tolerance, in a word, meant “putting up with” rather than celebrating diversity. By the time New Amsterdam had been established, more as a business settlement of the West India Company than as a colony, its diverse babel of religions and nationalities was seeking balance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression.
The Puritans, at the same time, arrogantly believed that England was the New Israel that God had anointed as the great bulwark against the Pope and enveloped England during the reign of Charles I. Puritanism and tolerance didn’t mix well because if England was Israel, everyone else was a Philistine – and no one likes Philistines. And, as was the case with the other North American colonies, with the arrival of European traders came violence between settlers and inhabitants.
“Pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, and business sharks held sway,” notes Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World. “It was Manhattan . . . right from the start.” Despite the tyrannical leanings of the colony’s early directors, from Willem Kieft (who wickedly instigated a short, brutal war against a tribe on the west bank of the Hudson River which also resulted in the deaths of prominent settlers. He drowned at sea after being recalled to Amsterdam to answer for the incident.) to Peter Stuyvesant, the crucial element that set New Amsterdam apart from its English neighbors north and south was its striving toward democracy, largely in the person of the young Dutch trained lawyer, Adriaen van der Donck.
He was a student of René Descartes and of famed Dutch jurist Hugo de Groot (the father of international law and the Law of War), of natural law and human reason. De Groot (or Grotius as he is known to history) proposed a novel idea – that peace was the natural state of mature, civilized nations, and war ought to be considered only as a last resort and, even then, should be governed by rules to which all parties subscribe.
Van der Donck spent considerable time living with and studying the local tribes – the Mohawks and the Mohicans. He documented their customs, traditions, languages and culture. He found in the Mohawks a settled tribe living in great villages with many “long-houses” sheltering multiple families and surrounded by substantial walls of logs – farming fruits and vegetables. The Mohicans were more nomadic but each had a substantial skill with homeopathic medicine and strong religious beliefs. He also learned of their concept of diplomacy and protocol with particular rules and customs about negotiations and the use of land. He saw them as human beings, worthy of respect – not as the savages portrayed by the English.
In the end, “he would be the prototype of a species that would number in the tens-of-millions in the coming centuries: The European who crossed the ocean and found, in the vast continent at the other end, a new home and purpose. He was an American.”
A struggle played out among military and diplomatic maneuverings and the revamping of the colony’s political structure for most of the colony’s forty-year existence. Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant are duly present; Stuyvesant, of course is a major player in the drama. Shorto places the founding of the colony firmly in the historical context of the military and mercantile rivalries among England, Holland and Spain. The vast Dutch colony, founded in 1625, stretching from the Connecticut River on the East to the Swedish populated settlements around the Delaware River on the West, was New Netherland; the southern tip of the island city was New Amsterdam, deliberately populated by illiterate, raw, young, exuberant men and women – exiles from other countries, rounded up in Holland and promised land for six-years of service. Their decendents would swell to many millions by the 21st Century.
Their story involves a basic philosophy of religious and racial toleration, a system of representative government and a spirit of inquiry and adventure that survive in New York City – and America – today. Manhattan Island was the nerve center because of its strategic position on a world-class harbor and the broad Hudson River that led north into the interior of the unexplored continent. Manhattan was a wilderness with clear streams, well-worn paths connecting tribal villages, abundant game and dense vegetation.
The true hero of Shorto’s tale is Van der Donck, a man now so utterly forgotten that even the single portrait of him that survives may not even be him at all. He fought the political battle to gain citizen participation in the governing of New Amsterdam which, from the beginning, was an undemocratic company town. But, the idea of the people having a voice in their own government was coming to fruition in the Dutch Republic and Van der Donck was going to make sure that debate would also occur in the Dutch colony. The debate would also touch on themes familiar to most educated Americans: joint ownership of property, questioning the literal truth of the Bible and the value of a public school system. These and other ideas came easily to the Dutch colonists because New Amsterdam was part of a world-wide trading system – in fact, it was the linchpin of all Dutch Atlantic trade.
Religious freedom is commonly attributed to the first English settlers when in fact the Puritans were completely intolerant of other religions. They persecuted all that were not of their faith and drove out numerous challengers to their theocracy to found their own colonies in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
However, New Amsterdam settlers established an early pluralistic culture tolerant of nearly all faiths. This is but one example of the early establishment of what was to become one of the most fundamental freedoms of America.
The basis for this tolerance was born in the bloody wars of religious intolerance and persecutions that had plagued Europe for the previous century. The Dutch provinces which made up the Dutch Republic wrote in their 1579 constitution – the Union of Utrecht (recall that the British have never had a written constitution – like America’s) a guarantee that “each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion.” Additionally, consider the concept that the people have an inherent right to overthrow their rulers should they become oppressive – which originally came from the Act of Abjuration, by which the Dutch declared their independence from Spain. Sound familiar? No such provisions exist in any English “constitution”.
The religious provision was challenged in the 1620s by two Dutch theologians. The winning argument centered on the Christian principle of charity that compelled tolerance of differences, especially religious differences. It can be summed up in the thought that: “Many will be damned on Judgement Day because they killed innocent people (in religious persecutions), but nobody will be damned because he killed nobody.” The winners also pointed out that diversity was good for business. Out of this came the truly revolutionary idea that the strength of the state derived from allowing its citizens freedom of worship and intellectual inquiry into any and all things.
These early Dutch settlers also instituted in practice the concept of citizens petitioning grievances of their own government, which was instrumental in the colonial citizenry gaining their freedom from the Dutch East India Company in 1654 by directly petitioning (through Van der Donck) the government of the Dutch Republic for a city charter; and also the institution of a unique, singular law officer representing legal authority that developed into the attorneys-general of today.
The company however, did do something right. It prevented the unionization and/or “guilding” of the workforce. Because of this, a colonial individual could own a bakery, invest in land or in shipping tobacco or earn extra money as a soldier. Only one’s imagination would place limits on his ambitions. Because of this, one could enter the workforce as a lowly apprentice and end up owning the business – or multiple businesses. Such cases abound in the records of this time.
Even more profound is the example of the founding of the village of Harlem – Nieuw Haarlem in Dutch – at the northern end of Manhattan in the 1650s. “The initial block of 32 families who staked out lots along its two lanes came from six different parts of Europe … and spoke five different languages. Perched alongside one another on the edge of a wilderness continent, families that would have broken up into ghettos in Europe instead had to come together, had to learn a common language”, had to respect the other in others – and because they did – they survived and prospered.
Dutch Manhattan is often thought of as something which disappeared with the coming of the English, but, of course, the Dutch and the Dutch influence in five of the original thirteen colonies (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware) didn’t go anywhere, and America owes much of its heritage as a melting pot to this early manifestation of differences being overcome to make a successful community. Although the concept of a chosen people suited for a “manifest destiny” is a Puritan creation given voice by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845, Americans carried the Dutch component of their heritage with them as they subdued the continent.
So, from the concepts of religious freedom and petition – two of the five rights protected in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – to the right of the people not only to participate in their own government but to overthrow an oppressive government – consecrated in our own Declaration of Independence – to a written constitution, to the centrality of the law and business in the society, to the toleration of differences, to the value of public education, not to mention names familiar to virtually all Americans like the Knickerbocker, Hudson River, the Bowery, Harlem, Brooklyn, Flatbush, Flushing, the Bronx, Yonkers (from Van der Donck’s nickname – Jonker – “Young Squire”), the Catskill Mountains, Hoboken and Cape May in New Jersey and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and finally and most importantly – a multi-ethnic society – the Dutch influence on modern American culture is unique, essential and profound and perhaps more important (aside from the language) to the making of America than the British influence – as the British inclusion of the “…sundry Rights Libertyes priviledges and ffranchises” that derived … “from the Governours Directors Generalls and Commanders in Chiefe of the Nether Dutch Nation” in the 1686 Charter of the City of New York attests.
Next time: The history of slavery.