Magazine | October 5, 2009, Issue

Dutch City

I live in a historical anomaly — an American city not founded by Anglos. As you move south and west, you find others — New Orleans, former Spanish missions in Florida and the southwest. But in America’s eastern hearth, New York stands out for beginning life as New Amsterdam.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage of discovery, and the city has modestly celebrated his feat. A model of his ship, the Half Moon, sits in City Hall Park, and some restaurants are offering Dutch fare. (One of the Dutch boats NR cruised on served a Dutch meal one night; wouldn’t gin be more enticing?) The hoopla, or hoop-lite, prompts the question that anniversaries often do: Did the events being commemorated matter? Do they still?

The Dutch were slow to capitalize on Hudson’s discovery. They came to trade for furs, not to settle. They did not buy Manhattan until 1626, and its growth was leisurely. England took their colony in 1664. The Dutch took it back in 1673, but for less than a year, after which it returned to the Anglosphere. By 1787 and the Federalist Papers, John Jay could write, in full ethno-triumphalist mode, that Providence had given “this one connected country to one united people . . . descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion . . . very similar in their manners and customs.” 

Jay of all people should have known better. His maternal grandfather was Jacobus van Cortlandt, a New Amsterdamer born and bred. It was said of him that he could “scarce speak English.” So much, in early New York at any rate, for a common language. Dutch families kept the old tongue as a household heirloom for centuries. Theodore Roosevelt was taught a Dutch nursery rhyme; when he went big-game hunting in South Africa, he noted that the local Boers also knew it. Today Dutch lingers only in place names — Kill Van Kull, Spuyten Duyvil — and in a handful of surnames — De Witt, Schoonmaker, Hornbeck — in Hudson Valley phone books. Did the Dutch have more effect on “manners and customs”? Santa Claus is sprung from the Dutch St. Nicholas, but he is about as authentic as Kwanzaa. He was reimagined by Washington Irving, set to jingling rhyme by Clement Clarke Moore, and depicted with his robe, white beard, and sack by Thomas Nast — all in the 19th century. Irving created two other great myths, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Both have Dutch characters. Brom Van Brunt is a winner; he scares off his Yankee rival, Ichabod Crane, and gets the girl. Rip Van Winkle is more poignant: He sleeps through the American Revolution, and when he awakes as an old man is nearly arrested as a Tory.

The Dutch had a more consequential effect on New York’s, and America’s, religion. Jay said we all professed a “common” one. New Amsterdam had an established one — the Dutch Reformed Church. But like the home country, Holland, the colony allowed a proliferation of sects, including Jews (New Amsterdam’s first Jews were fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil). The noblest expression of this ethos is the Flushing Remonstrance. Flushing (named after Vlissingen, a village in Holland) is now a neighborhood in Queens. In the mid-17th century it was an outlying hamlet. In 1657 its inhabitants were ordered by the governor of the colony to shut their doors to Quakers. In response they wrote their governor a lecture on God’s ways to man, and men’s toward one another:

The law of love, peace and liberty . . . extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam . . . is the glory of the outward state of Holland; so love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Savior sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but [we] shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to do unto all men as we desire all men should do unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Savior sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Today the ACLU would not permit this statement to be read on public property (whose Savior, pal?), yet they would agree with its conclusions. Thirty-one men signed it, though six of them could do so only by making their marks. They could not write, but they could think, and they laid down a marker.

Ironies surround the episode. The signatories were Englishmen, lured to the Dutch colony by, among other things, the promise of religious freedom. Their letter, appealing to Dutch law, challenged the Dutch governor. Peter Stuyvesant, a one-legged soldier, was an effective administrator, but had no patience for non-conformity. He arrested four of the signers, and compelled them to recant. Ultimately his bosses in Holland yanked his chain, and made him behave himself. When the English took over the colony they established their own church, the Anglican. But the genie was already out of the bottle. One early English governor mused that New York had “singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians; anti-Sabbatarians; some Anabaptists, some Independents; some Jews; in short of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part [are] of none at all.”

It’s that last sly observation — that most New Yorkers were faithless — that alarms critics of the city and the great free-for-all it represents. If everybody does his thing, soon nothing will get done. Experience argues otherwise. We are the capital of atheism and vice, but you can find plenty of faith here, if you lift your nose up from the Times. The Dutch may not have intended this state of things — what are pelt futures trading at, they would ask? — but they left it for us.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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