Friday, September 07, 2012
Excerpts from The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Forgotten Colony that shaped America by Russell Shorto.
Highlighting the Dutch legacy of democracy and religious tolerance.
The Dutch settlers of Manhattan practiced religious tolerance. The city was blessed with ethnic diversity. The Dutch believed in democracy, facilitated class mobility and allowed a wide swath of their people to participate in their strong economy. The melting pot of New Amsterdam enjoyed all these qualities in the mid-1600s. When the English took over, this society didn't go away. It merged into and influenced the larger fabric of the colonies, and then the new country. While the title of the book describes early Manhattan's strong global trading ties, the subtitle points to Holland's and Manhattan's liberal tradition which carries over into today's world.
Holland in 1638—Leiden, a town of 45,000, a cosmopolitan place which practiced enlightened child rearing—they hugged and coddled their children, and allowed them to exercise their childishness on not too tight a rein. The Dutch spirit of tolerance pervaded the town. Scientists and writers from all over Europe came to have their books published at Leiden, whose printers were cheap, highly skilled, and largely unmuzzled by authorities.
The University of Leiden had the motto Bastion of Liberty. This atmosphere of freedom of speech provided the right environment for philosophers such as Spinoza and Descartes, who formulated “I think, therefore I am”, to develop their ideas. Galileo, who had faced the Inquisition, had his his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences published at Leiden, at a safe remove from Vatican censors, in 1638.
Adriaen Van der Donck, age twenty, came to study law.
At the time Adriaen van der Donck arrived, about one-third of Leiden's population was comprised of refugees from wars and religious persecution. Tolerance was more than just an attitude in the Dutch Republic. Following the bloody religious persecution of thousands in the previous century at the hands of the Spanish, the Dutch provinces had broken new ground in writing into their 1579 de facto constitution the guarantee that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."
One leader in Leiden declared that the strength of a state derived not from maintaining a single, firmly held faith, as was almost universally believed in Europe, but from allowing its citizens freedom of worship and intellectual inquiry. This affected Adriaen van der Donck and his generation of scholars.
The dominant legal figure of the age, who did more than anyone to set the parameters by which nations interact to this day, was the Dutch jurist Hugo de Groot, known to history as Hugo Grotius. Grotius is considered the father of international law. (As an indication of his prominence in history a bas-relief portrait of him adorns the U.S. House of Representatives chamber, alongside those of Moses, Hammurabi, and Thomas Jefferson.) Of his two major works, Mare Liberam created the principle of international waters, which were to be open to all nations, while De Jure Belli ac Pacis, written in the midst of a century of unprecedented warfare, laid down principles on which war was justified, and how it ought to be conducted.
Grotius taught at Leiden; Van der Donck was a pupil of his. Grotius, like Descartes, based his arguments not on biblical citations but "natural law," the idea that right and wrong could be determined by applying human reason—or, as Grotius put it, that an act could be judged "from its conformity or non-conformity with rational nature itself". Traditionally, American history has shown the principles of democratic government coming out of the Enlightenment era of the eighteenth century with origins in the writings of John Locke in the late seventeenth century. But in recent decades historians have uncovered these earlier roots of those democratic impulses.
Another man at Leiden, Cunaeus, taught a radical form of Grotius's political thought—that a republican form of government was morally superior to a monarchy, and that enterprises like the West India Company enriched a wealthy few to the detriment of both the state and ordinary people.
For three years Vander Donck studied at Leiden. He emerged, in 1641, a "jurist", an authority on law. Van Rensselaer, a diamond merchant, would employ the young man in his colony-within-a-colony around what is now Albany. Van der Donck could administer justice and settle disputes between colonists. Van der Donck accepted, and in May 1641 he boarded a ship bound for the New World. At that time there was no lawyer in the entire colony of New Netherland.
There were perhaps four hundred inhabitants in New Amsterdam, and it was already one of the most multi-cultural places on earth—eighteen languages were spoken in its few dusty lanes.
New Netherland refused to remain just a trading post. It insisted on becoming a town. Not all trade transacted in New Amsterdam benefitted the Dutch West India company. Trade was opening up. And with that came a need for political structure—a judicial system to settle disputes and pass judgment on acts of violence between the natives and the settlers. The director of the colony, preceding Peter Stuyvesant, was named Willem Kieft. He favored going to war against some of the local tribes. Kieft moved first to gain popular support for his effort by asking that the residents nominate a council of twelve men who would assist him in deciding on a course of action, bringing into being the first popularly chosen body in what would become New York State. To Kieft's annoyance, the twelve did not council war. The twelve councilors knew they had no power, so they tried to lay roadblocks in the path of their willful leader. The council added a gentle stipulation that in the event of any military expedition, "the honorable director shall personally lead this expedition." To add to Kieft's annoyance, the council of twelve took it upon itself to begin advising the director on other matters. The council wanted certain rights for individuals, "according to the custom in Holland." Most of all, they wanted themselves, or some like body, to become a permanent representative assembly, as existed in even the smallest villages in the United Provinces. Kieft responded with a decree, "The said Twelve men shall now, henceforth hold no further meeting."
The colonists who opposed bloodshed were acting true to type. Seventy years before, with rebellion against Spanish rule simmering in the Low countries, the Spanish regent had sent Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the notorious Duke of Alva, to quell it and reform heretics—that is to say, Protestants. The duke went on an Inquisition rampage of torture and murder that became known as the Council of Blood, which involved decapitating rebellious nobles and slaughtering commoners in the hundreds.
The council of Blood became ingrained in the national psyche; it helped vault the Dutch states toward an open war of rebellion. It also reinforced the notion of tolerance as a part of what it meant to be Dutch. This had been building for some time and would continue through the seventeenth century as more and more people from other parts of Europe came to live in the Dutch provinces. In fact, it's something of a misnomer to think of 'Dutch’ in this era as an ethnic signifier. The Dutch provinces in the seventeenth century were the melting pot of Europe.
They had a basic framework for looking at the world, one of the main features of which was the need to accommodate others. As the “Dutch” emigrated to their New world colony, then, they brought with them not only a ready-made mix of cultures but a tolerance of differences, the prescription for a multicultural society. In its very seeding, Manhattan was a melting pot.
Van der Donck, as his writings make plain, was one of the first genuine Americans. He saw the expanse of opportunity — opportunity he imagined not for himself alone but for others. He understood that this was a vast land into which a new society could grow. It would need a framework of laws, a system of justice, and he thought he could help shape such a system. Working at first for Van Rensselaer, he cracked down on a black-market grain trade and those who bought and sold beaver pelts without doing it through the colony offices. But Van der Donck started growing independent from Van Rensselaer.
Van der Donck offended the patroon's business principles when he formally protested a direct order from van Rensselaer that forced farmers in the colony to swear an oath of loyalty to him not only for themselves but on behalf of their servants. Van der Donck seems to have taken the position that the Middle Ages were over, that servants should be held responsible for their own behavior—a notion that van Rensselaer considered "outrageous".
The Mohawks and Mahicans — Van der Donck was drawn to Indian society. He thus cracks the stereotype of a European of the time as culturally unable to see indigenous peoples as anything other than savages. Through the observations of Indian society he later put in writing we can see him, in major work, A Description of New Netherland, a major section makes a serious study of the Indians' treaties, contracts, and "government and public-policy." This Section of his book analyzed their ideas of right and wrong. He found in force among them none of the "rights, laws, and maxims, common in European countries, but instead a general law of nature or of nations". He shows that at least some of the Dutch colonists were aware of the nuances in the Indians' understanding of property rights, noting that to the natives "wind, stream, bush, field, sea, beach, and riverside are open and free to everyone of every nation with which the Indians are not embroiled in open conflict. All those are free to enjoy and move about such places as though they were born there."
He turned his attention southward and began spending more of his time at what was the undeniable nerve center of Dutch holdings in North America.
By 1644, Events on Manhattan were reaching a new stage. The opposition to Kieft and his disastrous Indian war had begun to coalesce led by Cornelis Melyn, the farmer who had been Van der Donck's shipmate on his voyage to New Amsterdam in 1641. Indians destroyed his plantation and Melyn and his family were forced to seek refuge, along with most everyone else, near the fort on lower Manhattan.
The two neighbors' Melyn and Jochem Kuyter, compared notes on their mutual suffering and decided to launch an offensive against Kieft and the West India Company. With the huddled masses in the fort close to anarchy, Kieft, in an effort to restore order, proposed naming a new council of representatives to assist him. He picked Melyn as leader, He also chose two Englishmen, acknowledging the fact that by now twenty percent of the province's population was English; one of these, Isaac Allerton, was a wily trader who had sailed with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, then, feeling constricted in their society had moved from New England to the freer atmosphere of New Amsterdam.
Kieft assembled the board on June 18th, 1644. Adriaen van der Donck was not yet one of the board, but he was probably present at this meeting. The colony, Kieft told the men, was out of cash. The treasury had been emptied fighting the war. He now proposed to raise money by taxing beavers and beer. A cry went up from the board members.
A popular uprising ensued. The people refused to pay it, and tavern keepers refused to charge it. Kieft retaliated by sending soldiers down the road to the city tavern, where they arrested Philip Gerritsen, its proprietor.
The board then took action. The members had previously written letters to the West India Company directors in Amsterdam and to the leaders of the Dutch government at The Hague, complaining of their plight. The mechanisms for redress of grievances were of long standing in the Dutch Republic, mechanisms in which Van der Donck, the only jurist in the colony, had recently trained. He was back in New Amsterdam by early October, when the Manhattan activists met again, clandestinely.
But here in the capital of the Dutch province was a genuine cause in the making, a political struggle at the cutting edge of political thought. What rights did individuals have in an overseas outpost? Were they entitled to the same representation as citizens in the home country? Never before had an outpost of a Dutch trading company demanded political status. Here, Van der Donck though, was his chance to make his mark.
The merchants and traders of the colony, grieving over their dead children, wives and comrades, wanted to express their outrage but not quite sure how. Van der Donck knew how. From this point onward, the archives of the colony contain an increasingly more elaborate and strident series of legal petitions and arguments, documents sent by colonists either to the west India company or to the States General in The Hague, which were aimed at securing the political foundations of the colony. Many of these writings have Adriaen van der Donck's, name on them. These writings contain a coherent vision of a new society. Van der Donck mortared together the foundation stones of a great city.
We note in some of the documents known to have been written by Van der Donck the repeated use of an unusual word: American. In the 1600s the noun, applied to a person, was very rare. The Dutch colonists considered themselves "New Netherlanders", the English to the north were New Englanders, and those to the south thought of themselves as Virginians. Only very occasionally does one see American used in the period, when it refers to Indians. Appropriately, American turns up in documents authored by Van der Donck.
October 1644 the petition was complete, and the difference in tone from the earlier ones is striking. Instead of circuitous groveling before an all-powerful authority, it begins by crisply laying out a history of the colony's troubles, with the finger pointed directly: "For the sake of appearances, twelve men were called together here, in November 1641, on the subject of the murder of Claes the wheelwright; the Director submitted to them whether the blood of the aforesaid wheelwright should not be avenged? Whereupon divers debates arose on the one side and the other . . . [but] a hankering after war had wholly seized on the Director . . . the aforesaid 12 men could not continue to meet any longer, for such was forbidden on pain of corporal punishment. Shortly after, [the director] commenced the war against those of Wesquecqueck' on his own mere motion . . "
The letter then makes it plain its complaint: That one man should dispose here of our lives and proper ties at his will and pleasure, in a manner so arbitrary that a King dare not legally do the like." It then takes the bold step of asking that Kieft be recalled and a new governor be installed, and continues prophetically "For it is impossible ever to settle this Country until a different system be introduced here," in which villagers will elect from among themselves a Bailiff or Schout and who will be empowered to send their deputies and give their votes on public affairs with the Director and council, so that the entire country may not be hereafter, at the whim of one man, again reduced to similar danger".
The colonists smuggled the petition out of Manhattan in the person of a trader, who left shortly after on one of his voyages to Amsterdam on behalf of his patrons, the Verbrugge family. In Amsterdam, the building on the plaintive ones sent earlier by the colonists, made an impact—but not the one the colonists were hoping for. The West India Company was at that moment in disarray; losses were mounting; the nation and therefore the company was still at war with Spain.
For both the merchants and the government officials this letter sharpened their focus. It was dawning on them that this North American outpost was an oddity.
Following receipt of this letter, the directors came to the conclusion that they had to treat Manhattan differently, not by acknowledging it as a settlement in its own right, but by cracking down. They ignored the letter's novel assertion of rights, its talk of representative government for the province. So they began a search for a new director. They needed a committed company man, someone to keep the colonists in line.
Manhattan began its rise as an international port not in the eighteenth century, as the Port of New York, but in the 1630s, as a cog in the circle of trade moving from the Netherlands and from Curacao in the Caribbean.
Members of despised sects who chose to follow the Pilgrims' lead and emigrate to America found, that the Puritan majority in New England had followed the same hard-line trajectory. There was even less theological wiggle room in the open spaces of New England. Communities moved swiftly to excommunicate alternative religionists and run them out. During the early 1640s, with a stream of English sectarians fleeing from Old England to New, then, recalling in their desperation the vaunted tolerance of the Dutch, moving south to seek sanctuary in the Manhattan-based colony. They came straggling through the latticeworked gatehouse of Fort Amsterdam, and Willem Kieft was pleased to have them. He was seriously embattled by this point and recognized that he had to grow his population in order to survive. And—here is the inscrutability of seventeenth-century Dutchness—in addition to giving them land to settle, he also granted them liberty to practice their religion as they saw fit, a genuine rarity in the era: covering newcomers with the blanket of religious liberty that was part of his proud cultural inheritance. Van der Donck, writing of one of these English refugees, summed up the situation "[He] came to New England at the commencement of the troubles in England, in order to escape them, and found that he had got out of the frying pan into the fire. He betook himself, in consequence, under the protection of the Netherlanders, in order that he may, according to the Dutch reformation, enjoy freedom of conscience, which he unexpectedly missed in New England." Kieft made the English arrivals swear an oath to the States General and gave them land to settle, and they went about helping to build the foundation of what would become New York City. As for the Mohawks and the Mohicans, Kieft determined that the wisest course would be to secure a formal peace treaty with the stronger tribes first. He needed someone who knew the Indians of the North, who spoke their languages. He turned to Adriaen van der Donck. Van der Donck supplied what was necessary—apparently, a large cache of sewant—and, back in New Amsterdam in late July of 1645, Kieft fulfilled his promise. He gave Van der Donck what he most wanted: his own domain, the patent to a vast tract of land adjacent to Manhattan. Van der Donck's grant included much of what is today the Bronx and southern Westchester County.
Regarding the colonists and their grievances, Melyn and Kuyter had only begun to mount their opposition to the West India Company and its feudal treatment of them. They now had an ally, a man of property who had a vested interest in the community, who had precisely the skills they needed, who recognized that the colony's problems, external and internal, could only be solved by a dramatic change of status, and who had secretly committed to carry the fight as far as it would go—to the very inner court of the halls of government at The Hague. Van der Donck was poised to act. The day of Kieft's replacement came at last. 34-year-old Peter Stuyvesant arrived on May 11, 1647.
9. The General and the Princess
By December, the residents of New Amsterdam chose replacements to the board of nine representatives. Van der Donck was chosen as one of them. The others named him their leader.
The activities of the board in its first year of existence: When residents brought complaints about merchants fixing their prices on bread and wine, the board appealed to Stuyvesant to stop it, and he did. Officially, the Board represented the residents of New Amsterdam, Breuckelen, New Amersfort (the Flatlands section of Brooklyn) and Pavonia (downtown Jersey City). Traders in New Amsterdam, with their ties to the world’s greatest trading power, were sophisticated. Van der Donck and his fellow board members met with them and listened as they described the conditions necessary to maintain a stable trade. He calculated that 80,000 beaver pelts per year were passing through Manhattan on their way to the fur market in Europe. English tobacco farmers in Virginia relied on Manhattan as a shipping center. Dutch traders bought in bulk and shipped cheaply. Amsterdam became the tobacco capital of Europe. New Amsterdam became the shipping hub of North America. Van der Donck began in earnest to organize the businessmen who made the port function.
In one of his responses to requests from the Board to be allowed to send delegates to The Hague, Stuyvesant had stalled by suggesting that, as representatives of the people, the Board should be sure that what they were proposing was indeed the will of the people. Now, emboldened by the support from Holland, the Board members decided to follow his suggestion. They would ask the people one by one whether they felt there was a need for a reform in government. In a remarkably direct approach to democracy, Van der Donck and the other members of the Board walked out the front door of the tavern, divided the streets of New Amsterdam among themselves, and began knocking on doors. People must have had a lot to say, because once the canvassing was finished the Board decided to compile a dossier. Van der Donck took on the task of collating the complaints and distilling the thoughts of the entire commonalty into a single document. Eventually there was a power struggle between Stuyvesant and Van der Donck. Representatives of each argued the matter back in Holland at The Hague.
In April of 1650 came the decisive ruling to put into effect “. . . within the city of New Amsterdam a municipal government . . .” Until such a government came into being, the Board of Nine would continue, “and have jurisdiction over small cases arising between Man and Man . . .”. The orders still left the West India Company in charge of the colony.
The irony was that while Van der Donck was pushing with zeal to oust Peter Stuyvesant from his post as director of the colony, Stuyvesant himself was executing some brilliant diplomacy, working hard to ensure the stability of the colony in the face of its steadily encroaching neighbors to the north. Indeed, it is due to the successes of both of these bitter rivals that New York City would develop as it did. Had either failed, the English would probably have swept in before Dutch institutions were established, New York would have become another English New world port town like Boston, and American culture would never have developed as it did.
It must have struck van der Donck that his far-off colony, for an its seeming lawlessness, was hardly more chaotic or fragile than the civilized and supposedly stable home country. Far from trying to seize anything by force, he and his colleagues were following the rules—indeed, they were among the first Americans to exercise a right that would achieve near-hallowed status in the colonies and later in the nation: the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The officials of the States General had been won over as much by the man as by his vision for Manhattan. It was with this vision in particular that he would have regaled listeners. This new government would definitively establish Manhattan Island as the free-trading hub of the Atlantic. It would guarantee its place as gateway to the North American continent for generations of Europeans. It would be modeled on "the laudable government" of the home country with personal guarantees of freedom of conscience deriving directly from the Union of Utrecht (". . . each person shall remain free, especially in his religion . . ."), the de facto Dutch constitution, which dated to the beginning of the war for independence and codified the nation's adherence to ideas of tolerance. And it would be based, too, on certain inherent rights of the people—even to overthrow their rulers should they become oppressive—which stemmed from the so-called Act of Abjuration, the Dutch declaration of independence from Spain.
With the first rumors of a war with England, the company, which after all had originally been conceived as a quasi-military entity, came roaring back to life. Van der Donck spent the months during the height of the war closeted away with pen and paper, and emerged with the manuscript of a book, A Description of New Netherland, which brought a humanistic, scientific sensibility to bear on the colony he had come to love. He launches into opinions that, as before, in the Remonstrance and elsewhere, show an almost eerie foresight. Manhattan and its surrounding region will grow exponentially, he assures his listener, and not so much because the Dutch people themselves will leave their homes for it but because the Netherlands has had a long tradition of welcoming refugees from elsewhere in Europe. It is these masses "from eastern Europe, Germany, Westphalia, Scandinavia, Wallonia, etc." who, having steeped themselves in the Dutch tradition of tolerance, will populate the colony, increasing its multiethnic flavor and its strength and vigor.
The magistrates of the newly incorporated city of New Amsterdam, transacted their first, brief piece of business, putting their signatures to a statement "herewith [to] inform everybody that they shall hold their regular meetings in the house hitherto called the city Tavern, henceforth the city Hall, on Monday mornings from 9 o'clock, to hear there all questions of difference between litigants and decide them as best they can." Two and a half weeks later, in a physical break from the government of Peter Stuyvesant and the west India company that was visible to all, they convened at the three-story building on the waterfront that had long been the center of the town's activities. In case anyone missed the significance, the bell in the courtyard out front sounded the change of government. As of February 2, 1651, with the signing of a municipal charter, New Amsterdam was a city. The government they formed had a structure—there were two co-mayors and a panel of judges, which, when combined, formed the legislative body-copied from Amsterdam, and based on Roman-Dutch law.
The proclamation that Stuyvesant's superiors forced on him as a result of Van der Donck's efforts granted "to this growing town of New Amsterdam" a government "to be framed, as far as possible and as the situation of the country permits, after the laudable customs of the city of Amsterdam". New York City was built on this foundation.
The magistrates, with Stuyvesant sitting in on their session, took action. The first decision was "to surround the greater part of the City with a high stockade and a small breastwork." The palisade along the northern perimeter of the town would be comprised of twelve-foot oak logs, each eighteen inches in circumference and sharpened at the upper end." These would be sunk three feet into the earth and be fortified by a four-foot-high breastwork. A crier was sent out, declaring that the town council was asking for bids to carry out the work. The thing was built by early July. Notable about this first public works project orchestrated by the town government is not the wall itself but the street that ran along it. It's a safe bet that no matter how wildly they tended to dream, the magistrates could not have imagined that this rough pathway would replace the gleaming, colonnaded bourse of Amsterdam as the epicenter of global finance.
With the colony on the upswing, towns in the vicinity of Manhattan (which would later be incorporated into the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens) were growing, and the leaders of several of these—Gravesende (later Gravesesend), Vlissingen (Flushing), Middelburgh (Newtown), Heemsteede (Hempstead), New Amersfoort (Flatlands), Breuckelen (Brooklyn), and Midwout a.k.a. Vlackebos (Flatbush)—began clamoring for their rights.
In demanding a voice in their affairs, the residents of the Long Island towns—Dutch and English both—were reacting not to the war but to the founding of the municipality of New Amsterdam.
This minirevolt that Stuyvesant found himself faced with at the end of 1653 was a direct result of Van der Donck's achievement in The Hague, and it was also a direct continuation of that work, an attempt to push Stuyvesant and the company further toward political reform.
There is no indication in this encounter of the English residents expressing a longing for English government. As they point out in their complaint, they had fled to these parts to escape it, and hoped to put down roots in the area surrounding Manhattan to take advantage of the more liberal justice of the Dutch Republic, the government of which, they noted, was "made up of various nations from divers quarters of the globe." What they wanted was exactly what Van der Donck had strived for all these years: an end to the West India Company's rule, and a spread of rights through the rapidly growing towns of the colony. Such rights, the remonstrance declared, in a phrase out of Grotius that Van der Donck liked, were based on "natural law." The petition was denied.
With a rudimentary representative government in place, Stuyvesant and the West India Company still officially ran the place, but, whether they were Dutch, English, or any of the other nationalities represented in the colony, the businessmen—the fur traders, the tobacco farmers, the shippers of French wines, Delft tiles, salt, horses, dyewood, and a hundred other products—increasingly got their way. As the business leaders won positions in the city government and became political leaders, others—bakers, tavern keepers, school teachers, ministers—came to them for support. These alliances strengthened New Amsterdam's municipal government, which, in its turn, set a flurry of development in motion. Roads were paved with cobbles. Tile roofs came in (mostly red and black, giving the town a crisp finish), and the old thatch ones were banned as a fire hazard. A proper wharf was built off Pearl street. As the town picked itself up, it took on that defining Dutch characteristic: tidiness. An order went out forcing farmers to tear down pigsties and chicken coops that occupied prominent roadside positions.
It was still a port town, with tentacles that stretched across the globe, so piracy remained a fixture.
With municipal government on Manhattan came an innovation whose affect would long outlive the colony itself and help to impress the island’s legacy into the American character. Going back into the Middle Ages, cities throughout Europe had offered a form of local citizenship to inhabitants: English cities had their freemen, Dutch towns their burghers. Amsterdam had recently installed a new two-tiered system, and the local government on Manhattan promptly copied it. The so-called great burgher was a powerful trader who contributed sizable sums for civic improvements and, in exchange, got the right to trade and had a voice in setting policy. What was different was the offering of small burgher status. Nearly every resident of New Amsterdam applied for it, and it gave even the humblest—shoemakers, chimney sweeps, tailors, blacksmiths, hatters, coopers, millers, masons—a stake in the community, a kind of minority shareholder status. The system encouraged inhabitants to support one another and largely did away with the itinerant traders who used to sweep in, make a quick profit, and then leave. It also made for a more egalitarian place than New England, where the number of freemen, or town citizens, never exceeded twenty percent of the population. In New Amsterdam, nearly everyone—rich and poor, the coiffed and the scabby—was part of the same club. When shipping increased in the port, all benefited. Artisans branched out: a baker might own land, invest in a shipment of tobacco, and earn extra income as a soldier. Young men who entered the colony's rolls as humble artisans rose to heights, and a muscular strain of American upward mobility was born. Frederick Flipsen (a.k.a. Philipse) traveled to Manhattan from Friesland and signed himself a lowly carpenter when he became a small burgher in 1657; at the time of his death in 1702,after a long career of multifaceted wheeling and dealing, he was one of the wealthiest men in America, his upriver estate, the famous Philipsburg Manor, encompassing ninety-two thousand acres of what would become Westchester County (including, incidentally, all of Adriaen van der Donck's former holdings). Frederick Flipsen's workers, and the assistants to the colony's smiths, wheelwrights, bakers, and gunstock makers, had a looser relationship to their superiors than did workers in traditional guilds: a wheelwright's apprentice might also serve beer in the tavern or help bake bread. In this period of growth and activity, we see the emergence of other customs and usages that would influence American culture— Sinterklaas began his American odyssey. The village of Harlem founded at this time: the initial bloc of thirty-two families who staked out lots along its two lanes came from six different parts of Europe — Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and what is now southern Belgium. Perched alongside one another on the edge of a wilderness, families had to come together and learned a common language. Unprecedented elsewhere in the colonies: intermarriage. But it was English Quakers who pushed tolerance to the limit. They continued holding their own avant-garde services. When Stuyvesant forbade the town of Vlissingen from abetting them, thirty-one of the villagers, all English, followed the Dutch form of complaint by signing a remonstrance to Stuyvesant. The law of "love peace and libertie . . . which is the glory of the Outward State of Holland," they reminded him, extends even "to Jewes, Turkes and Egiptians." Therefore, they respectfully refused to obey. The so-called Flushing Remonstrance is considered one of the foundational documents of American liberty, ancestor to the first amendment in the Bill of Rights, which guarantees that the government "shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The place had its own character, and it was evolving rapidly. Thirty years later, one of Stuyvesant's successors, Governor Thomas Dongan, casually referenced the varieties of religious experience that had proliferated by then in the New York colony. Besides a Church of England presence, a Dutch Calvinist population, French Calvinists, Dutch Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, there were "Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Antisabbatarians; Some Anabaptists some Independants; some Jews." "In short," he added to sharpen the point, "of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part, of none at all." Stuyvesant must have lurched in his grave.
Manhattan was turned over to the British in the summer of 1664 without a shot being fired. The troops under Richard Nicolls took possession of the fort, and the records and documents of the colony stored within.
As Stuyvesant surrendered the Manhattan colony, America's myth of origin was already coming into being. By the time of the revolutionary generation a century later, the story had become myth. John Adams, himself a descendant of the first Puritans, revered the Pilgrims as the launchers of the American saga. Their form of government was a theocracy. It was rooted in intolerance: The Puritans' systematic crackdown on alternative views was cruel, unusual, and lethal. People whose crime was being members of the Baptist denomination, or Quakers, or belonging to some other Protestant sect, were beaten with a knotted whip. They were hanged in public spectacles. These were sentences pronounced by judicial authorities.
Out of the Puritans, exceptionalism—their belief that they had been charged by God to save humanity—grew the American belief that American society was similarly divinely anointed. But the national myth ought to be questioned. The original colonies were not all English, and the multiethnic makeup of the Manhattan colony is precisely the point—the fact that the Dutch once established a foothold in North America. Moving the story beyond the English takeover requires, first, realizing that the Dutch" didn't go anywhere. The people from all over Europe who had built homes and raised families on Manhattan, on Long Island, away to the south along the Delaware River, and across the river from Manhattan in what the English named New Jersey, had no reason to leave after Stuyvesant surrendered his colony. In fact, ships from the Dutch Republic, with their mixed loads of European settlers, kept arriving in New York Harbor. And Richard Nicolls—who became the first governor of New York after accepting Stuyvesant's surrender—and his successors actually encouraged the traffic with their longtime foe. They even made a point of naming prominent Dutch merchants to their economic councils to keep the ties strong. That was because these first English governors quickly discovered they were in the awkward but titillating position of being even more keyed into world trade than London itself. With the English takeover, New York instantly became a unique spot on the globe: the only port city plugged directly into both of the world's two major trading empires. To sever connections to the great trading firms of Amsterdam would have been to strangle their long-sought possession just as it was burgeoning. The traders, bakers, brewers, barkeeps, smugglers, and scam-artists of the town soon realized the same thing the governors did, and felt the power of it: their island was no longer a Dutch settlement, and it wasn't really English either. It had its own trajectory.
Continuity between the Dutch and English eras was established at eight o'clock on Saturday morning, the sixth of September 1664. Stuyvesant seems to have instructed his men to push for specific guarantees, and that is what they got. The end result of the negotiations, the so-called Articles of Capitulation, is a remarkable document. Packaged into it—and extended later by the New York city Charter—was a guarantee of rights unparalleled in any English colony. "The Dutch here shall enjoy the liberty of their Consciences," it read. People would be free to come and go as they liked. Trade would be unrestricted: by all means, "Dutch vessels may freely come hither." Most remarkable, the political leaders of the colony would "continue as now they are" provided they swore an oath of allegiance to the king, and in future "the Towne of Manhatans shall choose Deputyes, and those Deputyes shall have free voyces in all publique affaires.' Prefiguring the Bill of Rights, it even stipulated that "the Townesmen of the Manhatons shall not have any Souldier quartered upon them."
The English leaders in Whitehall Palace were surely aware of this unusual characteristic of the island across the water, and they understood that it was part of what made the place function.
Then again, there is no record that the English offered the particular catalogue of guarantees that made their way into the Articles of capitulation. It’s logical to assume that the Dutch representatives, on Stuyvesant’s orders, pushed for some of these. If so, there is an ironic twist here. Such a slate of individual rights and liberties, preserving the unique society that had come into being in the colony, was just what van der Donck had fought for. Van der Donck's vision—government commitments to support free trade, religious liberty and a form of local political representation—afforded the best protection for its inhabitants in the uncertain future.
The Dutch colony set Manhattan on course as a place of openness and free trade. A new kind of spirit hovered over the island, something utterly alien to New England and Virginia, which is directly traceable to the tolerance debates in Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the intellectual world of Descartes, Grotius, and Spinoza.
The original Dutch settlers finally blended into American culture, paying homage to their melting-pot heritage.
Moving forward into the revolutionary period, in Philadelphia in 1787, New York's delegation to the Constitutional Convention was among those least enamored of a document that would give so much power to the federal government. Meeting later in Albany, the state's leaders decided that they could only ratify the Constitution if, among other things, a bill of specific individual rights were attached to it. The names of the twenty-six men who insisted on this were about half English and half Dutch; the new state was famously contentious, and its pluralistic delegation had a long history of struggling for individual rights to account for its stubbornness.
The island of Manhattan became the gateway to America for generations of immigrants, and it was because of this that the legacy of the Dutch colony got amplified. Stepping off the boat, the individuals in those huddled masses, arriving from Naples or Hamburg or Le Havre or Liverpool, breathed in an atmosphere utterly different from what they had left. The newcomers soaked it in, this odor of promise and of a reblending of peoples into something new, and they called it American.
The legacy of the people who settled Manhattan Island rides below the level of myth and politics. They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone.
The first Manhattanites didn't arrive with lofty ideals. They came whether as farmer, tanner, prostitute, wheelwright, barmaid, brewer, or trader—because there was a hope for a better life. There was a distinct messiness to the place they created. But it was very real, and in a way, very modern.
The strength in the mixing-of-cultures idea and the essence of it, the idea of tolerance, may matter more now than ever. With any luck, it will also remain the mortar of progressive society. Developing it, showing that it could work, was the messy genius of the first Manhattanites.