In 1809, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty appeared under the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, an eccentric, learned gentleman determined “to rescue from oblivion the memory of former incidents, and to render a just tribute of renown to the many great and wonderful transactions of our Dutch progenitors.” The real author was a twenty-six-year-old Manhattan lawyer named Washington Irving; and his comic novel turned him into the first internationally acclaimed American writer, attracting admirers as distinguished as Coleridge and Dickens. Walter Scott reported that his sides were “absolutely sore with laughter.”1
Brilliantly mocking the grandiloquence of contemporary rhetoricians, the Knickerbocker History purports to tell the story of the colony of New Netherland, the Dutch settlement that traced its origins to Henry Hudson’s discovery of New York Harbor in 1609. Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, claimed for Holland the whole area between the Delaware and the Connecticut rivers. After the first permanent Dutch settlers arrived in 1624, the small colony, dedicated mainly to the fur trade, limped along for a few years under a series of venal governors. These included Peter Minuit, who is today remembered only for purchasing Manhattan from the Indians for something like $24. Another, the sadist Willem Kieft, gratuitously ordered a massacre of Indians in present-day New Jersey, a misfortune that sparked two years of war and imperiled the colony, whose trade depended on Indian cooperation. When Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland’s last director, reached its capital, New Amsterdam, in 1647, the grubby town was in pitiable shape.
Stuyvesant, a tough fighter who had lost a leg in an attack on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, introduced regulations designed to whip the place into shape. Many of these were urgently necessary, including his legislation against public drunkenness—by all accounts a major problem among both Dutch and Indians—and his enforcement, in a city of shoddy buildings, of strict construction codes. Stuyvesant also enjoyed his share of diplomatic victories: in 1650, he set a fixed border with the English colonies to the north; and in 1655 he managed, without bloodshed, to absorb the small colony of New Sweden, founded by none other than Peter Minuit, who, after his recall from New Amsterdam, shopped his knowledge of the territory to foreign powers.
For all his achievements, Stuyvesant is best remembered for his intolerance. In the multiracial colony, he tried, for a time, to ban Lutheranism. He detested Quakers. He was famously inhospitable to Jews. His insistence on ruling his own people as a stern patriarch earned him many enemies among the wealthier colonists, whose discontent grew throughout the 1650s. Led by the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, author of an important Description of New Netherland (1655), the dissenters at last managed to force some political improvements. But it was too late: the colony was already disintegrating, especially as more English arrived to settle Long Island. In 1664, an English fleet parked in front of Manhattan and demanded that the Dutch surrender. The colonists were unwilling to fight, and an outraged Stuyvesant had no choice but to consent.
Three years later—in another episode in the Anglo-Dutch trade wars—the Dutch invaded the Thames and forced the humiliated English to sue for peace. In the resulting treaty, New Netherland was definitively assigned to England, in exchange for the more valuable sugar colony of Suriname.
Washington Irving’s History of New-York is a great comic novel, but it is also unique among satirical works for the place it occu-pies in American historiography. Ever since its publication, historians of New Netherland have wrestled with Diedrich Knickerbocker’s pompous ghost. Before Irving, New Netherland had never had a historian, and his lively anecdotes aroused interest in the increasingly forgotten earliest settlers. It is hard to imagine that anyone could mistake the Knickerbocker History for a scientific text, but many apparently did; and the book was, in fact, founded on real research—Irving was perhaps the first person to slog through the old documents and interview Dutch families about their ancestors. Irving later claimed that “it is only since this work appeared that the forgotten archives of the province have been rummaged, and the facts and personages of the olden time been rescued from the dust of oblivion.”2
Subsequent works on New Netherland, especially Edmund O’Callaghan’s History of New Netherlands; or, New York under the Dutch (1846–1848), were strongly marked by Irving’s portrayal of the Dutch as pipe-smoking bumpkins. O’Callaghan saw the colony as “a failure, and one that left few traces behind after the English takeover,…implicitly contrasting the undemocratic New Netherland with the ‘model colony,’ New England.”3
All that changed around the time of the Civil War, when John Lothrop Motley began publishing his thrilling Dutch histories: The Rise of the Dutch Republic (three volumes, 1855–1859) and the subsequent History of the United Netherlands (four volumes, 1860–1867). While not directly bearing on the Dutch in America, Motley’s works cast the Dutch in a heroic light, and in terms easily understandable to Americans. For example, Motley called William of Orange “the Washington of the sixteenth century,” and described the story of Dutch independence as “a portion of the records of the Anglo-Saxon race—essentially the same, whether in Friesland, England, or Massachusetts”:
The maintenance of the right by the little provinces of Holland and Zeeland in the sixteenth, by Holland and England united in the seventeenth, and by the United States of America in the eighteenth centuries, forms but a single chapter in the great volume of human fate; for the so-called revolutions of Holland, England, and America, are all links of one chain.
Emphasizing the same Dutch characteristics—independence, religious tolerance, republicanism, capitalism—that Americans valued in their own country, Motley’s books became, like William Prescott’s histories of the Spanish in America, popular triumphs. For their broad novelistic sweep, The Rise of the Dutch Republic and the History of the United Netherlands remain among the supreme achievements of American narrative. Unfortunately, like the Knickerbocker History, they are little read today.
In her admirable and exhaustively researched Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art and Culture, Annette Stott shows how Motley’s works set the stage for a longstanding Dutch vogue in American culture. From about 1880 to the end of the First World War, an American idea of “Dutchness” influenced many aspects of American life—architecture, interior design, entertainment, and fashion, not to mention historical writing. To pro-Dutch American historians, Holland meant sober republican virtue—a virtue pro-Dutch American marketers could easily translate into solid wood furniture. Eventually, Holland came to stand for a generic idea of coziness and cleanliness, an image that became so engrained that one Dutchman lamented in 1943 that “the name Holland removes the American mind to a lovely child’s room, full of amusing toys.”4
Stott retraces the complex origins of this stereotype. First, after the Civil War, moved by the affinities between the new American and the old Dutch republics outlined in works like Motley’s, wealthy Americans bought large numbers of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, which entered homes and museums. These were attractive because unlike Catholic, aristocratic Italian and French paintings, the Dutch celebrated the life of merchants and citizens, whose descendants the American elite felt themselves to be. American painters—inspired by the beauty of the work of Rembrandt, Pieter de Hooch, and Vermeer, as well as the bourgeois life they depicted—arrived in Holland, looking for the country of the Golden Age. They dutifully discovered it in the least typical regions of Holland, backwoods towns like Volendam and Marken, where residents still wore the old costumes the old paintings had taught Americans to expect to see.
Many American artists, including Gari Melchers, William Henry Howe, and Walter MacEwen, took up residence in these charming boondocks and painted a world unsullied by modern worries. They then shipped their drawings, etchings, and paintings back home, where residents of increasingly grimy American cities, longing for a simpler life, bought them in large numbers. Inspired by these bucolic pictures, American tourists flooded into the Netherlands, studiously ignoring anything that did not suit their expectations of adorable quaintness. With acquisitive zest, these middle-class Americans hacked tiles off burghers’ walls and snapped up wooden shoes, returning home to recall the delightful, timeless land they had visited and reviving the windmills-and-tulips stereotype—encouraging still more tourists to pack their bags.
Together with this fashion for all things Dutch came renewed attention to American roots in the Netherlands. Holland was, first, the refuge of the Pilgrim Fathers. According to Stott, some revisionist historians “built a new theory of American history in which Holland played the central role.” In their reading, Holland, not England, was the true motherland, and Americans owed Holland not just the blue-and-white ceramic tchotchkes on their dining room tables but their political heritage. Stott writes that
this view of national character… transformed the study of Holland, the collecting of Dutch artifacts, and the ownership of Dutch paintings into acts of patriotism.
Thanks to the new historians’ and artists’ emphasis on the countries’ common political heritage, and the knowledge that our republic’s greatest city was founded by the Dutch, it was easy to assume that Holland must have had a decisive impact on the formation of American nationality.
Stott describes the work of William Elliott Griffis, an Anglo-American from Philadelphia, who was one of the giddiest revisionist historians, so much a victim of Holland fever that he even served for many years as the dominie of a Dutch Reformed church in Schenectady. Griffis wrote many popular books presenting the revisionist case in easy laymen’s terms, making it clear where Americans’ loyalties ought to lie, as in this declaration from the Ladies’ Home Journal (1910):
At Utrecht the “Liberty Bell” first rang out. Here men talked of “the Father of his Country,” the “Declaration of Independence,” the “Written Constitution,” “Freedom of speech and conscience for all men,” and “The supremacy of the National Government over secession.” Here it was declared that “the Union must and shall be preserved.” …So uninformed are we Americans of our real origins that thousands of us think of these phrases as American: that we coined them: that they are our own!
Russell Shorto’s recent book, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, is an unintentionally hilarious same-sex marriage—of Diedrich Knickerbocker and William Elliott Griffis. Like Griffis, Shorto sees in every Dutch hiccup an eerie foreshadowing of the American future:
The whole package—the Founding Father, the young and vibrant republic, the war for independence, the hard-nosed, practical populace that disdains monarchies and maintains a frank acceptance of differences—has a ring of familiarity to it.
Like Knickerbocker, who declared that “the reading of a Low Dutch psalm has much the same effect on the nerves as the filing of a handsaw,” Shorto, by piggybacking on the scholarship of others, keeps the Dutch language at arm’s length, calling its seventeenth-century variant “an obscure topic in anyone’s estimation.” We know what he means; but the statement is a little troubling in a book about the seventeenth-century Dutch. More distressing is evidence of Shorto’s discomfort with twenty-first-century English:
The smell in the air was one they had hoped to find, a complicated, heady perfume. It had in it the big, muscular, fresh odors that came sweeping off the continent, full of green promise. It was sharpened by the oily tang of industry and good sweat, accented with kielbasa and pasta sauce, horse dung and sawdust and slaughterhouse.
Diedrich Knickerbocker wrote just this kind of thing—
It was that delicious season of the year, when nature, breaking from the chilling thraldom of old winter, like a blooming damsel, from the tyranny of a sordid old hunks of a father, threw herself blushing with ten thousand charms, into the arms, of youthful spring….
—but Shorto’s prose ecstasies, unlike Knickerbocker’s, are not meant to be funny. Like Knickerbocker, Shorto undermines his own claims to be writing a serious work of history by repeatedly punching up documented facts with whimsical, you-are-there addenda:
For three years Van der Donck studied at Leiden alongside an international contingent of scholars, took part in debating circles organized by the law professors, maybe joined with his colleagues in complaining, as students will, about the food in the dining hall.
“To understand events in one region therefore requires an appreciation for what was going on elsewhere,” Russell Shorto writes. Yet he fails to heed his own advice, writing from a narrow perspective and substituting caricature for analysis throughout his book. Even William Elliott Griffis acknowledged the contributions of New England when making his case for New Netherland, but Russell Shorto discusses New England only to contrast its darkness with New Netherland’s light:
Clearly, the New Netherland settlers were quite unlike their fellow pioneers to the north, the pious English Pilgrims and the Puritans who were struggling to establish their “new Jerusalem,” governed by godly morality. Whether the Pilgrims, via the Thanksgiving celebration, or the Puritans made truly worthy role models for the nation that was in the distant future is another matter; throughout this period the Puritans were busy massacring the Pequot Indians in the name of God and persecuting internal “heretics” (i.e., anyone who didn’t subscribe to their brand of Puritanism). One might say the English and Dutch colonies represented the extreme conservative and liberal wings of the seventeenth-century social spectrum.
Shorto’s suggestion that the Pilgrims are distinct from the Puritans is not the only alarming aspect of this paragraph. Its claim that the English were as “conservative” as the Dutch were “liberal,” and that the Dutch liberals shaped the culture of America—a central argument of his work—deserves scrutiny. It is hard to see how, from the evidence he presents, this characterization of New Netherland as “extremely liberal” can be accurate. Things are not so clear cut, whether the English and Dutch colonies are contrasted religiously, politically, economically, or socially.
Shorto lumps the different New England colonies together as a “religious monoculture.” He declares that there was “even less theological wiggle room in the open spaces of New England” than in Britain itself. But he does admit, with glaring understatement, that New Netherland was not an especially tolerant place: “It’s strange that the one nod that history has given to the Manhattan-based colony—as a cradle of religious liberty in the early America—is off base.”
A mixed record on religious tolerance would not, in any case, have distinguished New Netherland from New England, which was anything but a “religious monoculture.” Shorto neglects to mention Roger Williams’s Rhode Island, where religious tolerance was not, as in New Netherland, the accidental outgrowth of an incompetent government: Rhode Island existed to offer an asylum to dissenters, and Roger Williams derived his justification for religious tolerance from Puritan theology.
Politically speaking, New Netherland was a dictatorial viceroyalty, where power was in the hands of an appointed director. The colony languished under a series of despots, the best of whom, Stuyvesant, engaged in a long power struggle with some of the leading members of the colony. The dispute ended when the colony’s proprietor, the West India Company, forced Stuyvesant to accept a limited city charter. Shorto makes much of this dispute, but the fact remains that it took years of feuding to extract a basic political concession, and the concession was only granted toward the end of the colony’s life. This, too, would seem to make the colony much less “liberal” than the English colonies: all the New England colonies had representative governments from the moment of their settlement, and Virginia had an assembly as early as 1619.
A huge corporation, the West India Company, controlled the economy of New Netherland, and a few magnates, the patroons, had enormous privileges on a scale unheard of in New England. Income inequality was consequentially great. Shorto writes that “the looseness of Manhattan society had its disadvantages, but it also made for greater social mobility than in Europe.” Of course, a recently founded frontier trading post with a tiny population would not reproduce the class system of more established places.
Like its mother country, the colony was home to many different ethnic groups. But the reasons for ethnic diversity were very different in New Amsterdam and Holland. The diversity of New Amsterdam is in no way, as Shorto claims, “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 ethnic tolerance that existed in New Amsterdam can be ascribed exclusively to practical considerations. Shorto includes “Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks” in a list of the colony’s diverse inhabitants—peoples who might be surprised to see their presence in their own country attributed to the influence of Descartes. The Africans were not brought to the Americas by Grotius, and it was not out of admiration for Spinoza that Stuyvesant let the Jews stay: it was because the West India Company, which had many Jewish shareholders, ordered him to. Nor was this grudging tolerance unique: according to the leading contemporary scholar of the Dutch Golden Age, “Jews enjoyed as much, or greater, freedom in cer-tain of the English colonies as in the Dutch.”5 Because Holland was a small country, its great companies recruited Germans and Scandinavians—though they were not allowed to practice Lutheranism in public. The Dutch repeatedly tried to get rid of the English, but they were eventually outnumbered.
Even if the colony’s diversity had been a result of deliberate policy, that alone would not have destined its capital to future greatness. After all, the presence of people of many nationalities in New Amsterdam was no different from the mix of peoples in other Dutch colonies: but Willemstad and Paramaribo never became world capitals.
Indeed, Shorto never once mentions the one area in which the Dutch were incontestably more “liberal” than the English: the status of women. Married Dutch women kept their own names and property, and widows enjoyed broad inheritance rights. Until the implementation of English law, women were active in business. In the early 1660s, about forty-six women conducted commerce in their own names in the Hudson Valley settlement of Beverwijck. In 1700, a generation after that Dutch town became English Albany, not a single woman remained in business for herself.6
“We are used to thinking of American beginnings as involving thirteen English colonies,” Shorto writes, adding later that “generations were raised on the belief that America’s origins were English…. This is all so obvious that we don’t question it.” Shorto’s book is, in large part, a plea to expand this flawed understanding of our national origins. I cannot decide who the “we” is. When I was growing up in Texas, I never thought it obvious that American beginnings were exclusively English. I expect that, among others, New Mexicans, Louisianans, Floridians, Californians, and Hawaiians would agree, as would members of every ethnic minority. It is a little disconcerting to hear Shorto earnestly pushing a proposition most of us encountered as schoolchildren: that our national origins cannot be traced to a single source.
Ironically, Annette Stott explains, we owe some of the broader conception of our nationality to the Holland fad of the late nineteenth century. The historians who then championed Dutch contributions to American life belonged to a larger movement fighting to document the contributions of other non-English groups, especially Irish, Scotch, German, and French. Now these once-distinct ethnicities have mostly blended into the generic “white,” and other nonwhite groups seek to reclaim their proper place. Stott argues that American identity is a “continuous negotiation of ethnic and racial cultures.” “Afro-centrism,” she claims, “is a modern equivalent of Holland Mania.”
Saying that many cultures combined to produce a diverse society is not the same as saying that all those contributions were equally important. Afro-centrism’s more enthusiastic proponents have earned their share of ridicule, but no one today questions the importance of African-Americans to American culture. Is the Dutch contribution as fundamental? We are happily indebted to the Dutch for Santa Claus and cookies and district attorneys—who are descended from the Dutch schouten (scouts)—but Shorto presents no evidence for New Netherland’s lasting importance. The best he can do is to write that “it helped to set the whole thing in motion”—without offering any serious justification for this contention. His book leaves the reader suspecting that, while the story of New Netherland may well be lively and interesting, it is not more relevant to later national development than Georgia’s origins as a philanthropic experiment, or the Spanish settlement of Texas and California.
Readers seeking the lively and interesting story of New Netherland in Russell Shorto’s book must look elsewhere, for this book is not really about New Netherland. It is about New York, some of whose contemporary attitudes it vividly captures. Hidden in The Island at the Center of the World is a peculiarly New York brand of parochialism—the one that mistakes a fondness for Lebanese food, say, or taking in the occasional show at the Guggenheim, with possessing a cosmopolitan perspective. Since the world is in New York—and often delivers!—there is little need to seek that world out. Anything that happens on “the island at the center of the world” is, by its very nature, more important than anything that happens elsewhere. Shorto said as much when asked in an interview how New Netherland influenced America:
Because we aren’t talking about a colony centered in some iso-lated valley. We’re talking about Manhattan.
This answer is not sufficient, alas, because we are talking about a colony centered in some isolated valley. Shorto refuses to treat it as such, assuming that every characteristic of New York exists today simply because, as he sees it, sicut erat in principio. He sees the Ziegfeld Follies in every waterfront whore, a tantalizing hint of Studio 54 in every greasy tavern:
The “bar scene” seems to have rivaled anything New York City could boast today (and, ironically enough, would occupy the same general downtown quadrant that accounts for much of today’s nightlife).
Such hick narcissism would come as no surprise to that venerable doyen of New Netherland historians, Diedrich Knickerbocker, whose History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty proudly expressed the same smug understanding that human culture has led in a straight line from ziggurats to Zabar’s. Even divine creation had a clear purpose: “In as much as if this world had not been formed, it is more than probable…that this renowned island on which is situated the city of New-York, would never have had an existence.” Diedrich Knickerbocker, if alive today, would find in Russell Shorto a worthy apostle.
November 4, 2004
Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 418. ↩
Burroughs and Wallace, Gotham, pp. 418–419. ↩
Jaap Jacobs, Een zegenrijk gewest (Amsterdam: Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 1999), p. 21. ↩
W.J. van Balen, Holland aan de Hudson (Amsterdam: N.V. Amsterdamsche Boek en Courantmaatschappij, 1943), p. 9. ↩
Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477–1806 (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 955. ↩
See Alan Taylor, American Colonies (Viking, 2001). ↩