Gotham

2004-09-12

I've just finished reading two books about the history of New York City: The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Old Town Books, 1966) and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto (Doubleday, 2004). The former covers the period 1524 to 1966, whereas the latter focuses on the Dutch colony of New Netherland from 1608 until 1664. Shorto's book is especially interesting, because it gives the lie to the purely Anglocentric vision of American history. In his recent book Who We Are, Samuel Huntington pointed out that America has not always been a nation of immigrants: it was first a nation of settlers, and the settler mentality is quite different from the immigrant mentality. An immigrant sees a society that is more open or free or rich (or whatever) and decides to join it; a settler sets off to found a new society. In several books I read last year, the authors advanced the argument that America's founding cultures were English. Yet those authors focused on only four parts of the Eastern seaboard: New England, Virginia and the Carolinas, the Delaware Valley, and Appalachia. Conspicuously absent in these accounts was New York, and for good reason: it is difficult to fit the New York City area into an Anglocentric perspective because the founding culture there was Dutch, not English. In fact, as Shorto makes clear, one thing that distinguished New Netherland from New England and Virginia was that its founding culture was not monolithic. Whereas most of New England consisted of a series of stifling, theocratic monocultures (Rhode Island being something of an exception) and Virginia too was almost exclusively English, New Netherland was from the beginning deeply "multicultural", populated not only by the Dutch but by French-speaking Walloons, English-speaking refugees from New England, Africans, Jews, Turks, Germans, and many others. New Netherland was the original melting pot at a time when the rest of America was ethnically, racially, and linguistically pure English.

New Netherland was also in most ways more free than the English colonies. Despite the fact that it was a company town ostensibly run by the Dutch West India Company, in reality it was a hub of free trade and free thought. Much of this heritage came directly from the Netherlands, which was experiencing its Golden Age. Amsterdam was the most advanced, tolerant, multicultural city in the world at that time and Leiden was home to the most forward-thinking scholars on the planet. Much of the Dutch experience was mainlined directly into its New World hub of New Netherland. Indeed, Shorto hints that many American ideals of liberty derive not from the English tradition of Locke and Hume but the Dutch tradition of Grotius and his successors. Certainly freedom of conscience emerged much earlier in Holland and New Netherland than in England or its colonies, and the Dutch were for the most part ardent free-traders when the English were still largely mired in mercantilist protectionism. Given that New York City eventually became the capital of the world (yes, I am still a Gothamite by nature), it would behoove historians of the American experience to pay more attention to its founding culture(s) rather than to assume that America is merely an upstanding member of the Anglosphere. The American story is more nuanced than that, nowhere more so than in the extraordinary importance of New York City in the life of the nation.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal