Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Dutch-American historical connection

From the vault: this was written last January, but for some reason never posted to the blog. It still seems to the point.
YESTERDAY I READ A BOOK confirming and explaining the connection I've long felt exists between Netherlands and the United States — a common mentality, you might say, a societal posture differentiating them from other nations. Not all other nations, perhaps; and not entirely: but a special orientation enabling a societal organization — "political," in fact — that underlies the social responsibilities enabling a social contract, written or not.
The book is in fact a pair of short essays by Geert Mak and Russell Shorto, 1609, The Forgotten history of Hudson, Amsterdam, and New York, published in 2009 in a handsome bilingual edition by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation. Hudson arrived in New York harbor on his ship the Half Moon in 1609; the book was published as part of the events celebrating the 400th anniversary of that event.
Hudson was English, not Dutch, but he sailed on a commission from the Dutch East India Company, who hoped he would find a short route to Japan and China by sailing along the north Russian coast where the long summer days, it was thought, might melt the polar ice. He was four centuries too soon for that, as we know now, and before rounding the north cape of Norway turned back, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed to what is now Virginia to visit his friend John Smith in the colony there; then looked into first the Delaware river, then what's now the Hudson, hoping for a passage through the North American continent to the Sea of Japan.
(Not as ridiculous as it seems today, Shorto points out. At the time most navigators and cartographers thought that Ptolemy's ancient estimate of the size of the earth was correct; this would have placed Japan about where Ohio is.)
Hudson sailed up his river as far as present-day Albany before the river proved entirely fresh water, not salt, dashing that hope. But he explored the banks, and reported back to the Company that the fields were fertile and well-supplied with game. Before long the Dutch were sending colonists to stake out their own territory north of England's doomed Roanoke colony, and New York was Nieuw Amsterdam until 1664, when the English finally claimed the city at gunpoint.
By then the city had begun to develop qualities that characterize it still, qualities that early set it apart, Shorto writes, from "Boston, Hartford, or any other city in English North America." And what were those qualities? "Free trade and an immigrant culture," the features that enabled Amsterdam's rise in the late 16th and the 17th century as the most important, richest trading city in the world. The shipping companies were owned by a Dutch innovation, stock companies, not a monarchy; risk was shared as were returns; and the co-operation this necessitated was underwritten by a relatively liberal, tolerant view of differing social values.
Amsterdam, with its busy seaport, had already been attracting refugees from the religious wars in Germany and France, and the suppression of the Jews in Spain. "In an age of religious strife, it was almost universally held that a nation should be of one people and one faith," Shorto writes.
Intolerance was thus official policy in England, Spain, France… but not in the Dutch nation. There, tolerance became a topic of political and religious debate. Tolerance was adopted as a policy — not as a grand ideal, but as a way to deal with the mixed character of the population.
The Union of Utrecht, for example, declared as early as 1579 that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."
As a result, Shorto argues, the Dutch colony in New York was a mixture of ethnic and religious strains from the beginning, approaching common problems and decisions in the spirit of common consent. "Even as early as the 17th century," Mak writes,
the Dutch had an uncontrollable inclination to assemble and to "polder" or debate until consensus is reached. This inclination based on the collective decision-making they were accustomed to as they worked together to reclaim their wetlands… Everything revolved around the art of persuasion, convincing others through debate.
The technique has its drawbacks, of course: it requires an educated, articulate, and probably fairly small body of discussants; and it takes time to arrive at its consensus. But it's a commendable procedure, and no doubt served as a model to the "Founding Fathers" as they themselves debated the form of the new government to follow the American Revolution.


Curtis Faville said...

Since the advent of the "diversity" trend in modern culture, we are constantly badgered into accepting the notion that difference is an unalloyed good, and homogeneity suspect.

I will accept that it is preferable to try to get along with people of different backgrounds and persuasions, out of necessity (what's the alternative?).

But I question that being surrounded by difference is in itself a simply good thing. Growing up in an homogeneous culture can have many benefits; avoiding conflict, for one thing.

Will "diversity" allow us to embrace Islam, for instance, in the coming century? Is such an embrace even possible, in a democracy? We shall see (or not, depending upon our age).

Charles Shere said...

You raise too many points to address here. Speaking simply for myself, I don't feel "constantly badgered" by or about anything, not even telemarketers, but then I live in the country.

Nor did I grow up in a homogenous country. Nor do I understand how a society that manages to put up with Christians and a small number of Jews should find it impossible to accommodate that other weird desert monotheism.

I suppose it comes down to where you were formed: coast or inland. Give me San Francisco, if I must have a city; Rome, Marseilles, Vancouver, Melbourne; keep your Dallas, Firenze, Lyons, Edmonton, — well, I can't really speak for Canberra, never having been there, but I can imagine. Capitals are by their very nature cosmopolitan, but can that be true of Canberra, or Ottowa, or Sacramento?

Curtis Faville said...


Not to sound argumentative--

you quote:

"Tolerance was adopted as a policy — not as a grand ideal, but as a way to deal with the mixed character of the population."

This is what I said, that "tolerance" is a way to deal with necessity. I just don't like the idea that "difference" and "diversity" are an ideal state of affairs. It may well be that peace and cooperation are worth celebrating, but the difficult part is accommodating difference, which almost always causes disputes and suspicion and strife.

Let's not confuse the problem with the cure.

Charles Shere said...

Tolerance; negotiation; conversation; discovery — it seems to me these qualities are related, linked. They are qualities I enjoy: others may not.

Argument. I suppose one definition might be "conversation between people undisposed to change their minds or revise their attitudes." I don't like argument, perhaps because there was too much present in my childhood.

"Ideal state of affairs" is a phrase I'm trying to understand. To me, what is ideal is what is not present. Difference is always present; might as well try to enjoy it. Time enough for resolution when we're dead.

Curtis Faville said...


I guess we're just "poldering".

John Whiting said...

In the first grade in Edgartown (Martha's Vineyard), a place with no particular connection with the Netherlands, I remember Dutch housewives being held up to us as worthy examples because they scrubbed their front steps every morning.