Posted by Lexington Green on September 12th, 2005 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Michael Barone’s new blog is consistently excellent. His coverage of the recent disaster in New Orleans has been particularly astute. He has an excellent post about New York and New Orleans, contrasting the difference in civic spirit and civic resilience demonstrated by the two very different cities. Mr. Barone cites to David Hackett Fischer’s masterwork, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in North America, which I have repeatedly touted, e.g. here and here, since it is my favorite book on American history.
Mr. Barone focuses on the Dutch origins of New York, noting that the influence of Nieuw Amsterdam can be felt in the city down to the present day. He cites to Simon Schama’s book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age , about Amsterdam in its golden age, which included the era of the Dutch settlement of the Hudson valley and Manhattan and environs. I want to read the Schama book. Someday.
Even without it, I have come to conclude, after decades of reading, by a process of induction, that the Dutch origin on New York is the “missing fifth lobe” of Albion’s Seed, and that its influence is, if anything, underrated. No single source has convinced me of this, but many stray bits that I wish some professional historian would weave together. While Fischer recognizes that there were other settlement streams into America which influenced American life, he has identified the four major ones originating in Britain, which have had an overwhelming impact down to the present day. However, New York was the hub on which the American economy turned for many, many years, and the leader in its cultural life, both high culture and popular. New York’s unique identity had an impact far out of proportion to its size and numbers, and its elite were the de facto managers of the country and its economy for many years.
Fischer himself talks in some fascinating detail, but far too briefly, about the impact of the Dutch founding of New York in his recent book Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. Fischer has this to say:
New York’s tradition of pluralism began with its Dutch founders early in the seventeenth century. It combined a policy of official toleration with intense ethnic rivalry and bitter religious conflict. Bonds within ethnic groups tended to be close and warm, but relations between them were distant and hostile. These patterns appeared as early as 1624 and still persist in New York City, which for sixteen generations has been a place of extreme ethnic diversity, conflicted class relations, turbulent politics, intense economic competition, enormous energy, abrasive manners, and abusive speech. In all these ways, Manhattan in the twenty-first century is remarkably similar to descriptions of old New York in the eighteenth century, New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, and even old Amsterdam in the Sixteenth century. The urban folkways of New York City, for all its highly cultivated habits of historical amnesia, have strong linkages to the distant past.
Fischer’s short chapter and his few comments along these lines give a tantalizing taste of what a fully elaborated study of this topic might show us.
I have seen it proposed that New York ultimately assimilated itself into the Delaware Valley culture, referred to by Fischer. I find this highly implausible. New York and Philadelphia are two starkly different cultures. I have also seen it asserted that New York’s elite culture became incorporated into a single, Ivy League-educated Northeastern elite. This is only partially true, and only occurred late, probably in the early 20th century at the soonest.
New York City has remained a world unto itself all these years. Everyone has commented on this for over 300 years, that it is somehow not really “America”. This insight may be attributed to bigotry, sometimes with justice, but it contains a large element of truth. New York is an odd fit with the rest of America because of its Dutch rather than English origins. That initial Dutch influence, its wide-open and hustling style and focus on money, its tolerance or indifference to varying cultures so long as they don’t get in the way, and the competing ethnic enclaves which began during the Dutch era, have shaped the City ever since. It was New York money which built the Erie Canal, which opened up the West. (See this superb article by Richard Brookhiser about DeWitt Clinton and the construction of the Erie Canal; see also this book review by Walter Russell Mead.) The New York area was the terminus for the East-West Railroads, which were paid for by New York-based financing, or London capital channeled through New York. The development of the interior of the Continent was not only financed but also to a large degree managed from New York. The entire interior of the country was in large part an economic colony of New York until late in the 19th Century or even into the early 20th Century. This is very clear in the history of Chicago, which felt itself to be an economic and cultural colony of New York, and still has twinges of resentment about it. (See e.g., William Cronon’s wonderful book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.)
New York culture, and the actions of its elite, had a nationwide impact on something like the scale of the four groups referred to by David Hackett Fischer. However, this process was different in kind from the diffusion of the four cultural streams discussed by Fischer. Driven by economic interests rather than necessity, families and businesses from New York City spread out into the Midwest and elsewhere. It was not a process of influence by means of mass settlement, but rather an elite phenomenon, influence by exercising financial power and cultural prestige. New Yorkers did not go as farmers or workers, but as managers and investors, creating small, elite pockets of New York economic and cultural influence in key locations throughout the United States. The New York influence on the economic and cultural life of the country, especially the Northern tier was pervasive.
Also, New York City is one pole of the New York-London mercantile and financial axis around which the whole world has turned for nigh on two centuries. New Yorkers did not just go into the interior, but also abroad, to run the economic empire centered on New York. New York City’s economic life was shaped at least as much by that proto-Anglospheric relationship as it was by its land-contiguous neighbors. The life of J.P. Morgan demonstrates this, to take one spectacular example. (See e.g., Jean Strouse, Morgan: American Financier.) So, to a greater degree than the more insulated portions of the country, New York started out and stayed a “world city”, like London, and has been more attuned to developments and fashions from abroad, for all of its history.
The Dutch Hudson Valley gentry had a flavor all their own, too, which they maintained until very late, while mixing in a Yankee element by education and marriage. Yankified Patroon might capture it. Fischer’s assertion in Albion’s seed that FDR is “really” a Yankee is, I believe, not right. FDR was a Hudson Valley Dutchman with a strong admixture of Yankee, a true hybrid. But even at this remove it is clear that there was something very non-Yankee about FDR. The ambience is very different. The jauntiness of the cigarette holder, the wit, the whole air about him are just not Old New England at all. Our most important 20th Century president needs to be understood in his full context. (For that matter, Teddy Roosevelt, and Martin van Buren, an under-appreciated and critical figure, the founder of the modern political party, would both be illuminated by further study from this angle.)
I notice that both Fischer and Joel Kotkin (in his recent book The City: A Global History) cite to Oliver A. Rink, Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. I have added this book to my list of books to get my hands on. I regretted very much that Russell Shorto’s recent book The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America fell far short of the “full Fischer treatment” that early New York and its century-spanning influence so badly needs. Shorto’s sections on the early years of New Amsterdam are good, but it becomes repetitive and superficial once he tries to do a Fischerian analysis of succeeding generations and the influence of New York on the rest of the country. There is an element of truth in Shorto’s assertion that New York has always been an island of liberal thinking in a sea of Puritanism. However, it is very wrong to assert, as he does, that the moralistic New Englanders he deplores were the ancestors of the Religious Right of today. The true heirs of those moralistic Yankees are the moralistic, unsmiling leftists of today, who think globally and act locally, who drive Volvos and recycle as a quasi-religious act and want to ban smoking from all public places. The modern Religious Right came from completely different sources. The book is marred by this wrong-headed argument, and the smug, NPR-style liberal bigotry with which Shorto addresses all contemporary issues.
Shorto touches on many threads of continuity between old Nieuw Amsterdam and today, but does not have the scholarly depth to pursue them. For example, one detail Shorto notes several times is that a uniquely American word — “boss” — is of Dutch origin. What does this fact tell us about work relationships in America? Law pertaining to the relationship of an employer and employee derived from English common law and statute, to this day, refers to “master-servant” relationships. That does not sound American at all. Something important changed in our understanding of workers and employers despite the fact that we are Anglophones who largely live under English-derived law. But a study of the diffusion of the word “boss” from its New York origins, and the attitudes embedded in the use of the word, would be the work of many years. Shorto is a competent journalist who has a good style, but he is not a scholar who could independently pursue a question like this. So, Shorto’s book is at most an outpost at the frontier of a very large zone for further study.
Barone’s blog post makes the point that the New Orleans response to Katrina contrasts strongly with the response of New York to the 9/11 attack. This seems fair. The degree of civic solidarity and civic spirit in New York is something of an entirely different order. Barone notes that New Orleans is “essentially French,” and more, it is French-Caribbean. Barone quotes the great A.J. Liebling, who says that New Orleans is a Caribbean city, like Port au Prince, Haiti. In this post, Barone quotes Robert Putnam, who states that Louisiana measures dead last among the 50 states in measures of social connectedness. Not a surprise. Its culture derives from this world, more than from any of Fischer’s British cultural streams. New Orleans, too, is in its deepest roots an alien city fastened to the edge of a (primarily) culturally Anglo-American continent.
Aaron from Cumulative Model sent a link to a terrific article by Edward L. Glaeser of the Harvard Institute of Economic Research entiled “Urban Colossus: Why is New York America’s Largest City?”. It amounts to a clear, short economic history of New York. It is not exactly on point with my post, but it I see nothing inconsistent in it. Very much worth reading. I learned a lot from it.
Another friend sent this article by Joel Kotkin, discussing the ongoing appeal of New York to immigrants, and how a new wave of European immigrants has been moving to New York. Despite all its problems, to a degree we Chicagoans and others may grumble about, New York City is still where the action is, and smart and enterprising from many remote places still do what it takes to make their way there.