Holland on the Hudson II

Jim Bennett sent some comments about my earlier post about the Dutch influence in New York, which I pass along, slightly edited, with his permission.

… I have just read [Lex]’s post on Dutch New York, etc., which is good timing since I had picked up [Russell] Shorto’s book (Island at the Center of the World) for on the road reading. I’m about halfway through. I very much agree that New York City is sui generis, outside of Fischer‘s framework, as Fischer himself admits. I also agree that it is a freestanding major influence on the US. Incidentally, another good treatment on this theme is Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America, which also treates NYC as an outlier.

I also agree that FDR was more Hudson Valley patroon than New England Yankee. I suspect some of the paternalism of the New Deal comes from landlord-tenant relations in the valley; it’s almost like a Tory Wet paternalistic attitude. These are entirely distinct cultures. The difference between the Hudson Valley Dutch and the Yankees (and the “no love lost” attitude between them) was also the basis for Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with its hilarious caricature of the New Englander Ichabod Crane. (As for Brom Bones, he would be perfectly at home today with a muscle car and a backwards-turned baseball cap.)

Although I have not finished the Shorto, I am continually annoyed by him. He acts as if William Penn and Roger Williams never existed. There are plenty of English-speaking sources of principled tolerance in colonial America. In fact, their tolerance was more principled than the Dutch, who were mostly tolerant out of opportunism, not that there’s anything wrong with that. And his treatment of the Puritans is simplistic. Shorto confuses Puritan and Victorian attitudes about sexuality. In fact most of Dutch tolerance as he discusses is boils down to religious indifference and toleration of prostitution. Has he never read a history of Virginia? Perhaps the latter is an example of toleration, but I suspect New England was less tolerant of prostitution primarily because women had some say in the running of the community there.

Shorto’s point about the singularity of New York and the importance of the Nieuw Amsterdam archives is right on target. But his lack of corresponding knowledge about the Anglo-American colonies renders his speculations of little value. Not only is he making an apples-to-oranges comparison, but he is using a sort of rude sketch of an apple to do it with.

What I also see is that the Dutch, unlike the English, had a great deal of trouble extending the self-governance of medieval constitutionalism to the New World, even though it existed quite healthily in the Netherlands itself. Compare this to the English experience, where just about every colony of settlement has some sort of assembly in short order. Perhaps this was because the English had a ready-made model of settler self-governing institutions dating from English emigration to Wales and Ireland. By the time they got to Virginia they were quite used to setting up counties and electing sheriffs and bailiffs. Whereas the Dutch tried to suppress settler self-governance both in America and in South Africa.

On the counterfactual question of what a Dutch-founded city would have looked like instead of French-founded New Orleans, Jim commented that “[a] Dutch New Orleans would probably have some of the flavor of Curacao. It would undoubtedly be better run than the current French version.”

Jim and I were both a little tough on Shorto. The book is good and interesting when he is talking about the founding era of Nieuw Amsterdam. It gets weak when he tries to project the story down the centuries to the present, a much more difficult task. The book’s merits are real, and the need for someone to do a full-blown, scholarly study of the influence of the Dutch settlement is highlighted by Shorto’s effort.

1 thought on “Holland on the Hudson II”

  1. “what a Dutch-founded city would have looked like instead of French-founded New Orleans”

    Drier, much drier.

Comments are closed.