“Beneath the level of myth and politics and high ideals,” Russell Shorto writes in his 2004 book “The Island at the Center of the World,” “down where people live and interact, Manhattan is where America began.” Shorto’s moving narrative chronicles the Dutch influence on Manhattan from Henry Hudson’s 1609 settling of the Bay to Peter Stuyvesant’s 1664 surrender of New Amsterdam to the British, who would promptly rename it after King James II — the Duke of York. Shorto’s thesis is that the Dutch spirit of openness and free trade, long understudied in contemporary universities without Dutch departments, is as important in shaping America as the British of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony or John Smith’s Virginia Colony.
But in a time of Texas school board debates, when American history is divided into those who focus exclusively on the Massachusetts Bay and those who too readily parse our history of its great achievements and obsess over its sins, I would argue the Dutch narrative is more important. It provides a narrative of “American Exceptionalism” in need of no whitewash. Dutch history, and its impact on America through Manhattan, testifies to the values that have made the United States great and serves as a warning should anyone lose faith in them.
Shorto, like many historians, argues that tolerance was the most important virtue of the Netherlands, one which lead to a Golden Age and was brought to Manhattan by his all but forgotten protagonist Adriaen van der Donck. As has been case in United States during the 20th century, the Netherlands was a haven for Jews, Baptists, Calvinists, other religious sects, and secular scientists and writers. While the English were beheading their kings, and Cardinal Richelieu was curtailing the rights of the Huguenots, Dutch society was organized into a secular, representative republic run by “Regular Guys” with a distaste for pomp and monarchy. Unlike in much of the Old World, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you had an opportunity to rise in Dutch society and, in a foreshadowing of the American Dream, purchase a house in the suburbs.
The Dutch influence on the United States remains: It can be seen in our enlightenment ideals and commitment to the free market, our tolerance and our progressivism. But the 17th century Dutch influence on present-day Netherlands is fading, and quickly — a sobering reminder of what we must protect.
Currently, the Netherlands is in crisis: Pluralism has recently come under attack from members of its burgeoning immigrant population and a reactionary, xenophobic right-wing. Some mark its beginnings in the 2004 assassination of Theo van Gogh, after he produced “Submission,” a film critiquing Islamic theology’s treatment of women. The assassin’s note threatened usual criminals — Western governments and Jews — but also the film’s narrator, member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Many Dutch retaliated — in addition the violence immediately following the assassination, in the intervening six years, they’ve passed an “integration” law for immigrants, the anti-Muslim Geert Wilders has gained prominence and immigration will again be a central issue in the June elections. The Netherlands, once home of the most tolerant, pluralistic, progressive-minded on earth, is at risk to be destroyed from within.
It’s in our interest to ensure that this never happens. We have long understood that America’s fate is inextricably tied up with the fate of other liberal democracies. As a result, the United States has a history of supporting nations who have supported us — from the Greeks to the French to the British. Right now, this history — no matter, which side of the school board debate you come down on — requires us to take a stand for Dutch pluralistic society.
To do so, we need not enter a war or even provide money or supplies. Instead , on issues facing our country, we need to have center fighting to preserve our country’s history and narrative which is, at its core, exceptional, pluralistic, secular (though one cannot deny the importance of Christianity in our founding), and progressive in the best sense of the word.
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.