How Dutch Ideals Shaped NY

Event: Russell Shorto Details Manhattan’s Dutch Origins — Downtown Third Thursdays Lecture Series
Location: National Museum of the American Indian, 03.15.07
Speaker: Russell Shorto — author & contributing writer, New York Times Magazine
Organizers: The Alliance for Downtown New York

The Island of the Center of the World


Held in a building that stands on the very site of the Dutch fort of New Amsterdam, Russell Shorto asked audience members to imagine putting time into reverse, and envision 17th-century Manhattan: poised between the civilization of Europe and the virgin continent of North America. This is what Shorto did when writing The Island at the Center of the World, an investigation into the depth of Dutch influence on Manhattan, and consequently America. Drawing on recently translated 17th-century Dutch records, Shorto discovered how the uniquely Dutch ideas of tolerance, free-market trade, and the melting pot became the foundation for American ideology.

Unlike the rest of Europe, Dutch provinces were home to settlers of many cultures who had fled their own war-torn countries. Diversity fostered religious and social tolerance that vastly exceeded the rest of Europe and flourished during their cultural Renaissance. These ideals, as well as words such as “cookies” and “boss,” were transferred to their American colonists, in a territory that swept as far south as the Delaware River. In fact, a Jesuit priest in the 1640s reported hearing 18 languages on the streets of Manhattan — when only about 500 people lived there.

Adriaen van der Donck became the champion of colonists’ rights. The only lawyer in the colony, he petitioned for fair treatment from Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s director. After being jailed for door-to-door petitioning, van der Donck spent three years at the Hague, publicizing the potential of New Amsterdam. His actions led to a municipal charter that ensured free trade and tolerance. After the English took over in 1664, they kept this template, which formed the basis for what New York would become.