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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


Stuyvesant and the End of Dutch Rule. 1647–1664

GRIM old Stuyvesant had lost a leg in the wars. He wore in its place a wooden one, laced with silver bands,—so that some traditions speak of it as silver. No other figure of Dutch, nor indeed of colonial days, is so well remembered; none other has left so deep an impress on Manhattan history and tradition as this whimsical and obstinate, but brave and gallant old fellow, the kindly tyrant of the little colony. To this day he stands in a certain sense as the typical father of the city.

There are not a few old New Yorkers who half-humorously pretend still to believe the story which their forefathers handed down from generation to generation,—the story that the ghost of Peter Stuyvesant, the queer, kindly, self-willed old dictator, still haunts the city he bullied and loved and sought to guard, and at night stumps to and fro, with a shadowy wooden leg, through the aisles of St. Mark’s Church, near the spot where his bones lie buried.

Stuyvesant was a man of strong character, whose personality impressed all with whom he came in contact. In many ways he stood as a good representative of his class,—the well-born commercial aristocracy of Holland. In his own person he illustrated, only with marked and individual emphasis, the strong and the weak sides of the rich traders, who knew how to fight and rule, who feared God and loved liberty, who held their heads high and sought to do justice according to their lights; but whose lights were often dim, and whose understandings were often harsh and narrow. He was powerfully built, with haughty, clear-cut features and dark complexion; and he always dressed with scrupulous care, in the rich costume then worn by the highest people in his native land. He had proved his courage on more than one stricken field; and he knew how to show both tact and firmness in dealing with his foes. But he was far less successful in dealing with his friends; and his imperious nature better fitted him to command a garrison than to rule over a settlement of Dutch freemen. It was inevitable that a man of his nature, who wished to act justly, but who was testy, passionate, and full of prejudices, should arouse much dislike and resentment in the breasts of the men over whom he held sway; and these feelings were greatly intensified by his invariably acting on the assumption that he knew best about their interests, and had absolute authority to decide upon them He always proceeded on the theory that it was harmful to allow the colonists any real measure of self-government, and that what was given them was given as a matter of grace, not as an act of right. Hence, though he was a just man, of sternly upright character, he utterly failed to awaken in the hearts of the settlers any real loyalty to himself or to the government he represented; and they felt no desire to stand by him when he needed their help. He showed his temper in the first speech he made to the citizens, when he addressed them in the tone of an absolute ruler, and assured them that he would govern them “as a father does his children.” Colonists from a land with traditions of freedom, put down in the midst of surroundings which quicken and strengthen beyond measure every impulse they may have in the direction of liberty, are of all human beings those least fitted to appreciate the benefits of even the best of paternal governments.

When Stuyvesant came to Manhattan the little Dutch drop thereon was just recovering from the bloody misery of the Indian wars. No such calamities occurred again to check and blast its growth; and it may be said to have then fairly passed out of the mere pioneer stage. It was under Stuyvesant that New Amsterdam became a firmly established Dutch colonial town, instead of an Indian-harried village outpost of civilization; and it was only in his time that the Dutch life took on fixed and definite shape. The first comers were generally poor adventurers; but when it was plainly seen that the colony was to be permanent, many well-to-do people of good family came over,—burghers who were proud of their coats-of-arms, and traced their lineage to the great worthies of the ancient Netherlands. The Dutch formed the ruling and the most numerous class of inhabitants; but then, as now, the population of the city was very mixed. A great many English, both from old and New England, had come in; while the French Huguenots were still more plentiful,—and, it may be mentioned parenthetically, formed, as everywhere else in America, without exception the most valuable of all the immigrants. There were numbers of Walloons, not a few Germans, and representatives of so many other nations that no less than eighteen different languages and dialects were spoken in the streets. An ominous feature was the abundance of negro slaves,—uncouth and brutal-looking black savages, brought by slave-traders and pirates from the gold coast of Africa.

The population was diverse in more ways than those of speech and race. The Europeans who came to this city during its first forty years of life represented almost every grade of old-world society. Many of these pioneers were men of as high character and standing as ever took part in founding a new settlement; but on the other hand there were plenty of others to the full as vicious and worthless as the worst immigrants who have come hither during the present century. Many imported bond-servants and apprentices, both English and Irish, of criminal or semi-criminal tendencies escaped to Manhattan from Virginia and New England, and, once here, found congenial associates from half the countries of continental Europe. There thus existed from the start a low, shiftless, evil class of whites in our population; while even beneath their squalid ranks lay the herd of brutalized black slaves. It may be questioned whether seventeenth-century New Amsterdam did not include quite as large a proportion of undesirable inhabitants as nineteenth-century New York.

The sharp and strong contrasts in social position, the great differences in moral and material well-being, and the variety in race, language, and religion, all combined to make a deep chasm between life in New Amsterdam and life in the cities of New England, with their orderly uniformity of condition and their theocratic democracy.

Society in the New Netherlands was distinctly aristocratic. The highest rank was composed of the great patroons, with their feudal privileges and vast landed estates; next in order came the well-to-do merchant burghers of the town, whose ships went to Europe and Africa, carrying in their holds now furs or rum, now ivory or slaves; then came the great bulk of the population,—thrifty souls of small means, who worked hard, and strove more or less successfully to live up to the law; while last of all came the shifting and intermingled strata of the evil and the weak,—the men of incurably immoral propensities, and the poor whose poverty was chronic. Life in a new country is hard, and puts a heavy strain on the wicked and the incompetent; but it offers a fair chance to all comers, and in the end those who deserve success are certain to succeed.

It was under Stuyvesant, in 1653, that the town was formally incorporated as a city, with its own local schout and its schepens and burgomasters whose powers and duties answered roughly to those of both aldermen and justices. The schouts, schepens, and burgomasters together formed the legislative council of the city; and they also acted as judges, and saw to the execution of the laws. There was an advisory council as well.

The struggling days of pioneer squalor were over, and New Amsterdam had taken on the look of a quaint little Dutch seaport town, with a touch of picturesqueness from its wild surroundings. As there was ever menace of attack, not only by the savages but by the New Englanders, the city needed a barrier for defense on the landward side; and so, on the present site of Wall Street, a high, strong stockade of upright timbers, with occasional blockhouses as bastions, stretched across the island. Where Canal Street now is, the settlers had dug a canal to connect the marshes on either side of the neck. There were many clear pools and rivulets of water; on the banks of one of them the girls were wont to spread the house linen they had washed, and the path by which they walked thither gave its name to the street that is yet called Maiden Lane. Manhattan Island was still, for the most part, a tangled wilderness. The wolves wrought such havoc among the cattle, as they grazed loose in the woods, that a special reward was given for their scalps, if taken on the island.

The hall of justice was in the stadt-huys, a great stone building, before which stood the high gallows whereon malefactors were executed. Stuyvesant’s own roomy and picturesque house was likewise of stone, and was known far and near as the Whitehall, finally giving its name to the street on which it stood. The poorest people lived in huts on the outskirts; but the houses that lined the streets of the town itself were of neat and respectable appearance, being made of wood, their gable ends checkered with little black and yellow bricks, their roofs covered with tiles or shingles and surmounted by weather-cocks, and the doors adorned with burnished brass knockers. The shops, wherein were sold not only groceries, hardware, and the like, but also every kind of rich stuff brought from the wealthy cities of Holland, occupied generally the ground floors of the houses. There was a large, bare church, a good public-school house, and a great tavern, with neatly sanded floor, and heavy chairs and tables, the beds being made in cupboards in the thick walls; and here and there windmills thrust their arms into the air, while the half-moon of wharves jutted out into the river.

The houses of the rich were quaint and comfortable, with steeply sloping roofs and crow-step gables. A wide hall led through the middle, from door to door, with rooms on either side. Everything was solid and substantial, from the huge, canopied, four-post bedstead and the cumbrous cabinets, chairs, tables, stools, and settees, to the stores of massive silver plate, each piece a rich heirloom, engraved with the coat of arms of the owner. There were rugs on the floors, and curtains and leather hangings on the walls; and there were tall eight-day clocks, and stiff ancestral portraits. Clumsy carriages, and fat geldings to draw them, stood in a few of the stables; and the trim gardens were filled with shrubbery, fruit-trees, and a wealth of flowers, laid out in prim sweet-smelling beds, divided by neatly kept paths. The poorer people were clad,—the men in blouses or in jackets, and in wide, baggy breeches; the women in bodices and short skirts. The schepens and other functionaries wore their black gowns of office. The gentry wore the same rich raiment as did their brethren of the Old World. Both ladies and gentlemen had clothes of every stuff and color; the former, with their hair frizzed and powdered, and their persons bedecked with jewelry, their gowns open in front to show the rich petticoats, their feet thrust into high-heeled shoes, and with silk hoods instead of bonnets. The long coats of the gentlemen were finished with silver lace and silver buttons, as were their velvet doublets, and they wore knee-breeches, black silk stockings, and low shoes with silver buckles. They were fond of free and joyous living; they caroused often, drinking deeply and eating heavily; and the young men and maidens loved dancing parties, picnics, and long sleigh rides in winter. There were great festivals, as at Christmas and New Year’s. On the latter day every man called on all his friends; and the former was then, as now, the chief day of the year for the children, devoted to the special service of Santa Claus.

All through Stuyvesant’s time there was constant danger of trouble with the Indians. Men were occasionally killed on both sides; and once a burgher was slain in the streets of the town by a party of red warriors. There were even one or two ferocious local uprisings. By a mixture of tact and firmness, however, Stuyvesant kept the savages under partial control, checked the brutal and outrage-loving portion of his own people, and prevented any important or far-reaching out-break. Yet he found it necessary to organize more than one campaign against the red men; and these, though barren of exciting incident, were invariably successful, thanks to his indomitable energy. By the exercise of similar qualities, he also kept the ever-encroaching New Englanders at bay; while in 1655 he finished the long bickerings with the Swedes at the mouth of the Delaware by marching a large force thither, capturing their forts, and definitely taking possession of the country,—thereby putting an end to all chance for the establishment of a Scandinavian State on American soil. Once the New Englanders on Long Island began to plan a revolt; but he promptly seized their ringleaders,—including the Indian fighter, Underhill,—fined, imprisoned, or banished them, and secured temporary tranquillity.

From the outset, Stuyvesant’s imperious nature kept him embroiled with the colonists. In some respects this was well for the commonwealth, for in this way he finally curbed the feudal insolence of the patroons, after nearly coming to a civil war with the patroon of Rensselaerswyck; but generally he managed merely to harass and worry the settlers until they became so irritated as to be almost mutinous. He struggled hard, not only to retain his own power as dictator, but to establish an aristocratic framework for the young society. With this end in view, he endeavored to introduce as a permanent feature the division of the burghers into two classes, minor and major,—the major burgher’s rights being hereditary, and giving many privileges, among others the sole right to hold office. He failed ignominiously in this, for the democratic instincts of the people, and the democratic tendencies of their surroundings, proved too strong for him. He himself strove to be just toward all men; but he chose his personal representatives and agents without paying the least heed to the popular estimate in which they were held. In consequence, some of those most obsequious to him turned out mere profligate, petty tyrants, to whom, nevertheless, he clung obstinately, in spite of all complaints, until they had thoroughly disgusted the people at large. He threw his political opponents into jail without trial, or banished them after a trial in which he himself sat as the judge, announcing that he deemed it treason to complain of the chief magistrate, whether with or without cause; and this naturally threw into a perfect ferment the citizens of the popular party, who were striving for more freedom with an obstinacy as great as his own. Abandoning the policy of complete religious toleration, he not only persecuted the Baptists and Quakers, but even the Lutherans also. He established impost and excise duties by proclamation, drawing forth a most determined popular protest against taxation without representation. When the city charter was granted, he proceeded to appoint the first schout, schepen, and burgomasters who took office under it, instead of allowing them to be elected by the citizens,—though this concession was afterward wrung from him. He was in perpetual conflict with the council,—the “Nine Men,” as they were termed,—who stood up stoutly for the popular rights, and sent memorial after memorial to Holland, protesting against the course that was being pursued. The inhabitants also joined in public meetings, and in other popular manifestations, to denounce the author of their grievances; the Dutch settlers, for the nonce, making common cause with their turbulent New England neighbors of the city and of Long Island. Stuyvesant himself sent counter protests; and also made repeated demands for more men and more money, that he might put into good condition the crumbling and ill-manned fortifications, which, as he wrote home, would be of no avail at all to resist any strong attack that might be made by the ever-threatening English. But the home government cared for its colonies mainly because they were profitable. This Stuyvesant’s province was not; and so, with dull apathy, the appeals for help were disregarded, and the director and the colonists were left to settle their quarrels as best they might.

Thus, with ceaseless wrangling, with much of petty tyranny on the one hand, and much of sullen grumbling and discontent on the other, the years went by. Stuyvesant rarely did serious injustice to any particular man, and by his energy, resolution, and executive capacity he preserved order at home, while the colony grew and prospered as it never had done before; but the sturdy and resolute, though somewhat heavy, freemen over whom he ruled, resented bitterly all his overbearing ways and his deeds of small oppression, and felt only a lukewarm loyalty to a government that evidently deemed them valuable only in so far as they added to the wealth of the men who had stayed at home. When the hour of trial came, they naturally showed an almost apathetic indifference to the overthrow of the rule of Holland.

Whenever the English and Dutch were at war, New Amsterdam was in a flutter over the always-dreaded attack of some English squadron. At last, in 1664, the blow really fell. There was peace at the time between the two nations; but this fact did not deter the England of the Stuarts from seizing so helpless a prize as the province of the New Netherlands. The English Government knew well how defenseless the country was; and the king and his ministers determined to take it by a sudden stroke of perfectly cold-blooded treachery, making all their preparations in secret and meanwhile doing everything they could to deceive the friendly power at which the blow was aimed. Stuyvesant had continued without cessation to beseech the home government that he might be given the means to defend the province; but his appeals were unheeded by his profit-loving, money-getting superiors in Holland. He was left with insignificant defenses, guarded by an utterly insufficient force of troops. The unblushing treachery and deceit by which the English took the city made the victory of small credit to them; but the Dutch, by their supine, short-sighted selfishness and greed, were put in an even less enviable light.

In September, 1664, three or four English frigates, and a force of several hundred land-troops under Col. Richard Nicolls suddenly appeared in the harbor. They were speedily joined by the levies of the already insurgent New Englanders of Long Island. Nicolls had an overpowering force, and was known to be a man of decision. He forthwith demanded the immediate surrender of the city and province. Stuyvesant wished to fight even against such odds; but the citizens refused to stand by him, and New Amsterdam passed into the hands of the English without a gun being fired in its defense.