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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Chauncey Mitchell Depew (1834–1928)

The New Netherlanders

The Pilgrim Fathers of Manhattan

From “Orations and After-Dinner Speeches”

I do not see why you should send to New York for after-dinner speakers when you have a chairman fully equipped to make a speech upon every toast that is presented. He takes the meat, as it were, desiccates it, and leaves the shell for the unfortunate guest who is to follow. Next year we will take him over to New York. The President of the New England Society of New York said to me: “Depew, you know a good thing when you see it. If you find anything of that sort in Philadelphia, let us know.” I have found it.

I met on the train coming over here to-night a Pennsylvania Dutchman of several generations, who asked me what business called me to Philadelphia. I replied: “I am going to attend the annual banquet of the New England Society of Pennsylvania; which I understand to be the most important event that takes place in that State.” He remarked: “I did not know there was such a society, nor did I know there were enough Yankees in Philadelphia to form a decent crowd around a dinner-table; because the Yankees can’t make money in Philadelphia, and a Yankee never stays where he can’t make money.”

It is a most extraordinary thing that one should come from New York to Philadelphia for the purpose of attending a New England dinner. It is a most extraordinary thing that a New England dinner should be held in Philadelphia. Your chairman to-night spoke of the hard condition of the Puritans who landed on Plymouth Rock. Let me say that if the Puritans had come up the Delaware, landed here, and begun life with terrapin and canvas-back duck, there never would have been any Puritan story to be retailed from year to year at Forefathers’ dinners. If William Penn had ever contemplated that around his festive board would sit those Puritans with whom he was familiar in England, he would have exclaimed: “Let all the savages on the continent come, but not them.” It is one of the pleasing peculiarities of the Puritan mind, as evinced in the admirable address of Mr. Curtis here to-night (and when you have heard Mr. Curtis, you have heard the best that a New Englander, who has been educated in New York, can do), that when they erect a monument in Philadelphia or New York to the Pilgrim or Puritan, they say: “See how these people respect the man whom they profess to revile.” But they paid for them and built the monuments themselves. The only New Englanders of Philadelphia whom I have met are the officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad. When I dine with them, enjoy their hospitality, revel in that glorious sociability which is their characteristic and charm, I think that they are Dutchmen; when I meet them in business, and am impressed with their desire to possess the earth, I think that they came over in the Mayflower.

There is no part of the world to-night, whether it be in the Arctic zone, or under the equatorial sun, or in monarchies, or in despotisms, or among the Fiji Islanders, where the New Englanders are not gathered for the purpose of celebrating and feasting upon Forefathers’ Day. But there is this peculiarity about the New Englander, that if he cannot find anybody to quarrel with, he gets up a controversy with himself—inside of himself. We who expect to eat this dinner annually—and to take the consequences—went along peacefully for years with the understanding that the 22d of December was the day, when it suddenly broke out that the New Englander, within himself, had got up a dispute that the 21st was the day. I watched it with interest, because I always knew that when a Yankee got up a controversy with anybody else, it was for his profit; and I wondered how he could make anything by having a quarrel with himself. Then I found that he ate both the dinners with serene satisfaction! But why should a Dutchman—a man of Holland descent—bring “coals to Newcastle” by coming here among the Pennsylvania Dutch for the purpose of attending a New England dinner? It is simply another tribute extorted by the conqueror from the conquered people, in compelling him not only to part with his possessions, his farms, his sisters, his daughters, but to attend the feast, to see devoured the things raised upon his own farm, and then to assist the conqueror to digest them by telling him stories.

My first familiarity with the Boston mind and its peculiarities was when I was a small boy, in that little Dutch hamlet on the Hudson where I was born, when we were electrified by the State superintendent of Massachusetts coming to deliver us an address. He said: “My children, there was a little flaxen-haired boy in a school that I addressed last year; and when I came over this year, he was gone. Where do you suppose he had gone?” One of our little Dutch innocents replied, “To heaven.” “Oh, no, my boy,” the superintendent said, “he is a clerk in a store in Boston!”

John Winslow said that the Connecticut River was the dividing line between the Continent of New England and the Continent of America; and he foresaw the time, in his imagination, when there should grow up, upon the eastern side of the Connecticut River, a population of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who would enjoy their homes, their liberties, civil and religious, and build up a state. He never looked forward to that time in the evolution of the species, when the New England farm would pass from the hands of the Puritan into the possession of the Irishman, who would cultivate it and earn a living where the Yankee could not live, and who would threaten the supremacy of New England faith and the supremacy of New England politics. If he had looked forward, he would have rejoiced in the fact that in the expansion of the New England idea and in the exodus of the New England Pilgrim, the Yankee marched forth over the continent to possess it and to build it up in the interests of civil and religious liberty; so that, instead of a few hundred thousands on the sterile hills of New England, sixty millions of people should rise up and call him blessed in the plenitude of a power, a greatness, and a future unequaled among the nations of the earth.

If from any of the planets in our sphere there should come a being endowed with larger perceptions and observations than our own, and not familiar with our civilization or creeds, and he should drop in at a New England dinner anywhere to-night, he might ask, “Who are these people?” and he would be told, “They are the people who claim to have created this great Republic, and to have put into it all that is in it that is worth preserving.” If he should ask, “What is their creed and faith, and what do they worship?” he would be told to wait and listen to their speeches. When finally he had gone out, he would say, “They worship their forefathers and themselves.” And yet there is not a descendant of the Pilgrims in this room to-night who could stay in a ten-acre lot for three hours with his ancestors, to save his soul. There is not one of those gaunt, ascetic, and bigoted men who sang through his nose and talked cant, as described here so effectively on the other side of the picture presented by Mr. Curtis, who would not have every one of his descendants here to-night put into the lock-up as roystering blades, dangerous to the morals of the community; but, nevertheless, I can join in that measure of sweet song, of magnificent adulation, and superb eulogium which has been given to us from the tongue and pen of one who has no equal among our speakers and writers.

The Puritan was a grand character. He was a grand character because of what he was and did, and because of what circumstances made him. Fighting with the state for his liberty, he learned to doubt, and then to deny, the divine right of kings. Fighting with the Church for his conscience, its possession and expression, he learned to doubt, and then to deny, the divine right of hierarchies; but this created within him that spirit which made him recognize that the only foundation of the Church, if it will live, that the only foundation of the State, if it will be free, is man and the manhood of individuals. The family idea of all ages created the patriarch and his rule, the chieftain of the tribe and his rule, the despot and his rule, the military chieftain and his rule, the feudal lord and his rule; every step illumining the individual, crushing liberty, producing despotism, making the riders and the ridden; but when the Puritan discovered, as he enunciated in the cabin of the Mayflower, that there should be just and equal laws, and before those laws all men should stand equal; when he carried out in his administration that here should be the township as the basis of the state, and the state as the unit out of which should be created the Republic, then he discovered the sublime and eternal principle which solves all difficulties of home rule and modern liberty.

Now this magnificent man never would have amounted to much—never would have founded a state, never would have builded a government—if Providence had not sent him to Holland among my ancestors. The Pilgrim who went to Holland, and there learned toleration; there learned to respect the rights, the opinions, and liberties of others; there learned the principle of the common school and universal education; when he got to Plymouth Rock never burned witches, never hung Quakers, never drove out Baptists; he always fought against all this. It was the Puritan, twenty thousand strong, who came years afterward, who did those things; and, except for the leaven of the Pilgrim who had been to Holland, the Puritan would not be celebrated here to-night. Four hundred of them went to Holland, every man with a creed of his own and anxious to burn at the stake the other three hundred and ninety-nine because they did not agree with him; but being there enlightened, they discovered the magnificence of the universe. All over Holland, they saw compulsory school education sustained by the state. They found a country in which there was universal toleration of religion; in which the persecuted Jew could find an asylum; in which even the Inquisitor could be safe from the vengeance of his enemies; and there, after they had been prepared to found a state, and to build it, when they got down to Delft-Haven to depart, the Dutchmen, in their hospitality, gave them a farewell dinner as a send-off. It was the first good dinner they had ever had—the first square meal the Puritan had ever eaten. It followed that when they went on board the ship they were happy and they were—full. I do not know whether the word “full” had the same significance in those times that it has now, or not. And then Pastor Robinson preached the sermon in the afternoon, in which he told them that the whole truth was not given to Luther, though he thought so, nor to Calvin, though his disciples said so; but that in the future there would be a development of the truth which they must nurse and evolve. See how they have nursed and evolved it! Why, they have nursed and evolved that truth into so many creeds and doctrines on the sterile hills of New England, that they deny the existence of a heaven—many of them; and many more would deprive us of the comforts of a hell for—some people.

Now who were those people who founded New Netherlands, and who entertained so hospitably those Puritans and gave them such a grand send-off? I remember that a vicious and irate adherent of the Stuarts says, in his history, looking with vengeance upon the accession of William of Orange to the throne of England, that the Puritan and the Hollander were shaken out of the same bag. And so they were. The same vigorous Northern stock came down to settle upon the marshes of Holland and in the fens of England. The stock that remained in England produced Pym and Hampden, and Sidney and Russell, with a cross of Swedish pirate or Northern conqueror; but the original stock which went to Holland fought off forever, during its whole existence, the power of the Roman Empire; fought off the hordes of barbarians who came down upon the ruins of the Roman Empire; fought off all the forces and powers of medieval chivalry, and won their grand victory when they took from the sea herself a land, that upon it they might govern themselves upon the principles of their own manhood and of civil and religious liberty. Those people were not a selfish people; but they liked to be by themselves and to govern themselves. Theirs was precisely the sentiment of the Hebrew speculator in Wall Street recently, who, when he had scooped everybody about him, gathered his co-conspirators around the festive board and said to them, “Now, shentlemen, we feel shust as if we were among ourselves.”

Holland, at a time when there was no light for man elsewhere in the world, preserved the principles of civil liberty. Holland, at a time when learning was crushed out or buried in the monasteries, had her asylums, her libraries, and her universities. Holland, at a time when the bigotry of the Church crushed out all expression of conscience and individual belief, had her toleration and religious liberty. For a century Holland was the safe-deposit company of the rights of man. For a century Holland was the electric light which illumined the world and saved mankind.

But, gentlemen, how did your forefathers repay my ancestors for all this kindness? Why, you came over to New York to teach school, and you got into the confiding Dutch families; you married their daughters; and then, as the able son-in-law, you administered upon the estate and you gave us—what was left. Yet I am willing to admit that the Dutchmen never could have colonized this country or created this Republic. I am willing to admit that my ancestors were too pleasure-loving, comfort-loving, and home-loving. They needed just that strain which you have, which is never tired, never restful, never at peace; just that strain which, receiving sufficient capital to start with from my ancestors, went out and crossed the borders and built up all these grand Western and Northwestern States, and carried civilization across the continent to the Pacific coast. You go into a territory, you organize the men of all nationalities and of all languages who are there into a territorial government; then you organize them into a State; then you take the governorships and the judgeships; then you found the capital at the place where you own all the town-lots; then you bring the territory into the Union, and the glory and perfection of the federal principle is vindicated. But without you and just these incentives we never would have had an American Republic as great and glorious as it is.

But with all your selfishness, with all your desire for profit, for pelf, for gain, there is this underlying principle in the Yankee: in every community which he founds, in every State which he builds, he carries with him the church; he carries with him the school-house. He may want money, and he will get it if he can; he may want property, and he will get it if he can; but, first and foremost, he must have liberty of conscience, liberty of thought, liberty of speech—all of liberty that belongs to a man, consonant with the liberty of others; and he must have that same liberty for every man beside himself.