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In 1809, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty appeared under the name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, an eccentric, learned gentleman determined “to rescue from oblivion the memory of former incidents, and to render a just tribute of renown to the many great and wonderful transactions of our Dutch progenitors.” The real author was a twenty-six-year-old Manhattan lawyer named Washington Irving; and his comic novel turned him into the first internationally acclaimed American writer, attracting admirers as distinguished as Coleridge and Dickens. Walter Scott reported that his sides were “absolutely sore with laughter.”1

Brilliantly mocking the grandiloquence of contemporary rhetoricians, the Knickerbocker History purports to tell the story of the colony of New Netherland, the Dutch settlement that traced its origins to Henry Hudson’s discovery of New York Harbor in 1609. Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, claimed for Holland the whole area between the Delaware and the Connecticut rivers. After the first permanent Dutch settlers arrived in 1624, the small colony, dedicated mainly to the fur trade, limped along for a few years under a series of venal governors. These included Peter Minuit, who is today remembered only for purchasing Manhattan from the Indians for something like $24. Another, the sadist Willem Kieft, gratuitously ordered a massacre of Indians in present-day New Jersey, a misfortune that sparked two years of war and imperiled the colony, whose trade depended on Indian cooperation. When Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland’s last director, reached its capital, New Amsterdam, in 1647, the grubby town was in pitiable shape.

Stuyvesant, a tough fighter who had lost a leg in an attack on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, introduced regulations designed to whip the place into shape. Many of these were urgently necessary, including his legislation against public drunkenness—by all accounts a major problem among both Dutch and Indians—and his enforcement, in a city of shoddy buildings, of strict construction codes. Stuyvesant also enjoyed his share of diplomatic victories: in 1650, he set a fixed border with the English colonies to the north; and in 1655 he managed, without bloodshed, to absorb the small colony of New Sweden, founded by none other than Peter Minuit, who, after his recall from New Amsterdam, shopped his knowledge of the territory to foreign powers.

For all his achievements, Stuyvesant is best remembered for his intolerance. In the multiracial colony, he tried, for a time, to ban Lutheranism. He detested Quakers. He was famously inhospitable to Jews. His insistence on ruling his own people as a stern patriarch earned him many enemies among the wealthier colonists, whose discontent grew throughout the 1650s. Led by the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck, author of an important Description of New Netherland (1655), the dissenters at last managed to force some political improvements. But it was too late: the colony was already disintegrating, especially as more English arrived to settle Long Island. In 1664, an English fleet parked in front of Manhattan and demanded that the Dutch surrender. The colonists were unwilling to fight, and an outraged Stuyvesant had no choice but to consent.

Three years later—in another episode in the Anglo-Dutch trade wars—the Dutch invaded the Thames and forced the humiliated English to sue for peace. In the resulting treaty, New Netherland was definitively assigned to England, in exchange for the more valuable sugar colony of Suriname.


Washington Irving’s History of New-York is a great comic novel, but it is also unique among satirical works for the place it occu-pies in American historiography. Ever since its publication, historians of New Netherland have wrestled with Diedrich Knickerbocker’s pompous ghost. Before Irving, New Netherland had never had a historian, and his lively anecdotes aroused interest in the increasingly forgotten earliest settlers. It is hard to imagine that anyone could mistake the Knickerbocker History for a scientific text, but many apparently did; and the book was, in fact, founded on real research—Irving was perhaps the first person to slog through the old documents and interview Dutch families about their ancestors. Irving later claimed that “it is only since this work appeared that the forgotten archives of the province have been rummaged, and the facts and personages of the olden time been rescued from the dust of oblivion.”2

Subsequent works on New Netherland, especially Edmund O’Callaghan’s History of New Netherlands; or, New York under the Dutch (1846–1848), were strongly marked by Irving’s portrayal of the Dutch as pipe-smoking bumpkins. O’Callaghan saw the colony as “a failure, and one that left few traces behind after the English takeover,…implicitly contrasting the undemocratic New Netherland with the ‘model colony,’ New England.”3

All that changed around the time of the Civil War, when John Lothrop Motley began publishing his thrilling Dutch histories: The Rise of the Dutch Republic (three volumes, 1855–1859) and the subsequent History of the United Netherlands (four volumes, 1860–1867). While not directly bearing on the Dutch in America, Motley’s works cast the Dutch in a heroic light, and in terms easily understandable to Americans. For example, Motley called William of Orange “the Washington of the sixteenth century,” and described the story of Dutch independence as “a portion of the records of the Anglo-Saxon race—essentially the same, whether in Friesland, England, or Massachusetts”:

The maintenance of the right by the little provinces of Holland and Zeeland in the sixteenth, by Holland and England united in the seventeenth, and by the United States of America in the eighteenth centuries, forms but a single chapter in the great volume of human fate; for the so-called revolutions of Holland, England, and America, are all links of one chain.

Emphasizing the same Dutch characteristics—independence, religious tolerance, republicanism, capitalism—that Americans valued in their own country, Motley’s books became, like William Prescott’s histories of the Spanish in America, popular triumphs. For their broad novelistic sweep, The Rise of the Dutch Republic and the History of the United Netherlands remain among the supreme achievements of American narrative. Unfortunately, like the Knickerbocker History, they are little read today.

In her admirable and exhaustively researched Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art and Culture, Annette Stott shows how Motley’s works set the stage for a longstanding Dutch vogue in American culture. From about 1880 to the end of the First World War, an American idea of “Dutchness” influenced many aspects of American life—architecture, interior design, entertainment, and fashion, not to mention historical writing. To pro-Dutch American historians, Holland meant sober republican virtue—a virtue pro-Dutch American marketers could easily translate into solid wood furniture. Eventually, Holland came to stand for a generic idea of coziness and cleanliness, an image that became so engrained that one Dutchman lamented in 1943 that “the name Holland removes the American mind to a lovely child’s room, full of amusing toys.”4

Stott retraces the complex origins of this stereotype. First, after the Civil War, moved by the affinities between the new American and the old Dutch republics outlined in works like Motley’s, wealthy Americans bought large numbers of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, which entered homes and museums. These were attractive because unlike Catholic, aristocratic Italian and French paintings, the Dutch celebrated the life of merchants and citizens, whose descendants the American elite felt themselves to be. American painters—inspired by the beauty of the work of Rembrandt, Pieter de Hooch, and Vermeer, as well as the bourgeois life they depicted—arrived in Holland, looking for the country of the Golden Age. They dutifully discovered it in the least typical regions of Holland, backwoods towns like Volendam and Marken, where residents still wore the old costumes the old paintings had taught Americans to expect to see.

Many American artists, including Gari Melchers, William Henry Howe, and Walter MacEwen, took up residence in these charming boondocks and painted a world unsullied by modern worries. They then shipped their drawings, etchings, and paintings back home, where residents of increasingly grimy American cities, longing for a simpler life, bought them in large numbers. Inspired by these bucolic pictures, American tourists flooded into the Netherlands, studiously ignoring anything that did not suit their expectations of adorable quaintness. With acquisitive zest, these middle-class Americans hacked tiles off burghers’ walls and snapped up wooden shoes, returning home to recall the delightful, timeless land they had visited and reviving the windmills-and-tulips stereotype—encouraging still more tourists to pack their bags.

Together with this fashion for all things Dutch came renewed attention to American roots in the Netherlands. Holland was, first, the refuge of the Pilgrim Fathers. According to Stott, some revisionist historians “built a new theory of American history in which Holland played the central role.” In their reading, Holland, not England, was the true motherland, and Americans owed Holland not just the blue-and-white ceramic tchotchkes on their dining room tables but their political heritage. Stott writes that

this view of national character… transformed the study of Holland, the collecting of Dutch artifacts, and the ownership of Dutch paintings into acts of patriotism.

Thanks to the new historians’ and artists’ emphasis on the countries’ common political heritage, and the knowledge that our republic’s greatest city was founded by the Dutch, it was easy to assume that Holland must have had a decisive impact on the formation of American nationality.

Stott describes the work of William Elliott Griffis, an Anglo-American from Philadelphia, who was one of the giddiest revisionist historians, so much a victim of Holland fever that he even served for many years as the dominie of a Dutch Reformed church in Schenectady. Griffis wrote many popular books presenting the revisionist case in easy laymen’s terms, making it clear where Americans’ loyalties ought to lie, as in this declaration from the Ladies’ Home Journal (1910):

At Utrecht the “Liberty Bell” first rang out. Here men talked of “the Father of his Country,” the “Declaration of Independence,” the “Written Constitution,” “Freedom of speech and conscience for all men,” and “The supremacy of the National Government over secession.” Here it was declared that “the Union must and shall be preserved.” …So uninformed are we Americans of our real origins that thousands of us think of these phrases as American: that we coined them: that they are our own!


Russell Shorto’s recent book, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, is an unintentionally hilarious same-sex marriage—of Diedrich Knickerbocker and William Elliott Griffis. Like Griffis, Shorto sees in every Dutch hiccup an eerie foreshadowing of the American future:

The whole package—the Founding Father, the young and vibrant republic, the war for independence, the hard-nosed, practical populace that disdains monarchies and maintains a frank acceptance of differences—has a ring of familiarity to it.

Like Knickerbocker, who declared that “the reading of a Low Dutch psalm has much the same effect on the nerves as the filing of a handsaw,” Shorto, by piggybacking on the scholarship of others, keeps the Dutch language at arm’s length, calling its seventeenth-century variant “an obscure topic in anyone’s estimation.” We know what he means; but the statement is a little troubling in a book about the seventeenth-century Dutch. More distressing is evidence of Shorto’s discomfort with twenty-first-century English:

  1. 1

    Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 418.

  2. 2

    Burroughs and Wallace, Gotham, pp. 418–419.

  3. 3

    Jaap Jacobs, Een zegenrijk gewest (Amsterdam: Prometheus/Bert Bakker, 1999), p. 21.

  4. 4

    W.J. van Balen, Holland aan de Hudson (Amsterdam: N.V. Amsterdamsche Boek en Courantmaatschappij, 1943), p. 9.

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