New York Exceptionalism

Had I actually given a lecture today in Writing New York, I would have taken up the theme of New York exceptionalism introduced in my discussion of E. B. White’s Here is New York on Monday. Today’s reading would have been drawn from Russell Shorto’s history of Dutch New York, The Island at the Center of the World. Shorto writes:

Because of its geography, its population, and the fact that it was under the control of the Dutch (even then its parent city, Amsterdam, was the most liberal in Europe), this island city would become the first multiethnic upwardly mobile society on America’s shores, a prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world. It was no coincidence that on September 11, 2001, those who wished to make a symbolic attack on the center of American power chose the World Trade Center as their target. If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern tip of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape. Many people – whether they live in the heartland or on Fifth Avenue – like to think of New York City as so wild and extreme in its cultural fusion that it’s an anomaly in the United States, almost a foreign entity. This book offers an alternative view: that beneath the level of myth and politics and high ideals, down where real people live and interact, Manhattan is where America began.

A similar point is made by Kenneth T. Jackson and David S. Dunbar in their introduction to their anthology of New York writing, Empire City:

In 1624 when the Dutch first set up a trading post on Manhattan, their goal was not to convert the Indians or to practice a special religion but to make money. Visiting Manhattan in 1774 from Puritan Boston, John Adams expressed disdain: ‘I have not seen one real gentleman, one well-bred man, since I came to town. They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out on you again and talk away.’ Poor breeding? Perhaps. But New Yorkers established the first chamber of commerce in the Western Hemisphere in 1768, developed the first regularly scheduled shipping service in 1818, built the Erie Canal by 1825, and established the nation’s dominant stock exchange by the 1840s.

One of the texts we would have read for today is the “Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Town of Flushing” (1657), which Jackson and Dunbar describe as a crucial document in the history of the city’s emphasis on religious freedom for its inhabitants. The Flushing Remonstrance defends the rights of Quakers to worship as they pleased, echoing the Dutch West India Company’s rebuke of Peter Stuyvesant three years earlier, after the governor had attempted to turn away twenty-three Sephardic Jews who were refugees from Recife, Brazil. Jackson and Dunbar note that in the early seventeenth century, “when Puritan Boston was banishing Anne Hutchinson from the city because of doctrinal disagreements, the West India Company, fearing that bigotry might threaten trade and discourage immigration, was welcoming Lutherans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics, and even Jews to Manhattan.”

Intolerance emergence in these texts as a luxury that money-minded New Amsterdammers and New Yorkers simply cannot afford. This is a hypothesis about New York’s exceptionalism that we’ll be investigating in the course of vWNY.

Meanwhile, Shorto’s text is useful to us in another way: it brings up the issue of history-writing as storytelling. Shorto’s account of Dutch New York is a good story, and he’s been faulted for over-emphasizing the role played by Adriaen van der Donck in the history of Dutch New York. For Shorto, Van der Donck serves as a useful foil to the more familiar Peter Stuyvesant. But we ask our students to pay attention to the gaps in stories like the one Shorto tells, just as we later ask them to think about the devices that a filmmaker like Ric Burns can use to persuade his viewers to believe the story he’s telling. Shorto’s account would be less appealing without a figure like Van der Donck at its center; Burns’s film would be less appealing without the stirring soundtrack that accompanies its sweeping statements about New York’s exceptionalism.

[For more on Adriaen van der Donck, see John Easterbrook's essay in our Lost New York collection available for download here.]

 

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