Russell Shorto

The Man Who Put the Dutch Back on the U.S. Map


De Druif
Rapenburg 83
Amsterdam, the Netherlands

The Tab

(2) Heinekens
(2) La Chouffes
€10.50 + tip
Shorto’s Tip for the Road: “When unlocking your bike on the rail alongside a canal, hold key and lock well away from the ledge lest you add to the collection at the bottom of canals.”

Russell Shorto, the American writer who has wound up becoming an unlikely cultural ambassador for the Netherlands, flinches uncomfortably when I say he must be a national hero, but then his shoulders relax, his eyes stop rolling, and he cracks a small smile. “I don’t know about that,” he says, “but I was knighted.” He hastens to add, “They do that to a lot of people here.” Though a foreigner, Shorto, author of a critically acclaimed book about the Dutch founding of New York, deserves whatever honors the state can bestow. Nobody has done more in recent years to advance the proposition that America’s instinctive embrace of free trade and individual liberty is as much a Dutch cultural bequest as it is a British one.

I met Shorto a dozen years ago in Albany, New York. We were both poking about a conference put on by the New Netherlands Society and the State Library focused on New York’s early colonial days and the enduring Dutch legacy on the American character.

I was there covering the conference for The New York Times, where I worked at the time, but Shorto was there because he felt sheepish for knowing nothing (other than something about a wooden leg) of Peter Stuyvesant, whose tombstone he passed every day in the churchyard of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village, where he played with his daughter. When Shorto, already an established writer, approached The New Yorker about a long-form article on Stuyvesant and New York’s Dutch history, the editors politely told him they’d take a “Talk of the Town” on the subject. But he sensed that the story of how Henry Hudson, Stuyvesant, and Amsterdam financiers founded the first truly diverse and capitalist North American colony deserved more than a chatty front-of-the-magazine feature.

The result was a book: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, published in 2005 to great critical acclaim. The book is an impressive corrective to centuries of Anglophile histories that managed to white out the Dutch contribution to the American character. The English took over the colony of New Netherland, which encompassed much of what is now New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, in 1664. By then, New York (the city was known as New Amsterdam) had established itself as a bustling, tolerant, heterogeneous trading hub, so different from the fledgling English Puritan colonies to its north and the plantation society to its south—so much more, well, American.

In 2007, Shorto moved to Amsterdam, in part to work on his next book, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. (Descartes, though French, spent the bulk of his adult life in the Netherlands.) The other draw was the opportunity to direct the John Adams Institute, an Amsterdam forum that hosts talks by American book authors and promotes cultural exchange between the two countries. The institute occupies the former West Indies Company headquarters, where the plans were laid for New Netherland. “A friend of mine jokes that I have crawled inside my own book,” Shorto says. Later this year, he will publish a book on the history of Amsterdam and liberalism.

“The most Dutch thing about the Dutch historical contribution is how little you notice it.”

He’s chosen for us to meet up for a beer (or two) at De Druif, a small two-room affair that is supposedly Amsterdam’s oldest bar, founded in 1631. The friendly innkeeper hedges a bit on that boast when pressed, saying that there is a younger bar claiming to be the city’s oldest because it has been paying city taxes for longer. But that’s because when De Druif opened for business, it was beyond the old city limits (and wall, along the Singel Canal, which locked at 8 p.m. every night). The innkeeper explains that this means it didn’t have to pay taxes and could be visited at all hours—and this part he stresses with mischievous pride—by whores, lepers, and wayward sailors. Today’s crowd seems (no offense) far less interesting; De Druif (which means “the grape”) is just another neighborhood “brown café” frequented by regulars in a city known for its cozy watering holes.

Amsterdam’s historic core is preserved enough that you can imagine what De Druif’s neighborhood would have been like in the 17th-century glory days of the Dutch Republic. Shorto sets the scene in The Island at the Center of the World, describing Amsterdam on the eve of its greatness, as Henry Hudson would have experienced it when he first came to be hired for his North American expedition:

To enter Amsterdam was to be softly assaulted in the senses. There was the squeal of caroming sea birds and the slap of oars: a stew of smells: cabbage, frying pancakes, the miasma of the canals. There was the sensation, on entering the ultramarine opacity of the canal grid, of gliding into an orderly enclosed space. The slender-bricked houses made an elegant but modest statement, their gabled tops framing and taming the sky. The cobbled quaysides were alive with workers wheeling barrows or wobbling under the strains of sacks being loaded into lighters. Women with billowing skirted bottoms scrubbed stoops and sprinkled them with fat handfuls of sand; everywhere there were dogs and horses and children.

In addition to New York, gifts from the Dutch Golden Age include Rembrandt, Vermeer, tulips, the microscope, and the concepts of a stock exchange and of the modern, intimate, private home. The Netherlands were a safe haven for Jews and Protestants expelled from other lands, home to such seditious thinkers as Descartes and John Locke. Few Americans realize that our own New England Pilgrims set sail to North America on the Mayflower from the Dutch Provinces, where they had been in exile. Ironically, Shorto tells me as I start on my second Heineken, the Pilgrims left because they found the tolerance from which they’d benefited to be excessive.

But the Dutch rarely brag on any of this. “The most Dutch thing about the Dutch historical contribution is how little you notice it,” Shorto says. Indeed, the previous day while meeting with an executive at a major Dutch company, I raised the subject of Holland’s underappreciated historical legacy, and he looked at me quizzically and sighed. “That would make us French, I suppose, to obsess over such matters,” he said.

Much like the United States, the Dutch nation started off as a decentralized series of disparate provinces (known as the United Provinces) that bonded over the need to overthrow their foreign colonial overseer, the Spanish empire. The analogy wasn’t lost on John Adams, the first American ambassador to the Netherlands, who wrote in 1782, “The Originals of the two Republics are so much alike, that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other.” Perhaps this is another reason the Dutch contribution gets conveniently overlooked—it undercuts our belief that the American experiment was unprecedented.

Shorto calls the Dutch the 17th century’s “regular guys” and describes in his book how it used to frustrate foreigners to come here and be unable to tell the difference between shopkeepers and city magistrates, because everyone dressed the same and no one had many servants.

“It all goes back to the water,” he explains. “People here had to band together to hold back water and reclaim land from the sea.” The land was communal in a sense, but divvied up into individual, tradable lots, early on establishing the virtuous, self-reinforcing relationship between a communal sensibility and individualism that has eluded societies with more feudal origins. In today’s context, the Dutch strike the communalism/individualism balance by sticking to their free-trading heritage while supporting a healthier safety net than most Americans, or even English, would find warranted.

The social compact has been fraying of late, Shorto says. “You need a high-trust society where everyone is on same page” for people to willingly pay for a generous welfare state. Immigration, and to a lesser extent European integration, have been chipping away at that social cohesion. The Dutch were forced into a wrenching national conversation about the limits of tolerance—their national creed—in the wake of the killing of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 at the hands of a young radical Muslim immigrant who was upset at the Dutch filmmaker’s anti-Muslim work. By allowing immigrants to transplant their cultures into Dutch enclaves (as opposed to the more French approach of imposing a certain idea of secular French citizenship on immigrants), had the Dutch tolerated the importation of intolerant attitudes toward gender, homosexuality, and religious freedom?

The ensuing backlash led to a rise of right-wing nationalist parties and the introduction of a new “civic integration” exam for prospective immigrants. The exam tests language proficiency and poses the type of history questions asked on the U.S. naturalization exam but also requires applicants to watch a short film called Coming to the Netherlands, which features gay couples and nude beaches. Caveat immigrant!

The feverish debates over immigration have quieted down in the last few years, and Shorto recognizes that Dutch politics generally aren’t nearly as bad as what we have on this side of the pond. “Compared to the U.S., politics here remain a consensus-building exercise,” he says. He watches The Colbert Report regularly to keep in touch, but the polarization underlying the comedy feels very distant.

Shorto’s biggest frustration living here, one echoed by American expats throughout Europe, are the limited shopping hours, which he calls a socialist-Christian collusion. “Then again,” he adds, “my parents live in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, near a 24-hour grocery store. I suppose you could ask if that store really needs to be open at 4 a.m.”

We part outside, where the night is wet and cold. Shorto hops on his bike (every self-respecting Amsterdamer’s preferred mode of transportation), and I head off toward the nearest tram line, feeling a sense of unease. Being so engrossed in the history, I may have overlooked some basic queries. Such as why he—the Dutch knight!—ordered Belgian beer. And why do we call it “going Dutch,” anyways, when we split the bill? English slur, perhaps?

Well, there’s always next time.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a vice president at the New America Foundation.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo by Andrés Martinez.