The Island at the Center of the World

The Iowa Cau­cus results last night got me think­ing about the many com­pet­ing polit­i­cal cul­tures present through­out Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Indi­vid­u­al­ist vs. com­mu­ni­tar­i­an, rich vs. poor, urban vs. rur­al… but, at the core of our nation­al psy­che is this ten­sion between the lofty ideals set forth by the Founders, and our attempts and fail­ings to live up to them. For every shin­ing exam­ple of Lin­coln, FDR, and Mar­tin Luther King Jr., there are gen­er­a­tions of back-slid­ers who prey upon fear in order to gain polit­i­cal advan­tage. Sure, to every­thing there is a sea­son, but I’m glad to see that the vot­ers in Iowa embraced hope and reject­ed cyn­i­cism, on both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum.

The Island at the Center of the WorldHis­to­ry is writ­ten by the win­ners, which is why Amer­i­cans tend to think of our colo­nial past and demo­c­ra­t­ic begin­nings as built upon and in reac­tion to Eng­lish insti­tu­tions alone – but the sto­ry is a lit­tle more com­pli­cat­ed. It’s not often that I do book reviews, but I just fin­ished re-read­ing The Island at the Cen­ter of the World, The Epic Sto­ry of Dutch Man­hat­tan and the For­got­ten Colony that Shaped Amer­i­ca [excerpt] by jour­nal­ist his­to­ri­an Rus­sell Shorto, and want­ed to rec­om­mend it to any­one look­ing for some inter­est­ing read­ing on the ori­gins of this country.

The tra­di­tion­al telling of colo­nial Amer­i­ca focus­es almost exclu­sive­ly on the Eng­lish colonies in Vir­ginia and New Eng­land. But, Shorto reminds us that the Dutch were the first Euro­peans to set­tle the island of Man­hat­tan, and built some of the most last­ing ideals and insti­tu­tions into the fab­ric of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al life.

Tol­er­ance, plu­ral­ism, and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism were the norm in New Ams­ter­dam, (rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing for the 16th cen­tu­ry) – in stark con­trast to the mono­cul­tur­al theo­crat­ic mania in New England:

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.

On the island of Man­hat­tan, the first Amer­i­can exper­i­ment with democ­ra­cy took root by the 1650s, and many of the insti­tu­tions and lib­er­ties were main­tained by the Eng­lish, after the Dutch surrender.

Shorto argues for recon­sid­er­a­tion of the for­got­ten colony of New Nether­land, and does a bril­liant job of pre­sent­ing new­ly trans­lat­ed sources in a live­ly, read­able way. He also argues that the unique (non-Eng­lish) char­ac­ter of this ear­ly set­tle­ment explains how New York rose to become the most impor­tant com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al city in the world.

When we think of the espoused Amer­i­can ideals of tol­er­ance, entre­pre­neuri­al­ism, and lib­er­ty, Shorto argues that we should first look to New Amsterdam:

…beneath the lev­el of myth and pol­i­tics and high ideals, down where real peo­ple live and inter­act, Man­hat­tan is where Amer­i­ca began.

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