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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