Commentary Magazine

The Flushing Remonstrance

AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz

The statue insanity goes on.

The latest is a call to scrub from New York City the name of one of the most famous people of early Colonial America, Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherlands from 1647 till the British takeover in 1664.

Stuyvesant’s name is found all over the city, from Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Square, with its statue by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of the Whitney Museum), to Bedford-Stuyvesant (usually elided to Bed-Stuy) neighborhood in Brooklyn, to Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s (indeed the country’s) most elite public educational institutions, more difficult to get admitted to than Andover or Exeter.

(By the way, Stuyvesant had famously lost part of a leg to a cannon ball in his military days and stumped around on a wooden replacement. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney created her statue of him in the 1930’s it was not known which leg he had lost, so she had to guess. As luck would have it, she guessed right. Recent research has uncovered that it was his right leg that was lost.)

Stuyvesant’s thought crime was anti-Semitism. While the Dutch were notably more tolerant than most other Europeans at that time, Stuyvesant had in full measure the common 17th-century attitude about Jews. But he had little use for Catholics, Quakers, or Lutherans either or, indeed, for anyone not of the Dutch Reform Church. He tried to keep out of the colony anyone not of that faith, forbidding them to build houses of worship when he couldn’t prevent them from settling.

But Stuyvesant’s intolerance had a curious and wholly good result, the Flushing Remonstrance.

When Stuyvesant banned public meetings of non-Dutch Reform churches, a group of citizens in what is now Flushing, on Long Island, petitioned Stuyvesant to reverse the policy:

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. . . .Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

Stuyvesant ignored the petition, of course. Indeed, in 1658 he proclaimed a “Day of Prayer for the purpose of repenting from the sin of religious tolerance.” In 1662, he had John Bowne of Flushing arrested for allowing Quakers to meet in his house (which is still there, one of the oldest in North America and well worth a visit). He deported Bowne to Holland (although Bowne was English and spoke no Dutch) and Bowne asked the governors of the Dutch West India Company to intervene. They wrote Stuyvesant a letter ordering him, in no uncertain terms, to end all religious persecution in the colony.

Thanks to the Flushing Remonstrance (and thus at least indirectly to Peter Stuyvesant), New Amsterdam (New York after 1664) quickly became the most religiously tolerant city in the American colonies, welcoming all faiths, as it still does. The idea spread to the other colonies and is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. No wonder the Flushing Remonstrance is often called, “The birth certificate of American religious liberty.”

 

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