AN HISTORICAL ESSAY
SOME REASONS WHY THERE
IS CONFUSION OF THOUGHT
AS TO THE ORIGIN OF
growth of the American Commonwealth has been too rapid to admit of much
leisure for retrospection. Pioneers must not look backward if they would
continue to look forward.
The American public
as a whole has been very busily occupied for the past three hundred
years. To build, in the short space of three centuries a magnificent
civilization out of a wilderness certainly required more than gradual
and passive evolution. It meant work – hard work and intelligent
work. If the problems of the present and future were to be solved, mere
theorizing and brooding on the past had to be banished in favor of aggressive,
practical thinking. And this not only on the part of statesmen and scholars.
The people, the great middle class, with their demand for “life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” have done much for the
formation of the laws and institutions of the great American Republic.
In the very beginning
of our pre-national growth, before any national policy could be formed,
we find a certain unity of political ideals in almost all the colonies.
Certain principles, chief among which are freedom of religious belief,
“no taxation without representation,” a representative government,
a comprehensive school system and a written constitution, have distinguished
the American idea from the founding of the first colonies on the Atlantic
Coast until the present day.
From what source
did these forefathers of modern America acquire the high ideals of government
and right living that made the American Republic first a possibility,
and finally a proved realization? Whence came the vision of industrial
peace and plenty, of personal and religious freedom that inspired the
Puritan Fathers on their long voyage over unknown seas, and later led
Wm. Penn, Roger Williams, Thos. Hooker and others to plant the seeds
of a new civilization in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut and
elsewhere throughout the New England and Middle Colonies?
Was it the English organization of those times, embodying a State Church,
and an unlimited monarchy with all its natural consequences? It seems
hardly possible. England today takes a prominent place amongst the most
enlightened nations on earth, but at the time of the founding of the
American Colonies it occupied quite a different position in the family
that England has been called the Mother Country of the United States,
and has been accepted as such by the world in general and Americans
in particular with a sort of blind acquiescence in the statements of
English historians and of those Americans who have written the story
of their country with little regard to the foreign history which influenced
it, we must look elsewhere for the inspiration.
Where must we look?
The unbiased historian has no difficulty in answering.
One nation, and
one only, in the whole of Western Europe, at the time of the founding
of the New England Colonies, embodied the ideas that have become an
integral part of American civilization. The Netherlands had been for
centuries the home of religious freedom and toleration, of representative
government, and of political liberty. Through all the terrible years
of the struggle with Spain, the Netherlanders were true to their ideals,
even cutting the dykes and allowing the waters of the North Sea to flood
the Lowlands, thereby destroying the labor of years, rather than preserve
their homes and property at the price of their liberty. “Thousands
for defense but not one cent for tribute” was Dutch for centuries
before it was American.
None were better
aware of these conditions than the progressive elements of England.
To them Holland was the mecca of their desires.
To the Netherlands
fled the persecuted Pilgrims from England. For twelve years they lived
under the vigorous, but for those times, benign Dutch rule and when
they set sail to seek a home of their own it was the well wishes of
their good friends of Leyden that cheered them in their frail craft
on the turbulent Atlantic. In the Netherlands they had observed the
appalling sacrifices which the heroic people of Holland were daily making
on the altar of their Fatherland, in the great struggle for religious
liberty and civic freedom against the oppression of Spain. It was there
the great truth that no sacrifice is too mighty for the attainment of
so glorious a goal had been written indelibly on their brains, nay,
burned into their very souls.
What is more natural
than to believe that in forming the government of their new country,
the colonists should adopt the forms and customs that they had seen
work so successfully in Holland? They had seen in the Netherlands the
concrete application of their own beliefs. This plan of government was
fresh in their memories, easily adopted, and with such alterations as
were necessary to meet the new conditions, eminently practical.
It seems somewhat
remarkable on first examination that so much confusion should have arisen
over so simple a situation. On second consideration the reasons become
more evident' and easily understood.
In the first place,
the colonists of New England were in the majority of cases of English
origin. They spoke the English tongue and were, until the American Revolution,
under English supervision; English was the official language. It is
but natural that the English historians should claim for England the
intellectual parenthood of so illustrious an offspring. In justice to
the historians, it must be remembered that only in comparatively recent
times have the Government archives of England been opened to public
inspection. Consequently, much valuable data has been withheld from
the conscientious historian, and biased ideas have naturally arisen.
History as a philosophical science is of no very great age, and few
Americans understood the Dutch language sufficiently to make independent
to arriving at a logical conclusion as to the origin of American institutions
is a very human trait due to patriotism. It seems the almost universal
habit of national writers to disclaim or overlook any foreign influence
on English or American civilization. This habit and its effect are evident
in the attitude of the American public at large, an attitude often misguided.
Added to this is
the influence of Washington Irving's “Diedrich Knickerbocker.”
If that genial writer could have foreseen the result of his “literary
joke,” (his own words), it is doubtful if it would ever have seen
the light of day. Even one example of its effect on American historians
is quite enough to measure the confusion it has accomplished. It is
from such statements as that of Julian Hawthorne in his “History
of America,” that the American public has gleaned its ideas of
the Dutch in this country and elsewhere.
are not funny anywhere but in Seventeenth Century Manhattan, nor can
this singularity be explained by saying that Washington Irving made
them so. It inheres in the situation; and the delightful chronicles
of Diedrich Knickerbocker owe half their enduring fascination to their
sterling veracity,” etc.
On a preceding
page he has enumerated some of the virtues of these “funny”
people. He says in part:
“The burghers set us an example good for us to follow; and they
deeded to us some of our best citizens and most engaging architectural
traditions …. For their character, their temperament … the
industrious decorum of their women, the dignity of their patroons, the
strictness of their social conduct, the stoutness of their independence,
the excellence of their good sense, and the simplicity of their prudence,
we are indebted to them.”
It would take more
than a keen sense of humor to see anything “funny” in such
qualities, but since Irving has said so, funny they must be, and the
historian praises his “veracity.” Irving certainly was successful
with his literary joke.
Because of a common
language, certain similar legal institutions, many of which are becoming
slowly but surely obsolete in the United States, and the English origin
of some of the early colonists, it has been assumed that all this wonderful
new structure of American civilization was founded on English ideals
or built up in some miraculous way from the imaginations of the indifferently
educated farmers and mechanics who made up the larger part of the English
population of New England.