New York has never quite gotten the recognition it deserves in the narrative of America’s founding. Although it was settled around the same time as Massachusetts and Virginia, our schoolbook lore goes something like this: A group of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom landed on Plymouth Rock, the Indians helped them plant corn, and they celebrated Thanksgiving; the Puritans who followed had a lot of witch trials and banished heretics to go found Rhode Island, and meanwhile Pocahontas and John Smith were down in Virginia engaging in their own version of an errand into the wilderness. At best, New York makes a cameo when a scrappy Dutch businessman named Peter Minuit buys Manhattan from the Indians for about $24.
One reason New York loses out in America’s historical saga is that most of it has been written by professors at Harvard and Yale who thought that every sermon by a Bradford or a Winthrop or a Mather revealed profound insights into not only the New England mind but also the enduring soul of America.
Another historical public-relations problem is that New York, which remained rather Tory during the Revolution, abstained from supporting the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Constitution only after ten other states had already made it the law of the land. As a result, New York can claim no towering patriotic heroes comparable to the Adamses of Massachusetts or to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison of Virginia. Indeed, those two states gave us our first six presidents, whereas New York did not produce one until Martin Van Buren, number eight.
Into this breach now comes Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which does for New York’s Revolutionary hero what David McCullough did recently for John Adams. A biographer noted for his tomes on the Morgans, the Warburgs, and John D. Rockefeller, Chernow has a feel for both finance and New Yorkers. (The New-York Historical Society will launch a major exhibition in August called “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made America.”) In addition, Russell Shorto has published a flavorful new history of Colonial-era Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World. Together, they help remind us that this rollicking commercial center had more influence than the pulpits of Massachusetts or the plantations of Virginia in nurturing the fundamental traits—a respect for cultural diversity and free markets—that were to define what America would become.
The tale of New York’s influence begins with Adriaen van der Donck, who might have fared better in schoolbooks had he been blessed with a more felicitous name. Shorto resurrects him from obscurity and portrays him as the early merchant pioneer who introduced the key notions of pluralism and personal liberty to what was then known as New Amsterdam. He stood up to the cantankerous and peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, whose intolerance included trying to prevent Jews from settling here. The struggle between these two men, Shorto shows, made it possible for New York City to “develop into a unique place that would foster an intense stew of cultures and a wildly fertile intellectual, artistic and business environment.”
Van der Donck did not personally prevail, but his ideas did. The Dutch and early English merchants created a gateway town that became a melting pot of Germans, Jews, Scandinavians, and Africans. In contrast to the rigid monoculture in Massachusetts and the slave-owning plantations of Virginia, the business settlement that New York became reveled in free trade and free minds. “A new kind of spirit hovered over the island,” Shorto writes, “something utterly alien to New England and Virginia.”
When the English eventually took control from the Dutch in 1664, all continued to cohabit quite nicely together. Indeed, in the Articles of Capitulation, the English guaranteed that “the Dutch here shall enjoy the liberty of their Consciences.” The document even included an enumeration of rights and the rudiments of democratic representation that foreshadowed the emergence of a new type of nation. This allowed minorities and ethnic communities to flourish here. “Van der Donck’s dream became real in a way he never imagined,” Shorto writes. “The structure he helped win for the place grounded it in Dutch tolerance and diversity, just as he hoped it would, which in turn touched off the island’s rapid growth and increased the influx of settlers.”
Chernow picks up this theme a century later by portraying a product of this Manhattan commercial stew, the bastard West Indian immigrant Alexander Hamilton, as a seminal force in creating a national soul that was influenced as much by bankers and merchants as by Puritans and agrarians. Although Hamilton was reviled in his time by Jeffersonian democrats as an evil genius in thrall to wealthy aristocracies, his role as the nation’s first Treasury secretary made him the father of America’s capitalist system and strong central government. “No other founder,” Chernow writes, “articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”
Hamilton was an ambitious urban social climber, a combative intellectual, and a brilliant advocate of enterprise, competition, and well-oiled financial markets. You know the type. He was, Chernow writes, an “exuberant genius” with a “touchy ego” that made him tortured and ultimately self-destructive. While these New York traits make him less of a schoolbook hero than Washington or Adams, they make him no less of an American archetype. They also caused him to be juxtaposed in history, sometimes in an oversimplified way, with the agrarian democrat Jefferson and his vision of America as a place of Arcadian innocence.