Are Dutch-Americans “The Most Conservative Americans?”

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As some of you know, I have been making regular visits to Grand Rapids, Michigan these days.  (If you don’t know why you haven’t been reading this blog regularly enough.  Shame on you!  :-))  I have thus had an opportunity to learn more about the Dutch Calvinist culture that permeates much of Western Michigan.

So when my friend “Buffalo” Doug Anderson called my attention to Michael Douma’s recent blog post, I was intrigued.  Douma is a historian of the Dutch in America and the author of brand new book on historical thinking.  Here is a taste of his piece, “‘The Most Conservative Americans’?“:

An article in the The Economist titled “Why are Dutch-Americans so different from the Dutch?”  lumps together all Dutch Americans, by which it means a few Michigan politicians and the residents of the city of Holland, Michigan, to explain why they are such backward conservatives.  The article’s subtitle betrays the game the author wants to play: “The most conservative Americans, the most liberal Europeans.”

By what measure, I ask, are Dutch Americans the most conservative Americans?   Perhaps the author is not aware of Orthodox Jews or the Amish, or the average Southern or Midwestern evangelical, who, culturally, is likely to be more conservative than the Average Dutch American.

At any rate, to explain why Dutch Americans are so conservative, the author interviewed Dr. Robert Swierenga, recognized authority on Dutch Americans, resident of Holland, Michigan, and author of a three-volume history of Holland, Michigan. Oh my mistake.  They didn’t interview Dr. Swierenga, or any other of the dozens of historians who have written books on Dutch American history. No, to learn more about the topic The Economist interviewed Jay Peters, local Democratic politician and failed mayoral candidate.

Peters’ response is full of hyperbole.  “The people who left the Netherlands were some of the most conservative Dutch-speaking people on the planet.”  Well, since most of the Dutch-speaking people on the planet were in the Netherlands, this is hardly a surprise. Then again, it’s not even entirely true.  The Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa, the colonial administrators of the Netherlands East Indies, the slave-holding plantation owners in Dutch Suriname were all in a variety of ways more conservative than the backwater peasants from the Netherlands who emigrated to the United States.

Read the rest here.

Calvin College in *The Atlantic*

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Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been getting a lot of attention lately since one of its alums, Betsy DeVos, became Secretary of Education. (I should add that DeVos is not the only Christian college graduate to serve as the country’s chief education officer.  Ernest Boyer, a graduate of Messiah College, was Jimmy Carter’s Commissioner of Education).  Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Dutch Calvinists.

Since Donald Trump picked DeVos, pundits have been trying to make sense of her connection to the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College.  Some of the attempts at understanding her religious background have been more successful than others.  I still think Abram Van Engen’s piece at Religion & Politics is the best.  His piece is followed closely by Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article in The Washington Post.

The third best thing I have read on Calvin and DeVos is Emily Deruy’s piece at today’s Atlantic.  Deruy’s essay treats Calvin fairly and does a good job of explaining the school to the left-of-center, upper-middle class, educated readership of the Atlantic. 

Here is a taste:

In more than a dozen interviews, professors, students, and alumni of all political stripes painted a picture of a college where intellectual diversity and thought-provoking debate are the norm, and where the belief that followers of the Christian Reformed Church, with which the school is affiliated, have an obligation to engage with the world around them compels both instructors and students to question what they think they know.

“Our faith commits us to engaging the world all around us,” said Kevin den Dulk, a political-science professor who graduated from Calvin in the 1990s, during an interview in the DeVos Communication Center, which sits across from the Prince Conference Center bearing the secretary’s maiden name. (Her mother, Elsa, is also an alum.)

Den Dulk’s words aren’t just PR fluff; it’s a concept borne out by the school’s 141-year history and the Dutch-influenced part of western Michigan it calls home. The Christian Reformed Church is a Protestant tradition that has its roots in the Netherlands and has been deeply influenced by the theologian Abraham Kuyper, a believer in intellectualism—specifically the idea that groups with different beliefs can operate in the same space according to their convictions while respecting and understanding others. “Fundamentalism is really anti-intellectual and Calvin is the exact opposite,” said Alan Wolfe, the author of a 2000 Atlantic piece about efforts to revitalize evangelical Christian colleges.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Willem Klooster

thedutchmomentWillem Klooster is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Clark University. This interview is based on his new book, The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Dutch Moment?

WK: As a Dutchman working on the Atlantic world, it has always been obvious to me that a book focused on the Dutch Atlantic in the seventeenth century – the period in which the Dutch were so active worldwide both militarily and commercially – was missing. Dutch historians dealing with the wider world have traditionally privileged Asia, the domain of the Dutch East India Company, while North Americans have been mostly interested in New Netherland, which was actually fairly marginal to the main developments in the Dutch Atlantic. I felt that it was my task to right this wrong by writing a work that encompassed all aspects of the Dutch Atlantic in that century without making it a textbook.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dutch Moment?

WK: In 3 sentences, if you don’t mind: The mid-seventeenth century formed a specific stage in Atlantic history that was marked by activities that connected the Dutch to other colonial realms, especially the infant English and French colonies that remained afloat in no small part due to Dutch commercial assistance. On the other hand the Dutch Atlantic had a distinctly violent side, as expressed in the endless battles with their Iberian enemies and Dutch relations with indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. What helped undo the short-lived Dutch empire was not only Iberian fighting power or nonwhite revolts, but eventually the refusal of unpaid and poorly fed white soldiers and sailors in Dutch service to defend the imperial outposts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Dutch Moment?

WK: By following the Dutch around in the Atlantic basin, we get a new perspective on the Atlantic world at large, and not a peripheral one, since the Dutch were so entangled with other empires, either as warriors or merchants. More particularly, the book reveals the pivotal role of Brazil, where the Dutch elites were willing to wage a seemingly endless war in order to control the production of the world’s foremost sugar colony. This war was the largest conflict between European powers in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, which historians have underappreciated.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WK: Although my Leiden dissertation dealt with Dutch trade in the Caribbean, it was not a traditional treatment of the flow of goods between colonies and metropole. Both the Dutch and Spanish archives suggested the existence of close, albeit usually illegal, commercial ties between inhabitants of the Dutch colonies and residents of other empires. I had therefore come to see my subject matter through an Atlantic lens by the time I finished my doctorate in 1995. That same year, I came to the United States as a Fulbright student, and soon found myself in the orbit of Bernard Bailyn, precisely when he started to organize his Atlantic History Seminars. I still think of myself primarily as an Atlanticist rather than an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

WK: The next project is already finished: I just submitted the manuscript of The Second Dutch Atlantic, 1680-1815, a book that I coauthored with Dutch historian Gert Oostindie. It picks up where The Dutch Moment leaves off, taking the story of the Dutch Atlantic through the early nineteenth century. During my sabbatical next semester, I will embark on the following project, a biography of a well-traveled French marquis whose life intersects with the Age of Revolutions in surprising ways.

JF: Thanks, Willem!

New Netherland Institute Comes to New Jersey

dutchNew Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, NJ is hosting the 39th Annual Conference of the New Netherland Institute.  The topic is “From Pavonia to the Garden State: New Jersey”s Dutch Past.”  Speakers include Elizabeth Bradley, Willem Klooster, Evan Haefeli, Daniel Richter, Dirk Mouw, Liz Covart, Deborah Hamer, and Jaap Jacobs.

Here is what you can expect:

The conference and its companion events will take place over three days, beginning on Thursday the 22nd of September and concluding on Saturday the 24th. Friday morning’s session will explore the trials and tribulations of the early years of Dutch colonization in the region, with the afternoon session exploring the survival of Dutch heritage in New Jersey following the final transfer to the English. The program will be enriched with two additional sessions on Saturday morning, beginning with a panel discussion with NNI’s Emerging Scholars on their decision to study New Netherland. The morning will conclude with an edifying session on Dutch fortifications in New Netherland. Friday night’s dinner will feature a talk by Elizabeth Bradley, the author of Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, a cultural history of New York’s first mascot.

Learn more here.

New New Netherlands Podcast

Last week in my Gilder-Lehrman online graduate course on colonial North America we spent some time discussing the Dutch colony of New Netherlands.  Several of the students had read Russell Shorto’s book The Island in the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America.

Those students, and anyone else interested in Dutch New York, will be happy to know that Shorto is now hosting New Netherland Praatjes, a podcast on the Dutch in 17th-century America.

Learn more about it here.

Hat tip: New York History blog