What Do The Netherlands And The Us Have In Common?

The Dutch who came to America brought their own language with them, and the American language of today still contains a number of their words. With the game kolf the word `golf' stuck, with skating the word `skate' from schaats. The Dutch seafaring tradition brought the words `skipper,' `marine', 'hoist,' `yacht' and many others some by way of (British) English, some directly into American speech. `Yankee' itself is supposedly a corruption of the Dutch name Jan-Kees, very popular in the seventeenth century. 'Boss' comes from the Dutch word baas. And even the word 'cuspedor' seems to come from the Dutch kwispedoor, but that may also be the other way around.

In the pursuit of things Dutch in the United States, some historians have compiled long lists of prominent Americans of Dutch descent, as, for instance, James Madison, Martin van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who are both descendants of a Klaes Martensen van Roosevelt, a farmer from Tholen who settled in New Netherland in the 1640's. And on another level, we should not forget Eddie van Halen, Rutger Hauer, Paul Verhoeven, Adam Curry and Willem de Koning.

But it is somewhat silly if such lists are made to boast that Holland deserves part of the credit for these men's deeds. After all, their ancestors left Holland and chose a new country. More vital in the relation between The Netherlands and the United States than common words or ancestries are common beliefs and shared interests.

Some say that there is something of the best of Holland in the best American institutions, and of that it can be justifiably proud. This `something' is an idea, which we can trace back to Erasmus and the sixteenth-century Netherlands. We find its spirit in a statement issued by the town of Leyden in the year 1581. At stake was an order from the central authorities to control and censure the printing of books. The town magistrates refused to comply, and used the occasion to express their belief in the sovereignty of the free individual. `Reason,' they wrote, `which is the adversary of all tyrants, teaches us that truth can be as little restrained as light.'
It was in this tradition Nieuw Amsterdam spread tolerance in an intolerant age among intolerant people.

Following up on this, back to the origins of the two countries, we find a striking parallel in the documents recording their births. Both countries won their independence (one from Spain, the other from England) by rebellion, and each thought it vital to put the essentially moral character of its rebellion into words.

When the Dutch abjured the Spanish king in the year 1581, they had the same 'legalistic' approach as the Americans later and they declared to the world:

`As it is apparent to all that a prince is constituted by God to be the ruler of the people... and whereas God did not create the people slaves to their prince, to obey his commands, whether right or wrong, but rather the prince for the sake of the subjects... And when he does not behave thus, but on the contrary oppresses them... they may not only disallow his authority, but legally proceed to the choice of another prince for their defence...'

Aren't these words reminiscent of Jefferson's text in the American Declaration of Independence:
`we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights :... that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government...'

We do not know whether Jefferson ever studied the Dutch war of Independence, but - given the changes caused by the political thinking of the two centuries that separate them - the two declarations seem inspired by the same spirit. We do know however that the example of the Dutch Republic was very vivid in the minds of people that shaped the American constitution. Not only did it serve as a positive example, but the weakness of the Dutch Republic at the end of the eighteenth century caused by internal strife and the incapability to come to decisions installed the notion of a the need of a strong executive in the United States.

The belief in the reason of the free mind, the belief in humanity and tolerance, were the best things the Netherlands ever had to offer. They are equally part of the best American tradition. If the Netherlands and the Dutch settlers have helped their growth here, in whatever small a way, then that is the greatest contribution they could make. The very nature of these beliefs leads us away from our national prides and prejudices, and causes us to turn our thoughts to what unites us all.