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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 18, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Manhattan and the Fall of Rome

Great books of history don't come along every day.

The standard is high. It needs to be based on good, solid research. It must be rational and clear. It must offer information or interpretations that illuminate both the past and the present. And it helps if it's written with the kind of flair that makes it a pleasure to read.

Have I got a book for you: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, by Russell Shorto.

I learned all about the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam back in grade school. Didn't I? Peter Minuit trades twenty-four dollars worth of beads for Manhattan Island. Peter Stuyvesant is the only famous governor of the colony.

Nothing really happened there until the British took over during one of the Anglo-Dutch wars, changed the name to New York, and turned it into the greatest port and largest city in the colonies.

Not so. Russell Shorto's book is devoted to telling us, not only what really happened, but why we've never heard the story until now.

The first and most obvious reason is that, because the British won the war, the Dutch story didn't get much play. But it's much more complicated than that.

We Americans would have corrected the story long ago -- especially right after the Revolution and on through the War of 1812. We didn't like the British then. We would have loved to prove that New Amsterdam's Dutch roots were more important to the founding of America's religiously tolerant, freedom-loving society.

But we couldn't. Because all the pertinent records were written in Dutch. And the government of the Netherlands thought so little of the history of New Amsterdam that in the early 19th century, during a fit of housecleaning, they sold the records of the colony for scrap paper.

A few letters survived here and there in the Netherlands. And a rather massive archive survived in the United States -- survived by miracle, because nobody really cared much about these records here, either.

After all, nobody could read them. Not just because they were written in Dutch, but also because Dutch handwriting changed in the 1700s so that almost nobody in the Netherlands could have read them, either.

These 17th-century records survived fires, mold, and disregard; after a few attempts to translate them, the real work didn't get under way until after Nelson Rockefeller endowed the work of translation.

At that time, a young scholar named Charles Gehring graduated with a specialization in 17th-century Dutch, and had to face the fact that there wasn't exactly a huge market for his skills.

He happened to run into the very man that had arranged for Rockefeller to fund the translation. He said, in effect, "Have I got a job for you!"

Three decades later, Gehring is still translating. But enough has been done, and made available to scholars like Shorto, that this great book was possible.

If you think about it, there has long been a gaping hole in American history. The two great English colonizing efforts -- in Virginia and in New England -- really don't resemble what we think of as America today.

Virginia and points south became a land of plantations, owned by men who wanted to maintain the rigid class system of England, only with themselves at the apex.

The New England colonies (except Rhode Island) were founded by religious believers who were trying to create a place of uniform faithfulness.

Where in all this do we find any hint of a melting pot? Of religious openness? Of freedom for ordinary working people?

Shorto tells us -- and proves -- that the roots of a tolerant melting pot were all in Manhattan.

Not that anyone planned it that way. The Dutch West India Company did not think of it as a colony. It was a trading post, a wholly-owned operation whose participants were employees or servants, most definitely not citizens.

But those employees had their roots in the Netherlands, a group of Protestant counties which were still in the midst of their bloody struggle for independence from Spanish Catholic rule.

During the terrible religious wars that had swept back and forth across Europe ever since Luther and Calvin began their own brands of reformation, most places achieved peace by expelling (or killing) dissidents, so that Europe became a patchwork of principalities, some Catholic, some Protestant of one sort or another.

Only the Netherlands determined to accept anyone and simply ignore the issue of religion. While there were still people who wanted uniformity of faith, the majority -- and, more importantly, the government -- seems to have invented the idea of separation of religion from citizenship.

Many personal stories are told in this book:

Peter Minuit, who was disappointed in his dreams in New Amsterdam, and so came back to America under the sponsorship of the Swedish government to found a series of thriving towns in New Sweden (Delaware and much of New Jersey and Pennsylvania).

It was the Swedes -- and the Finns they brought with them -- who invented the log cabin that became the standard frontier structure. (The Dutch who first settled Albany, for instance, built roofed pits to live in until they could build a traditional house.)

Then there was Peter Stuyvesant, an ambitious military dictator who achieved great things for his employers, but hated any kind of disagreement from his underlings. Yet he loved the country well enough that when the English took over, he stayed and accepted British rule.

The most moving story is of one of the great unsung heroes of American history -- the man more responsible than any other for planting the roots of freedom and tolerance in America: Adriaen Van der Donck.

No, there's no "Vanderdonck Day" in New York or anywhere else. But when you read his story, you'll want there to be. He reached New Amsterdam as an ambitious young lawyer. His adventures with the Indians on the frontier were the stuff of legend, but he had plans that transcended his original employers.

He had a way of making himself indispensable to his superiors, so that he was in on all their planning -- and then he would suddenly reveal what his own plans were. When it came down to a confrontation with Stuyvesant, Vanderdonck did the impossible: He outmaneuvered the tyrant again and again.

Finally, back in the Netherlands, he laid out his case for taking New Amsterdam away from the Dutch West India Company and making it a colony with full rights of citizenship -- including locally-elected government.

And he won. He had a charter that would have established Manhattan city government with himself as the most likely person to be elected its first mayor.

Then the English beheaded King Charles and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, set out to create the British Empire -- at Dutch expense. It was war, and this was no time, thought the Dutch government, for experiments in local government.

Van der Donck's personal ambitions were dashed -- but his charter for Manhattan had already gone into force. Admittedly, without Van der Donck there to oversee it, Stuyvesant managed to pack the city government with his own boys -- but, as usual, they didn't always do as they were told.

And when the British took over, Dutch free enterprise and open-door policies had already made Manhattan the most prosperous port in North America -- by far. The British weren't stupid -- well, this time, anyway -- and instead of imposing British government, they simply left the entire Dutch system in place. As long as the Dutch didn't make trouble, they could go on as before.

Which is why, for a century or more, the Dutch founding families continue to prosper, greatly influencing New York City and state. The charter of Manhattan remained the ground rules for the colony.

Which is no small part of the reason why it was New York State above all others that refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution until there was a Bill of Rights attached to it -- guaranteeing the rights that Van der Donck had fought for back in the mid-1600s.

Manhattan was so obviously successful that any colony that wanted to compete with it had to work under similar principles -- as William Penn's Pennsylvania did. The ideal of tolerance spread and eventually overcame all rivals.

Just as important was the Dutch principle of free trade. Eventually, seafaring New Englanders became its champion, but the original New England colonies were agricultural; for a century, it was Manhattan, born for trade, that was a hub of Atlantic commerce, with no rival in North America.

You can't read this book without transforming your view of American history. The idea of America was not born in Virginia or Massachusetts; its clearest path runs from the Netherlands to Manhattan.


Now, sadly, I'll tell you about another book that aspired to the greatness that Shorto's book achieved.

James J. O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History aspires to give us a completely new picture of when the western Roman Empire fell, and who knocked it down.

He makes a very strong case for the idea that the "barbarians" who conquered Italy, Gaul (France), Iberia (Spain), and North Africa were largely romanized and thoroughly Christianized. They maintained Roman institutions -- and trading patterns -- largely intact, and while some things changed, the Roman Empire in the west was still a going concern.

Nobody knew that it had "fallen." The same offices continued to be filled by the same sorts of bureaucrats.

While the Emperor in Constantinople never recognized any of O'Donnell's heroes, most notably Theoderic, they continued to govern in the name of Roman authority, and they kept Latin as the official language of empire. Which is why the "hordes" of invaders left almost no linguistic footprint -- the languages that today are called "Romance" are the children of Latin, not of the amorphous tribes that conquered these lands.

O'Donnell's thesis is that the western empire only fell when Emperor Justinian made his famous attempt to "restore" the Roman Empire in the west. All he really needed to do was recognize the authority of the new rulers there and his purpose would certainly have been achieved; instead, he rejected them and invaded.

It's not a pretty picture. Justinian did not attack barbarians slavering over raw meat in yurts; he invaded an Italy that was still obviously Roman, and systematically destroyed the all the people with the power and will to maintain the Roman system.

What he left behind was exactly the chaos that supposedly he came to heal. It was Justinian who destroyed the Western Roman Empire -- or so O'Donnell claims.

His documents and reasoning seem sound. But I've read other books on the same subject, and the evidence they cited does not go away just because O'Donnell chooses not to mention most of it. I think a case can be made that everybody is right -- that the Western empire was not what it used to be, but that the "barbarians" were doing a pretty good job of getting things back into shape when Justinian destroyed the empire in the West once and for all.

The trouble is, it's hard to take O'Donnell seriously when he has an obvious -- and yet incoherent -- political axe to grind.

Because O'Donnell, instead of making the case for his interpretation of ancient events, wants to make a grand, foolish analogy between Justinian and George W. Bush.

It's as if he thought, while writing the book, "Justinian was stupid and destroyed what he thought he was saving, and everybody knows Dubya is stupid, too, so they must be the same."

Here are his actual words: "He was a man of limited talents from the provinces, surrounded by gifted men who knew only too well how to reshape their world in the image of delusion about the position of the city [Constantinople] and its emperors in this world.... We may choose to call them Justinian's best and brightest or, if you prefer, his neoconservatives" (p. 216).

A comparison between the bureaucrats of Constantinople and today's Neocons, and between Justinian and George W. Bush, is so stupid that it makes it impossible to take O'Donnell seriously in his other assertions.

"A sad thing it is, to come from a distant province and achieve the heights of power, to devote yourself to such lofty principles ... and to discover that zeal and stupidity are not enough. He was not the last ruler of a mighty realm to be so purblind" (ibid.).

This is what happens when "intellectuals" become so trapped in their own groupthink that they start thinking the lies that they believe had something to do with the real world.

Let's list just a few of the ways that his comparison between Justinian and Bush breaks down. Bush's war on terror-sponsoring nations came in response to an attack on our territory; there was no comparable provocation for Justinian.

Justinian invaded a reasonably well-governed country that was not crying out for relief from invaders; Bush toppled terrorist-sponsoring governments and saved lives, compared to the death toll from the tyrants, from the start. Justinian meant to rule his conquests permanently; Bush intended to establish -- and has established -- self-government, with the firm intention to leave as soon as the new democracies were self-sustaining.

Justinian intended to impose his version of Christianity on "heretics"; Bush, despite his profound Christian faith, had no intention of interfering with Muslim religion, except for that branch of Islam that thinks it has the right to murder whoever it seems profitable to kill.

Justinian was incompetent and all his conquests soon evaporated, leaving behind a much worse situation than he had found. Bush's military and political operations, while there were the normal number of glitches (or fewer) along the way, seem to be amazingly successful; unless his successors blow it, everything he did seems likely to last, to the great benefit of the whole world, no matter how stupidly unsupportive they have been.

If Bush had invaded Britain to set things to rights in the founding country, with an eye to restoring the Church of England to its former glory, then he might have been as stupid and quixotic as Justinian.

What amazes me is that any scholar should have recognized that these comments about the Bush administration were so utterly unrelated to the actual subject of this supposed history that to include them was destructive to the book. In ten years this book will be an embarrassment to anyone who reads it, because O'Donnell seems to have conflated Bush and Justinian so completely that his bile toward both seems personal -- and utterly unscholarly.

What a shame. Someday I hope to read a serious treatment of O'Donnell's evidence and ideas by someone who is able to be dispassionate and rational.

And in case anyone thinks that I'm unfair for praising Shorto for linking New Amsterdam to American history while dispraising O'Donnell for the same thing, let me point out the obvious: New Amsterdam is part of American history. What happened there led directly to the founding of our culture and our institutions, and Manhattan was and remains the queen of American cities.

But Justinian's actions have absolutely nothing to do with America today, and the comparison exists only in the mind of the lunatic who was so filled with contempt for his betters that he invented similarities that do not exist.

The only similarity, in fact, is that O'Donnell himself has chosen to call both men by the same ugly names. And name-calling is not history. It's propaganda. (Like this column and all other reviews.)

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