December 27, 2007
A Colony With a Conscience
By KENNETH T. JACKSON
THREE hundred and fifty years ago today, religious freedom was born on this continent. Yes, 350 years. Religious tolerance did not begin with the Bill of Rights or with Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. With due respect to Roger Williams and his early experiment with “liberty of conscience” in Rhode Island, this republic really owes its enduring strength to a fragile, scorched and little-known document that was signed by some 30 ordinary citizens on Dec. 27, 1657.
It is fitting that the Flushing Remonstrance should be associated with Dutch settlements, because they were the most tolerant in the New World. The Netherlands had enshrined freedom of conscience in 1579, when it clearly established that “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion.” And when the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, the purpose was to make money, not to save souls. Because the founding idea was trade, the directors of the firm took pains to ensure that all were welcome.
For example, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was enforcing Puritan orthodoxy, there were no religious tests in the Dutch colony. So open was New Amsterdam that at least 16 languages were being spoken there by the 1640s; by 1654, the first Jews in what is now the United States had been able to settle there peaceably.
But religious tolerance had its limits in New Amsterdam, especially when it came to Quakers, who then had a reputation as obnoxious rabble-rousers. Peter Stuyvesant, the provincial director general and a Type A personality if ever there was one, was not going to tolerate a Quaker presence in his domain. To make his point, he ordered the public torturing of Robert Hodgson, a 23-year-old Quaker convert who had become an influential preacher. And then he issued a harsh ordinance, punishable by fine and imprisonment, against anyone found guilty of harboring Quakers.
Almost immediately after the edict was released, Edward Hart, the town clerk in what is now Flushing, Queens, gathered his fellow citizens on Dec. 27 and wrote a petition to Stuyvesant, citing the Flushing town charter of 1645, which promised liberty of conscience.
As Hart and his fellow petitioners so elegantly wrote, “We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own master.” Their logic was impeccable: “the power of this world can neither attack us, neither excuse us, for if God justify, who can condemn, and if God condemn, there is none can justify.”
The Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for four reasons.
First, it articulated a fundamental right that is as basic to American freedom as any we hold dear.
Second, the authors backed up their words with actions — they did not whisper their opposition among themselves or protest in silence. Rather, they signed the document and sent it to the most powerful official in the colony, a man not known for toleration or for an easygoing or gracious manner.
Third, they stood up for others; none of the signers was himself a Quaker. The Flushing citizens were articulating a principle that was of little discernible benefit to themselves.
And fourth, like all great documents, the language of the remonstrance is as beautiful as the sentiments they express. “If any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egress and regress unto our town,” its authors wrote in the conclusion. “For we are bound by the law of God and man to do good unto all men and evil to no man.”
So what was the result? As expected, Stuyvesant arrested Hart and the other official who presented the document to him, and he jailed two other magistrates who had signed the petition. Stuyvesant also forced the other signatories to recant.
But the door had been opened and Quakers continued to meet in Flushing. When Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was then banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.
The Bowne house is still standing. And within a few blocks of it a modern visitor to Flushing will encounter a Quaker meeting house, a Dutch Reformed church, an Episcopal church, a Catholic church, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque. All coexist in peace, appropriately in the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse borough in the most diverse city on the planet.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia, is the editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.