Kenneth Jackson: The Flushing Remonstrance

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia, is the editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.]

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.”...

comments powered by Disqus