The greatest stories in history are the forgotten stories, and the greatest men in history are the unsung heroes. The name of Peter Stuyvesant is vaguely remembered, while the name of Adriaen van der Doncke has all but vanished completely. Nevertheless, the epic struggle between these two men dramatically shaped the newborn culture which became America.
The story takes place in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York). New Amsterdam was a reckless, unruly settlement under Governor Willem Kieft, who was more interested in fighting with Indians than in addressing problems in the town. Consequently, the people decided to send a letter to the West India Company, which owned the colony, requesting his recall. The company granted their request, and replaced Kieft with one of the most remarkable characters of American history—Peter Stuyvesant.
Stuyvesant was an imposing leader. With his stern face and only one leg, his appearance and his manner commanded respect. He believed in no law except marshal law. As far as he was concerned, the ruler’s job was to be honest and just, and the people’s job was to obey without question. As an example of his impartial severity, one of his first acts as governor was to banish the men who had originally moved to recall Kieft, an act he saw as treason.
The townspeople did not appreciate Stuyvesant’s manner of ruling. He insisted on controlling all kinds of business, public and private. All structures and land uses were prohibited except by his permission, and all trade agreements were subject to his regulation. Nevertheless, Stuyvesant’s leadership did weed out many of the vices of New Amsterdam and transformed it into a respectable town.
Before long, the new governor decided to create a town board as a representative body of the people. The board would have no legislative or executive power; its purpose was merely to advise the governor and help him maintain popular support.
The board was selected according to the traditional Dutch method. The people nominated eighteen men through a voting process, and from that number the governor selected nine to serve on the board. Every year, the people had the opportunity to nominate potential replacements for board members, and one year they nominated a promising young man named Adraien van der Doncke. Van der Doncke had greatly helped Stuyvesant in previous political matters, and Stuyvesant was pleased to appoint his new friend to the board.
Van der Doncke was a highly esteemed man in the town. Besides creating a beautiful farm for himself and his wife, he also became a successful lawyer. He would take the time to talk to people about their problems and discuss their ideas for improvements in local government. He understood people, and people understood him. It was clear that he was born for politics, yet no one could have imagined the significant role he would play in shaping New Amsterdam and eventually America.
Like Stuyvesant, Van der Doncke was a natural leader. From the first meeting of the new board, the other members elected him the chairman and titled him “President of the Commonalty.” He and the other board members immediately drew out a list of problems that they wanted Stuyvesant to address. Stuyvesant was offended; he believed he knew what the town needed, and he did not like being treated like a public servant. Nevertheless he held his tongue and made the requested changes.
Van der Doncke had yet more ideas. The board sent a letter to Stuyvesant informing him that they intended to send one or two representatives to the Hague and request the Dutch government to take control of the colony. Stuyvesant was infuriated. To take control away from the West India Company was effectively to take power away from Stuyvesant. He stalled the request by saying that they must first prove that this was the will of the people, not just a whim of the board.
Van der Doncke jumped at this opportunity. He and the board divided the town among themselves, knocked on every door, and asked every citizen if they were satisfied with the governor and the West India Company or if they wanted reforms. The town sided wholeheartedly with Van der Doncke. Next, he collected all their complaints and grievances, as well as their ideas for reforms, and compiled them on a single document entitled Remonstrance of New Netherland.
As soon as Stuyvesant found Van der Doncke’s transcripts, he had him arrested for treason, a crime punishable by death. He then called a meeting with members of his own committee to review Van der Doncke’s case. The whole town assembled at the meeting, eager to see what would become of their hero. Stuyvesant produced a document which enumerated Van der Doncke’s treasonous crimes and would define Stuyvesant’s decision concerning him. However, he never had a chance to read it.
Just before Stuyvesant arose to speak, a board member rushed to the podium, announced that the States General had commissioned him to deliver a mandate to Stuyvesant, and handed it to another board member to read aloud. Stuyvesant demanded the letter, and after briefly wrestling for it, tore the document. The board member then informed him that there were two documents—one for Stuyvesant and one to be read aloud. The crowd erupted, and Stuyvesant, finding himself humiliated, allowed the torn document to be read. It enumerated the people’s grievances against Stuyvesant and included the States General’s order to send a representative to the Dutch government.
Shortly thereafter, Stuyvesant decided to alleviate some of the pressure against himself by releasing Van der Doncke. He ordered him either “to prove and establish or to revoke what he has injuriously written.” Van der Doncke used this as an invitation to finish his work. He and his colleagues created all the formal documents necessary for them to make their case to the States General in the Hague.
There was no debate about who the representative should be. Soon Adraien van der Doncke, with his wife at his side, sailed back to the land of his birth. No doubt he had his anxieties; victory would mean liberty for his people, and defeat would mean returning home to face the wrath of the one-legged dragon.
Van der Doncke made his case well to the States General at the Hague. He explained to them how the West India Company was moving them toward feudalism, and that Stuyvesant’s tight rule was hampering private business. New Amsterdam needed a representative government—one that understood the needs of the people and would allow them to make their own decisions.
The States General was surprisingly agreeable. Not only did they decide to recall Stuyvesant, they allowed Van der Doncke to deliver the recall notice personally. Van der Doncke must have been ecstatic as he walked out of the Hague. It was highly possible that the States General would appoint him as the next governor. He dreamed of gloriously returning home and leading his people to freedom.
Unfortunately, all his dreams would be crashed by circumstances far beyond his control. Just before he boarded the ship bound for America, the Dutch government called him back to the Hague. England had just declared war on the Netherlands. Because New Amsterdam was such an important trading post, they feared that the English would target it. New Amsterdam, they said, needed a governor with a strong personality, with military experience, and with the will to fight—someone like Stuyvesant. Furthermore, they would not allow Van der Doncke to go back home. They wanted Stuyvesant to concentrate on building defenses, not on quarreling with political rivals. Van der Doncke was stunned, but he did not give up. He sent his wife back to America to tend the farm, promising to return as soon as he talked some sense into the States General.
The war dragged on. Month after month Van der Doncke begged and pleaded to be allowed to return home. When that did not work, he tried a different tactic; he wrote a book entitled A Description of New Netherland. The book was not only a detailed history and a precise geography description of the colony; it was also a beautiful patriotic description of his American homeland.
The Dutch government was impressed with his book, to say the least. They would not let him publish it, though, until after the war was over, because they did not want it to attract England’s attention to the colony. They still would not let him go home.
Finally, after four years of waiting and hearing that his farm was going to ruin, Van der Doncke worked out a compromise. He promised never to antagonize Stuyvesant in any matter, nor ever again to engage in any political activity. Although the terms must have torn at his heart, he was overjoyed when the States General allowed him to return home.
The people of New Amsterdam were pleased to see their friend back in America. Van der Doncke’s political work did not end completely, but rather disappeared behind the scenes. He continued to build ideas of liberty and representative government in the minds of the people of New Amsterdam.
About this time Stuyvesant made some diplomatic mistakes which infuriated some nearby Indians. In retaliation, some of them swept through New Amsterdam and the local villages, burning houses and murdering civilians. Apparently one of the homes they visited belonged to our unfortunate hero. Although there is no official record of his death, Van der Doncke was evidently killed by the savages. His wife escaped and later remarried.
Adraien van der Doncke’s legacy, though profound in the long run, seemed at the time to be cut short. His only apparent legacy was his book, A Description of New Netherland. The Dutch government published the book after the war was over, and it became an instant best-seller. Other than that, Van der Doncke’s name seemed doomed to obscurity.
Stuyvesant’s fate was hardly any better. The English set their sights on New Amsterdam and laid siege to it. Stuyvesant was prepared to fight to the death; to his dismay, however, not a single living soul in all of New Netherland was willing to help him defend it. They were tired of tyranny; they would rather take their chances with the English government than suffer under the thumb of the West India Company and its choice of governor. When the English army approached the colony, the entire fighting force in New Netherland consisted of only two arms and one leg. With a broken heart, Stuyvesant surrendered. New Amsterdam became an English colony and was renamed New York. Stuyvesant returned to Europe to be reprimanded for surrendering so easily, then sailed back to his home in America and lived the remainder of his life a New Yorker.
The conflict between Stuyvesant and Van der Doncke was over, but the city’s struggle for liberty lived on. New York eventually became weary of oppression from the English government, and declared itself independent. Once again, the British attacked the city, but this time the people rallied behind their leader, George Washington. Although the British won this campaign, the indefatigable city persevered and won its freedom. New York may never have become free without the persistent efforts of Adraien van der Doncke, who inspired liberty in the minds and hearts of the people.