Dutch-American Identity Politics:
The Use of History by Dutch Immigrants
Roosevelt Study Center
Middelburg, The Netherlands
visiting research fellows program
van raalt e institute
18 September 2003
Dr. Hans Krabbendam is the assistant director of the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, the Netherlands. He has published several articles on Dutch immigration history and edited nine books on European (Dutch)-American relations. He is president of the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies.
Dr. Krabbendam studied Dutch-American history at Leiden University, earning a master’s degree in 1988. He spent the following year at Kent State University in Ohio where he specialized in Dutch immigration history and earned another master’s degree in 1989. In 1995 he received a Ph.D. from Leiden University. His dissertation, later published as a book, dealt with the life of a famous Dutch-American and was titled: “The Model Man: A Life of Edward W. Bok, 1868-1930.”
One of two visiting research fellows affiliated with the Van Raalte Institute in fall 2003, Dr. Krabbendam presented this public address on 18 September 2003 in Maas Auditorium.
Dutch-American Identity Politics:
The Use of History by Dutch Immigrants
Roosevelt Study Center
Middelburg, The Netherlands
In 1991 Guy Vander Jagt, Republican Congressman from Michigan, succeeded in securing two hundred twenty signatures from his colleagues in the House of Representatives to send a resolution to President Bush asking him to declare 16 November “Dutch-American Heritage Day.”1 In an interview Vander Jagt revealed that not all of his colleagues signed because they felt so close to the Dutch, but because they could not resist Vander Jagt’s oratorical wit. Guy remembers how he approached Congressman Jim Bunning, a former baseball pitcher, who refused to comply, saying, “I don’t do that sort of things,” and how he responded with, “Come on Jim. You pitched for the Detroit Tigers. Detroit is Michigan and Michigan is Holland, Michigan. It’s sort of your State.” This example of irrefutable logic persuaded Bunning and many others to sign and President Bush Sr. duly elevated 16 November to the status of commemoration day for the ethnic heritage of the estimated eight million Americans identifying with their Dutch roots.2 Vander Jagt admitted that he had initiated this act to please his Dutch constituency, but without the desired success.
Historians find this phenomenon intriguing, since it has historical antecedents to do with the use of history in public announcements. In this paper I want to explore the ways Dutch immigrants in the United States used history (both Dutch and American history) and what they achieved with it.
In 2000, the Norwegian literary historian Orm Overland analyzed the strategies used by non-British immigrants in creating their home in the United States.3 He asserts that immigrants participated early in the modern process of identity politics, because they were caught in the middle between being foreign in America and equally foreign in their home countries. Whatever they decided about maintaining or surrendering their old culture, they met critical responses from their relatives or their surroundings. A way out of this tension was to create mythical stories connecting their group’s heritage with America.
Overland identified three types of myths available to the immigrants: a foundation myth that claimed a share in the origin of the United States, a myth of sacrifice that emphasized the contribution of immigrants in America’s wars, and an ideological myth that asserted that an immigrant group had an American disposition (usually love of freedom and democracy) before it had even emigrated. These myths were common ingredients in the popular and filiopietist histories and commemorative addresses of Euro-American groups from 1870 to 1930, the decades of massive European immigration, and were often used in combination. Ethnic leaders deployed these strategies to strengthen their group’s self-respect and a sense of continuity in order to prevent their group from anonymously sliding into the amorphous American society.
This common pattern among European immigrant groups did not mean they showed solidarity with one another. Foundation myths of one group competed with similar myths of another group in order to move a step up on the ladder of privilege. When Norwegian-Americans promoted Leif Erikson as the “discoverer” of the New World, Italian-Americans considered this act an embezzlement of “their” Columbus. Swedes tried to push Finns out of the celebration of the founding of New Sweden because Finland was not an independent nation in the seventeenth century. Nor were these invocations always successful. Germans during World War I unsuccessfully deployed arguments of sacrifice in order to keep their place in the pecking order. The Irish were first in developing a myth of ideology, based on their fight against the British and their struggle for freedom. The tenuous nature of this myth is evident when we find no welcoming reception for the Irish upon their arrival on American soil in the 1840s and 1850s as “freedom fighters.”
Not all uses of history were monolithic within one ethnic group. Class made a difference: typical working-class socialistic sympathies did not encourage these myths, since these myths destroyed labor solidarity. The location of the settlement, the interaction with surrounding ethnic groups, and the presence of the dominant Anglo-Saxons determined the choice of arguments: midwestern and eastern reactions could differ. Immigrant groups preferred to use the foundation myth, followed by the myth of sacrifice and ideology myth. We will see that different sections in the Dutch-American subculture chose different strategies.
Not only recent immigrants used their heritage to demand more respect. Simultaneously, organizations of respectable descendants of colonial immigrants emerged explicitly to protect their specific heritage, and later in the twentieth century foreign governments discovered the same strategy to strengthen diplomatic and economic relations. Around the time of the Great War, the Dutch minister in Washington faithfully attended the annual meetings of the Holland and Netherlands Societies in his region singing the praises of the Netherlands as the “Holy Land of Modern Europe” (to quote an Oxford don) and raise emotional support for the Dutch position.4
[Apart from these three positive myths, immigrant subcultures created negative myths. A key example of this category is the “No Irish Need Apply” story, deconstructed by historian Richard Jensen.5 This widespread belief in the signs rejecting Irish workers proved to be imaginary, apart from a few ads and popular songs. Jensen explains the persistence of this myth by showing the strong ties of working-class solidarity among the Irish, which had strong and effective collective bargaining strategies. This helped them to gain and keep considerable political power. The “No Irish Need Apply” myth might very well have been meant to issue defensive warnings not to break these bonds of solidarity by accepting jobs from Protestants or others outside the circle of control. This “negative” myth was not in competition with the “positive home-making” myth; on the contrary, it emphasized the perceived unfairness that the Irish were wanted in the American army, but not in regular jobs.]
The value of historian Overland’s analysis is that it transforms the meaning of ethnic celebrations in the United States from rear view mirrors of nostalgia to windows on the future as instruments to make America home.
Dutch History Surfaces
One could conclude that groups most under pressure in American society would turn to these devices first. But the evidence reveals no specific link between nativism and an effort to claim a part in America’s heritage. For instance, the publication of the first Dutch-American newspaper (the Sheboygan Nieuwsbode) in 1848 was more a result of the recent wave of immigrants who needed a channel of communication than of emerging nativism. One could assume that once a group reached the status of acceptance, these three myths lost their usefulness. This appears not to be the case, since these tropes still function in official diplomatic exchanges, and they continue to be revived at the building of international relations (which is, of course, a different use of similar strategies).
The first scholarly attention given to the Dutch in the New World was not a product of the “tribe.” While Washington Irving had placed the New Netherland Dutch in a comic light in his Knickerbocker tales, the Dutch reputation had received a serious correction in the late 1840s thanks to the publication of The History of New Netherland by an Irish-American Edmund B. O’Callaghan, which provided a factual treasure trove for the foundation myth. This boost was surpassed by the even more popular The Rise of the Dutch Republic in 1856 by the Anglo historian John Lothrop Motley.6 For almost seventy-five years this book determined the image of the Netherlands in the English-speaking world, even though it was not as well-researched as his later books. The fabulous sales of this book were a result of the obvious parallels between the Dutch and American wars of Independence and the increasing tension between North and South, while it also took an anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic perspective. Motley hoped to liberate the English-speaking world from its concentration on itself. He provided the arguments for the ideological parallels between the Dutch and American Republics and was aided by Douglas Campbell, who in his book on the Puritan in England, Holland, and America, published in 1892, denied the British the honor of having nursed American institutions.
The celebration of America’s centennial in 1876 and the professionalization of historical studies in the U.S. kindled the interest in Clio. In the 1880s the awareness of the historical ties between the U.S. and Holland were rediscovered and published. In 1881 the American minister in the Netherlands, James Birney, retraced the evidence for the first salute at St. Eustatius in Dutch archives. At the end of the decade, the ceremonies at Plymouth, Massachusetts, triggered one of his successors, Samuel R. Thayer, to make an effort to erect a monument for the Pilgrims’ departure in Delfshaven.7
International affairs also contributed to the growing awareness of Dutch ethnicity. The Boer Wars of the early 1880s, and in particular those of the 1899-1902 years, pumped up feelings of ethnic solidarity with the descendants of the Dutch in South Africa, who played the heroic role of the underdog. The horror stories about the concentration camps where innocent women and children suffered aroused an anti-British sentiment that lasted till after World War I. The financial and protest campaigns to support the Boers further strengthened the ties with the Netherlands, where similar sentiments gained ground. The Boers stood for the virtues of faith and courage that the Dutch liked to identify with.8 These events prove that the sources documenting the Dutch presence were available, and that the motives to remember the Dutch part came from outside the circle of recent Dutch immigrants.
In the mid-1880s societies were founded with the mission to preserve Dutch heritage. The founding of the venerable Holland Society of New York in 1885 was a reaction of the Old Dutch colonial elite to the overwhelming forces of industrialization and immigration. Its establishment resulted from a court case where the lawyers and judges were all “Van’s”: Van Siclen, Van Allen, Vanderpoel and Van Vorst.9 The requirement that members of the newly founded society needed to be descendants of the New Netherland Dutch before 1675, was clearly a class barrier. The society served to collect information about the Dutch in America, write its history, and promote the principles and virtues of their Dutch ancestors, and drew more than two hundred members in its first year. The Dutch consul general Planten provided replicas of historical artifacts which served as symbols of the courage the Dutch showed in defending civil and religious liberties.10 Soon other chapters of the Holland Society were founded in other cities with a sizable Dutch-American population.
To solidify their Dutch roots, a group of fifty members visited the Netherlands in the summer of 1888 and were fêted by mayors and businessmen. The society delighted in drawing publicity to its rich dinners. They reenacted Dutch customs in food, drinks, smokes, ornaments, and songs. Apart from the valuable publication of Dutch primary sources from the colonial period, the patrician Holland Society members composed superiority songs such as the following:11
“I’m a Van of a Van of a Van of Van
Of a Van of a way back line;
On every rugged feature ancestral glories shine;
And all our band in kinship stand
With all that’s old and fine;
I’m a Van of a Van of a Van of a Van
of a Van of a way back line.”
These patricians used these foundation stories of New Netherland as ammunition in progressive politics. In 1903 Robert B. Roosevelt, former American minister to the Netherlands, founding member of the Holland Society, and uncle to President Theodore Roosevelt, used the commemoration of the first city charter of New York in 1653 to attack New York’s submission to the corrupt bosses in Albany. He drew from the Dutch heritage to claim the city’s “birthright of independence and self-reliance.”12 This triggered a discussion to materialize this legacy by raising funds for a statue of William the Silent, which took more than twenty years to arrive and five more years to be erected on the campus of Rutgers University.13 They also anchored the Dutch-American legacy to locations in the Netherlands. In 1914 the “Dutchophile” Congregational minister of Anglo descent, William E. Griffis, boasted of having erected ten monuments in the Netherlands in towns with links to American history.14 The Society also initiated and sponsored the celebration of the expedition of Henry Hudson, who was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company in 1609, and had a replica built of the Halve Maen. However, the joint celebration of Hudson with Fulton’s first steam ship to navigate the Hudson River obscured the Dutch element beyond recognition.15
The first wave of Dutch immigrants arriving in Michigan in the 1840s did not need to explicitly confirm their loyalty, since most of them felt at home in America. They faithfully celebrated the 4th of July.16 The twenty-fifth commemoration of 1872 was still very much a religious ceremony. Zeeland became aware of the importance of its history in 1879, when thirty-two men founded the Oude Settlers Vereeniging to write their settlement history. Its first serious celebration was the fortieth anniversary of the founding of their town in 1887.17
Resistance against Americanization was felt most in circles of the Christian Reformed Church. In 1887 one of its ministers in classis Holland stated that 4 July was a necessary evil. De Grondwet editor L. Mulder protested against this judgment and considered it a result of a misunderstanding among the Dutch about the gap between church and society, while he believed American society was a “positively Christian society.” Moreover, Mulder regretted that this abject position broke the unity in the Dutch community by excluding others as had happened in Overisel where the CRC had withdrawn its presence because the religious element was absent.18
The most public platform for displaying the Dutch heritage was the Chicago Columbian exposition in 1893. The Dutch presence at the Chicago World’s Fair consisted of a few minor exhibits of contemporary economic artifacts such as a herring schooner and a cocoa mill. The main attention was drawn to the 332 paintings displayed in 9,300 square feet. This exhibit of old and new masters was exuberantly received, and stood in stark contrast to the old-fashioned uniforms of the Dutch in the military parade, which did not fill the spectators with awe. Art surpassed history as the vehicle of ethnic pride. Commissioner-general George Birkhoff took the opportunity to draw attention on 31 August to Princess Wilhelmina’s birthday as a day of festivities.19 This day did not catch on until the next World’s Fair in 1933. The preparation and presentation of the Dutch legacy at the World’s Fairs of 1893 and 1933 triggered the founding of several Dutch clubs in Chicago, such as the elitist Holland Society in 1895 and the more humble Saint Nicholas Society in 1905, but none of them lasted long.20 Their programs were heavily laden with historical references to William of Orange and fully exploited the common ideological basis of the Netherlands and the United States.
After the turn of the century, the claim of Dutch distinction became more explicit. In 1907, Western Theological Seminary professor Nicholas M. Steffens expressed the pride of his ethnic group when he addressed the crowd at the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the colony. He claimed that the Dutch had become excellent citizens because they had preserved the good parts of their Dutch character. He continued with a disdainful comment on the inferiority of the recent immigrants from East and Southern Europe: “Perhaps it is good that Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, Polaks, and Russians do not establish settlements, but are soon swallowed up by the mighty American spirit, but when immigrants arrive from countries, whose citizens have something to offer that is wise to preserve, than it is a blessing for themselves as for the Americans, if they come as the Hollanders came in AD 1847.”21
At the same event the Reverend Matthew Kolyn defined the mission of the Hollander in America in a combination of all three myths: “We are persuaded that the Hollander in America has come to stay. His influcence is to be powerful and lasting; it has been known and felt during the three centuries that have passed since his coming. His name is written large upon the pages of American history. His love for and devotion to the new fatherland have been unquestioned. In peace and in war, the Hollander in America has been a patriot of the noblest type.” His argument was fully historical: the Dutch had not only founded New Amsterdam, but had come in the shape of the Pilgrims, who were thoroughly Dutchified, and in the person of William Penn, who had a Dutch mother, to fulfill an important role in keeping America pure and orderly.22
Similar stories reached far and determined the positive sentiment toward the Dutch in the Midwest. Vice consul Gerrit Klay of Orange City, Iowa, reported in 1931 that the obedient Dutch had not been involved in any criminal court cases in the past three years. “This is in accordance with a remark made by President Hoover not long ago: ‘The Dutch descendants over here are never in prison and never in the poor house.’”23 Though many Dutch like to read these remarks as signs of their moral superiority, they were actually results of a settlement pattern with a strong social cohesion, caused by the dominant family migration to rural areas within a tight religious frame work.
The young generation inculcated these ideas: William C. Walvoord exemplified the heroic Dutch past that the students embraced at Hope College. In February 1908 this Wisconsin student won the oratorical contest (see the Anchor) with a tale on the Siege of Leyden, “Heroism, sacrifice, and nobleness of purpose are qualities which characterize not only the defense of Leyden, but... [t]he American Revolution, qualities which are essential to every struggle for true freedom.”24 In the same year Ladies’ Home Journal editor Edward W. Bok awarded a prize to Hope student George F. Huizinga for his essay on what the Dutch had contributed to the development of the American West.25
The Great War
World War I increased the stakes of the Dutch in regard to American public opinion. The Dutch had to fear degradation since their neutral fatherland missed out on the heroic tale and was even associated with the enemy. This threat was also felt on the West Coast, where Henry A. Van Coenen Torchiana, a former cowboy turned businessman, did what one would expect from a consul-general: he gave an overview of the state of trade between the United States and the Netherlands in 1918. He embarked on a course of cultural diplomacy, since he was aware of the fact that “public opinion will act very largely as a jury of future trade relations.”26 He had no doubts about the positive judgment of the American press of the Netherlands. Confidently he announced: “American public opinion will do justice to the Netherlands and its people for two reasons: Because this public opinion is American, and therefore Fair, and because the Netherlands people deserve it.”27 He made a fine effort to raise personal sympathy for the venerable and learned prime minister, the agonizing young queen, and the well-beloved former Minister to the United States, Loudon, married to a most estimable American lady. He parried the criticism of Dutch trade with Germany during the Great War by claiming this was the right of a neutral power and necessary to provide consumption articles for its own population.
Van Coenen realized that a historical appeal to the United States for the many services rendered to it by Holland in the past would not work in this situation and he derived his arguments from common values of personal and political liberties. Moreover, he capitalized on anti-German feelings in the United States by suggesting that trade opportunities for Dutch products in America were promising if they were of established Dutch origin. And for his own regional audience he added that Californian ports were the logical and promising destination for the resurging colonial trade and he encouraged American businessmen to set up banks and transportation lines and invest in the Dutch East and West Indies.28 Similar arguments confirming the enduring mutual attachment to liberty, peace, and justice were made on the East Coast, where Counselor of the Netherlands Legation in Washington, William de Beaufort, aimed to clear the Dutch reputation by stating, “Our common past has no drawback in the realization of our common present.”29
This emphasis on common values echoed the approach of Theodore Roosevelt, who toasted the Dutchman in America at the 1890 dinner of the Holland Society in New York by extolling the virtues of assimilation and using the colonial Dutch as his evidence. He said: “The thoroughness with which the Hollander has become Americanized, and the way in which he has ceased being anything but an American makes him invaluable as an object lesson to some of the races who have followed him to America at an interval of about two centuries.”30
The elaborate celebration of the centennial of the Dutch colonies in 1947 revisited the contribution of the Dutch to America. Willard Wichers headed the committee and got the Netherlands government heavily involved, so much so that some locals felt the Dutch had taken over the celebration. The Dutch used this event to strengthen the cultural ties with their most powerful liberator, whose people still lent material assistance to the impoverished Dutch. Philosopher Marten ten Hoor made a sophisticated effort to prove that the Dutch Calvinists had a democratic practice, even if they did not wholly subscribe to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. But the most important feature remained the display of objects to stimulate pride in the achievements of the Dutch pioneers and emphasize “the spirit of Ebenezer, the spirit which enabled our fathers, wherever they settled to build happy homes and become useful citizens.”31
How, when, and where did the Dutch-Americans use which strategy to prove they belonged in America? According to Overland the desire of the Dutch was weak: “Dutch immigrants themselves do not seem to have felt a great need to trumpet their own colonial presence.”32 His supporting evidence is a 1921 editorial in Onze Toekomst claiming that the main contribution of the Dutch in America was the planting of True Religion (i.e. the Christian Reformed Church) and he is only partially right: the stronger the religious identity of a group the less it has a need for an explicit ethnic identity. Most nineteenth-century Dutch immigrants had a strong religious attachment, which offered a sense of belonging and which neutralized the fear of being absorbed in America without leaving a trace. The Christian Reformed were more interested in justifying their existence than in making ethnic statements. For the Americanized Dutch with weak religious attachments the historical roots gained importance. Their efforts to solidify their position had been prepared by historical research and a rediscovery of the Dutch roots in the mid-nineteenth century. These circumstances bore the signs of patrician ethnic societies. Simultaneously the Midwestern Dutch reached a series of commemorative years that propelled self-reflection. Outside pressure was only felt during the First World War. The three regions with Dutch-American settlements all used history and ideology to identify themselves. Since the situation in each region differed, they used these arguments with a differing emphasis. On the East Coast, the Dutch of colonial lineage used their heritage to advance political goals. In the Midwest (and beyond) the more recent immigrants referred to Dutch history to advance moral values, while the most recent arrivals on the West coast employed the glory of the Dutch empire to stimulate commercial activities. The foundation and ideological myths were used most, while the Dutch contributions to America’s wars were much less prominent.33 The ideological myth was most rewarding since it did not need such strong historical facts—although the Dutch possessed an abundant share of that evidence—and could be more easily used in drawing parallels between Dutch and American history to stress common virtues.34
The colonial Dutch had been fully accepted and used the three myths mainly to counter belittling by Anglos. As the Dutch minister A. C. D. de Graeff told his Dutch-American audience in 1924: “So often in Washington society I am greeted socially by the ladies with the question: ‘How is dear little Holland?’ I am sure these people feel genuine sympathy for my country. However, I take exception…. It is not geographic dimensions, but strength of character of the people that fixes a country’s place in the family of nations.”35 This showed that the agenda of the representatives of the Dutch government matched with those of the Dutch-Americans in confirming their heritage, as they had done during the First World War.
In the Dutch case, not attacks from outside prompted the use of these strategies, but events in society. The Dutch echoed the positions in the dominant culture, in fact confirming the hegemonic nature of Anglo culture by supporting it with their own heritage. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Holland Society of Chicago used the Dutch struggle against Spain to support the “liberation” of Cuba.36 Similarly, the Tulip Time festivals confirmed the Americanness of the Dutch-American subculture, promoting its virtues, drawing from a historical justification, and presenting a well-known stereotype in its first six decades.37 These festivals strengthened the cohesion in their community, while simultaneously strengthening the ties with the consumer culture and emphasizing the business ethic of America. It confirmed American stereotypes of nostalgia, simple life, and primary colors, as Suzanne Sinke and others have noticed.
I wonder whether my lecture here today and the existence of the Van Raalte Institute and organizations such as the DIS and AADAS are also instruments in advancing Dutch-American identity? I trust they are. I appreciate them for their goals, but I also hope I have shown that critical self-reflection reveals some less praiseworthy patterns and purposes.
The purest form of identity politics was drafted by Christian Reformed minister Henry Beets, who was most pushing for Americanization, in a song titled “Song of the Holland-Americans.”38 Beets composed this praise song of Dutch-Americanism on the occasion of the Semi-Centennial celebration of the Christian Reformed Church in 1907. Beets’s song was singled out by the publisher not only because it was considered real poetry, but especially he felt it would “fill a long felt want in Social gatherings of our people.” The song was the first entry in a collection of Dutch religious evergreens with English translations, but this one had little religious wording. It connected the colonial Dutch with the nineteenth-century immigrants in singing the praises of the United States. The second stanza draws the attention away from a glorious past to a promising future, while the fifth and final stanza prayed to “Infuse the best of all our past, the noblest of out traits, into the life, into the deed of our United States!” Though the lyrics created a distance from the old country and made an emotional appeal to embrace America, it also bonded the Dutch-Americans of all generations together, because they were the only ones to sing it. The song worked because the tune was that of the old Dutch national anthem “Wien Neerlands bloed in de aderen vloeit,” a typically nationalist song with some racist undertones, which was exchanged for the historical Wilhelmus of Nassau in 1933. From the records of the Holland societies, I learned that they always closed their meetings with a song. I suggest closing my lecture with the joint singing of this almost century-old articulation of Dutch-Americanness.
Come ye who boast of Dutch descent,
Sons of New Netherland,
And ye who reached our friendly shore
with western pilgrim band
Unite with us in festive song,
Song which the heart elates
And sing the praises of our land
Our own United States,
Our own United States.
We love the land across the sea
We glory in its past;
We pray for its prosperity,
May it forever last!
But tho we love old Holland still,
We love Columbia more,
The land our sons and brethren fill
From east to western shore,
From east to western shore.39
Visiting Research Fellows Program
For Academic Year 2004-2005
The Van Raalte Institute at Hope College invites applications from qualified scholars for a fellowship offered through the Visiting Research Fellows Program established in January 2003. Up to two people a year will be invited to spend up to ten weeks at the Van Raalte Institute (VRI).
Criteria for Selection: Proposals for support must demonstrate that the proposed research fits the Mission Statement of the Institute, that the scholar is qualified to conduct such research, and that the resources of both the Institute and the Joint Archives of Holland are essential to that research. A curriculum vitae should be submitted with the application.
Stipend: $250 per week, with a maximum stipend/grant of $2,500. The stipend would normally be used to offset travel and living expenses for the fellows. For a Hope faculty member appointed as a visiting research fellow, we would expect to pay the replacement cost.
Application Deadline: Proposals are due no later than 15 January 2004.
Further Information can be obtained from:
Jacob E. Nyenhuis, Ph.D.
Director, Van Raalte Institute
P.O. Box 9000
Holland, MI 49422-9000
Telephone: (616) 395-7678; Fax: (616) 395-7120