"Most Everything Was Still Dutch”: Against the British Era Declension Narrative
By Joyce D. Goodfriend
The tenacity with which many Dutch commoners held to their native language — even as it diverged from the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands — did not escape the notice of influential New Yorkers. In the midst of the hotly contested election of 1768, politicians courting the vote of the city’s Dutch-speakers arranged to print a Dutch version of “A Kick for the Whipper by Sir Isaac Foot,” a partisan essay, in the New-York Gazette. In February 1775, when the printer of the New-York Journal published the “whole proceedings of the continental congress, held in Philadelphia in September and October 1774,” he alerted readers that his edition included “the principal parts, translated into Low Dutch.” Improbable as it may seem in light of the fact that English had long been “the language where power... resided,” Dutch remained a living language in New York City long after members of the elite assumed it would be displaced by English.
Why, then, despite unambiguous evidence that the linguistic Anglicization of New York’s Dutch was neither inexorable nor swift, has a scenario that portrays the Dutch language as well on its way to extinction in New York City by the mid-eighteenth century become so entrenched? Simply put, the actual record of Dutch speakers and readers in the eighteenth century has been drowned out by what I call a “discourse of decline,” a dismissive way of talking about the chances of survival for the Dutch language in eighteenth-century New York City. Understanding the eighteenth-century roots of this discourse and how thoroughly it has been woven into historical accounts by church scribes as well as scholars is crucial to recovering the story of Dutch cultural survival in the eighteenth-century city. So pervasive has been the notion that the Dutch language rapidly became a relic of a vanished past that little significance has been attached to local Dutch imprints, the inclusion of Dutch-language items in local newspapers, and the importation of Dutch books, and almost no significance at all to the men and women who might have read these works. However, once we begin to question this long-accepted trajectory of ineluctable linguistic adaptation, a line of thinking that implicitly assumes that learning English necessarily meant abandoning Dutch, conceiving of language retention as a means of challenging English cultural authority becomes plausible.
Most of what we know about the segment of the city’s Dutch population that persisted in speaking and reading Dutch comes from the forum of Dutch Reformed Church politics, where people from artisan and laboring families vigorously contested the elite’s initiative to introduce English preaching in a protracted dispute that began in the 1740s and lasted well beyond 1764, when the first English sermon was delivered in the church. This bitter clash over the language of worship exposed a fundamental cleavage in the city’s Dutch community that became more visible after the death of the irenic Domine Gualterus Du Bois in 1751. What was at stake was nothing less than the meaning of being Dutch in eighteenth-century New York City. Descendants of New Netherland families who coveted a place in British society recast Dutch identity in a mold that muted the differences between Dutch and English. While some switched their allegiance to the Church of England, others sought to reinvigorate their ancestral church by supplementing Dutch preaching with English, and sponsoring English translations of foundational texts. Men and women who “pray[ed] that no change or intermingling of languages be allowed in their house of worship” sought to block these proposals, vowing to “protect our church in its doctrine and its language, as far as lies in our power.” To combat their fellow congregants’ claim that language and faith were inseparable, the promoters of English-language worship crafted a series of arguments aimed not only at demolishing their adversaries’ position but also at discrediting New York’s Dutch speakers. This emerging discourse of decline carried weight among adherents of the Reformed church as well as outsiders, making it easier to repudiate the historic place of the Dutch language in the city.
Grounded in the expectation that the city’s changing demography and the patent advantages of fluency in English would lead to the rapid displacement of Dutch, the discourse of decline seemed credible. Eighteenth-century New Yorkers of Dutch origins had every reason to gravitate to English, given its widespread use in government and commerce. As early as the 1720s, even the leading men in the Dutch Reformed congregation admitted that “it is very necessary to be versed in this common language of the people [English], in order properly to carry on one’s temporal calling.” Two decades later (in 1747), Domine Johannes Ritzema remarked that English “is ever more natural to our inhabitants and even to the members of our congregation.”
But the unstated corollary of this theory was that learning English would automatically lead to discarding Dutch. For those near to or at the top of the social pyramid the logic was indisputable. Prominent Dutch traders, anxious to secure their families’ position in the new mercantile environment, took steps to prepare their sons for life in the English Atlantic world. In 1703, Johannes De Peyster, writing to his brother in Dutch, proudly reported on the progress of his nine-year-old son [Johannes Jr.] in learning English in Boston. “English comes more fluently and easier to him than Dutch. [You] would be surprised should you hear him converse in English.... He spells and reads fluently besides saying the English prayers and catechism.” Perceiving that mastery of the English language was the prerequisite to economic success, political influence, and social standing in New York, ambitious parents saw no reason to school their children in Dutch. “The Dutch tongue Declines fast amongst Us Especially with the Young people,” merchant Cornelius Van Horne noted in 1743. “And All Affairs are transacted in English and that Language prevails Generally Amongst Us.” In 1748, Domine Du Bois observed that “the Dutch language is gradually, more and more being neglected,” effectively endorsing the position of the “several [who] begin to speak of calling a minister, after my death, to preach in the English language, but in accordance with our manner and doctrine."
Gentlemen such as James De Lancey, who had predicted that “in a few years all foreign languages will go out and English will prevail,” pictured an English juggernaut rolling over foreign tongues, a view shared by attorney William Livingston, who asserted in 1754 that “every foreign language, however generally practiced and understood for a time, must, at length, be neglected and forgotten. Thus it is with the Dutch tongue, which though once the common dialect of this province, is now scarcely understood, except by its more ancient inhabitants.” In linking fluency in Dutch to old age, Livingston seized on a generational motif that resonated among other witnesses to New York’s evolving culture. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist who visited the colony at midcentury, noted that “In New York [City] were... many homes in which Dutch was commonly spoken, especially by the elderly people. The majority, however, who were of Dutch descent, were succumbing to the English language. The younger generation scarcely ever spoke anything but English.” Lutheran minister Michael Christian Knoll was even more dogmatic when he declared in 1749 that “as late as 20 years ago most everything was still Dutch,” but “since that time everything seems to have turned to English.” Knoll’s successor Henry Muhlenberg wavered in his assessment of young New Yorkers’ language practices, maintaining in May 1751 that “the Dutch children forget their mother tongue and learn English,” but admitting a month later, in June 1751, that “the Dutch young people are just as fluent in English as in their mother tongue.” The matter was far from settled, even if the authors of the discourse of decline thought otherwise.
The wisdom of abandoning their native language may have seemed obvious to well-off Dutchmen keen to elevate their status, but people of privilege erred in assuming that ordinary Dutch New Yorkers would passively follow their lead. To the contrary, the pace of language shift among many Dutch New Yorkers of modest means was glacial, a point that exponents of the discourse of decline conceded in 1764, when they depicted defenders of Dutch in the Reformed church debate as “stiffnecked” and “amenable to no power of reason.”
Overarching the discourse of decline was the concern that the obduracy of the Dutch partisans was jeopardizing the church’s standing in the city by causing young people who could not understand Dutch to transfer their allegiance to congregations that featured English-speaking ministers. “We have daily the mortification to see the offspring of the wealthiest members of our congregation leave our divine worship.” The defection of these scions of the best Dutch families was sapping the ancestral church of its most precious human resources. “Our congregation... for some years past, has been a nursery for all the English denominations of Christians in this city, and those chiefly from our principal people, whereby most men now in power belong to other congregations, though lineally descended from Dutch parents.” For William Livingston, whose goal was to increase the political influence of New York’s Dissenters vis-à-vis the Anglicans, the Dutch Reformed church’s failure to institute English-language worship blocked the forging of a critical alliance between the Presbyterians and the Dutch Reformed that could have substantially negated the power of the Anglicans.
Political considerations were integral to the discourse of decline, but writing in this vein also tapped into another set of concerns centered on the cachet attached to English as a polite language. Attorney William Smith Jr.’s assertion that “our common speech [in New York City] is extremely corrupt, and the evidences of a bad taste, both as to thought and language, are visible in all our proceedings, publick and private,” resonated with the Dutch Reformed church leaders charged with recruiting the new English-speaking minister in 1763. Committed to hiring an exemplar of cultivated language, they stipulated that the candidate be “a man with a strong audible voice, clear and distinct in his speech. He must be a good orator, used to elegant language, acquainted with men and books,” and, importantly, “his English dialect [must be] pure and untainted, without any brogue of other languages.” So important was correct English speech to these acculturated Dutchmen that they declared that “in the present case [the] assistance [of the Amsterdam Classis] cannot be of much service, as we presume they are not sufficient masters of the English language to judge the properties of English speech.”
Joyce D. Goodfriend is Professor of History at the University of Denver. She is the author of Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664–1730, editor of Revisiting New Netherland: Perspectives on Early Dutch America, and co-editor of Going Dutch: The Dutch Presence in America, 1609–2009.
Reprinted from Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City, by Joyce D. Goodfriend. Copyright © 2017 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.