The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 24
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Chapter XXIV: The Long Struggle for Religious Liberty
NEW YORK province, conquered as a fief of the English Crown, was a feudatory principality, while the proprietor was a duke; but when the Duke of York became sovereign, New York was the Crown’s land, — a province with provincial government. Was, then, the claim of the new owner by right of prior discovery, or by conquest? If the former, then the Dutch had been only trespassers on English soil, and the English legal system, with all its inheritances from feudalism, would at once prevail. This would make life intolerable to freeborn republicans. If, on the other hand, the basis of the claim was conquest, then the Dutch system of jurisprudence, which was founded on Roman law, together with the especial ordinances of New Netherland, would remain in force until repealed. The crown lawyers of England were to have settled the question, but, as they never did, the people of New York solved the problem for themselves.
A high authority has declared that the “civil administration of the Dutch left its permanent impress on the customs, laws, and civilization of New York and New Jersey … Dutch jurisprudence founded on Roman law was superior to the contemporary feudal law introduced by the English.” The Dutch legislation concerning police, property, inheritances, and status shows a highly civilized state of society. The laws relative to the public records of legal instruments were in advance of contemporary English law. No principle of primogeniture prevailed. The penal laws of New York were always more enlightened and less severe than those in other colonies founded by England, — a direct result of the earlier Dutch institutions, which were more humane.
- At the surrender the English received one of the most flourishing colonies in America, possessing a hardy, vigorous, and thrifty people, well adapted to all the principles of civil and religious freedom. These Dutch colonists cheerfully accepted all that was good in English customs and laws, but stoutly and successfully resisted what they considered undesirable. This could not have been the case if their prior political, religious, and social conditions had not been of a superior kind.
Now began the battle of justice, for the fundamental and ultimate question was left virtually undecided until July 4, 1776.
From the very beginning, the Dutch determined to preserve the right, confirmed in 1664, of the congregation to elect its own officers. They were on the alert against any law that looked to the establishment of the Church of England on American soil. The first English governors, not understanding what kind of people they had to deal with, did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. They assumed, contrary to the fact, that the Church of England was established in the colony of New York. All much trickery was nullified by Dutch vigilance.
King Charles II sent “secret instructions” to his five commissioners in and about, New England, and these instructions had a double purpose. These royal agents were not only to take the territory held by the Dutch, but they were also to get away from the New England colonists their charters, or to have them so modified that the King’s power would be so increased that even church officers would be under royal appointment.
Walter van Twiller, returning to Holland, took charge in Nijkerk of the education of the Patroon’s son, Nicholas, born in 1647. At an early ago, Nicholas van Rensselaer joined a ring of gay young fellows at the Hague, who surrounded Charles Stuart. By predicting that Charles would be King, Nicholas got into the royal good graces. He crossed to America in the suite of Andros, and tried to get the ancestral manor, but failed in the courts. In July, 1674, the Duke of York recommended Nicholas to Governor Andros for a “living” in one of the Dutch churches. This meant an invasion of the rights of the Dutch Church, as guaranteed by treaty, and, besides, Nicholas had no credentials, not having received ordination in Holland. The full story of the successful resistance of this attempted invasion by the English State Church is told in the Ecclesiastical Records published by the State of New York. These show that the claim that the Anglican Church was established in New York was an absurdity. Andros assumed that it was, and this baseless assumption has been often repeated, not only by Europeans, but by not a few American writers, and even in legal documents on our own soil.
In 1679 the Dutch clergymen formed a Classis, — the first in the New World, — and ordained Rev. Petrus Tassemacher to the ministry, thus exercising their full ecclesiastical rights, and their proceedings were approved by the Classis of Amsterdam, no Anglican bishop having anything to do with the matter.
The long battle for full liberty of conscience lasted one hundred and thirteen years, from 1664 to 1777, for the Dutch resisted the claim of the Bishop of London to install ministers and schoolmasters in New York province. In 1691 they rejected Governor Sloughter’s bill to have ministers supported by taxation. Fletcher, his successor, pressed the same point, and the Dutch Assembly opposed him. The “Ministry Act” of 1693 as finally passed was limited to certain parishes in only four out of ten counties. It did not establish the Anglican Church in New York province. Here was a lofty monument on the way to American freedom.
As early as December 12, 1686, the Dutch petitioned for a new church edifice outside the fort in Garden Street. On May 11, 1696, after a ten years’ battle of wits, the British governor, seeing that nine tenths of the people were opposed to his schemes, found that he had better yield, and the charter was signed. The Garden Street Church people were given the right in law to manage all their own affairs, such as the calling of ministers and the induction of them into office, without any interference. This was the first royal charter given in the Middle States, and it became the model for the other charters of the Dutch churches. It made the Consistory “a body politic and corporate” in fact and name, — “Minister, Elders, and Deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York.”
The Episcopal people followed the excellent example of the Dutch, and they also secured a charter, which was issued May 6, 1696. This document, strangely enough, declares no fewer than twelve times, but without ground of fact, in a single instance of assertion, that the Ministry Act of 1693 establishes the Church of England. Subsequent legislation was necessary to give legal existence to this corporation of Trinity Church.
Even the Ministry Act of 1693, which was to establish the Church of England in some places in four out of ten counties of New York, was not valid until the King had signed it. This he did not do until nearly four years after it was passed, on May 11, 1696, five days after the granting of Trinity Church Charter.
Meanwhile Christians were comrades. Despite the politics in the case, and while lawyers and legislators were busy on the worldly side of the matter, the Episcopal and Reformed ministers enjoyed the communion of saints. They practiced both professional and real politeness, cultivated close personal friendship, and worshiped under the same roof. During the Revolutionary War, when the British made stables as well as hospitals of our sacred edifices on Manhattan, as they had done in Boston, this former courtesy of lending the Dutch churches was not forgotten, but warmly reciprocated. In 1779 the vestry of Trinity Church passed the following resolution: “It being represented that the old Dutch Church is now used as a hospital for His Majesty’s troops, this corporation, impressed with a grateful remembrance of the former kindness of the members of that ancient church, do offer the use of St. George’s Church to that congregation for celebrating divine worship.”
The Roman Catholics had a hard time of it in New York, until the Revolution gave the people, in their capacity of a sovereign State, opportunity to reject forever the Old World ideas inherited from the Middle Ages. On August 9, 1700, under Governor Bellomont, there was passed an “Act against Jesuits and Popish Priests,” it banished all Jesuits, and forbade the exercise of Roman Catholic worship in the province of New York under severe penalties. ’This law continued in force until the American Revolution, when, under American ideas and government, all religionists of every name were permitted to worship in freedom.
The Supplementary Act, passed May 19, 1703, was founded on those assertions about the Ministry Act, which had no basis in fact. When this was put in operation, further trouble loomed up. The new act contained a false statement: “The Church of England by law established”!! Although English Conformists entertained some high expectations, the majority of the people in the province treated this and most of Lord Cornbury’s legislation as stupid jokes. After his disgraceful administration (1702-08), the troubles between governor and Assembly nearly ceased, because the necessity for amending the Ministry Act almost out of shape and meaning was obviated. Queen Anne had sequestrated or confiscated the so-called “Queen’s Farm” for the support of Trinity Church. The various bills introduced by the people’s representatives for repeal of the Ministry Act were indeed vetoed or smothered by the governor or council, and when the Assembly sent its committees to know what had become of these bills, they received no satisfaction. Nevertheless, the people steadily resisted the collection of the tithes. Lawsuits were very common, until it was finally demonstrated that the statutes of Great Britain had no relation to the colony of New York.
The Dutch and other free churchmen settled the question at law, that all Protestant bodies had equal rights.
Cornbury’s rascalities had one good effect in uniting the people of all nationalities in the province, and in hastening the dawn of American liberty. Nevertheless, many disgusted New Yorkers left to settle in the valleys of the Raritan and Millstone, while the more republican government of New Jersey drew away people from both New England and New York. These, settling in the central counties, Middlesex, Somerset, and Hunterdon, made this region the garden of the Dutch Church, in which Queen’s, or Rutgers College and the Theological Seminary rose as lilies of the Raritan valley. In a word, the Dutch, after they got their charters, stood on an impregnable rock and won full liberty. Their battle of one hundred and thirteen years is one of the most significant episodes in American history. Like their ancestors in Holland, the Dutch free churchmen “throve by persecution, and extracted victory from defeat.”
Religious freedom was established in New York, when Rev. Francis Makemie, a Presbyterian, made bold to preach without permission. Indicted and tried, he was defended by three of the foremost lawyers in the colony, who were Episcopalians, but who knew that law was older than thrones, and that “secret instructions” from king to governor were not law. This first blow struck in the colonies at the royal prerogative was dealt in 1707. In New Jersey the lesson was quickly learned and followed. When Cornbury read his “instructions,” he was answered by one of New York’s great men, speaking for the legislature, “You need not read your instructions to us, they are not law.” In the next year, 1708, the keynote of all the subsequent resistance of the colonies is heard in the Resolutions passed by the New York Assembly, which read as follows: —
- Resolved, that it is and always has been the unquestionable right of every man in this colony that he hath a perfect and entire property in his goods and estates.
- Resolved, that the imposing and levying of any moneys upon Her Majesty’s subjects in this colony under any pretense or color whatsoever, without consent in General Assembly, is a grievance and a violation of the people’s property.
This solemn declaration of the New York General Assembly was made fifty years before the Boston speech of James Otis, or Patrick Henry’s Richmond oration. After 1708, the Assembly granted only an annual supply, the money to be collected by their own treasurer and not by the Collector of the Crown, and to be disbursed under their own direction. Thus the contest between right and prerogative continued until the Revolution. In spite of all that any governor could do, by storm or entreaty, by threat or flattery, by vainly showing his “instructions” and talking of his “honor pledged to their enforcement,” the people held to the ancient principle, so clearly enunciated in the Netherlands in 1477, — “no taxation without consent.” The contest ended by the surrender of the Governor instead of the Assembly, the royal executive promising in 1715 to do as the people’s representatives directed. The result was brought about through the form of exchange commonly called a “deal,” for the Governor and the Crown opposed the naturalization of all foreigners in the colony, while the New Yorkers desired it. These new foreigners were the Swiss and Germans from the Rhine Palatinate. Another episode, with a meaning that looked to July 4, 1776, was the trial and acquittal of the German printer, Zenger, which settled the question of the freedom of speech and of the press in the right way.