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The Middle Colonies

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

The Founding of American Civilisation: The Middle Colonies. By Thomas Jefferson Wertenhaker. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, $.100.

Thomas J. Wertenbaker has studied and taught history for about thirty years in Texas, Virginia, and New Jersey, and he has written a number of books on American history. He appraises American civilization, especially in the middle colonies, with real authority —and his latest book, “The Founding of American Civilization: The Middle Colonies,” is marvelously interesting, difficult as it must have been to gather the facts upon which his conclusions rest.

His treatment of the seventeenth-century Hollanders on the Hudson River reveals a good deal that has not been stressed before. The influence of these people on American civilization was greater, as he shows, than historians have acknowledged. Their people at home had been the most democratic of Europe: they enjoyed religious freedom, self-government, and even free trade. The Puritans of New England had lived in the Netherlands before they migrated to Plymouth in 1620, six years after the Hollanders had settled in what was called for half a century the “New Netherlands.” Professor Wertenbaker makes it clear that the ideals of the Hollanders were applied in their new realm until the Duke of York conquered them, or at least tried to subordinate them to the dictatorial methods of his brother, Charles II. However, their influence in what was named New York in 1664 was great for more than half a century.

Of even greater influence were the Quakers and the German Lutherans who after 1680 poured into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Quakers wanted to have a single religious control, though they did not deny Lutherans, New Englanders, and even Baptists the freedom which Europe had never been willing to allow. They were unwilling for other denominations to have equal representation in the legislature, and managed for nearly a hundred years to have minority government in the great colony of Benjamin Franklin. Their ideals were not bad: no wars with Indians or Europeans, quiet religious worship in their simple churches, and the granting of land to all poor Europeans, who had to work four or five years to pay the expense of migrating to the new world. But as the French tried to control western Pennsylvania, the Indians played such a role that Quakers were compelled to vote appropriations for military purposes; and when the American Revolution came on, their people divided and many actually fought under George Washington. The Quaker ideals were slowly defeated, and they had to give up their minority control about the time the Federal Union was organized; but their influence had been profound for many years.

Of even greater interest is the author’s treatment of the German ideals and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Lutherans and Calvinists who regarded religious and economic freedom as fundamental rights. His portrayal of conditions in the Rhineland and South Germany is exceedingly good, although I think a larger number of Saxons went to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas than has been assumed. One illustration: two young German-Americans were sent to Halle to be educated and they returned as Lutheran preachers, one to New York City, the other to the Valley of Virginia. When the Revolution broke out they gave up their pulpits and called upon their congregations to volunteer. They both became high officers in Washington’s army, and played great roles for democracy from 1776 to the ends of their lives.

In general, however, Professor Wertenbaker’s treatment of the German immigrants is entirely adequate. He discusses their temporary indifference to Quaker leadership, their exercise of religious freedom, their marvelous farm methods, and their gradual assimilation of the English language. He evidently visited German houses in the Rhineland, Baden, and Bavaria, and then studied their homes and churches in Pennsylvania; in consequence, he gives a clearer picture of German culture and its importance in the Middle States and in the Old South than any other writer has done. In this account there is no partisanship but real appreciation of the heroic character of the German element, of the men and women who migrated to the new world when so many thousands must have lost their lives from storms and diseases in crossing the Atlantic.

The pictures of houses and churches, and the descriptions of farm life during the latter part of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries, are among the most suggestive passages of the book. One wonders how the author could have traveled over so much of the older sections of the Middle States, studying houses and methods of architecture—and then have read so many volumes dealing with the contributions of the different races that entered into the make-up of our people before the Union was formed; but the evidence of thoroughness is so complete and the appraisal of contributions to our civilization so fair that all students of American history will need to study this work.


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