Why was Amsterdam’s Burgher Right Model Chosen for New Amsterdam?

By the seventeenth century, city citizenship had become crucially important for European urban dwellers, especially those in the Dutch Republic. Dutch cities led the country’s economic boom, increasingly demonstrated their importance as “incubators of capital.” Within the Netherlands’ decentralized governmental structure, local government provided the order and stability necessary to maintain and encourage commercial growth. The burgher right became an essential component of this orderly community.

Amsterdam was the most prosperous Dutch city of the time, the “general emporium” for the world’s commodities market and the heart of the Dutch commercial empire. West India Company directors responsible for New Netherland lived and governed their colony from there. Amsterdam’s private merchant entrepreneurs had invested aggressively in New Netherland and were responsible for New Amsterdam’s economic growth. It’s easy to imagine then, that people living in Manhattan would turn to Europe’s preeminent entrepot as a model for their own efforts across the Atlantic Ocean.

With Amsterdam’s form of city government established in Manhattan in 1653, New Amsterdam’s municipal leaders naturally turned to Amsterdam’s burgher right as a model for their own. Amsterdam’s burgher right originated in the late Middle Ages, when European cities were protecting themselves from newcomers who might pose a threat to their stability. Initially Amsterdam’s burgher right rested on both a residency requirement for a certain period of time and ownership of real property. These restrictions changed in the seventeenth century as Amsterdam’s remarkable economic transformation was fueled by an influx of immigrants; Amsterdam’s population grew significantly from 30,000 in 1590 to more than 150,000 in 1650. Hoping to incorporate these newcomers into their ranks, Amsterdam’s leaders relaxed their burgher right requirements by allowing those who wished to become citizens could do so paying a fee, or marrying a citizen. For Amsterdam’s prominent merchants, however, it became important to protect their control over the city’s magistracy. In 1652, they introduced the Great Burgher Right (Groot Burgerrecht) and the Small Burgher Right (Klein Burgerrecht), a distinction between prominent and less prominent citizens. Although considerable opportunities were still available for “new men” to enter the magisterial ranks, Amsterdam was clearly taking a step in the direction of limiting the number of those who could hold political power.

In 1668, a proposal was made to eliminate the Great and Small Burgher Right distinction. Among the reasons given: it never brought in the money the city originally hoped for and “unity, which springs from equality, is made more firm by removing the above-mentioned distinction.”

Notification of the Changes to the Burgher Right, January 31, 1652

NL/Stadsarchief Amsterdam/5020/15/135r-135v

Title: Notification of changes to the burgher right

Name of creator: Burgomasters

Proposal for the Reduction of the Fee for Burgher Right, May 11, 1668

NL/Stadsarchief Amsterdam/5025/26/55r-57r

Title: Proposal for the reduction of the fee for burgher right

Name of creator: Common Council