First Citizens of Manhattan: New Amsterdam’s Burgher Right
Author: Dennis J. Maika, Ph.D., Senior Historian, New Netherland Institute
Origins and Significance of 17th-Century Citizenship
Standing on the steps of New Amsterdam’s City Hall (Stad Huys), an observer could bear witness to the commercial heartbeat of the young city, as all manner of ships arrived and departed to and from distant and regional ports with all manner of goods and commodities. The building had been converted recently from the old city tavern to the official seat of the newly incorporated city of New Amsterdam, whose Court of Burgomasters (Burgemeesters) and Schepens (Schepenen) met twice weekly. But as the 1657 trading season began, a new and unprecedented event unfolded: beginning on 10 April 1657 and for the several days, two-hundred twenty-six Manhattan residents, mostly white adult men and only four women, came to the Stad Huys to claim the burgher right (burgerrecht) for themselves, their families, and their descendants. Standing before the magistrates, each individual asked to be recognized as a citizen of the city of New Amsterdam and took the burgher oath; first recognizing the sovereignty of the United Netherland’s States General and the jurisdiction of the West India Company Directors, each individual promised “to show in the first place them, the Burgomasters and Rulers of this City, present and future, all respect and reverence, and obey them in all honest and just matters as a faithful Subject and good Burgher is bound to do, as long as I shall continue in this Province. So Truly Help me god Almighty.”
It is difficult today, when national citizenship seems to be what matters most to Americans, to imagine how important it was to be formally recognized as a “city citizen.” But to those living in Manhattan in the mid-seventeenth century, being formally recognized as a “burgher of this place” was immediately and pressingly significant. Why was the burgher right so important to Manhattanites at this place in time? What privileges did they expect with city citizenship and what were they willing to offer in return? Who was entitled to citizenship and who wasn’t?
The following series consider how 17th-century New Amsterdamers tried to answer questions that are still relevant today, to read their own words about why city citizenship was so important, and to consider whether or not their concerns and solutions have anything to teach us today.
Concluding Thoughts and Observations
The story illustrates how a group of determined individuals, living on the edge of the seventeenth-century Atlantic world, drew on familiar traditions to provide security for themselves and their community. Although they valued their Dutch traditions, they had to negotiate the ways in which they were applied, their choices channeled by their environment. As they recognized the many commercial opportunities offered by a connection to this broader world, New Amsterdamers also recognized the precariousness of their condition. Their protectionist impulses are understandable, their desire for legal defenses rational. Yet in their minds, the best way for their community to grow was not deny new admissions, but to guarantee that new members would support the community rather than extract from it. If their commitment to New Amsterdam was sincere and demonstrable, these new arrivals could stimulate the city’s expansion. If not, the entire community would be threatened. Mere governmental regulations were not enough. They needed to be understood as both necessary, beneficial, and enforceable. And they were to some degree – until changes in time forced a redefinition of community and personal commitment.
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