Who Led the Charge for the Burgher Right in New Amsterdam?

To What Extent Were They Successful? 

The formal request for city citizenship came from New Amsterdam’s magistrates, the Burgomasters and Schepens, all of whom were resident merchants with business connections in Amsterdam. Their clear goal was to protect their emerging prosperity by providing “order and stability” against what they perceived as the chaos (and competition) of free traders with no stake in New Amsterdam. The petitioners accused the free traders of violating the Company’s guarantee of New Amsterdam’s status as “staple port,” the exclusive central port for the province through which all goods must flow. By giving tacit permission for free traders to bypass the staple port, the Company was contradicting its own intentions to maintain a colonial capital where duties could be collected. The magistrates’ solution: grant the burgher right to protect New Amsterdam from itinerants.

The magistrate’s petition was sent to Petrus Stuyvesant and his council, who carefully considered the request. Nicasius de Sille sided with the merchant magistrates, citing legal precedent from other Dutch cities. “Such peddling or small traders should not be preferred to our land-holding inhabitants,” de Sille reported.  He referred to the sojourners as “sneaks and cheats,” and urged Stuyvesant to take action against them. But Stuyvesant and Council also had to consider specific orders from Company directors in Amsterdam not to interfere with the freer trading environment they had created by giving up their fur trading monopoly. Having previously reminded Stuyvesant that restrictions such as building a house and requiring someone to remain in the county were “repugnant, servile, and slavish,” WIC Directors nevertheless agreed that some preferences be shown to local residents in Manhattan. In 1654, they expressed a willingness to require all traders to at least keep an open store in New Amsterdam, compelling traders to contribute “to the ordinary and extraordinary taxes” inhabitants had to pay.

Director-General Petrus Stuyvesant devised a compromise that adhered to the Company’s staple right guidelines, addressed concerns of Manhattan's merchants and kept the Director’s stern warnings in mind. Stuyvesant recognized the rights of “newly arriving traders, .. skippers, sailors, or peddlers (Schotsen), or whatever they may be called” to carry on trade into the interior of New Netherland but only if they opened a store in New Amsterdam. Then, drawing on custom in all well-governed cities in the Netherlands, Stuyvesant stipulated that in order to receive the burgher right guarantees and protections, an individual had to first keep “fire and light,” a residency requirement that could be met by renting as well as owning property in Manhattan. Thus, before any newly arrived “merchant of convenience” could open shop and be allowed to trade, he had to first establish himself as a Manhattan resident.

Stuyvesant went further to satisfy Manhattan’s merchants by giving the city magistrates exclusive power over granting citizenship, giving certificates, maintaining citizenship rolls, and collecting and keeping all fees. But, in a final bow to the WIC directors, Stuyvesant recognized that the burgher oath could not “bind a man” for a longer time that his convenience required. However, if a burgher left the city without maintaining fire and light, he must regain his citizenship by again petitioning the municipal court, paying the fee, and establishing residency.

Several days later, in response to an additional request from New Amsterdam’s Burgomasters and Schepens, Stuyvesant formally approved the distinction between the Great and Small Burgher Right “in conformity to the laudable Custom of the City of Amsterdam in Europe.”

Advice Given by Nicasius de Sille

New York State Archives. New Netherland. Council. Dutch colonial council minutes, 1638-1665. Series A1809. Volume 8.

Ordinance establishing great and small citizenship in New Amsterdam.

New York State Archives. New Netherland. Council. Dutch colonial council minutes, 1638-1665. Series A1809. Volume 8

Request for Clarification of Great and Small Burgher Right, January 31, 1657

New York City Municipal Archives, Records of New Amsterdam, Volume 2, 287-288.

Ordinance declaring who may be admitted to great and small citizenship in New Amsterdam, February 2, 1657 (Clarification by Director General and Council)

New York State Archives, New Netherland. Council. Dutch colonial ordinances, 1647-1658. Series A1875. Volume 16.