Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

The Netherlands has been on my mind lately as my son Owen applied to some universities there. In doing some research, I found Russell Shorto’s book, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. I recently listened to him on NPR’s Fresh Air, promoting his latest book on the history of his family in his native Pennsylvania and an uncle who was a mobster. Shorto is a narrative historian writer, most famous for his book highlighting the Dutch origins of New York City. With this book as well, he relied on his time working at the John Adams Institute a non-profit promoting American cultural ties with Netherlands. Amsterdam has a long and fascinating history and Shorto kept me turning pages to see what would happen next.

The premise of the book is the 17th century Amsterdam is the birthplace of liberalism. Shorto’s definition of liberalism is the “centrality of the individual” which started the Enlightenment, a move from medieval to modern thinking. He argues the founding of Amsterdam is intertwined with the commitment to individual freedom and rights for everyone and a break from received wisdom from the Church and monarchy. It was not a smooth transition and those same world views are still at battle today, 500 years later. But this was the start of our modern Western society with an “ideology centered on the beliefs about equality and individual freedom.” Still today, Amsterdam is known for its tolerance of different ideas, beliefs, tastes, etc. It shows that our family is considering university study there for our children. The university system welcomes foreigners and with their three-year programs and relatively low costs, it is a viable alternative to an American higher education.

The Netherlands is a fascinating country. It is basically one big river delta with three rivers (Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt) entering the sea creating a wide delta. Since 1000 AD, inhabitants of the region have had to work together to reclaim land through building dykes, canals, pumps as weapons against the water. Shorto believes the necessity to form “complex communal organizations” to reclaim the land explains the development of liberalism. It was always a great trading city as well, and the port from early on saw the Dutch people doing business with a variety of people and cultures.

I didn’t know much about the Netherlands break with Catholicism. It was a long (it became known to history as the Eighty Years’ War) and violent revolution against the Spanish Catholic rule of Charles V and his son Phillip. The George Washington figure for the Dutch is William the Orange (hence the color of the Netherlands soccer team). The chapter also explains the origins of the Calvinist Church. While I was a university student in Michigan, our liberal arts college played sports against Calvin and Hope Colleges, two higher education institutions on the west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where many Dutch Calvinist settlers migrated. Today there are towns named Holland and they are famous for their tulips.

Shorto also gives rich biographies of the many innovative thinkers the city produced throughout history. My favorite was the philosopher Spinoza who opened the minds of people to secular rule, humanism and individual rights. I loved the quote of Einstein Shorto found, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Spinoza was really a man way ahead of his time. “democracy is of all forms of government the most natural and most consonant with individual liberty”.

Amsterdam used to be the richest, most powerful city in the world during the height of the Dutch East Indies Company . Although they exploited countries around the world (Indonesia, South Africa), they did improve the system of global trade and the company started the world’s first stock market and for better or worse, the start of consumerism. When Descartes visiting the city during its golden age he wrote, “Where else on earth could you find, as easily as you do here, all the conveniences of life and all the curiosities you could hope to see? In what other country could you find such complete freedom, or sleep with less anxiety, or find armies at the ready to protect you, or find fewer poisonings or acts of treason or slander?” His followers were deemed radicals and dangerous, just because they were rational, clear-headed and free from superstition and dogma. The Dutch specialized also in the concept of gedogen the “look-the-other-way form of tolerance that guided Amsterdam through the religious upheaval through its history.

I forgot how many great minds the city has produced and nourished. Rembrandt, Spinoza, Erasmus, Van Gogh, etc.

In the second half of the book, he goes into how Amsterdam’s liberalism was exported and is the foundation of who we are today. He touched on some of the same topics in his most famous book, “The Island at the Center of the World“.

  • The city gets its name from a dam built on the Amstel River (Amstelredamme) in the year 1200.
  • entrepot – a port that receives goods and ships them out to; an intermediary shipment center [on-tray – poh]
  • inchoate – not fully formed; recently formed; developing [in-ko-ate]

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