Dutch Liberty

Thanking the Dutch for Liberty & Thanksgiving

Mark Tooley on November 22, 2021

This Thanksgiving let’s thank the Dutch, who gave refuge to the Pilgrims before they came to America, and who transmitted their own spirit of liberty to America.

Thanking the Dutch comes to mind in response to Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University, author of Why Liberalism Failed, who tweeted Sunday:

I am currently in Amsterdam for the first time, a city clearly built on ideals of beauty and transcendence. Walking around city center, I wondered: is its descent into drugs, prostitution, and hedonism because or in spite of the Protestant Reformation? Discuss.

It’s no surprise that Deneen would link contemporary Dutch decadence with Protestantism. His book derides the “liberalism” of America’s Founding Fathers as poisoned fruit from the start, built on false philosophical premises and doomed to inevitable corruption. The book never cites Protestantism or the Reformation per se. But he dates liberalism back 500 years and credits philosopher John Locke, who touted government by consent, as a founder. Deneen is a favorite for many integralists, who advocate a pre-liberal/post-liberal state in which the Roman Catholic Church is supreme in society including in civil law. They deny their project is theocratic but critics see it as such.

For many of today’s critics of liberal democracy, with its stress on rights and individual liberty, Protestantism is the ultimate target in their demonology. Surely it’s no coincidence that Locke himself in the 1680s was a political refugee in Holland, where he wrote his Letter Concerning Toleration, a seminal argument for religious freedom. He did not return home until The Glorious Revolution, when the Dutch Prince of Orange was invited to replace the increasingly autocratic James II as King William III of England.

Of course, the Pilgrims had fled to Holland 80 years before Locke also to escape persecution. William Bradford recalled that his fellow Pilgrims, because of their nonconformity with England’s state church, were “hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day…” The Dutch Republic privileged Calvinism but offered relative religious freedom and attracted religious dissidents from throughout Europe.

The Pilgrims spent a decade living among the Dutch in safety, but they wished to remain English and also feared the Dutch might face reconquest by Spain, their former master. So the Pilgrims returned to England temporarily to plot their departure for America. Without the refuge the Dutch offered, the small congregation of Pilgrims in England during persecution might have been dispersed and eradicated, forgotten to history. Where would America be without the Pilgrims, from whom millions of Americans descend, and whose example of courage and freedom is central to the American narrative? The Mayflower Compact, drafted before they stepped on Plymouth Rock, pledged government by consent and is one of America’s key charters of liberty.

Another key charter of liberty is the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution as part of its 1789 ratification, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion among other key protections. Its origins trace to England’s Bill of Rights of 1689, ratified by King William III after Parliament invited the Dutch prince to become their king. It guaranteed that the monarchy couldn’t interfere with the laws legislated by the nation’s elected representatives in parliament, ending the threat of royal supremacy. A Dutch prince, more so than an English one, could agree to his subordination to law and parliament because his native republic already precluded royalism. That same year William also ratified The Act of Toleration, protecting religious dissenters from the state church, similar to the Dutch precedent.

The Dutch Republic, focused on industry and trade, had vigorous public political and religious debates fueled by Europe’s largest and most outspoken publishing industry. Its relative freedom afforded protection to the Pilgrims, to Locke and provided England with a new king who, unlike the deposed native English king, would yield to law and parliament. The Pilgrims, Locke and King William III were all key actors in advancing religious freedom and other key liberties, deemed classically “liberal,” that have centrally shaped America, with assistance from the Dutch.

Deneen disdains current Dutch decadence as the legacy of Protestantism. But the Dutch, modern or historic, have no monopoly on vice. He cites prostitution, infamously legal and open in Amsterdam. Historically Catholic Spain legalized prostitution in 1995. Both traditionally Protestant and Catholic Europe have suffered ongoing collapse of religious practice and loyalties. Whatever their vices, the Dutch still enjoy very low crimes rates relative to the rest of Europe. It is still an orderly and prosperous society, perhaps thanks at least partly to its Calvinist heritage, though urgently needing spiritual renewal, like most of Europe and the West.

The Dutch don’t deserve disdain and instead, especially this Thanksgiving week, merit America’s gratitude. When you eat turkey and stuffing with family and friends in our free and prosperous society, able to think and worship as you please without fear of theocrats or secret police, recall and thank the Dutch. Remember the Pilgrims in England before escaping to Holland were “hunted & persecuted on every side,…taken & clapt up in prison, [or] had their houses besett & watcht night and day…” The Dutch were central to a wider tide of liberty flowing across centuries, choppily like the Mayflower on the stormy Atlantic, and always threatened, yet we pray always surging forward.

  1. Comment by David on November 22, 2021 at 10:28 am

    The contributions of the Pilgrims to modern America are more a matter of legend than reality. As one wit put, “The Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving for being saved from the Indians, and we celebrate it for being saved from the Pilgrims.” Large numbers of refugees from Puritan New England populated places like Rhode Island and New York. Roger Williams was one of these and founded Rhode Island that was chartered in 1644. Freedom of religion was one of the founding principles.

    In 1645, the Dutch chartered the village of Vlissingen (now Flushing, Queens, NY) in New Netherland. The location was duly purchased from the natives as was the Dutch custom. Its charter allowed freedom of conscience as practiced in Holland without the interference of any clergyman or public officer. No other town in the colony had a charter with such a provision. The early population of Flushing included refugees from New England. In 1656, the Governor-General, Peter Stuyvesant, attempted to suppress non-Dutch Reformed groups including Quakers. The inhabitants responded with a protest now known as the Flushing Remonstrance on 27 Dec. 1657 that called attention to their charter and stated that its protections extended even to “Jews, Turks, and Egyptians.” Today, this area has one of the most diverse religious populations in the US if not the world. The founding spirit is still alive and well unlike that of the Pilgrims which is looked upon as bigotry.

  2. Comment by Diane on November 22, 2021 at 11:01 pm

    This article ignores the National Day of Mourning, observed by indigenous peoples, especially those in New England. Presumably,this omission reflects the author’s intended audience as White folks who have no interest in the racist, inconvenient details surrounding the Pilgrims attitudes toward and interaction with the Wampanoag Tribal Nation.

  3. Comment by Pastor Mike on November 24, 2021 at 8:23 am


    You also conveniently ignore the suffering and hardships endured by the Pilgrims during the Atlantic Ocean crossing and winter of 1621 in which over half of these men, women, and children perished. Presumably, this reflects the author’s intent to demonize the Pilgrims while humanizing the indigenous people. My, such inconvenient details!

  4. Comment by David on November 25, 2021 at 7:09 am

    Even in 1750, crossing the Atlantic was a fearsome business.

    “When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors near the city of [Cowes] in Old England, the real misery begins with the long voyage. For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail 8, 9, 10 to 12 weeks before they reach Philadelphia. But even with the best wind the voyage lasts 7 weeks.

    But during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.

    Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions and lamentations, together with other trouble, as c. v. the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be. scraped off the body.”
    —Gottlieb Mittleberger from Germany

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