The steel-and-glass skyline of Manhattan still soars toward the heavens with the confidence of a people born free. But the cradle of this freedom is not found in the luxury of Wall Street or the neon sparkle of Times Square. Instead, it rests in a simple farmhouse located near the No. 7 train.
A short distance away, generations of New Yorkers have jokingly warned of the shadowy figure of an old man with a peg leg seen pacing back and forth near the Bowery at St. Mark's, the place where his bones lie buried.
With a silver-tipped peg leg, a long sword, and a heavy mustache, Peter Stuyvesant had, in the words of Washington Irving's Knickerbocker, a "countenance sufficient to petrify a millstone" when he arrived to govern the raucous city of New Amsterdam in May of 1647. Word had traveled of Stuyvesant's bravery in a battle with the Spanish during which his leg had been blown off by a cannonball, and when his ship finally sailed into the harbor, the townspeople used almost all of their gunpowder in salute.
Although the Flushing patent of 1645 had promised "the right to have and enjoy liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical minister," Stuyvesant felt that this freedom had permitted the moral license of this "disobedient community."
Governor Stuyvesant told the colonists, "I shall govern you as a father his children." And govern he did, with a relentless, authoritarian confidence generally tending toward the good, but exhibiting a myopic understanding of the more delicate issue of religious tolerance. He closed the brothels, enforced rigid observance of Sunday, and prohibited the sale of liquor and firearms to the Indians. He established standards for housing and taverns, developed a market, and took steps toward founding a public school.
In spite of Stuyvesant's reforms, the frontier folks resented his silver-legged dictatorial style. When they tried to complain, he dismissed them, saying, "We derive our authority from God and the West India Company, not from the pleasure of a few ignorant subjects."
In step with the mores of the time, Stuyvesant could not understand why his fragile colony should suffer the existence of "damnable heresies" that ran contrary to his own Dutch Reformed view. As a matter of policy Stuyvesant drove a moderate Lutheran minister from the colony when he requested a meeting house, but Stuyvesant reserved his most fervent indignation for the Society of Friends.
Established in England in 1652, the Friends, first called Quakers by their detractors, later came to embrace the name, and quickly distinguished themselves from the prevailing culture through their appreciation of simplicity, honesty, and equality. Filled with missionary zeal, these Children of Light, as they called themselves, sought to share their knowledge in the New World.
The Friends believed that God's grace did not filter through the hierarchy of the religious elite, but reached each person directly. In taking this theological approach, the Quakers bypassed the authority of clergy and rulers, and recognized that the common person could be elevated to the "priesthood of all believers." This rendered the current cultural order obsolete and formed the core ideal of the American republic that would arise more than a century later.
The number of Quakers increased rapidly, and the ruling classes in both Europe and the New World feared their influence. In 1656 Boston's Governor Endicott, in contrast to the mythical tolerance of his Pilgrim forebears, threatened them with the death penalty. "Take heed," he said, "ye break not our ecclesiastical laws, for then ye are sure to stretch by a halter."
The people of Boston thought the death penalty a bit extreme, and in an abundance of equanimity later changed the law to allow that both male and female Quakers were to "be stripped naked from the middle upward and tied to a cart's tail, and whipped through the town," where the constables would brand them with the letter R on their left shoulder. The Bostonians congratulated themselves on the degree of their Christian mercy.
In 1657 a group of Quakers who had been exiled from Boston to England returned to America to spread the message of religious liberty that "the Spirit of God, dwelling in man, is the supreme authority." Upon their arrival many settled in Flushing, where a respected member of the community, Henry Townsend, opened his home to their meetings. When Stuyvesant found out, he summarily fined Townsend and banished him to Holland.
On December 27, 1657, the citizens of Flushing responded to the banishment by drafting a remonstrance against the governor. The document, signed by 30 citizens, followed Quakerism's egalitarian approach to the relationship between believers and God when it declared, "For if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justifye . . . . And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to do unto all men as we desire all men should do unto us, which is the true law both of church and state."
When Stuyvesant received the Flushing Remonstrance, he retaliated by proclaiming March 13, 1658, a Day of Prayer for the purpose of repenting from the sin of religious tolerance. Stuyvesant declared that the community's troubles had resulted from the "rigorous justice" of God for tolerating the Quakers, and promised that God would bring about "severe punishment" if they did not change their ways.
Stuyvesant's intolerant policies continued unabated for the next couple of years until challenged by one John Bowne, who refused to acknowledge the ban. On a September afternoon in 1662, John Bowne, a 34-year-old whose wife had converted to Quakerism, was arrested at his home and charged with aiding and abetting the Quaker "abomination" by conducting worship services in his home. When he refused to renounce his faith, Stuyvesant locked Bowne in a dungeon for three months and then deported him to Holland to await trial.
The Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company was reluctant to interfere in a colonial matter, and suggested that Bowne remedy the situation himself by bringing his wife and child to live with him in more tolerant Holland. However, Bowne refused and appealed to the town's patent and the Flushing Remonstrance. The chamber then recommended that Bowne return and agree to abide by the ban on the Quakers, but he refused to deny his faith. The next day the chamber acquitted Bowne and ordered Stuyvesant to be tolerant of faiths not his own, in line with the patent and the remonstrance.
The acquittal and subsequent return of John Bowne in 1664, nearly 19 months after his deportation, brought an end to the religious persecution in the New Amsterdam colony. Later that year Stuyvesant lost a border dispute with the British, and the name of the city was changed to New York. The British continued the tradition of religious tolerance in the colony, and the Flushing Remonstrance served as an inspiration for the First Amendment to the Constitution more than a century later. After Bowne's death in 1695, his home continued his legacy of service. In the 1800s it was a key stop along the Underground Railroad, sheltering escaped slaves on their path to freedom. The house still stands on Bowne Street in Flushing, Queens, as a beacon of America's heritage of religious freedom.
And while Peter Stuyvesant's literal ghost may be the product of overactive imaginations, wise children may discern something similar shuffling toward us again.
Michael Peabody is a civil rights attorney in Sacramento, California, and serves as the executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association-West
1 Theodore Roosevelt describes this legend in his book New York, which he published in 1906.
2 Washington Irving, Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York (New York: The Heritage Press, 1940).
3 Between 1660 and 1664 in Boston, three Quakers were hanged, three had their right ears cut off, one had the letter H branded on a hand, 31 were whipped through the town, and three were sent to Barbados as slaves.
4 Original document is currently housed in the archives of New York State.
Author: Michael D. Peabody
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He has practiced in the fields of workers compensation and employment law, including workplace discrimination and wrongful termination. He is a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine and editsReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent website dedicated to celebrating liberty of conscience. Mr. Peabody is a favorite guest on Liberty’s weekly radio show, “Lifequest Liberty.”