The primary claim of Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World is that the Dutch colony of Manhattan, by transplanting the religious tolerance, the acceptance of a multi-ethnic population, and the promotion of free trade from its home country, produced a set of values that helped to create the upwardly mobile society that would become New York City and that these values would eventually form the basis of American culture. This claim runs counter to the more traditional one that asserts that American culture in its earliest stages was largely established by the English settlers who inhabited the upper New England coastline and those who populated the coastal regions of what would become later the states of Virginia and the Carolinas. Both groups promulgated values that Shorto argues are antithetical to those later embraced by the developing political and social ideology of the country.
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The Puritans, with their sectarian religious beliefs, advocated a theocratic system of government, and the southern colonies, with their more Cavalier background, favored a more typically English aristocratic form of rule. Both forms of governance were later rejected during the American Revolution. Shorto finds that the understudied and underappreciated colony of the Dutch, particularly as reflected in the development of Manhattan, provides a more sympathetic and accurate model for the understanding of how the United States as a culture developed. Manhattan, in this narrative, is truly the island that became the center of the world.
Somewhere in the middle of New York City, in a place of honor, there should be an enormous monument dedicated to 17th Dutch colonist Adriaen Van der Donck. Likewise, appropriate mention of his name should grace the halls of Congress in the company of Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. For if these American icons are credited with the ideas of revolution and the foundation of the American Republic, van der Donck preceded them by over 120 years. In his book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” Russell Shorto profoundly makes the case that Dutch Colonial Manhattan, and its political patriarch Van der Donck were the basis for the earliest foundation of republican government not only for New York, but America itself. In addition the colony established the ideas of ethnic and religious tolerance on top of free market capitalism long before these experiments became accepted ideas. These are the foundations for modern America; especially for the streets of the cultural and financial capital of the world. And they were based on the Dutch model.