Mr. Brush being in the Chair, the House, according to the Order of the Day, proceeded to the Consideration of the Bill, for dividing Orange County, whereupon J---n D N----s, Esq; delivered himself as follows.A few months ago, Languagehat linked to an interesting paper by Martin Langeveld about (among other things) the remarkable persistence of the Dutch language in the New York area. Langeveld attributes its survival principally to the fact that it was both deliberately taught to children and used in various social contexts. It is not difficult to agree with this explanation, but it is a curiously non-specific one, and raises the chicken-and-egg question of how a language can be preserved to the point of being usable in the first place. In fact, Langeveld (excusably) misses a crucial dimension of the problem: the socieconomic role and location of the Dutch community in New York.
If any Weight is to be given to de Number of Petitioners, I beg dot dese may be added--and den I shall say a few Words to de Committee. Gentlemen--dis Bill is not a new Matter, but it has been a great while in Agitation--Dis five Year ago,--ever since I had de Honor to be a Member of dis Ouse, I moved for dis Bill because I taught it would be for de Advantage of my Constituents, and--indeed for de County in general. Wen I first moved for dis Bill, dere was a Petition for a Coppee of dot Bill--and it was granted dem. Now for de Use dot has been made of dot Bill to get People to sign Petitions against it, I am sure it was a Mistake in dot Bill--because I know it was my Opinion, and I believe de Sentiments dis Ouse, dot a West Line would split de Mountains; for I am sure dot Bill was to split de Mountains--and we taught it would split de Mountains.--But dere was a Mistake, for now a Sou West Line will do better in the Course of dem Mountains; and dis Copy of de Bill was made Use of to get People to sign dem Petitions--and dat was a very artful Petition too--because dey made de People believe dat dis Line would cut off a great many Poor, and some oder Folks. I come here as de Representative of dot County, for de Good of de Pooblic. For my Part I have no Business to run about wid Petitions to get People to sign about a Ting dot is for de Pooblic-if it was a private Matter, den indeed it would be anoder Ting. But, however---I can assure dis Ouse, or dis Committee, upon my Onor, dot de People of de Countee do desier to have it deevided. For in dot Countee de Representatives have been sent one on de Nort Side, and one on de Sout Side of de Mountains, by Prescription in a Manner, if a Boddee may be allow'd to speak by Comparison--For indeed, I don't know weder Prescription will apply to dis Cuntree; not yet however;--but den it hos been de constant Usage. For de Sout Side was settled first, and was a Countee long before de Nort Side was ennee Countee at all--Indeed de Countee was dere, but den 'tis all de same Ting, dere was no People in it.
...This Effort of genuine attic Eloquence, being performed with that great Vehemence, Energy, and Propriety of Voice and Action, peculiar to himself, and for which he hath obtained so much Reputation and Regard, from those who have Judgment and Spirit to perceive and espouse the true Interest of the Colony.
- from a satirical broadside entitled "Debates on Dividing Orange County" (New York, 1772)
It has become common to associate any effort at cultural homogenization in America with post-independence nationalism, but in the case of the Dutch this stereotype is incorrect. New York administrations in the early 1700s actually attempted a mild form of cultural genocide against their Dutch subjects, including an effort to restrict the teaching of the Dutch language. (The last chapter of Joyce Goodfriend's Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730 is a fantastic resource on Langeveld's question.) That such a course of action was perceived to be necessary reflects the political significance of ethnicity in colonial New York, which is a complicated and well-studied problem in its own right. What is relevant here, though, is that the Dutch as an ethnocultural grouping became linked to the Dutch as a political and an economic category.
Which brings me to the pamphlet posted above. The specific controversy about the division of Orange County is an uninteresting piece of historical minutia; suffice to say that J---n D N---s is John De Noyellis, member for the county, and that his "speech" in the New York Assembly is given in what is meant to be a Dutch accent. Even if this transcription is fictional, similar forensic masterpieces could not have been uncommon in the Assembly. As Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden wrote in one of his oft-quoted letters,
People think it a fine thing to be a governor. A governor by ---- a Tom Turdman's is a better office than to rake in the dunghill of these peoples vile affections. You know that the assemblies in North America consist generally of a low rank of people who have no generous principles. But it was much worse at that time Several of the assembly were dutch boors grossly ignorant and rude who could neither write or read nor speak English.(Spelling, punctuation, and bile all sic.)
As the documents make clear, the Dutch were viewed as the NASCAR-loving rednecks of eighteenth-century New York. Despite the fact that many of the province's richest merchants and public figures--for instance, the Rensselaers--were Dutch or of Dutch origin, one hardly ever encounters an English account of the Dutch that doesn't hinge on their rudeness and ignorance. Sir William Johnson, normally a model of intercultural openness, wrote in a 1770 letter to Goldsbrow Banyar that the Dutch "or Men who think themselves such" were too partial and unqualified to sit as judges, "which I think it is high time to remedy, by bringing in, or adding to the Number such English-Men as are best qualified..."
New York's Englishmen were obsessed with the destabilizing potential of ethnic identity. The web of suspicion cast by the alleged black slave conspiracy to burn down the city in 1741 soon expanded to cover the Spanish, as Jill Lepore's wonderful book on the subject details; at various times (principally in the early part of the century) the Indians made an equally threatening appearance. These groups could be so immensely threatening because they were simultaneously outside mainstream white English Protestant society and subversively inside it. The Dutch were another matter. They were distinct, but not menacing. Their economic position made them easy to mock but not to fear--and they helped the educated English population to construct its own self-identity as the opposite of Dutch rudeness and ignorance. Thus the New York political system was, in a sense, invested in the perpetuation of Dutch separateness. Where black or Catholic ethnic self-consciousness had to be eradicated, Dutch self-consciousness was too integral to the structure of the polity to disappear entirely. To an eighteenth-century ear, De Noyellis's claim of speaking for "de Pooblic" would have had a particularly comic ring, since the legitimate voice of the public could have spoken only in educated English.
I would suggest, then, a revision of Langeveld's answer. The persistence of the Dutch in New York was not simply a matter of healthy cultural practices within that community; it was also a curious artifact of the state's early history, which established and perpetuated the Dutch-English opposition as a basic fact of political life. Ethnic cohesion was by no means a given, for the Cortlandts and the Rensselaers show that it was possible to abandon Dutchness almost completely. That not everyone did so suggests that exogenous forces played their part as well.