Is the Bill of Rights Reflective of New Netherland Culture?

In chapter twelve of American Nations, Colin Woodard provides a brief synopsis of the creation of the United States Constitution. He incorrectly states that the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1789 (it took place in 1787), but otherwise does a decent job of explaining why many prominent politicians (most of them Federalists) believed the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a document that provided for a stronger government.

Woodard argues that the Constitution was a compromise document (few would disagree) and points out how each of his self-defined “nations” contributed a part of their political culture to the process. Regarding New Netherland, Woodard asserts that “we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly . . . the people of New Netherland had lived under the arbitrary rule of distant powers for a very long time and wanted assurances their tolerant approach to religion and freedom of inquiry would not be trampled on by a new empire.” “Had the Bill of Rights not been passed,” argues Woodard, “the state of New York would not have agreed to adopt the Constitution” and “the United States would probably not have lived to see its tenth birthday.”

It is true that many New Netherland politicians distrusted the Federalist party and were wary of adopting the Constitution. In fact, the only New York member of the Constitutional Convention to sign the Constitution was the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. But framing the creation of the Bill of Rights as an invention of New Netherlanders exclusively is mistaken, in my opinion, and it raises larger questions about the nature of Woodard’s “nations.” I will try my best to explain succinctly and I welcome any comments from readers.

The question of including a Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution emerged towards the end of the Constitutional Convention on Wednesday, September 12. According to James Madison’s notes (see pages 149-150), a debate occurred over Article III, Section 2 of the proposed constitution, which allowed for jury trials in federal criminal cases, but not for civil cases. George Mason of Virginia (Woodard’s nation of “Tidewater”)—himself the author of Virginia’s 1776 Declaration of Rights—called for a Bill of Rights that would enumerate certain inalienable rights that the federal government could not violate, including the right to a fair trial with a jury. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (“Yankedom”) seconded Mason’s call and a motion was put to the rest of the convention. Ten states voted “no” to the proposed Bill of Rights, however, with Massachusetts absent. James Wilson of Pennsylvania remarked that an enumeration of rights would imply that rights not explicitly mentioned did not exist, while Roger Sherman remarked that “the state declarations of rights . . . being in force, are sufficient.”

Citing their fears of a constitution without a bill of rights, both Mason and Gerry refused to sign the Constitution. Enough delegates signed the document, however, to move it to the state ratification process. If nine states approved the Constitution, the document would go into effect.

Several states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut—ratified the constitution by the end of January 1788. A total of eight approved by May 1788, but three states remained on the fence: Virginia, New Hampshire, and New York. Virginia and New Hampshire’s delegations at their state ratification conventions were split between Federalists and Antifederalists 52-52 and 84-84 respectively. The New York delegation (which was dominated by antifederalists, including Governor George Clinton) was strongly opposed, however. Much of the concern from these ratification conventions revolved around the lack of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

When Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a narrow margin in February 1788, it attached a number of constitutional amendments and a proposal for a Bill of Rights to its ratification message. Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire all approved by Mid-June, but they also attached recommendations for constitutional amendments to be added to the document. Seeing that the required number of states had already ratified the constitution, Virginia Federalists were able to lead its delegates to an eventual ratification of the Constitution in a 89-79 vote on June 25. By this point ten states ratified the constitution, but New York remained in limbo.

To mobilize support for the Constitution in New York, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay penned the now-famous Federalist papers. Interestingly enough, the New Netherlander Hamilton echoed James Wilson’s concerns about the enumeration of freedoms in a Bill of Rights in Federalist no. 84. Nevertheless, New York finally ratified the United States Constitution on July 26, 1788, but not without providing a long of list of recommended amendments that New York demanded before fully participating in this new government.

Why are all of these details important? For one, I believe they clearly demonstrate that the Bill of Rights was not something we “received” from New Netherland. It is true that most political leaders from New Netherland were skeptical of the new constitution. But the ratification conventions of Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Virginia also raised concerns about the lack of a Bill of Rights, and it was a Tidewater aristocrat that first raised concerns about a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention.

Equally important, these details raise questions about Woodard’s definition of New Netherland culture. If the Bill of Rights is truly a reflection of Dutch guarantees of freedom, then why were Tidewater and Yankee aristocrats the first ones to raise concerns about fair jury trials, freedom of speech, and a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention? Why did ratification conventions in other parts of the country raise the same sorts of questions at their meetings? Why did a Tidewater aristocrat (James Madison) introduce a motion to include a Bill of Rights into the U.S. Constitution at the 1789 congressional session and not a New Netherlander?

While acknowledging that Dutch notions of freedom most likely played some sort of role in the creation of a Bill of Rights, the final document reflected the concerns of politicians all over the country. Rather than viewing the debate over a Bill of Rights as a New Netherlander vs. “X nation” dichotomy, the actual documents show that the debate reflected a national Antifederalist vs. Federalist political discourse over the nature of United States federalism, republicanism, and the enumeration of rights in the Constitution. We did not receive the Bill of Rights from New Netherland exclusively, and to isolate the New Netherland “nation” as some sort of independent variable in the creation of the Bill of Rights seems mistaken to me.