Dec. 27, 2022

The Flushing Remonstrance Establishes Religious Tolerance in America

The Flushing Remonstrance Establishes Religious Tolerance in America

December 27, 1657. Settlers in what is today Queens, New York write “The Flushing Remonstrance,” a petition that, for the first time in North American history, articulates that freedom of religion is a fundamental right.


Cold Open

It’s August 1655.

A frail wooden boat creaks over the choppy waters of the western Atlantic. Huddled on deck are twenty-three Jewish refugees fleeing religious persecution in Brazil.

One of the passengers, an elderly rabbi, clambers up to the foredeck and stands near the prow, watching the sun dip below the horizon. As the light fades, the rabbi wonders if there’s anywhere on this earth where his people will be permitted to live in peace and freedom.

He once thought that place could be Brazil. The Dutch colonists who had established trading settlements there were tolerant of the Jewish population. The Dutch allowed them to build synagogues and worship freely. But when the Portuguese took over earlier this year, they enforced their strict Catholic faith and ordered the Jewish inhabitants to pack their belongings and leave. Now, the rabbi and his fellow refugees are sailing back to Europe, where they hope to find a safe haven in the Netherlands.

As the rabbi considers the journey ahead, a shout on deck interrupts his contemplation. Another ship has been spotted, and it’s rapidly bearing down on the refugees. The rabbi’s face darkens with concern. He knows these waters are prowled by Spanish privateers, whose vessels are leased by the Spanish crown for the purposes of robbery and plunder.

A volley of warning shots erupts from the deck of the approaching ship’s galley, urging the refugees to surrender themselves and their possessions. Lacking the means to resist, the captain of the refugees’ boat lowers the mainsail and waits to be boarded.

Moments later, the Spanish ship pulls up alongside them. Gangplanks are lowered between the two vessels, and Spanish sailors swarm across the gunwales. Before long, the refugees have relinquished all of their possessions to the marauding Spaniards, including the provisions needed for their long trans-Atlantic voyage.

The rabbi is left watching the Spanish ship fade to a speck on the horizon. He knows they will never make it all the way to Europe now. They will instead have to find somewhere closer to seek refuge. The rabbi recalls hearing about another Dutch colony in the northeastern corner of the New World, a small but thriving settlement known as New Netherland. He hopes that maybe there, among the tolerant Dutch, his people will finally be accepted.

The following month, the Jewish refugees will arrive in the colony of New Netherland, where they will hope to be welcomed with the same attitudes that turned the Netherlands into 17th-century Europe’s most tolerant country. But their hopes will be dashed. The Jewish arrivals will be met off the boat by the newly-installed governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, who has imposed strict ordinances forbidding religious pluralism in the settlement. Stuyvesant’s policies will soon inspire a section of the community to rise up and speak out against this persecution, creating an official document that will lay the foundations for the principles of religious freedom in America on December 27th, 1657.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 27th, 1657: The Flushing Remonstrance Establishes Religious Tolerance in America.

Act One: Peg Leg Pete

It’s an April morning in 1644; thirteen years before the citizens of New Netherland will advocate for religious tolerance in the colony.

On the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean, a garrison of six hundred Dutch soldiers prepares to launch an attack bombardment against a Spanish fortification. It’s still early, the sky is slowly turning pink in the east. A flock of pelicans rises from the mangroves that line the shore, flapping their broad wings over the helmeted heads of the Dutch soldiers as they tamp down their gunpowder and wheel their cannons into position.

Peter Stuyvesant, the commander of the Dutch battalion, swaggers among his troops barking orders. Peter is the governor of Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the West Indies. Originally, he moved to the New World as an employee of the Dutch West India Trading Company. But he was so successful as a commercial agent that he was soon promoted to governor. Now, the 34-year-old is in charge of leading an assault on this enemy fortification at Saint Martin, a former Dutch colony recently captured by the Spanish.

Peter puffs out his barrel chest and smooths down his lank, greasy hair. Then, he raises his chin and looks down his beaky nose at the Spanish encampment. He doesn’t expect this attack to last long. Of all the qualities Peter lacks - good humor, likeability, kindness - self-confidence is not one of them. Peter possesses an iron-clad belief in his own abilities, and an unwavering faith in his destiny as a hero of the Dutch Empire.

Peter raises his fist and orders the first volley of shells. It isn’t long before the cove is shrouded in a mist of gun smoke, and the echo of musket fire resonates along the beachhead. Satisfied, Peter climbs to the upper section of the battery. He wants to gain a vantage point and estimate how long the Spanish defenses will hold out.

But as he lifts his head above the battlement, he spots the barrel of an enemy cannon pointed straight at him. There’s a flicker of blue flame, followed by a puff of white smoke. The next thing Peter knows, he’s lying among the splintered ruins of the parapet, a searing pain in his right leg. Fearing the worst, Peter looks down.

A cannonball has struck him just below the knee. It shattered the bone and ripped away much of the flesh. Peter manages to raise his arm and cry out for a doctor. Then, with the sound of battle still raging all around him, he slowly drifts from consciousness.

Peter’s wound proves serious. Quickly, he returns to the Netherlands to undergo surgery. And there, his limb is amputated and replaced by a wooden prosthetic. At first, Peter falls into a deep depression, cursing his terrible luck at having been disfigured at the onset of a promising career. But as his condition improves, his old self-confidence returns. In fact, Peter grows even more bullish than before.

More than anything, he wants to return to the Dutch West Indies, to continue fighting the Spanish and establishing Dutch colonial dominance in the New World. So, after a year of recuperation, Peter declares himself fit enough to return to work and is soon summoned by the directors of the Dutch West India Company.

As Peter heads to the company’s offices in Amsterdam, he prays that he will be posted back to Curaçao. He climbs the building’s front steps as quickly as he can with his wooden leg, grimacing with frustration and discomfort. Then, he limps down the corridor and enters the room at the far end.

The directors of the Dutch West India Company are already seated around a table, austere and solemn in their black robes and white ruffs. Immediately, Peter senses a tension in the room, as if bad news is about to be delivered. One of the directors tells Peter that he has been selected for an important new posting. He isn’t returning to Curaçao. Instead, the company has chosen Peter to take over the governorship of a small Dutch colony in North America, a remote trading post known as New Netherland.

Peter doesn’t try to hide his disappointment. But these men are his employers, so he suppresses an angry outburst. Still, there’s no getting around it: this is a demotion and an insulting one at that. New Netherland is the colonial backwater of the Dutch Empire, a remote swamp governed by drunks and riven with internal discord. It’s a far cry from Curaçao in the West Indies, the jewel in the Empire’s crown. In the eyes of the directors, it seems that Peter’s handicap has rendered him incapable of governing a colony worth defending.

Still, lacking any other options, Peter accepts the posting. He decides then and there that he will make the best of it and prove to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, and anyone else who’s ever doubted him, that Peter Stuyvesant can achieve more with oneleg than most men can with two. And in the next year, Peter will embark for North America. With him, he will bring a steely determination to whip the new colony into shape and turn New Netherland into the pride of the mighty Dutch Empire.

Act Two: New Netherland

It’s May 11th, 1647, just off the coast of modern-day New York.

Peter Stuyvesant hobbles across the deck of his ship as it approaches land. The recently appointed governor of New Netherland squints at the ramshackle smattering of timber cottages materializing through the haze.

By now, the Dutch have inhabited the northeastern part of North America for over twenty years. New Netherland is home to around 8,000 people and stretches from present-day Connecticut in the north, to Delaware in the south.

But despite its steady growth, the colony has struggled to thrive. The previous governor was an incompetent drunk who mishandled relations with the local indigenous tribes, leading to increased tensions between the settlers and the natives. This lack of effective leadership has resulted in a proliferation of vice and crime throughout the colony. And making matters worse, the growing population of English settlers in Massachusetts has been gradually chipping away at Dutch territory. New Netherland is in need of strong and decisive leadership. And Peter intends to provide it. 

As his ship nears the shore, Peter spots a large group of people standing around the harbor – colonists, assembled to welcome their new governor. Peter sniffs with haughty disapproval. He’s sure these men and women have work to be getting on with, houses to build, and fields to plow; they shouldn’t just be waiting around for him. Peter suspects that the former governor has allowed the plague of idleness to infect the citizens of New Netherland. So Peter resolves to make it his job to introduce a rigorous work ethic to the colony.

Since his departure from Amsterdam, Peter has tried to think of his posting in New Netherland as something other than a humiliating demotion. He reasoned that the cannonball that shattered his leg would have taken his life, too, had God not intervened. So maybe thisis the purpose for which God spared him: to turn a failing colony into a thriving branch of the Dutch Empire.

As Peter’s ship docks in New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan, the colony’s largest town, Peter disembarks with determination. Using a cane for support, he limps towards the throng of locals, eagerly massed to meet their new governor. But Peter doesn’t greet them with a smile. He scowls, and glowers at the crowd from beneath the brim of his hat. Then, he addresses the congregation, declaring that he “intends to govern them as a father governs his children.”

Right away, Peter begins to rule over New Netherland with an iron fist. He quickly identifies several problems with the way the colony is organized. Firstly, he believes that individual landowners - known as patroons- are running amuck with too much power. So he limits the patroons’ freedom and dismisses citizens' concerns saying: “We derive our authority from God and the West India Company, not from a few ignorant subjects.”

But above all, Peter suspects that the citizens of New Netherland lack moral fiber. As a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church, the official form of Christianity practiced throughout the Dutch Empire, Peter clamps down on religious freedom in the colony. He believes that without strict religious laws, the colony will never achieve any measure of economic success. And Peter refuses to sway from this conviction.

Then, seven years after Peter’s own arrival, a group of twenty-three Jewish refugees make it to New Amsterdam, fleeing persecution in Brazil. Many colonists are prepared to welcome the new arrivals. Back home in Europe, the Dutch people have established a reputation as a nation of tolerance and religious pluralism. Many in the colonies assume they will follow the same example.

But just as the refugees are being helped off the boat, Governor Stuyvesant catches wind of their arrival. He marches down to the harbor with a retinue of armed soldiers and apprehends the refugees. Then, he dashes off an irate letter to the West India Company, demanding the prisoners be deported. But the Company refuses Peter’s request, authorizing the refugees to settle and trade in New Netherland. Peter begrudgingly follows orders, but he refuses the Jewish arrivals’ request to build a synagogue.

Over the next few years, Peter’s authoritarianism continues. In February 1656, he persuades the West India Company to approve an official ordinance, one that bans the activities of anyreligious denomination other than the Dutch Reformed Church. The following year, a boat arrives from Yorkshire, England. And on board are twelve Quakers, members of a marginalized subset of Christianity. The group planned to travel straight to New England, where a small community of Quakers already exists, but several of them decided to take to the streets of New Amsterdam and begin preaching.

The Quakers’ appearance will upset Peter who will decide to take action against the new arrivals. But the citizens of New Netherland will have little patience for their governor’s bigotry. Soon, the arrest and torture of a Quaker at the hands of Peter will provide the spark needed for the people of New Netherland to speak out against intolerance, and to create a document that will, for the first time in American history, establish freedom of religion as a fundamental and incontrovertible right.

Act Three: The Remonstrance

It’s a bitterly cold winter’s day in 1657, in the Dutch colony of New Netherland.

An elderly English settler named Edward Hart walks through the snow-covered streets of New Amsterdam. Edward is the town clerk for the nearby settlement of Flushing. This morning he has traveled to the island of Manhattan to attend a business meeting.

But as Edward turns a corner into the town square, he is met by a disturbing sight. A young man, dressed in rags, is strung up from a scaffold by his arms, his exposed flesh blue and blistered from the cold. Edward stares aghast. He asks a passerby what crime the man committed. The passerby explains that the man is a Quaker and that he was caught by Governor Peter Stuyvesant preaching in the street.

Edward isn’t surprised to learn that Governor Stuyvesant is behind this cruelty. The Governor has already stamped the colony with his bigotry with an ordinance that outlaws any religion except that of the Dutch Reformed Church. Edward has always felt that New Netherland should provide a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution, and to witness such public displays of intolerance and torture makes his blood boil.

After seeing the Quaker strung up in New Amsterdam, Edward returns to Flushing, determined to make a stand. At the next town meeting, he raises his concerns about the Governor and about the importance of religious freedom. The other town officials agree that religious persecution has no place in their colony, so they decide to draft a petition appealing to the Governor for tolerance.

On December 27th, 1657, the town officials of Flushing come together to sign what will become known as the Flushing Remonstrance. Before penning his name, Edward reads the final document. It states: “If any person... whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Jew or Quaker… comes in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free entrance unto our Town and houses.” Edward can’t help but feel moved by the words, and he prays they will have the same effect on the Governor.

After signing the document, Edward and his associates present the Remonstrance to Peter Stuyvesant. But the Governor is unmoved. He dismisses the petition and then arrests its authors. But despite failing to effect immediate change, the people of Flushing will remain at the forefront of the colonists’ fight against discrimination.

Six years later, a man named John Bowne will allow a group of Quakers to meet at his Flushing home. When as a result, John is arrested and banished, he will appeal to the Dutch West India Company. And in April 1663, the Company will respond, writing to Governor Stuyvesant that so long as they “behave quietly and legally,” he must allow every colonist to worship freely.

The following year, the English will seize the Dutch colony and remove Governor Stuyvesant, changing the city’s name from New Amsterdam to New York. But while Peter Stuyvesant’s career as governor will end in defeat, the legacy of the Flushing Remonstrance will live on. Today, the Quaker Meeting House in Flushing is the oldest continuously-used house of worship in New York State. The principles outlined in the Remonstrance will also go on to inspire the writers of the US Constitution, who will take up the mantle of religious liberty first put forth in America by the Flushing Remonstrance on December 27th, 1657.


Next onHistory Daily. December 28th, 1832. John C. Calhoun resigns as Vice President of the United States after clashing with President Andrew Jackson.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.