Book Summary: “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” by Russell Shorto


Title: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Author: Russell Shorto
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Shorto overviews the history of Amsterdam, one of the great Commercial societies in world history.

If you would like to learn more about how Amsterdam and other cities created progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • While London, Paris and New York City get all the attention, Amsterdam has had at least as much influence on world history as these other more famous cities.
  • Amsterdam played key roles in the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.
  • At its height in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Amsterdam was the dominant economic city in the world.
  • Amsterdam evolved in a part of Europe where feudalism was weak and water transportation created natural highways for world trade. This enabled the emergence of one the greatest Commercial societies in history.
  • Amsterdam pioneered democratic governance, religious liberty and capitalism.
  • Amsterdam’s economy started with herring fishing and evolved into a highly diversified and expansive mercantile and industrial economy.

Important Quotes from Book

“it has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has, and its imprint on the United States in particular goes to the core of the American identity.”

“It might be possible to go further and say that liberalism was born in Amsterdam.”

“a remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning in the late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and to the state… The city’s rise was so sudden it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a groundbreaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.

“Underlying all these various breakthroughs—conceptual or physical—is the unleashing of the individual, which has its origins in the Protestant Reformation and the first wave of scientific experimentation and which relates too to Amsterdam’s geographic and social conditions. These ingredients went to make up a new kind of place: a breeding ground for liberalism.”

Multiculturalism proved to be a failure. It was leading not to a mixed society but to a multiplicity of ghettoized communities living next to but cut off from one another: the very opposite of a “society.” 

“In 1416, shipbuilders in the town of Hoorn, to the north of Amsterdam, developed a long, stout, eminently seaworthy boat with bulging sides and a cavernous interior. Along with it came modifications that made it possible to do the gibbing (the technique of gutting and curing herring) aboard ship. Thus the herring buss—essentially a factory that could plow through rolling seas—came into being. Instead of immediately needing to get caught fish ashore, where they then had to be quickly processed and shipped off, the Dutch boats were able to stay at sea for five weeks or more at a stretch, fishing, gibbing, and fishing some more, and when they returned to port their hulls were packed with market-ready barrels of cured herring—lightly salted, or “soused,” in the terminology of the Elizabethan period—that would last for a year and that, to boot, were tastier than fish that had been cured in the old manner.

Within a few decades the Dutch had cornered the market.”

“Transforming the herring industry could happen only if there was an unusual degree of cooperation among different people. Here Amsterdam’s tradition of water management—which already had a couple of centuries of history behind it—served the city well. Building up dikes and dredging canals were massive communal activities in which everyone concerned had to see a common as well as an individual interest in order to take part.”

“To make all of this work, herring merchants pushed for local government to get involved. The government sent warships to protect the fleet, and over time it developed regulations covering every aspect of the netting, processing, and sale of herring. This was done with one purpose in mind: to keep the quality high.”

“And dominance in one field led to success in others. In order to build herring busses, Amsterdam bought timber from Germany and processed it into planks… sawyers (and later saw mills… crankshaft.. Meanwhile, the city’s own shipyards expanded”

“Thus, while the cities of Antwerp, Ghent, and “Bruges in the so-called southern Netherlands (today Belgium) were among Europe’s glittering jewels, cornering the refined trades in spices and rare fabrics, their great artists—from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymus Bosch—as fully a part of the Renaissance as Italian masters, Amsterdam came of age by pursuing an altogether rougher market.”

“Wealth came, and something else: sailors and traders from faraway places. They presaged what Amsterdam would become: a place of mixed languages and backgrounds.”

“Why was Amsterdam so lenient in dealing with purveyors of outlandish new ideas? The simplest answer is that it was a trading city. This meant both that it was used to things foreign—accents, tastes, beliefs—and that its leaders did not want to let nonstandard notions disrupt the flow of business. But that isn’t a full enough explanation. Other places in Europe were also trading centers,”

“In another sense, however, the situation of the Low Countries ensured that they would develop in a crucially different way from the rest of Europe—a difference that would lead eventually to violent and world-historic upheaval. One of the defining elements of medieval Europe was the top-down structure of society, called the manorial system, ”

“The Dutch provinces did not become manorial, and the reason, as with nearly everything else, related to water. Since much of the land was reclaimed from the sea or bogs, neither Church nor nobility could claim to own it. It was created by communities (hence the Dutch saying “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”). Residents banded together to form water boards that were responsible for the complex, nonstop task of maintaining polders (reclaimed lands), dams, dikes, and water mills to keep the water at bay. The boards—waterschappen—are still very much a part of Dutch life and have exerted an enormous influence on the culture, in particular on the peculiar combination of individualism and communalism that helps define Dutchness.

In this system, people bought and sold their own plots of land. Many Amsterdammers owned land just outside the city, which they farmed or rented out for extra income. The striking feature of this is that it was individuals, of all levels of society, who were invested in the land. Where land was controlled by noblemen and/or the Church in other parts of Europe, in the province of Holland, circa 1500, only 5 percent of the land was owned by nobles, while peasants owned 45 percent of it.”

“theirs was a kind of protomodern society.”

“So tolerance in Amsterdam in the 1520s, as later, did not have the broad meaning the word would take on in the late twentieth century. It wasn’t synonymous with “celebrating diversity.” It was more like “putting up with,” a concept born of necessity and practicality.”

“and Amsterdam emerged as a center of countercultural experimentation, sixteenth-century style.”

“the imperial powers in Brussels decided not to trust the citizens of Amsterdam with their own governance. They removed the local regents from power and replaced them with a new crop of “sincere Catholics,” most of them out-of-towners.

It was the first move in a contest that would soon erupt into open war”

“As Philip began his reign, he quickly discovered that his adventurous, war-loving father had left vast problems behind. Foremost among these was money. Income from taxes totaled 1 million ducats, and the government’s debt stood at 7 million ducats. Interest payments were crippling. Philip had to raise money. The Dutch cities—money-producing engines without parallel in Europe—were the only option.

The leaders of the States General—the governing body that represented all the provinces—knew that Philip needed them, and so they made a proposal. They would agree to tax their citizens again and raise 3.6 million ducats for the king over nine years—more than enough to bail him out of his financial crisis—but on the condition that they dispense it when and as they saw fit. The king was outraged, but he accepted the terms. Unwittingly, he was taking the first step toward losing the Dutch provinces.”

“Going back to the 1400s, as merchants and tradesmen in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and other Dutch cities flourished in their nonfeudal system, they had built up a series of “privileges and liberties” that local governments granted to them in exchange for their avowal of obligations that they had to the community. These privileges and liberties included a principle of free trade, as well as regulations that favored local merchants or tradesmen over outsiders (i.e., protectionism). They also covered quasi-democratic principles, such as a right to have a say in their taxation. The privileges and liberties—which are forerunners of modern political rights and freedoms—extended eventually to the provincial level… Philip’s new decrees trampled all over the privileges and liberties.”

“He was becoming the de facto Dutch leader. He spoke out more directly, not for attacking the king but for “religious peace”—tolerance of religious differences. The moment would eventually be seen as a watershed in European history, and the principle would become the foundation of a set of concepts we take for granted today: tolerance, diversity, pluralism, civil rights, the idea that any single person is of equal value to another. Espousing it in the 1560s would turn out to be a little premature.”

“The parallels are indeed striking. In both the Dutch and the American causes, people had to “struggle to expand their identities from the local (Virginians and Hollanders to Americans and Netherlander). Both revolts had economic injustice at their heart. In each there was a foreign monarch whose behavior allowed for him to be easily demonized. And both had a founding father. The reasons for the similarities are fairly clear. Both countries came into being as a result of the unfolding of the concept of individual liberty.”

“the northern Dutch provinces would sign the Union of Utrecht, a de facto constitution that, following on the decades of slaughter in the name of religion, would guarantee freedom of conscience. It would be a first draft of the concept of religious freedom and, beyond that, of the legal notion of equality. There is a connecting thread that runs from Willem of Orange’s first articulation of “religious peace” (tolerance of religious differences) in the 1560s to the language of the Union of Utrecht (“each person shall remain free, especially in his religion”) to the religious freedom clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

“The Spanish sacked Antwerp in 1576 and laid siege to it in 1580. By the time the siege was over, the city that had once been the center of European finance was a shell. Its wealth, and more importantly its professions—the bankers and merchants and artisans—left by the tens of thousands, in one of history’s great brain drains, and headed to the new power center in the north.”

If you would like to learn more about how Amsterdam and other cities created progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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