In Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, historian and journalist Shorto examines the factors behind the city’s emergence as a center of social, political, and economic freedom.
What made Amsterdam the birthplace of liberalism, and what made it so unique in Europe?
In a word: geography. The rest of Europe developed the manorial system, with monarchy and rule by noblemen in a castle and the land surrounding it. Those working the land owed [their noble lord] fealty, and that created an economic and political system. That system simply didn’t hold in the Netherlands. It was a waterlogged, low-lying place, and the people essentially created the land and made it workable. Having done that, they divided it up and began to sell it and rent it to each other, and created a proto-modern economic system. A sense of empowerment flows from that, whereas in the manorial system, you’re much more locked into the position you’re born into.
Where do you think the Dutch tradition of gedogen (tolerance) comes from?
It’s a flat country—easy to invade, easy to flee to. It’s a mix of peoples. Earlier, and in a more profound way than in other places, [the Dutch] had to find a way to get along. There’s an old Dutch saying: “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland.” When you had a group of people in a rural area and you’ve communally created the land, it fosters a sensibility of finding a way to make things okay. It’s actually hard to explain gedogen. It’s not, “Oh, we’re all pals.” It’s a limited form of tolerance, even if in the bigger picture it’s a watershed.
What are Dutch tolerance’s limits?
[The Dutch are] a group of very permissive people, but [they’re] a very conservative group as well. You go back to the cooperative poldermodel of politics [a form of consensus government, based around the trading of water rights], where everyone hashes it out and has their say. This kind of permissiveness is less a sense of letting everyone have what they want, and more a way to let everyone have a piece and appease people. You can smoke marijuana, but here are the rules. You can jerry-rig it, but everyone gets a little something.
What made Amsterdam especially attractive to intellectual nomads like Baruch Spinoza and John Locke, who you profile in the book?
There’s a religious component to it. You have two political parties: the Orthodox, and the liberal Remonstrants. The latter thought that Orthodoxy was presuming to know the mind of God, and they were naturally religiously tolerant. That was intellectually cutting-edge. Because of that, [the city drew] people like Locke, who was politically of a like mind with the Remonstrants.... That made Amsterdam a welcome place for early liberals. And that tolerance was also toward the printed word. Amsterdam had more publishers there than anywhere in the Western world. That’s going to draw intellectuals.