Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City
© 2013 Russell Shorto
369 pages

In the early 14th century, a group of fisher-folk around the Amstel river came together with a dream: to build a place where people could smoke weed and bicycle to their heart's content.  And so they built a dam, and canals, and a town, and they called it Amsterdam. And they all lived happily ever after, except for the people who toked and cycled simultaneously, because they fell into the canals.

...well, okay. Not really. But there were fishermen, and there was a dam.  Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City  reviews the history of the city which took its name from that dam, though it focuses more on Amsterdam's culture of liberality than municipal matters. That culture begins not in the 1960s or even the enlightenment period, but at the very beginning.

Most European cities can point back to a spot of land, the center of the old town, and say "Here is it where it began."  Not so with Amsterdam, which had to be reclaimed from the sea itself, by dredging rivers, redirecting water through canals, building dykes, and driving massive of wood into the Earth to secure a foundation for buildings.  This effort was a joint private-communal affair, as people worked as a corporation to accomplish and maintain projects, but held the results -- the parcels of land raised from the sea--  as private family possessions. Amsterdam's peculiar origins gave the city a unique character, writes Russell Shorto.  It fell outside the feudal system that governed the rest of western Europe, sharply curbing the influence of any native aristocracy, and priming it to reject them totally when cities grew and political authority became a matter of public debate.  The relatively shallow roots of feudalism's cultural authority made it much easier to embrace a  social policy of gedogen -- a game tolerance of difference or vice, so long as it wasn't aggressive.  This tolerance made Amsterdam  a refuge for persecuted minorities (exiled Spanish Jews) and minorities who would love to do the persecuting if the shoe was on the other foot (English Puritans). during the medieval-industrial transition

.Amsterdam's geography meant that it could not be a city with vast estates;  although many of its citizens were staggeringly rich during Amsterdam's golden age, when it was a trading titan that gave its sister-nation England painful competition,  even the wealthy would live in relatively modest townhouses. The broad outlines of Amsterdamer, or at least Dutch, history may be known -- if nothing else, at least the Dutch provinces' early participation in the Protestant movement, and their war of rebellion against the Spanish Hapburgs.  Amsterdam was slow to be caught up in the protestant tide,  as a medieval miracle made it an object of pilgrimages, and made the city as a whole more Catholic -- at least, for a time, before it was quickly supplanted by liberalism. Although the word "liberal" means apparently opposite things on either side of the Atlantic, Shorto holds that both meanings were originally rooted in the supremacy of the individual, and Amsterdam can claim to embody that cause more than any other city.  Compare it to the cradle of Anglo-American democracy, the  home of the House of Commons:  London's streets once fell under the shadow of cathedrals and the Tower; now they falls under skyscrapers.  Amsterdam, however, is a city not of skyscrapers and massive complexes, but of buildings that have remained at the human scale. Its innards, too, have remained human: its streets are dominated by human figures on bicycles, not oversized for speeding automobiles.

Although this is certainly an enjoyable history of Amsterdam's contribution to the human existance,  particularly  on its progress at achieving the golden mean between individual and community life,  those who are curious about Amsterdam's physical expression will probably be a little disappointed. The physical form of the city is covered early on, but after that municipal matters take a distant back seat to the evolving social history. Admittedly, most readers are probably more interested in reading about cars than about canals and such, but I thought it was very odd that Shorto didn't dwell on the rescue of the 'human city' from cars in the 1970s. 

In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, Pete Jordan
The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama. Not one I've read yet, but it's about the Dutch Republic's golden age.


  1. This sounds really interesting. The history of cities is generally a fascinating subject. For various reasons that you touch upon Amsterdam sounds particularly intriguing.

    1. And no city is alike...they all have a distinct character -- at least the ones that are 'cities'in the traditional sense.

  2. I was there some years ago for a long weekend. Lovely place.

    1. If I'm ever able to visit the continent, it's the biggest place I want to go. A lot about it just speaks to me, if that makes any sense. I plan to try this author's "Island at the Center of the World", about Dutch New York.

    2. If it ever looks like you can make it let me know & I'll meet you there.... once I get a new passport.... [grin]

    3. Will do! There's a couple of more spots in the US I want to hit before I try crossing the Atlantic, though. (Just the southwest and then Portland, OR, really..)


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