A Dutchman as an American Revolutionary

When thinking about the origins of the American Revolution, there are two lines of thought. The first is the Great Man theory, which stipulates that revolutionary ideas first arose among the elite, who were influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. This was the prevailing model in the 19th century. It is now experiencing a comeback thanks to historians focusing attention on Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison. The other school of thought grew out of the unrest of the 1960s. It views history as a bottom-up development, and believes that the impetus for the [American] Revolution came from unrest among tenant farmers, city dwellers and religious fundamentalists.

I want to bring these two strands together by focusing attention on one largely unheralded figure from that time: Abraham Yates, who was born in 1974 in Albany, New York. Albany lies about 250 kilometers [155 miles] north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. In the previous century, Albany, then called Beverwijck, was the second town of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. It had been settled by the Dutch West India Company following the charting of the region by Henry Hudson, who was an Englishman, but sailed on behalf of the West India Company at that time. The English took over the colony in 1664, but the composition of the population — primarily Dutch citizens — remained largely unchanged.


In Albany, it was something of a tradition that English men married Dutch women. Christoffel Yates, Abraham’s father, was of English-Dutch descent. Abraham’s mother, Catalijne, was Dutch. Albany was a very Dutch town in 1750. Stepped gables, biscuits, Delft-blue tiles. Visitors found it isolated and a bit old-fashioned.

Yates’ father was a blacksmith, but Abraham, being the ninth child, was not able to follow in his footsteps. He became a shoemaker. However, he wanted to be more than just a tradesman; he wanted to get ahead. He made a good marriage to Annetje de Ridder, the daughter of a wealthy Dutch farmer.

He then took a good look at how his city was changing. He knew that the fur trade, the power base for the most influential families, was diminishing. The city was increasingly becoming a center for tradesmen and craftsmen like him: coopers, tanners, masons and tinsmiths. Yates also knew that farmers in the Hudson Valley were growing wheat that was shipped to the Caribbean to feed slaves, and that the returning ships brought rum, sugar and molasses. He decided to expand into the buying and selling of these Caribbean goods alongside his shoe-making business.

But his ambitions did not stop there. As he expanded his trade, he and other tradesmen grew impatient at the rule of the leading families, and began building connections with this new working class.

Powerful Families

In Albany, political office was held by the extremely powerful leading families, all of whom were of Dutch descent. But Abraham Yates did not take this inequality as a given. A lively resentment toward the oligarchs and the special status that came with their wealth brewed inside him. He discovered that he had a preference for what he called the “middle sort” of people. It had long been the custom for voters to follow the advice of their betters on deciding whom to support in office, but that began to change. The tradesmen’s guilds were pushing for political power, and Yates hit on the idea of utilizing this dissatisfaction and addressing voters directly.

In September 1753, he put himself forward for election as an assistant alderman in Albany’s third constituency. It was the lowest position on the city council, but it was also a foothold on the body that governed the city. Contrary to the usual practice, he marketed himself directly to voters. Those in his district were tradesmen with whom Yates had carefully built relationships over many years. He was elected.

The following year he became sheriff of the district.

England was at war with the French and their Native American allies. As sheriff, Yates found that his immediate enemy was not the French, but in fact the English army that was supposed to protect American civilians. Thousands of British soldiers were quartered in Albany, tasked with taking Canada from the French. The soldiers caused chaos; homes were broken into, and many women were assaulted. Yates, who had to defend his people, complained to the Earl of Loudon, the head of the British army in North America. Loudon rebuffed him and belittled his civil authority. Yates then wrote a letter to the governor.

Public Confrontation

Shortly after, Loudon and Yates encountered each other in the street, which led to a public confrontation. Loudon said he had seen the letter Yates sent to the governor, and that it was full of lies. Yates replied that every sentence could be proven with testimonies. Loudon warned Yates against discharging a particular military prisoner from his jail. “Sir, I have already discharged him.” “By whose order?” roared Loudon. “By that of the King,” said Yates. Loudon then ordered the sheriff to stay daily within his sight, “And if you do not, I shall send for you with a file of soldiers with their bayonets affixed.”

The sheriff replied: “My Lord, I have no time to wait upon you. I have other business to attend.” Loudon, barely able to contain his fury, vowed that for Yates’ insolence he would turn his household into a hospital for wounded soldiers and the local church into an artillery storehouse. “I don’t know what you will do, my Lord,” Yates said coldly, “but I know you have no right to do that.” At that, Loudon informed him that he did indeed have the right. The Lord Chancellor of England had decreed that when the army was required to defend a place, “there the law ceased,” and the army could take charge.

In reaction to Yates’ insolence, one of Loudon’s officers arrived at Yates’s house and announced that he would be staying there henceforth. Yates told him that his house was already full of soldiers. The captain replied that if necessary, he would “lay in the same bed” with Yates and his wife.


Yates started studying law, and composed a remarkable memorandum against Loudon. This is in the 1750s — 20 years before the Revolution — and this self-taught shoemaker confronted the most powerful man in America, the head of the British Army, using Enlightenment ideas of people like John Locke. He began with a basic observation that every person has “a fixed, fundamental right born with him as to freedom of his person and property and his estate, which he cannot be deprived of.” He asserted, “The King of England can neither change laws without the consent of his subjects nor change or dispense of them with imposition against their wills.”

Yates also outlined the abuses that the people of Albany had endured at the hands of British troops: “Robberies, assaults, burglaries and other most abominable crimes have been committed, some of which were committed under the guise of serving His Majesty.” He detailed how “oppressive numbers” of soldiers were quartered in homes while barracks nearby stood empty. He charged that “we have been threatened by the Earl of Loudon that our houses should be burned,” that the violence of soldiers had been “the means of frequent abortions,” that drunken soldiers have “kept whores in their rooms in defiance of the people,” that soldiers had “stripped women naked to their waste and banished them out of the city.”

In the 1770s, Yates was one of the first people to call for independence. He became the chairman of the Committee of Correspondence, one of the committees that coordinated the actions against the British. As of July 1776, the British colonies in North America were at war with the home country. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, the colonies won a profound victory, which would not just change their continent, but would also change the world. Abraham Yates was part of all of this. He had been a revolutionary, a radical, a man living in fear of being caught and hanged. But he became one of the victors.

Surprising Turn

In the 1780s, Yates made a turn that may seem surprising. The original form of government chosen by the victorious Americans was a confederation with a weak central government. This forms an interesting parallel with the Dutch situation two centuries earlier. In America, people thought of themselves first and foremost as Virginians or New Yorkers, not as Americans; just as in the Netherlands, people thought of themselves as Hollanders or Frisians. In both cases, it was an impediment to the war for independence.

That element of separateness continued to play a strong role after the war, which is reflected in the name that they chose for their new country: the United States of America. After the individual colonies became states, each state kept and jealously guarded its broad powers: to raise an army, to print its own currency. The national government had no president, and it had difficulty negotiating with foreign powers.

Most leaders felt that this situation had to change. There was a movement to create a constitution that would empower a new federal government that would have a degree of authority over the state governments. Abraham Yates became one of the most strident voices arguing against this federal government, which he believed would take on absolute powers. He was convinced that individual liberty was best maintained by keeping power in small states, not in one federal government. A national constitution would “dissolve all power of the several state legislators and destroy the rights and liberties of the people.”

Yates presented his arguments to Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the great proponent of a federal system. Hamilton called him “a man whose ignorance and perverseness are only surpassed by his pertinacity and conceit. He hates all high fliers, which is an appellation he gives to men of genius.” Hamilton then revealed his own elitism when he flung another slur at Yates, calling him “a mere shoemaker.”

Thousands of Pages

The Constitution did go into effect. Yates went on to become mayor of Albany in 1790, and he remained in that office until his death in 1796. He was a fascinating working-class man, determined to lift himself up, who remained true to the common man, distrustful of all power and elites.

However, he also represents something more. To what extent was his own take on independence, on revolution, on the rights of the common man a result of his Dutch heritage? We get some answers to this question from Yates himself. For Yates wrote thousands of pages: essays in newspapers, articles, political diatribes. One of the most fascinating documents is a kind of history of New York, which is partly a very early history of New Netherlands. He wrote it in 1776 or 1777, during the war, possibly to justify American independence by showing that the English never had claim to the land in the first place.

Yates wrote of “the first settlers of the state of New York” that “they were Dutchmen,” and brought with them “their history, their character, their rights, liberties and their revolt.” He wrote that they had come from “the seven United States,” who revolted because of “the violation of the peoples’ rights and liberties.” He wrote of the Dutch Revolt,* and of the founding of the colony of New Netherlands by this new nation.

Legal Basis

He seems to have been trying to show his fellow revolutionaries not only that the Dutch Republic was a worthy model for their actions, but also that the Dutch nation’s claim to the territory in America constituted a wholly different legal basis for the Revolution. He offers depth to our understanding of the antecedents of the American Revolution. It was not one group of Englishmen fighting another group of Englishmen. The colonials were of mixed ancestry, and their influences were more varied than we have been led to believe.

Yates was of humble beginnings and trained himself in the law, and in these new Enlightenment ideas. In addition, he used his knowledge of the Dutch language and history, connecting the Dutch spirit of individualism with its emphasis on individual rights, which came out of history, the battles against water and the formation of water boards; and from Descartes and Spinoza and the Dutch Golden Age, that animated the revolt against Spain and the Republic under Johan de Witt.

Yates used his simmering lower-class sense of injustice and his awareness of the history of the Dutch Revolt to bring a voice to the wider American debate that fueled the fires of revolution.

Yates was a small man — physically, to judge by the one painting we have of him, but also in terms of how he identified. He had no patience for elites. He had an egalitarian spirit. When he used the term “the middle sort,” he didn’t mean it as an insult. This too, I think, reveals his Dutch roots.

*Editor’s Note: The Dutch Revolt (1568–1648) was the successful revolt of the northern, largely Protestant Seven Provinces of the Low Countries against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain, that eventually led to the formation of the independent Dutch Republic.

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