Precursor of the Constitution Goes on Display in Queens
by Glenn Collins December 5, 2007 © 2007 The New York Times, Inc.
Precursor of the Constitution Goes on Display in Queens By GLENN COLLINS
The Flushing Remonstrance made a rare visit yesterday to the old neighborhood.
The fragile, fire-scorched, 350-year-old document arrived secretly by courier at the Queens Public Library in Flushing. Marie Culver, a preservation expert from the New York State Archives in Albany who accompanied the Remonstrance during its journey to Queens, immediately began installing an exhibition of the document, an important early recorded defense of the freedom to worship that has been called the religious Magna Carta of the New World.
Relatively little known, this 1657 appeal by some 30 Flushing farmers for freedom to practice their Quaker religion goes on display to the public today in the library at 41-17 Main Street, at Kissena Boulevard. The unveiling will mark the beginning of an abundance of festivities celebrating the 350th anniversary of this precursor to the Constitution.
The Remonstrance “is priceless, and precious,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History at Columbia University, and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. “It is an elegant and eloquent statement of what we mean to be as a people,” he said. (The text of the Remonstrance is available at flushingremonstrance.info.)
The Remonstrance has not been well publicized, Dr. Jackson said, adding: “Thomas Jefferson gets most of the ink. The Remonstrance is not given enough credit, but it should be in every school curriculum.”
Yesterday was the document’s fourth visit to the once-rustic precincts of Flushing. Previous showings were in 1957 (for the 300th anniversary), 1976 (the nation’s bicentennial) and 2000 (the millennial year).
Today’s unveiling is part of a season of festivities, starting with a private gala kickoff tomorrow evening for elected representatives, civic officials, historians and neighborhood and religious leaders. And on Friday there will be a luncheon for descendants of the original signers.
In addition, a panoply of conferences, seminars, workshops, study groups and student visits is planned for the 350th anniversary, which is Dec. 27. “What is so wonderful about the Remonstrance,” Dr. Jackson said, “is that Bowne Street in Flushing is one of the most diverse streets in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the most diverse city in the world.”
And so the centuries-old message of tolerance in the Remonstrance is hardly an abstraction in this neighborhood of 60,000 residents and more than a hundred ethnic groups. Within a block of the library are the China Modern Bookshop, Woo Chon Korean Bar-B-Que, Barone Pizza, Cohen’s Fashion Optical and Pho Hoang Vietnamese Cuisine.
“There are so many religions here — and languages,” said Mohd Siraj, pointing to newspapers in more than 20 languages at the 24-Hour Newsstand where he works at 40-29 Main Street. He worships at a mosque not far from the library.
“I’m curious about seeing that document,” Maxx Rand said about the Remonstrance. A law student from New Orleans, she lives in the neighborhood and has a Korean boyfriend. “This neighborhood is so diverse that most people don’t speak English,” she said.
Yesterday, Ms. Culver and the library staff installed the Remonstrance in a cabinet of ultraviolet-blocking plexiglass fitted with a thermal hygrometer to monitor the interior’s temperature and humidity.
After occupying its place of honor in a gallery on the third floor until Jan. 7, the light-sensitive document will be returned to its climate-controlled conservation vault in Albany.
According to historians, a group of about 30 freeholders in Flushing, which was then called Vlissingen, drafted and signed a remonstrance, or traditional form of Dutch protest, opposing the policy of Peter Stuyvesant, the provincial director general, that restricted the worship of Quakers because they were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church.
These English nationals, subject to Dutch law, signed the document on Dec. 27, 1657. After they presented it to the colonial government, some of them were arrested (and released a short time later).
“They went to jail for it; they put their money where there mouth was,” Dr. Jackson said.
John Bowne, a Flushing farmer, subsequently invited Quakers to meet in his home — now a museum on Bowne Street that bears his name. For his daring, he was arrested, jailed and banished.
Bowne journeyed to the Netherlands and made successful arguments to the Dutch West India Company, which ultimately freed him and upheld the ideals of the Remonstrance, in a rebuke to the irascible Stuyvesant. Currently the Bowne House Historical Society is embarked on a three-year restoration of the 1661 farmhouse, a museum since 1947.
The Remonstrance exhibited in Flushing is the 1657 record of the original, copied by a notary onto rag paper and included in the colonial-council minutes of New Amsterdam. The original petition has never been found.
The existing document — part of 12,000 pages of original Dutch records — has legally been in the custody of the successive state governments of New York: Dutch, British, then American. The State Archives have maintained that the fragile condition of the Remonstrance (damaged by a 1911 fire), and its inestimable value, require it to be maintained under stringent security and conservation protection, and only rarely exhibited.
For more than a year the society has been tracking down descendants of the document’s original signers, and has found more than 250. About 40 of them, some from as far away as Oregon, California, Kansas and Ontario, are expected to attend the Friday luncheon.
“It’s the first time in three centuries that these families will be getting together,” said Donna Cartelli, executive director of the historical society.
Susan Kathryn Hefti, a trustee of the society, said, “I grew up knowing that one of our ancestors helped establish our freedom of religion.” She is a direct descendant of John Bowne and of several signers of the Remonstrance, including William Thorne Sr. and Jr.
In the end, Dr. Jackson said, the message of the Remonstrance “is not just something that happened 350 years ago.”
“It is alive today,” he said.
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