Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book III/Chapter VI
In the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and four, on a fine afternoon in the glowing month of September, I took my customary walk upon the battery, which is at once the pride and bulwark of this ancient and impregnable city of New York. The ground on which is I trod was hallowed by recollections of the past, and as I slowly wandered through the long alley of poplars, which, like so many birch-brooms standing on end, diffused a melancholy and lugubrious shade, my imagination drew a contrast between the surrounding scenery, and what it was in the classic days of our forefathers. Where the government house by name, but the customhouse by occupation, proudly reared its brick walls and wooden pillars, there whilom stood the low, but substantial red-tiled mansion of the renowned Wouter Van Twiller. Around it the mighty bulwarks of Fort Amsterdam frowned defiance to every absent foe; but, like many a whiskered warrior and gallant militia captain, confined their martial deeds to frowns alone. The mud breastworks had long been leveled with the earth, and their site converted into the green lawns and leafy alleys of the battery, where the gay apprentice sported his Sunday coat, and the laborious mechanic, relieved from the dirt and drudgery of the week, poured his weekly tale of love into the half averted ear of the sentimental chambermaid. The capacious bay still presented the same expansive sheet of water, studded with islands, sprinkled with fishing boats, and bounded by shores of picturesque beauty. But the dark forests which once clothed those shores had been violated by the savage hand of cultivation, and their tangled mazes and impenetrable thickets had degenerated into teeming orchards, and waving fields of grain. Even Governor's Island, once a smiling garden appertaining to the sovereigns of the province, was now covered with fortifications, inclosing a tremendous block house; so that this once peaceful island resembled a fierce little warrior in a big cocked hat, breathing gunpowder and defiance to the world!
For some time did I indulge in a pensive train of thought, contrasting in sober sadness the present day with the hallowed years behind the mountains, lamenting the melancholy progress of improvement, and praising the zeal with which our worthy burghers endeavor to preserve the wrecks of venerable customs, prejudices, and errors, from the overwhelming tide of modern innovation; when, by degrees, my ideas took a different turn, and I insensibly awakened to an enjoyment of the beauties around me.
It was one of those rich autumnal days, which heaven particularly bestows upon the beauteous island of Mannahata and its vicinity; not a floating cloud obscured the azure firmament; the sun rolling in glorious splendor through his ethereal course, seemed to expand his honest Dutch countenance into an unusual expression of benevolence, as he smiled his evening salutation upon a city which he delights to visit with his most bounteous beams; the very winds seemed to hold in their breaths in mute attention, lest they should ruffle the tranquillity of the hour; and the waveless bosom of the bay presented a polished mirror, in which Nature beheld herself and smiled. The standard of our city, reserved like a choice handkerchief for days of gala, hung motionless on the flag-staff which forms the handle of a gigantic churn; and even the tremulous leaves of the poplar and the aspen ceased to vibrate to the breath of heaven. Everything seemed to acquiesce in the profound repose of Nature. The formidable eighteen-pounders slept in the embrasures of the wooden batteries, seemingly gathering fresh strength to fight the battles of their country on the next fourth of July; the solitary drum on Governor's Island forgot to call the garrison to the shovels; the evening gun had not yet sounded its signal for all the regular well-meaning poultry throughout the country to go to roost; and the fleet of canoes at anchor between Gibbet Island and Communipaw slumbered on their rakes, and suffered the innocent oysters to lie for a while unmolested in the soft mud of their native banks. My own feelings sympathized with the contagious tranquillity, and I should infallibly have dozed upon one of those fragments of benches which our benevolent magistrates have provided for the benefit of convalescent loungers had not the extraordinary inconvenience of the couch set all repose at defiance.
In the midst of this slumber of the soul my attention was attracted to a black speck, peering above the western horizon, just in the rear of Bergen steeple; gradually it augments and overhangs the would-be cities of Jersey, Harsimus, and Hoboken, which, like three jockeys, are starting on the course of existence, and jostling each other at the commencement of the race. Now it skirts the long shore of ancient Pavonia, spreading its wide shadows from the high settlements of Weehawk quite to the lazaretto and quarantine, erected by the sagacity of our police for the embarrassment of commerce; now it climbs the serene vault of heaven, cloud rolling over cloud, shrouding the orb of day, darkening the vast expanse, and bearing thunder, and hail, and tempest, in its bosom. The earth seems agitated at the confusion of the heavens--the late waveless mirror is lashed into furious waves, that roll in hollow murmurs to the shore--the oyster boats that erst sported in the placid vicinity of Gibbet Island, now hurry affrighted to the land--the poplar writhes and twists, and whistles in the blast--torrents of drenching rain and sounding hail deluge the battery walks--the gates are thronged by apprentices, servant-maids, and little Frenchmen, with pocket-handkerchiefs over their hats, scampering from the storm--the late beauteous prospect presents one scene of anarchy and wild uproar, as though old Chaos had resumed his reign, and was hurling back into one vast turmoil the conflicting elements of Nature.
Whether I fled from the fury of the storm, or remained bodly at my post, as our gallant train-band captains, who march their soldiers through the rain without flinching, are points which I leave to the conjecture of the reader. It is possible he may be a little perplexed also to know the reason why I introduced this tremendous tempest to disturb the serenity of my work. On this latter point I will gratuitously instruct his ignorance. The panorama view of the battery was given to gratify the reader with a correct description of that celebrated place, and the parts adjacent; secondly, the storm was played off partly to give a little bustle and life to this tranquil part of my work, and to keep my drowsy readers from falling asleep, and partly to serve as an overture to the tempestuous times which are about to assail the pacific province of Nieuw Nederlandts, and which overhang the slumbrous administration of the renowned Wouter Van Twiller. It is thus the experienced playwright puts all the fiddles, the French-horns, the kettle drums, and trumpets of his orchestra, in requisition, to usher in one of those horrible and brimstone uproars called melodrames; and it is thus he discharges his thunder, his lightning, his rosin, and saltpetre, preparatory to the rising of a ghost, or the murdering of a hero. We will now proceed with our history.
Whatever may be advanced by philosophers to the contrary, I am of opinion that, as to nations, the old maxim, that "honesty is the best policy," is a sheer and ruinous mistake. It might have answered well enough in the honest times when it was made; but, in these degenerate days, if a nation pretends to rely merely upon the justice of its dealings, it will fare something like the honest man who fell among thieves, and found his honesty a poor protection against bad company. Such, at least, was the case with the guileless government of the New Netherlands; which, like a worthy, unsuspicious old burgher, quietly settled itself down in the city of New Amsterdam as into a snug elbow-chair, and fell into a comfortable nap, while, in the meantime, its cunning neighbors stepped in and picked his pockets. In a word, we may ascribe the commencement of all the woes of this great province and its magnificent metropolis to the tranquil security, or, to speak more accurately, to the unfortunate honesty of its government. But as I dislike to begin an important part of my history towards the end of a chapter; and as my readers, like myself, must doubtless be exceedingly fatigued with the long walk we have taken, and the tempest we have sustained, I hold it meet we shut up the book, smoke a pipe, and having thus refreshed our spirits, take a fair start in a new chapter.