Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book VII/Chapter VI

Chapter VIEdit

Great nations resemble great men in this particular, that their greatness is seldom known until they get in trouble; adversity, therefore, has been wisely denominated the ordeal of true greatness, which, like gold, can never receive its real estimation until it has passed through the furnace. In proportion, therefore, as a nation, a community, or an individual (possessing the inherent quality of greatness) is involved in perils and misfortunes, in proportion does it rise in grandeur; and even when sinking under calamity, makes, like a house on fire, a more glorious display than ever it did in the fairest period of its prosperity.

The vast Empire of China, though teeming with population and imbibing and concentrating the wealth of nations, has vegetated through a succession of drowsy ages; and were it not for its internal revolution, and the subversion of its ancient government by the Tartars, might have presented nothing but a dull detail of monotonous prosperity. Pompeii and Herculaneum might have passed into oblivion, with a herd of their contemporaries, had they not been fortunately overwhelmed by a volcano. The renowned city of Troy acquired celebrity only from its ten years' distress and final conflagration. Paris rose in importance by the plots and massacres which ended in the exaltation of Napoleon; and even the mighty London has skulked through the records of time, celebrated for nothing of moment excepting the Plague, the Great Fire, and Guy Faux's Gunpowder Plot! Thus cities and empires creep along, enlarging in silent obscurity, until they burst forth in some tremendous calamity, and snatch, as it were, immortality from the explosion.

The above principle being admitted, my reader will plainly perceive that the city of New Amsterdam and its dependent province are on the high road to greatness. Dangers and hostilities threaten from every side, and it is really a matter of astonishment how so small a State has been able in so short a time to entangle itself in so many difficulties. Ever since the province was first taken by the nose, at the Fort of Good Hope, in the tranquil days of Wouter Van Twiller, has it been gradually increasing in historic importance: and never could it have had a more appropriate chieftain to conduct it to the pinnacle of grandeur than Peter Stuyvesant.

This truly headstrong hero having successfully effected his daring progress through the east country, girded up his loins as he approached Boston, and prepared for the grand onslaught with the Amphictyons, which was to be the crowning achievement of the campaign. Throwing Antony Van Corlear, who, with his calico mare, formed his escort and army, a little in the advance, and bidding him be of stout heart and great mind, he placed himself firmly in his saddle, cocked his hat more fiercely over his left eye, summoned all the heroism of his soul into his countenance, and, with one arm akimbo, the hand resting on the pommel of his sword, rode into the great metropolis of the league, Antony sounding his trumpet before him in a manner to electrify the whole community.

Never was there such a stir in Boston as on this occasion; never such a hurrying hither and thither about the streets; such popping of heads out of windows; such gathering of knots in market-places Peter Stuyvesant was a straightforward man, and prone to do everything above board. He would have ridden at once to the great council-house of the league and sounded a parley; but the grand council knew the mettlesome hero they had to deal with, and were not for doing things in a hurry. On the contrary, they sent forth deputations to meet him on the way, to receive him in a style befitting the great potentate of the Manhattoes, and to multiply all kinds of honors, and ceremonies, and formalities, and other courteous impediments in his path. Solemn banquets were accordingly given him, equal to thanksgiving feasts. Complimentary speeches were made him, wherein he was entertained with the surpassing virtues, long sufferings, and achievements of the Pilgrim Fathers; and it is even said he was treated to a sight of Plymouth Rock, that great corner-stone of Yankee empire.

I will not detain my readers by recounting the endless devices by which time was wasted, and obstacles and delays multiplied to the infinite annoyance of the impatient Peter. Neither will I fatigue them by dwelling on his negotiations with the grand council, when he at length brought them to business. Suffice it to say, it was like most other diplomatic negotiations; a great deal was said and very little done; one conversation led to another; one conference begot misunderstandings which it took a dozen conferences to explain, at the end of which both parties found themselves just where they had begun, but ten times less likely to come to an agreement.

In the midst of these perplexities, which bewildered the brain and incensed the ire of honest Peter, he received private intelligence of the dark conspiracy matured in the British Cabinet, with the astounding fact that a British squadron was already on the way to invade New Amsterdam by sea, and that the grand council of Amphictyons, while thus beguiling him with subtleties, were actually prepared to co-operate by land!

Oh! how did the sturdy old warrior rage and roar when he found himself thus entrapped, like a lion in the hunter's toil! Now did he draw his trusty sword, and determine to break in upon the council of the Amphictyons, and put every mother's son of them to death. Now did he resolve to fight his way throughout all the regions of the east, and to lay waste Connecticut river.

Gallant, but unfortunate Peter! Did I not enter with sad forebodings on this ill-starred expedition? Did I not tremble when I saw thee, with no other councillor than thine own head; no other armour but an honest tongue, a spotless conscience, and a rusty sword; no other protector but St. Nicholas, and no other attendant but a trumpeter--did I not tremble when I beheld thee thus sally forth to contend with all the knowing powers of New England?

It was a long time before the kind-hearted expostulations of Antony Van Corlear, aided by the soothing melody of his trumpet, could lower the spirits of Peter Stuyvesant from their warlike and vindictive tone, and prevent his making widows and orphans of half the population of Boston. With great difficulty he was prevailed upon to bottle up his wrath for the present; to conceal from the council his knowledge of their machinations; and by effecting his escape, to be able to arrive in time for the salvation of the Manhattoes.

The latter suggestion awakened a new ray of hope in his bosom; he forthwith dispatched a secret message to his councillors at New Amsterdam, apprising them of their danger, and commanding them to put the city in a posture of defense, promising to come as soon as possible to their assistance. This done, he felt marvelously relieved, rose slowly, shook himself like a rhinoceros, and issued forth from his den, in much the same manner as Giant Despair is described to have issued from Doubting Castle, in the chivalric history of the Pilgrim's Progress.

And now much does it grieve me that I must leave the gallant Peter in this imminent jeopardy; but it behooves us to hurry back and see what is going on at New Amsterdam, for greatly do I fear that city is already in a turmoil. Such was ever the fate of Peter Stuyvesant; while doing one thing with heart and soul he was too apt to leave everything else at sixes and sevens. While, like a potentate of yore, he was absent attending to those things in person which in modern days are trusted to generals and ambassadors, his little territory at home was sure to get in an uproar--all which was owing to that uncommon strength of intellect which induced him to trust to nobody but himself, and which had acquired him the renowned appellation of Peter the Headstrong.