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

Chapter VIIIEdit

It will need but little penetration in any one conversant with the ways of that wise but windy potentate, the sovereign people, to discover that not withstanding all the warlike bluster and bustle of the last chapter, the city of New Amsterdam was not a whit more prepared for war than before. The privy councillors of Peter Stuyvesant were aware of this; and, having received his private orders to put the city in an immediate posture of defense, they called a meeting of the oldest and richest burghers to assist them with their wisdom. These were of that order of citizens commonly termed "men of the greatest weight in the community;" their weight being estimated by the heaviness of their heads and of their purses. Their wisdom in fact is apt to be of a ponderous kind, and to hang like a millstone round the neck of the community.

Two things were unanimously determined in this assembly of venerables: first, that the city required to be put in a state of defense; and second, that, as the danger was imminent, there should be no time lost; which points being settled, they fell to making long speeches, and belaboring one another in endless and intemperate disputes. For about this time was this unhappy city first visited by that talking endemic so prevalent in this country, and which so invariably evinces itself wherever a number of wise men assemble together, breaking out in long windy speeches; caused, as physicians suppose, by the foul air which is ever generated in a crowd. Now it was, moreover, that they first introduced the ingenious method of measuring the merits of an harangue by the hour-glass, he being considered the ablest orator who spoke longest on a question. For which excellent invention, it is recorded, we are indebted to the same profound Dutch critic who judged of books by their size.

This sudden passion for endless harangues, so little consonant with the customary gravity and taciturnity of our sage forefathers, was supposed by certain philosophers to have been imbibed, together with divers other barbarous propensities, from their savage neighbors, who were peculiarly noted for long talks and council fires; and never undertook any affair of the least importance without previous debates and harangues among their chiefs and old men. But the real cause was, that the people, in electing their representatives to the grand council, were particular in choosing them for their talents at talking, without inquiring whether they possessed the more rare, difficult, and oft-times important talent of holding their tongues. The consequence was, that this deliberative body was composed of the most loquacious men in the community. As they considered themselves placed there to talk, every man concluded that his duty to his constituents, and, what is more, his popularity with them, required that he should harangue on every subject, whether he understood it or not. There was an ancient mode of burying a chieftain, by every soldier throwing his shield full of earth on the corpse, until a mighty mound was formed; so, whenever a question was brought forward in this assembly, every member pressing forward to throw on his quantum of wisdom, the subject was quickly buried under a mountain of words.

We are told that disciples on entering the school of Pythagoras were for two years enjoined silence, and forbidden either to ask questions or make remarks. After they had thus acquired the inestimable art of holding their tongues they were gradually permitted to make inquiries, and finally to communicate their own opinions.

With what a beneficial effect could this wise regulation of Pythagoras be introduced in modern legislative bodies--and how wonderfully would it have tended to expedite business in the grand council of the Manhattoes.

At this perilous juncture the fatal word economy, the stumbling block of William the Testy, had been once more set afloat, according to which the cheapest plan of defense was insisted upon as the best; it being deemed a great stroke of policy in furnishing powder to economise in ball.

Thus old Dame Wisdom (whom the wags of antiquity have humorously personified as a woman) seem to take a mischievous pleasure in jilting the venerable councillors of New Amsterdam. To add to the confusion, the old factions of Short Pipes and Long Pipes, which had been almost strangled by the Herculean grasp of Peter Stuyvesant, now sprang up with tenfold vigor. Whatever was proposed by a Short Pipe was opposed by the whole tribe of Long Pipes, who, like true partisans, deemed it their first duty to effect the downfall of their rivals, their second to elevate themselves, and their third to consult the public good; though many left the third consideration out of question altogether.

In this great collision of hard heads it is astonishing the number of projects that were struck out; projects which threw the windmill system of William the Testy completely in the background. These were almost uniformly opposed by the "men of the greatest weight in the community;" your weighty men, though slow to devise, being always great at "negativing." Among these were a set of fat, self-important old burghers, who smoked their pipes, and said nothing except to negative every plan of defence proposed. These were that class of "conservatives" who, having amassed a fortune, button up their pockets, shut their mouths, sink, as it were, into themselves, and pass the rest of their lives in the indwelling beatitude of conscious wealth; as some phlegmatic oyster, having swallowed a pearl, closes its shell, sinks in the mud, and devotes the rest of its life to the conservation of its treasure. Every plan of defence seemed to these worthy old gentlemen pregnant with ruin. An armed force was a legion of locusts preying upon the public property; to fit out a naval armament was to throw their money into the sea; to build fortifications was to bury it in the dirt. In short, they settled it as a sovereign maxim, so long as their pockets were full, no matter how much they were drubbed. A kick left no scar; a broken head cured itself; but an empty purse was of all maladies the slowest to heal, and one in which nature did nothing for the patient.

Thus did this venerable assembly of sages lavish away their time, which the urgency of affairs rendered invaluable, in empty brawls and long-winded speeches, without ever agreeing, except on the point with which they started, namely, that there was no time to be lost, and delay was ruinous. At length, St. Nicholas taking compassion on their distracted situation, and anxious to preserve them from anarchy, so ordered, that in the midst of one of their most noisy debates on the subject of fortification and defence, when they had nearly fallen to loggerheads in consequence of not being able to convince each other, the question was happily settled by the sudden entrance of a messenger, who informed them that a hostile fleet had arrived, and was actually advancing up the bay!