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

Chapter XIIIEdit

Among the numerous events, which are each in their turn the most direful and melancholy of all possible occurrences, in your interesting and authentic history, there is none that occasions such deep and heart-rending grief as the decline and fall of your renowned and mighty empires. Where is the reader who can contemplate without emotion the disastrous events by which the great dynasties of the world have been extinguished? While wandering, in imagination, among the gigantic ruins of states and empires, and marking the tremendous convulsions that wrought their overthrow, the bosom of the melancholy inquirer swells with sympathy commensurate to the surrounding desolation. Kingdoms, principalities, and powers, have each had their rise, their progress, and their downfall; each in its turn has swayed a potent sceptre; each has returned to its primeval nothingness. And thus did it fare with the empire of their High Mightinesses, at the Manhattoes, under the peaceful reign of Walter the Doubter, the fretful reign of William the Testy, and the chivalric reign of Peter the Headstrong.

Its history is fruitful of instruction, and worthy of being pondered over attentively; for it is by thus raking among the ashes of departed greatness that the sparks of true knowledge are to be found and the lamp of wisdom illuminated. Let then the reign of Walter the Doubter warn against yielding to that sleek, contented security, and that overweening fondness for comfort and repose, which are produced by a state of prosperity and peace. These tend to unnerve a nation; to destroy its pride of character; to render it patient of insult; deaf to the calls of honor and of justice; and cause it to cling to peace, like the sluggard to his pillow, at the expense of every valuable duty and consideration. Such supineness ensures the very evil from which it shrinks. One right yielded up produces the usurpation of a second; one encroachment passively suffered makes way for another; and the nation which thus, through a doting love of peace, has sacrificed honor and interest, will at length have to fight for existence.

Let the disastrous reign of William the Testy serve as a salutary warning against that fitful, feverish mode of legislation, which acts without system, depends on shifts and projects, and trusts to lucky contingencies; which hesitates, and wavers, and at length decides with the rashness of ignorance and imbecility; which stoops for popularity by courting the prejudices and flattering the arrogance, rather than commanding the respect, of the rabble; which seeks safety in a multitude of counsellors, and distracts itself by a variety of contradictory schemes and opinions; which mistakes procrastination for weariness--hurry for decision--parsimony for economy--bustle for business, and vaporing for valor; which is violent in council, sanguine in expectation, precipitate in action, and feeble in execution; which undertakes enterprises without forethought, enters upon them without preparation, conducts them without energy, and ends them in confusion and defeat.

Let the reign of the good Stuyvesant show the effects of vigor and decision, even when destitute of cool judgment, and surrounded by perplexities. Let it show how frankness, probity, and high-souled courage will command respect and secure honor, even where success is unattainable. But, at the same time, let it caution against a too ready reliance on the good faith of others, and a too honest confidence in the loving professions of powerful neighbors, who are most friendly when they most mean to betray. Let it teach a judicious attention to the opinions and wishes of the many, who, in times of peril, must be soothed and led, or apprehension will overpower the deference to authority.

Let the empty wordiness of his factious subjects, their intemperate harangues, their violent "resolutions," their hectorings against an absent enemy, and their pusillanimity on his approach, teach us to distrust and despise those clamorous patriots whose courage dwells but in the tongue. Let them serve as a lesson to repress that insolence of speech, destitute of real force, which too often breaks forth in popular bodies, and bespeaks the vanity rather than the spirit of a nation. Let them caution us against vaunting too much of our own power and prowess, and reviling a noble enemy. True gallantry of soul would always lead us to treat a foe with courtesy and proud punctilio; a contrary conduct but takes from the merit of victory, and renders defeat doubly disgraceful.

But I cease to dwell on the stores of excellent examples to be drawn from the ancient chronicles of the Manhattoes. He who reads attentively will discover the threads of gold which run throughout the web of history, and are invisible to the dull eye of ignorance. But before I conclude let me point out a solemn warning furnished in the subtle chain of events by which the capture of Fort Casimir has produced the present convulsions of our globe.

Attend then, gentle reader, to this plain deduction, which, if thou art a king, an emperor, or other powerful potentate, I advise thee to treasure up in thy heart, though little expectation have I that my work will fall into such hands; for well I know the care of crafty ministers, to keep all grave and edifying books of the kind out of the way of unhappy monarchs, lest peradventure they should read them and learn wisdom.

By the treacherous surprisal of Fort Casimir, then, did the crafty Swedes enjoy a transient triumph; but drew upon their heads the vengeance of Peter Stuyvesant, who wrested all New Sweden from their hands. By the conquest of New Sweden Peter Stuyvesant aroused the claims of Lord Baltimore, who appealed to the Cabinet of Great Britain, who subdued the whole province of New Netherlands. By this great achievement, the whole extent of North America, from Nova Scotia to the Floridas, was rendered one entire dependency upon the British crown. But mark the consequence: the hitherto-scattered colonies being thus consolidated, and having no rival colonies to check or keep them in awe, waxed great and powerful, and finally becoming too strong for the mother country, were enabled to shake off its bonds, and by a glorious revolution became an independent empire. But the chain of effects stopped not here; the successful revolution in America produced the sanguinary revolution in France which produced the puissant Bonaparte, who produced the French despotism, which has thrown the whole world in confusion! Thus have these great Powers been successively punished for their ill-starred conquests; and thus, as I asserted, have all the present convulsions, revolutions, and disasters that overwhelm mankind, originated in the capture of the little Fort Casimir, as recorded in this eventful history.

And now, worthy reader, ere I take a sad farewell, which, alas! must be for ever--willingly would I part in cordial fellowship, and bespeak thy kind-hearted remembrance. That I have not written a better history of the days of the patriarchs is not my fault; had any other person written one as good, I should not have attempted it at all. That many will hereafter spring up and surpass me in excellence I have very little doubt, and still less care; well knowing that, when the great Christovallo Colon (who is vulgarly called Columbus) had once stood his egg upon its end every one at table could stand his up a thousand times more dexterously. Should any reader find matter of offence in this history, I should heartily grieve, though I would on no account question his penetration by telling him he was mistaken--his good-nature by telling him he was captious--or his pure conscience by telling him he was startled at a shadow. Surely, when so ingenious in finding offence where none was intended, it were a thousand pities he should not be suffered to enjoy the benefit of his discovery.

I have too high an opinion of the understanding of my fellow-citizens to think of yielding them instruction, and I covet too much their good-will to forfeit it by giving them good advice. I am none of those cynics who despise the world, because it despises them; on the contrary, though but low in its regard, I look up to it with the most perfect good-nature, and my only sorrow is, that it does not prove itself more worthy of the unbounded love I bear it.

If, however, in this my historic production, the scanty fruit of a long and laborious life, I have failed to gratify the dainty palate of the age, I can only lament my misfortune, for it is too late in the season for me even to hope to repair it. Already has withering age showered his sterile snows upon my brow; in a little while, and this genial warmth which still lingers around my heart, and throbs, worthy reader, throbs kindly toward thyself, will be chilled for ever. Haply this frail compound of dust, which while alive may have given birth to naught but unprofitable weeds, may form a humble sod of the valley, whence may spring many a sweet wild flower, to adorn my beloved island of Mannahata!