The Founding Fathers in The Netherlands

Pilgrim to President
The Pilgrims were originally English Protestants who, fleeing England from the strict rule of the Anglican state church, lived and worked in Leiden from 1609 to 1620. Later the Pilgrims travelled on to North America: the ‘New World’. Thanksgiving Day is still celebrated there every year, in memory of their hardships and ultimate salvation. The influence of the Pilgrims on the later United States has been great. Just take the fact that as many as seven American presidents descended directly from the Leiden Pilgrims!

Leiden, City of Refugees
Leiden is known as the City of Refugees. Throughout history, Leiden has provided shelter to people who were no longer welcome elsewhere. In the seventeenth century the population of Leiden grew from over 20,000 to 70,000 in a short period of time. In the twentieth century as many as three out of four inhabitants of Leiden descended from a refugee. The Pilgrims found a safe haven in Leiden.

Where did the Pilgrims come from?
In the early 17th century the English Calvinists were persecuted by Queen Elisabeth and her successor James I. Especially those who wanted to secede from the Anglican state church, the so-called separatists, had a hard time. Around 1608 a number of them fled to Holland, where relative religious freedom prevailed. They fled by boat from the coast between Grimsby and Hull. The refugees were picked up by a Dutch skipper off shore and ended up in Amsterdam, and from there in Leiden. After a stay of more than eleven years in Holland, some of the refugees emigrated as pilgrims to North America between 1620 and 1643. On the way other English joined them. In America the Pilgrims are now regarded as the Founding Fathers of the United States. As many as 9 American presidents, including Roosevelt, father and son Bush, and Obama are descended directly from them.

The Pilgrims in Leiden
A group of refugees led by John Robinson fled England in 1608, where they were persecuted for not obeying the rules of the Anglican state church. Robinson and about a hundred others submitted a request for settlement to the Leiden city council. Although permission to settle was not required, this request was answered on February 12, 1609, in the following revealing terms:

“No honorable people are free and lybre incompetent to take their place within this city…their place of residence”.

Leiden was the second city of Holland, where also the famous university was located. Robinson and his family bought a plot of land near the Pieterskerk, called the Green Gate. They built 21 houses there, so they also called the English Gate. Later (1683) the Jean Pesijnhofje was built on that spot.

Important Pilgrims were William Brewster and his adopted son William Bradford. Brewster was an elder and the most important person behind the publicity activities of the Pilgrim Press (1617-1619). He lived in a side alley of the Pieterskerkkoorsteeg, now the William Brewstersteeg. Bradford was governor of the Pilgrim Colony in America for many years. His manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation is still for us the most important source about the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims, because they lived, worked, studied and died here, left many traces in the Leiden archives.

Departure to the ‘New World
From 1620 a part of the Pilgrims emigrated from Leiden to North America. There were several reasons for this. In the Netherlands, too, religious freedom was restricted and the threat of war increased, due to the expiration of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain in 1621. Moreover, the economic situation of the Pilgrims was not always favourable and, finally, they were afraid that their children would integrate too much into Dutch life, including the Dutch Church. As far as the latter point was concerned, they were right. More than half of the group stayed behind in Leiden and eventually merged into the local population.

Ships with history
The ships with which the Pilgrims made the crossing have become famous: Mayflower (1620), Fortune (1621), Anne and Little James (1623) and the second Mayflower (1629). After that Leiden Pilgrims still left for North America on an individual basis.

Leiden’ traditions overseas
Once arrived in North America, the Pilgrims wanted to realize their own ideals in freedom. They were looking for the most ideal form of government. In retrospect we can say that the Pilgrims have been an essential link in the formation of American society, both then and now. Their ‘Dutch’ years were one of the starting points. In the modern US, for example, we still find old ‘Leiden’ traditions.

From October 3 to Thanksgiving
After the siege of Leiden in 1574, it is customary to hold an annual service in the Pieterskerk as a thank you for the liberation of the Spaniards and the supply of food. Since then, and still today, herring and white bread are distributed in Leiden on October 3, to remember the ships with food that entered the city after Leidens Ontzetens via the Vliet. It is thought that Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims’ Feast of Thanksgiving, contains not only elements of a harvest festival, but also elements of this celebration.

Civil marriage
Civil marriage is a Dutch invention. At the end of the sixteenth century only a marriage entered into in the state church was valid. Because the Republic had a large Roman Catholic minority one could not deny marriage to almost half of the population. Those who did not belong to the state church could be married by the aldermen, the city councils of that time. The marriage could then be blessed by their own church. Only civil marriage was legally valid. The Pilgrims took the civil marriage with them to America.

Elected board
Leiden was divided into ‘bonnen’ and neighborhoods. A ‘bon’ was a city district under a board of elected councillors. The ‘bon’ took care of fire-fighting and -prevention, combating pollution, collecting special taxes and distributing money among the poor. The neighborhood provided funeral rites and other neighborhood services. The choice of civil administration can be traced back to this system as well as to the choice of ecclesiastical administrators.

Nine times from Pilgrim to President
Since the arrival of the Pilgrims to America, as many as nine of their descendants made it to president. Except for both presidents Adams, they all have a Leiden Pilgrim as an ancestor:

John Adams – 1797 – 1801
His son John Quincy Adams – 1825 – 1829
Zachary Taylor – 1849 – 1850
Ulysses S. Grant – 1869 – 1877
James A. Garfield – 1881 – 1881
Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1933 – 1945
George H.W. Bush – 1989 – 1993
George W. Bush – 2001 – 2009
Barack H. Obama — 2009 – 2017

…and as mayor of New York…
And what about Leiden-born Thomas Willett, who became the first mayor of New York? From this Pilgrim can be admired at Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken a letter he wrote on September 16, 1660 to Hugh Goodyear, the predecessor of the English Reformed congregation in Leiden.

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