Quarrel over text of tolerance

State and neighborhood clash over possession of 1657 document.

February 18, 2000|By Glenn Collins | Glenn Collins,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Just before Thanksgiving, the state of New York entrusted a fire-damaged, rarely exhibited, little-known but much-beloved 342-year-old document --termed priceless by historians -- to the normally nonseditious Queens neighborhood of Flushing.

Now Flushing doesn't want to give it back to the conservation vault at the New York State Archives in Albany.

Historians believe the Remonstrance to be the first recorded defense of religious freedom in the new world. And a coalition of Flushing's elected representatives, civic officials, religious leaders and historians is campaigning to bring the Flushing Remonstrance home.

They assert that the document's importance is obscured while it is shut away in a vault and say the centuries-old message of tolerance is an inspirational rallying point for Flushing today. A babel of more than a hundred languages and ethnic groups, the neighborhood is habitually tranquil, but no stranger to racial friction and even bias crimes.

The best argument for moving the document to Flushing "is its very name, the Flushing Remonstrance," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, the Queens Democrat. "It has lain dormant for years, and that's because it's not in Queens, where people might be able to appreciate it."

Claire Shulman, the Queens borough president, said she did not "want to start a war with the state troopers, but why does it have to go back?" She added: "It's not from Albany, it's from Queens. Let them get their own historic symbol."

To scholars, the Remonstrance "is sometimes regarded as the first Declaration of Independence, and was a forerunner of the First Amendment," said Dr. Kenneth Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, and the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. He is not part of the coalition working to keep the Remonstrance in Queens.

"Though not well known," Jackson said, "it is a major statement of the right to associate with whom you want, and the right to practice the religion of your choice."

The saga of the document, historians say, began when a group of about 30 freeholders in Flushing (at that time called Vlissengen) held a town meeting to discuss Gov. Peter Stuyvesant's restrictions on Quakers because they were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church. On Dec. 27, 1657, the freeholders, English nationals who were subject to Dutch law, drafted and signed a remonstrance, a traditional form of Dutch protest, opposing the restrictions.

On Dec. 29, the town sheriff, the town clerk and two magistrates presented the Remonstrance to Stuyvesant's colonial government, and were promptly arrested (and shortly thereafter, released).

"It took a lot of courage to do that, because Peter Stuyvesant was very irascible," said Stanley Cogan, the Queens borough historian and president of the Queens Historical Society. He said he favored a modern remonstrance, "in which our local citizens and legislators petition Albany to have the Flushing Remonstrance returned to its rightful home."

Since November, more than 3,000 people have visited the Remonstrance, according to Ruth Herzberg, manager of the Flushing Library.

Crowley said he wanted to "work in conjunction with the state archives" in finding a way to house the document in Queens.

But not before it is returned to Albany. Gary Strong, director of the Queens Borough Public Library, commented that "we are very clear, the Remonstrance goes back to the archives."

"We would be violating our loan agreement, and our credibility, if we did not return it," Strong said. "I don't want the library to be in the middle of a political fight." He added, "we would like to be able to negotiate its return" to Queens.

V. Chapman-Smith, the New York state archivist, offered a compromise: "We would be very glad to provide the Flushing people with a quality reproduction of those pages out of the council minutes." But a permanent return of the original to Flushing is out of the question, she said.

The Remonstrance is not only "extremely priceless," said Ms. Chapman-Smith, but is also "extremely fragile." She referred to its survival despite moisture damage (during the Revolutionary War it was stored in the hold of a ship) and a fire in 1911. The document's ink will fade if it is exposed to light for long periods, she said, and the Remonstrance urgently requires attention to correct a botched 1930s restoration job. The state archives plans to clean and mount it as part of an $80,000 federal conservation grant.

Jackson suggested another compromise. "Maybe the archives could send it down for two months" of the year.

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