Seeking a Song’s Meaning

I retreated. So did the spouse.

On a recent January weekend, the spouse and I went to the Trinity Retreat Center. The Center’s fifty-five acres of pretty New England countryside ninety miles from our Brooklyn home abut the Housatonic River and, cliché-like, require crossing a covered bridge a few hundred feet before entering the property.

The Center is affiliated with the Manhattan church often called Trinity Wall Street. Trinity Church sits at the western edge of Wall Street, and a Trinity Church building has been at this site since 1697. The first building was destroyed in minutes on September 21, 1776, in a fire that consumed much of New York City. A new structure was dedicated in 1790, but it was razed in 1839 after a heavy snowfall damaged the roof.

The present Trinity building, designed by Richard Upjohn, was completed in 1846. In all its incarnations, the church has been surrounded by a two-acre graveyard, although the cemetery preceded the church. The oldest tombstone is that of Richard Churcher, who died in 1681 at the age of five. This churchyard has a monument to Revolutionary War martyrs and the curious gravestone of Richard Leeson, who died in 1794. His marker has dots in a series of boxes. A hundred years later, the code was broken and revealed the redundant cemetery message, “Remember Death.”

Tourists come to the graveyard to look at the burial plots of famous Americans, with Alexander Hamilton’s monument most visited. (A smaller monument stands over Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who died in the shadow of the approaching Civil War in 1854.) I have read but have not seen that people leave money, usually coins but sometimes bills, at Hamilton’s monument to honor the creator of America’s financial system. A church custodian collects it daily for the church to use in its service to the poor.

I have been told that Trinity Church’s leaders can still be buried in the churchyard, but if so, that is unusual. In 1830 the city forbade creating new burial south of Canal Street, where Trinity sits, and as the city spread northward, new cemeteries were banned in most of Manhattan.  However, Trinity owns a cemetery about ten miles north of the church at Broadway and 155th Street, which I believe is the only active cemetery in Manhattan.

The church building remains much the same today as when it was built. Certainly the wonderful description in the 1930s The WPA Guide to New York City is still accurate:

“The church is constructed of dark brownstone in a free rendering of perpendicular English Gothic. Although only 79 feet wide and 166 feet long, the building is so beautifully proportioned that it holds the attention, even in its present setting, enclosed as it is by high office buildings that would dwarf any lesser structure. Graceful porches project beyond its wide side entrances. The main entrance, at the foot of Wall Street, is in the base of the rectangular tower fronting the nave. The tower is surmounted by an octagonal spire with a cross at the top. For years, the spire, attaining a height of 280 feet above the steps, served as a landmark. Both the tower and the spire are of brownstone ashlar, and are exceptionally fine in workmanship.”

Trinity was New York’s tallest building until 1890. A saying had it that while the church’s spire reached for the heavens the front door reached for Wall Street, for from its inception Trinity was the home of the distinguished, well-bred, and wealthy.

Although the Dutch had ceded New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, thirty years later the Dutch still had a strong presence in what was then New York. Trinity was established in 1697 as a place for the English to worship other than in Dutch churches. Englishmen responded and joined the new congregation. The names of important early members of Trinity live on in the names of nearby streets such as Vesey, Duane, and Reade.

In 1705 Queen Anne cemented Trinity’s preeminence by granting the church the land west of Broadway from the present Fulton Street a mile or more northward to almost Fourteenth Street. With this act, Trinity became perhaps the wealthiest Anglican, later Episcopalian, parish anywhere.

That wealth took a while to develop as the land remained largely undeveloped in the eighteenth century, but as Manhattan pushed north in the 1800s, the land was divided into lots, generally 20 by 100 feet, and leased. (Queen Anne also granted Trinity the right to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales, but I know nothing that indicates that the blubber and flotsam and jetsam were of great importance to the church.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, after the construction of the present building, Trinity’s management drew critics. While English New York was religiously tolerant when the original building was erected, the Anglican church was an established one. Taxes from the members of all the denominations built the church. However, New York’s revolutionary constitution disestablished the Anglican church. Without state support, only private funding built the 1846 building, and as a result Trinity had some financial difficulties. The church cut back on its missionary work and aid to the poor. Knowing that the church was land rich, prominent citizens were shocked by this. Government hearings and investigations were held that showed that many Trinity lots were leased to rich people at low rates, with the Astor family especially benefiting from this practice. When this came to light, officials said that lands should be stripped from the church so that they would better serve the public interest. Trinity responded to the outcry by selling some of its lands and resuming its level of good works.

(continued January 23)

Let’s Talk about a Border Wall Again (concluded)

 New Amsterdam may have paid for The Wall’s materials, but it did not pay for the labor, or at least not for all the labor. The West Indies Company was involved in many commercial enterprises, and one of its most lucrative businesses was the African slave trade. New Amsterdam probably had slaves from its beginning, and by 1635 a person was appointed to be an official overseer for the Company’s slaves. By the 1660s, New Amsterdam had about three hundred slaves and perhaps seventy-five free blacks, accounting for about twenty percent of the village’s population.

Peter Stuyvesant “contributed” slave labor to The Wall. This may not have been the entire workforce for The Wall, but if not, we do not know who the other laborers were or what they got paid or what the relations were between the paid and coerced workers.

So, the New Amsterdam wall was constructed. Did it work? Did it make the village safer? Did it keep out the undesired? On one level, the answer is “yes.” No New Englanders or English ever attacked the settlement from the north. On the other hand, the New Englanders and English never tried to invade this way. Perhaps that means that The Wall was an effective deterrent, but that is doubtful. Even if enemies wanted to conquer the settlement from the north, the thought of slogging through forests and over rivers was more likely a deterrent than some planks stuck in the ground.

The Wall was certainly unlikely to be a successful defense by itself. It would only have been useful along with a strong military presence. The Wall surely could have been scaled. Fighting folks would have been necessary to repel the climbers. Furthermore, you would think that a cannonball would have gone through the wooden planks easily and that fire might have brought it down entirely. The Wall might have slowed an attack, but by itself seems unlikely to have stopped a determined force. The goal must have been to give the inhabitants time to gather their own forces to repulse an attempted incursion, not for The Wall to provide an impregnable barrier.

There were flaws in this reasoning, however. First, The Wall, as with infrastructure today, needed to be kept in good repair for it to function well, and that did not happen. Stories about the thrifty Dutchman come into play here. Apparently, many New Amsterdam residents when they needed a shelter for Petrus the pig or Harriet the hen wondered for a moment where they would get the wood for the structure and then—aha—remembered the planks a short walk away. The Wall was also an inviting source of firewood. Planks soon disappeared. A careful eye might have noticed that whenever there was a new gap in the wall, there was freshly sawn wood in someone’s yard.

The defense strategists, however, had a bigger problem. While the English and New Englanders never breached The Wall, unfriendly Indians did enter New Amsterdam. After The Wall was built, Stuyvesant left the village taking troops to confront Swedes in Delaware. At the same time, Indians of various tribes came down the Hudson heading to Long Island for a confrontation with traditional enemies. As they crossed Manhattan outside New Amsterdam, an Indian woman was killed by a Dutchman for stealing a peach from his orchard. The Indians then stormed into the village, ransacking houses. The Wall did not prevent them. The Indians did not even have to climb or breach The Wall; they simply went around it. The Wall may have gone from river to river, but even if it extended into the rivers, it was apparently not hard to wade or swim or canoe around it. (Remember the effectiveness of the Maginot line?) In what became known as the Peach War, fifty whites and fifteen or so Indians were killed. Peace was obtained not through better border protection but with a treaty.

This Indian incursion highlighted the fact that even if The Wall had successfully sealed off the northern border, it did not change a fundamental fact of New Amsterdam’s geography. The island–surprise, surprise–was surrounded by water. Why attack from the land when there were so many landing spots for boats and men?

Eventually, New Amsterdam was threatened by the English, but not from the north. Instead, the English in 1664 menacingly anchored four warships with a couple thousand men off Brooklyn at the entrance to the harbor. A quarter of those men proceeded to a ferry landing across from Manhattan. Stuyvesant wanted to fight, but not many other New Amsterdam residents, if any, stood with him. The settlers may have thought they would have been destined to lose any battle, but it also seems that having settled in New Amsterdam, they had no great tie to the Netherlands and no great enmity towards the English. Their true bond was to their life in New Amsterdam. The English promised that the residents could continue with their lives if they swore allegiance to the English king. This was an easy choice for these commercial men. Soon, without a shot having been fired, the men of New Amsterdam, including Peter Stuyvesant, had signed that English oath. (Stuyvesant was recalled to the Netherlands for a how-could-you-let-that-happen? conversation. He blamed the West Indies Company for not having better armed the colony. Even though it was now controlled by the English, Stuyvesant returned to New York and his house and farm where he died in 1672.)

On September 8, 1664, New Amsterdam was formally ceded to the English, and the settlement became New York. What remained of The Wall, which stood in the way of progress and expansion, was torn down by the English in 1699.

The Wall was a waste of time, effort, and money. It served no useful purpose other than to give the illusion of a defense to what was not a real danger. Are there lessons here?

Perhaps some other time we can talk about the Berlin wall. I believe it was the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan standing in its shadow who said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It has now been down longer than it stood.