No matter what you think of him, Dominee (which is to say, Reverend, sort of) Hendrik Peter Scholte is a towering presence in Dutch American history. He was the founding father of Pella, Iowa, a rich man who led many far less privileged than he to the tall-grass plains of central Iowa, then distributed homesteads for his immigrant flock as if he were some great-hearted sovereign, which, quite frankly, he was.
There are those who claim, in theory, the best form of government is monarchy with a loving ruler, a king or queen who loves his people and does his best to measure justice to the kingdom--a kind ruler, considerable freedom, and no committees. Scholte may have been that kind of oligarch. I'm no biographer.
He had, without a doubt, a deeply religious soul and once penned a tract I would love to read, a little piece of political thought he titled American Slavery. It's in English actually, but, according to the people who run the Scholte House, in Pella, Iowa, today, not really available, because never republished. They've got a copy on display--you can see it, even if you can't read it.
Scholte was, not surprisingly, anti-slavery. The waves of Dutch immigrants who came to America pre-Civil War deliberately avoided the South's hospitality because they wanted no part of American slavery, even though the sea-going Dutch grew wealthy as slave-traders. By the early decades of the 19th century, however, none of the very religious folks (my own lineage) were ready to truck with slave-owners.
So Scholte took his hundreds north, to central Iowa, and became not just a preacher but an entrepreneur extraordinary--a newspaper man, a banker, an educator, a jack of all trades and master of most all of them. In any history of the Dutch in America, he has, without a doubt, a starring role.
His only real competitor was Dominee Albertus Van Raalte, Scholte's old-country friend and fellow preacher, who led a different group of Hollanders to a colony he chose to populate in western Michigan. Both had been leaders of an 1834 church split in the Netherlands, something called "the Afscheiding" (the separation), which was led by a few prominent preachers like Van Raalte, and a radical gang of intellectuals, like Scholte. The two of them--and others--formed the leadership of a movement of folks, poor and devout, that despised perceived secularism in what was, back then, the State Church of Holland, the Dutch Reformed Church.
The vast majority of immigrants to America from 1845 to 1860 were "separatists," the huddled, wooden-shoed masses yearning to be free. They were those with little too lose, they were those most angry, they were those most willing to risk it all for another shot at a better life in a new world.
And their leaders were Scholte and Van Raalte, two clergymen who as much by necessity as design were forced to take on a dozen other roles in the shaping of communities they had led to gangplanks, then over the ocean, and then through a strange new land to a brand new home.
And they were different, those two, much different. Van Raalte really wanted to create a Dutch village, wanted to keep his people what they'd always been. Van Raalte wanted, like other European ethnics, to create a New Amsterdam, a New Prague, a New Berlin--a new Holland, Holland, Michigan. Scholte, on the other hand, wanted to be American. American Slavery, written before the war, was published in English, when Scholte had been in this country fewer than twenty years.
Scholte named his streets after U.S. Presidents and concepts of democracy--Washington, Jefferson, Independence, Liberty, Union, and Peace. Back in the old country, he'd suffered at the hands of a repressive government church and wanted no part of monarchy in the new free world. He loved being free.
And if you visit his house sometime in Pella, Iowa, you'll hear him revered for his adamant refusal to remain Dutch, for his belief in America, for the way he left behind what Dutch ways he could, along with the mother tongue and even Dutch theology for wide-open opportunities of the new land.
Here's the thing. As a child of "the separation" myself, I must admit I've always been somewhat skeptical of Dominie Scholte, who came to America and seemingly forgot what he was in almost every way in his effort to be "American." His church, in Pella, was itself a breakaway. The powerhouse churches in the community were those who stuck with some form of Dutch language and theology.
Okay, I admit it--I've often thought somewhat negatively of the hooity-tooity Dutch autocrat Hendrick Pieter Scholte, negatively because he sold his heritage for a barrel full of American porridge. He wanted to drop everything tulip-y for flag-waving Americana. Chances are, he'd stand strong against Pella's own Tulip Time. He wanted his people to kick off their wooden shoes, not put 'em on once a year to scrub streets, for heaven's sake.
I've always been skeptical of him for the very reason America might well love him, should they know him at all. When Scholte came, after all, he left behind the old ways. Would that the Marathon bombers had done the same.
Abraham Lincoln read American Slavery, and liked it. As a result, I'm told, Lincoln asked Hendrick Pieter Scholte to give a nomination speech at the 1860 Republican convention. He was invited to the inaugural He was an American for only a dozen years, but, dang it, he was an American.
Perhaps I've been wrong. Then again, maybe not. But if you visit the Scholte House, in Pella, you'll hear a different story than they one I've always held to--and the one that is told in Pella is a good one too, just wider, bigger, and much more, well, American.
In Pella, the word is that the tulips are not a good bet this year; they're late, a long winter. No matter. Tulip Time'll still bring in the busloads who'll have lots to spend, and spend they will. They can always tour the Scholte House. It's worth every dime, really, an amazing place, full to the brim of original furnishings.
When you think about it a bit, it's not hard to imagine that Scholte would probably like Pella's Tulip Time. It makes big money, after all, and what's more American than that?