2013, Books, Non-Fiction

Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (2013) by Russell Shorto

When I was in high school and even when I was in university we learned liberalism like this:

  • The Magna Carta invented “responsible government”
  • Thomas Hobbes invented the liberal constitution but his king had too much power
  • John Locke took the Hobbesian constitution and paired it with better institutions and gave us liberalism
  • Then the French ran with those ideas, took them to new extremes, and caused the French Revolution and we all learned the English way was better.

Yes, this is a slight caricature of what I was taught, but only a slight one.

Sometime after I graduated, I became familiar with the work of Johnathan Israel and learned that, lo and behold, the traditional English view of the history of liberalism is a little too anglo-centric. We didn’t learn about the Icelandic parliament that existed before the Magna Carta, and we didn’t learn about the Dutch liberal republic (and its philosophers) that existed before Thomas Hobbes wrote his book.

Israel’s work is all about the philosophy and is pretty inaccessible. As an alternative, let me suggest this book which, though it does briefly cover Spinoza, focuses on the practical life of Amsterdam that helped create liberalism. As it has been throughout history, it is not not philosophical ideas which cause behaviour, it is behavour which suggests philosophical ideas which then suggest more behaviour. All of us who took philosophy before this truth was known need to read more books like this.

Shorto’s story of Amsterdam is very much a personal one and it is hardly a definitive history of the city. You might find yourself wanting to know more about canal construction than he details, or you might want to know more about the periods of its history he covers in only a few pages (as he focuses on what he thinks were the important times). And, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself wanting to read books about the topics he only barely touches upon – the Hapsburgs, the Dutch Republic itself, the victory of the Dutch over the Portuguese in the trade wars, the victory of the British over the Dutch in later trade wars, the history of New York City, etc.

But this is an engaging, inspiring, interesting history of a city that makes a very compelling case for the city as the primary font of the ideology that I hold dear. The book is highly readable and Shorto’s perspective is an interesting one, as an American, supposedly from the most liberal country on earth, coming to what is really the most liberal place on earth.

Though it helps if you have been to the city just a little bit, this book is worth reading even if you haven’t been to Amsterdam, even if you are just interesting in where ideas come from and who both liberalism and capitalism evolved. It’s an enjoyable entry point to harder stuff.


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