Like millions of Americans, I am a descendant of immigrants. My families on both sides were among the second wave of Dutch who came to the United States. There was nothing abstract about why they traveled by wagon to Arnhem, by river boat to Rotterdam, and then by ocean vessel to New York.
They came in search of a better life. Their voyage took eight weeks and was not exactly comfort class; my maternal great-great grandmother perished during the voyage. Once they got here, they traveled up the Hudson to Albany; spent a week on the Erie Canal to Buffalo, then a day on a great lakes ship to Westfield, New York, and finally up and over what they thought were huge hills (there were no hills in The Netherlands). Finally, they came to the only place in New York where land could be lived on and farmed for almost no cost.
Granted, the land was rocky and hilly, but there were trees and pretty open spaces as well. So, despite it being hard as it was, they eventually settled the area, and many became pretty successful migrants from there to the rest of the country.
When I say there was nothing abstract about their coming, I mean simply this: Though they were quite religious, they came because they were starving in Holland. Crop yields were poor, and they were taxed silly by the aristocratic government. So they said ‘tot ziens’ the Dutch equivalent of sayonara, and left.
America was the land of opportunity then, and when they got in New York representatives met them to instruct them how to go forth and conquer.
But America has changed, Immigrants , you say? Isn’t that what Mike Gibbons, the tough, rough defensive lineman from Kenyon College (wins few; losses many) is campaigning against? You know the guy -- his company makes wire, so he’s paying his way to try and be senator. “Immigrants cross our borders and bring drugs and crime” he says. He’ll close those borders, he says, because President Biden hasn’t. He wants to keep people like my great- grandparents out, it seems. Well, sir, I want to keep people like you out too -- out of politics.
The immigrants I know are the many research scientists that came to our labs at the center for photochemical sciences in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. These men and women were mentored by our faculty, earned Ph. D. degrees, and went on work in the private sector or start their own businesses. These once tired and poor who were yearning to breathe free now could buy you and your company if they wanted to – which they don’t.
But back to the 19th century Dutch immigrants. My grandfather was the 6th child of 11, all of whom lived to adulthood. He managed a high school education by living with his uncle, a Dutch reformed church minister, in rural Iowa where he walked from Alton to Orange City every day to go to school.
When he finished there he went to Hope College in Michigan for a year, but was so poor he couldn’t afford to stay. So he went back to western New York and with his brother bought a store. There he worked for the next 58 years. At age 85, he had a heart attack while stocking the shelves and passed away a few days later.
Over his six decades in business, he helped others found the first bank in the town, only to see many of its assets devoured by the panic started by the Great Depression that led to the government closing all the nation’s banks in 1933.
He lost most everything and had to start over. Yet throughout it all, he maintained a strong presence in the community; a strong loyalty to the Republican Party (he blamed Franklin D. Roosevelt for costing him his bank and his fortune). But he never waved in his belief that though America had lots of faults, his life here was better than it ever would have been in the old country.
What would Grandpa have said about those who are running his beloved Republican Party today? I feel certain he would have organized his town to vote the bums out -- all of them. How would he have felt about Donald Trump?
My guess is that he would have seen him as having as much value to the nation as a bar keep would have had in his town … which happened to be dry.
You see, he and his fellow hard-working virtuous Dutch immigrants made it that way.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.