VAN DER KEMP’S published essays revealed his increasing admiration for America, while his visits to the Golden Lyon and to Gillon’s ship increased his admiration for Americans. He especially admired John Adams and Josiah Quincy for their impartial and skillful defense of the unpopular Captain Preston in the Boston Massacre case.1 The British captain was acquitted. Van der Kemp’s correspondence with Adams discloses an emerging idea and growing plan of going to the land of the Americans.
The advice given to a friend who wished to emigrate must have shaped some of his thinking. On June 5, 1781, Van der Kemp asked Adams if a clergyman friend might go to America. The friend had great talent, profound judgment, much learning, a brilliant character, and was a lover of liberty. A resident of Middelburg in Zeeland, he was discouraged at the course of events in the Netherlands. He hoped to be able to preach in America as soon as he improved his English. Adams was asked for letters of recommendation and also if passage could be obtained as chaplain on board an American vessel.2 Adams replied promptly that he would speak to Commodore Gillon. He added, “There are in America so many clergymen, that I cannot give your Friend any Encouragement of Success: but if he persists in his Resolution to go I will give him a Letter of Introduction to Some Friends”3
A few months later Van der Kemp was jubilant upon hearing of the surrender of Cornwallis. He congratulated Adams in spirited but poor English: “If any man rejoice in the prosperity of the United States i wil hope that me shal not be denied a place amongst them….” He told of the possibility of being prosecuted for his writings on America and said with certainty that America would be his asylum if he had to leave his native land. The letter concluded with his plans for further writing.4 Adams replied that he would be happy to see the proposed publication and added the compliment, “I shall be very happy to see you at Amsterdam, and the sooner the better, that I may have an opportunity to express in Person the high Esteem and Respect for so able and intrepid an Advocate for Liberty….”5
In April of 1782 Van der Kemp wrote that not one of his countrymen was more addicted to the cause of America and more attached to Adams than he, and offered his services.6 Some months later Adams wrote from Paris that Dr. John Wheelock, president of Dartmouth College, was coming to the Netherlands to seek subscriptions for the college. He asked Van der Kemp to advise Wheelock.7 The two learned scholars enjoyed several interesting conversations about America and American education. Van der Kemp repeatedly displayed eagerness for news and information regarding almost every aspect of American life.
When the American war was over and the British also made peace with the other countries which had been involved, the cause of the Dutch Patriots became less promising. Van der Kemp wrote that as soon as he could persuade his wife to leave, he would ask for letters of recommendation to be used in America although he was not sure that political affairs would allow him to remain alive in the Netherlands for long.8 On October 31, 1786, he wrote again of his fears for freedom and his desires for the past four years to go to America. His fortune had recently improved; now his funds might suffice to support himself and family in a new land. He had investigated briefly the states of New Hampshire and New York, especially the less expensive rural areas. Were these places pleasant and fertile? Could he live with “ease, dignity and reputation” with sixteen or seventeen thousand florins? Could he hope to provide an inheritance for his children? He asked Adams to send enough details to persuade his “respectable wife to quit this place.” He hoped to leave the Netherlands in the spring of 1787 and thought some other families might accompany them. If others were willing, it would help to convince Mrs. Van der Kemp.9
Adams did not answer the letter until December 1, probably because of mail delays between Leyden and London. Before Van der Kemp received the reply, he impatiently wrote again, wondering if his first letter had not arrived. This time he specified the area around Albany as his choice and asked if there were a better atlas of America than Jeffreys, which he already had.10 Adams replied:
… The questions you do me the Honour to propose to me, are very difficult to Answer. I have ever been Scrupulous of advising Strangers to emigrate to America. There are difficulties to be encountered in every Exchange of Country, Arising from the Climate Soil, Air, manner of Living &c, and Accident may always happen.
With the sum of Money you mention, a Man and a Family may live in America: but it must be in a frugal manner—with a taste for Rural Life, by the Purchase of a Farm, and diligent Attention to it, a Man might live very comfortably. You may have views of Commerce, or other occupations, which may improve the Prospect. If a Number of Friendly Families were to remove together, they would mutually assist each other and make the risk less as well as Life more agreeable.
If you determine to go, I will give you Letters of Introduction with Pleasure….11
This reply was quite enough for Francis Van der Kemp but not encouraging enough to persuade his wife, Engelbartha. They stayed in the Netherlands, where Francis became more and more involved with the Free Corps at Wyk. The surrender on July 4 and his subsequent imprisonment awoke Engelbartha to the dangerous position of an outspoken advocate of liberty in the Netherlands. The arrival of the Prussians increased her alarm. Yet she supported Francis in his refusals to compromise his principles. Various members of the Orange party came to “lure and persuade” her to “appeal to the Prince Stadholder, and solicit his intercession.” She refused to try to influence her husband to act against his principles, even when her brother, now a member of the Estates General, asked it. Other efforts were made directly to Francis but were treated by him with haughty disdain.
In early December the Orange party saw only fragments of opposition and no longer feared Van der Kemp and De Nys. It was announced they would be released upon payment of a huge sum of 45,000 florins each as surety for damages incurred by the state. Van der Kemp’s penalty also specified his permanent and immediate departure from the province of Utrecht.12 De Nys paid both sums of money. The two men were freed on December 19. They went to the home of De Nys in Wyk where they were entertained in great festivity by numerous friends and acquaintances. Van der Kemp, under orders to leave the province, prepared quickly for his journey, ate, bade his family and friends farewell and “sprang on a chariot” with a companion of Wyk, Major de Wys. A friendly and reliable Orange man accompanied them, promising Mrs. Van der Kemp he would conduct her husband safely to Belgium. The exile reached Antwerp on December 21 and planned his next step. Engelbartha was at last willing to go to America with her husband. He now wrote her at Leyden that, “if it remained her firm purpose to share my fate,” she should sell their property in Leyden—house, library, statues, busts, medals, and superfluous furniture—and send the rest (including selected books) to Amsterdam in care of the commercial firm of Wilhelm and Willink. After that she and the children should join him at Antwerp. He found it difficult to part with his library, and sent word to his wife to keep much of it. By the following March the family was reunited in Antwerp.
Van der Kemp wrote to Adams shortly after his release. He explained his imprisonment and release, said that Van der Capellen of Marsch and Luzac would vouch for his integrity in the Wyk affair and asked for the promised letters of recommendation. He expected to sail for America in March and to settle in the vicinity of Albany.13
Adams replied immediately that he was much relieved to hear Van der Kemp was at liberty and safe in Belgium. He enclosed two letters of introduction and added the cheerful news that living had become cheaper and that Van der Kemp should “succeed very well” in America, if not in New York, then in Pennsylvania. However, he added the warning, “You will be upon your guard among the Dutch people in New York respecting religious principles, until you have prudently informed yourself of the state of parties there.”14
From Antwerp the Van der Kemps went to Brussels where they were gladly received by Baron van der Capellen of Marsch. He provided letters of recommendation from Lafayette and agreed to get others from Jefferson in Paris. The baron had fled from the Netherlands along with thousands of Patriots. Many of these Patriots knew Van der Kemp, welcomed him, and regretted his proposed departure. Jacob Hoofman, a generous and zealous patron of Van der Kemp in his youth, perhaps at Groningen, now gave his protégé the generous gift of a thousand guilders. He admired Van der Kemp and his loyal wife and wanted to make their passage across the Atlantic as comfortable as possible.
After a few days at Brussels the Van der Kemp family went on to Havre de Grace where they expected to board the packet for New York. However, the ship was under-going repairs and had canceled the March sailing. The impatient exiles were on the point of going to England to get a sailing when an American frigate, L’Henriette, stopped for ballast and was recommended. Captain Benjamin Weeks was in charge of the ship, in the employ of the Rosses of Philadelphia. The Van der Kemps were delighted. They sailed on the twenty-fifth of March and had a good passage of about six weeks. The captain enjoyed his unexpected passengers and extended many favors to the Van der Kemp family. He even hired a Dutch cabin boy to serve Mrs. Van der Kemp, who spoke no English except yes and no. The captain was “pious without ostentation.” “No better order could be kept in a vessel than that which was maintained with regard to every individual on that of Captain Weeks’; never could a vessel be better manned with expert sailors or have a more intelligent and prudent master, …”
They arrived in New York harbor on May 4, Van der Kemp’s thirty-sixth birthday, and went to a respectable boarding house in Hanover Square. With their feet on American soil and a wonderfully kind feeling toward Captain Weeks, the American who had brought them safely to their new land, the Van der Kemps went about the practical matters of becoming re-established. The first consideration was the payment of their passage. The captain could not take the French coins offered but said his company would make a draft on a New York house. This was soon done with notification that no charge was made for the two children. Included was a cordial note that the company would be happy to receive a visit from their passengers. Next Van der Kemp sent his letters of recommendation and picked up the ones from Jefferson, along with other mail from Europe.
Among the letters was an offer of a position in Russia. His fine old master, Professor Oosterbaen, had secured through Prince Gregory Potemkin and the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands, Prince Dmitri Alexeievitch Gallitzin, an offer to superintend a large colony of German Baptists located in the vicinity of Kherson in the Crimea. This was an important post with great prestige. Yet Van der Kemp’s arrival in America had been too pleasant for him to be tempted by the Russian offer.
In 1813 he wrote that he had rejected the offer because he “had too much the fear of Siberia in my eye and prefer yet, to be here a tenant at will—than to bathe in opulence, and watch the wink of the greatest Boyar in the world.”15 Nothing could induce him to put his “shoulders under the iron yoke of a despot, how well soever that yoke was gilded and adorned.”
The immigrants arrived in New York City just a few days after the election for delegates to the convention at Poughkeepsie to determine whether the state of New York should ratify the new constitution. The party of George Clinton had won a commanding majority of the delegates, but the able politicians Hamilton, Jay, and Robert Livingston of the opposition, were wholeheartedly in favor of immediate ratification. The outcome was uncertain and there was much activity to influence doubtful delegates, both before the convention started on June 17 and while it was in session.
The Van der Kemps did not realize that much of the excitement at the time of their reception was political. A revival of commerce and industry, giving the promise of prosperity, added to the optimistic good will with which the Van der Kemps were greeted. Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, Governor George Clinton and Melancthon Smith received the Van der Kemps graciously and generously. To the new Americans, it almost seemed that the families were in rivalry to do the most for them. “No relatives, no parents could do more than Mr. and Mrs. Clinton; the venerable Mrs. Tappan welcomed Mrs. Van der Kemp as a daughter. Both ladies and also Mrs. Hamilton conversed with … [her] in Dutch.”
Van der Kemp sent letters of introduction to James Madison, Jeremiah W. Wadsworth, Governor William Livingston, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. He greatly admired both Franklin and Washington and had published a Livingston letter back in the Netherlands. The immigrant was especially pleased at a cordial and respectful letter from Washington with an invitation to visit Mount Vernon:
Sir: The letter which you did me the favor to address to me the 15th of this instt. from New York has been duly received, and I take the speediest occasion to well-come your arrival on the American shore.
I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong; but I shall be the more particularly happy, if this Country can be, by any means, useful to the Patriots of Holland, with whose situation I am peculiarly touched, and of whose public virtue I entertain a great opinion.
You may rest assured, Sir, of my best and most friendly sentiments of your suffering compatriots, and that, while I deplore the calamities to which many of the most worthy members of your Community have been reduced by the late foreign interposition in the interior affairs of the United Netherlands; I shall flatter myself that many of them will be able with the wrecks of their fortunes which may have escaped the extensive devastation, to settle themselves in comfort, freedom and ease in some corner of the vast regions of America. The spirit of the Religions and the genius of the political Institutions of this Country must be an inducement. Under a good government (which I have no doubt we shall establish) this Country certainly promises greater advantages, than almost any other, to persons of moderate property, who are determined to be sober, industrious and virtuous members of Society. And it must not be concealed, that a knowledge that these are the general characteristics of your compatriots would be as favorable circumstances, as I hope will attend your first operations; I think it probable that your coming will be the harbinger for many more to adventure across the Atlantic.
In the meantime give me leave to request that I may have the pleasure to see you at my house whensoever it can be convenient to you, and to offer whatsoever services it may ever be in my power to afford yourself, as well as to the other Patriots and friends to the rights of Mankind of the Dutch Nation.16
The invitation was too great an honor to reject but first Van der Kemp wanted to take care of his family. He, Mrs. Van der Kemp, and their daughter, Betsy, took a five-weeks’ tour of New York State. They traveled on the Hudson to Albany and up the Mohawk as far as Philip Schuyler’s house at the Palatine settlement. On July 15 Francis wrote to a correspondent in Kentucky that his trip in New York had been difficult for his wife and she was dissuaded from going far to settle. He appreciated the invitation to Kentucky but thought he would purchase a little farm in New York.17 On July 25 he wrote to Adams that they had seen two farms near Kingston that suited them and if the price were right they would make a purchase in two or three weeks. While he awaited developments he was going to Philadelphia and Mount Vernon. He then congratulated the people of Massachusetts for their good sense in electing Adams to Congress and asked what the best history of the American Revolution was.18
Soon Van der Kemp set out to meet more of the great men of America. He went first to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and spent some time agreeably with Governor Livingston. From there he traveled to Philadelphia where he visited Benjamin Franklin, an Antwerp mercantile firm, the family of Captain Weeks, and the house of Ross to express his appreciation for the favors on his voyage. He went on to Baltimore to see his old friend Adrian Valck who was in business and also serving as Dutch Consul. He arrived on July 29 at Mount Vernon “where simplicity, order, unadorned grandeur, and dignity had taken up their abode.” He told Adams “the politeness with which I was received there gives me new pleasure by their remembrances.”19 However, in his autobiography he said of Washington,
There seemed to me, to skulk somewhat of a repulsive coldness, not congenial with my mind, under a courteous demeanour; and I was infinitely better pleased by the unassuming, modest gentleness of the lady, than with the conscious superiority of her consort.
Later statements about Washington indicate that no harsh criticism was intended by the statement and that he always honored Washington. Washington’s diary, primarily concerned with plantation supervision, nevertheless mentions Van der Kemp’s visit briefly. A cordial letter written by Washington in the fall after Van der Kemp’s July visit, indicates that Van der Kemp impressed him. Washington wrote that he was pleased that Van der Kemp had purchased a good farm and hoped him a happy asylum.
The trip was good for the immigrant. He had been warmly welcomed to his new country in Elizabethtown, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He had met great patriots and started firm friendships, including those with John and Abigail Adams. He had breathed the air of freedom longed for in vain in his native land. He returned from Mount Vernon to his own property, the farm in Esopus (though its title was not clear for several months), eager to take up his role as a free American.
Only one thing remained. On February 28, 1789, the legislature of New York passed a measure entitled, “An Act to naturalise the persons therein named, and to prevent the avoidance of titles in certain cases, by reason of alienism.” The Van der Kemps and a number of other people had petitioned for citizenship. It was granted upon taking an oath in a court of record for a fee of nine shillings. Children were to take the oath upon reaching the age of twenty-one.20 Van der Kemp proudly made the affirmation and became an American, eager to participate in the struggles for progress in political, social and economic life, eager to share in the dreams and promises of America.