Lambertus DeRonde, Translation, and the Context of Public Meaning


Photo Georgetown University

Michael Douma is an Assistant Research Professor in the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. He is the author of Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge, 2018) and How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch (University of Amsterdam, 2014). His article, “Two Early Dutch Translations of the United States Constitution: Public Meaning in a Transnational Context,” appears in the Law and History Review symposium on originalism and legal history (volume 37.3).

To get at the original public meaning of the Constitution, it would be helpful if we could get into the mind of an everyday contemporary, a Joe the Ploughman, as it were.[1] In my research, I came across the best example we might hope to find. His name was Lambertus De Ronde, a Reformed Church minister living near Albany, N.Y. in 1788 when he translated the U.S. Constitution into Dutch.

In my article, I compared DeRonde’s curious translation—supported by the Albany Federal Committee and aimed at the Dutch-speaking population of New York state—with a translation made in 1793 by Gerhardus Dumbar, a Dutch legal scholar living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The contrast between the two translations highlights a tension in originalist scholarship and theorizing. What original meaning of the Constitution matters more: the meaning ascribed by an educated but fairly average American citizen or the meaning fleshed out by a well-trained lawyer?  Does their disagreement about particular lines in the Constitution damage the originalist case by showing the fluidity of meanings, or does it strengthen that case by demonstrating a circumscribed set of meanings?

Short on space, I removed from my article a discussion of DeRonde as a slaveholder. De Ronde died in Schaghticoke, N.Y., in 1795.  At the time of his death, he owned six slaves. A probate record shows that his son Adriaan DeRonde was charged with making a “perfect inventory” of all “good, chattel, and credits” of his father.[2]  De Ronde often complained of being cash poor – his salary far in arrears –  but his inventory demonstrates that he was a man of at least some wealth, as he left a bequest valued at 898 pounds.

Historians of the past generation or two have been apt to remind us that the very authors of the Constitution and other founding documents were slaveholders. De Ronde’s story reminds us that slavery was also an integral part of Dutch New York society and a constant shadow in the background of the process of understanding and ratifying the Constitution.  Gerald DeJong explains that in the eighteenth century, “The Dutch farmers who resided in the lower Hudson valley of New York and the in the Raritan and Minisink valleys of New Jersey were among the most extensive users of slave labor in these two colonies.”[3] This can be seen in the census of 1790, when De Ronde’s Schaghticoke had a population of 1,838, including 348 slaves[4].

It is difficult, however, to extract from the few available sources any solid understanding of De Ronde’s views on slavery. De Ronde was behind a plan for the conversion of slaves in Suriname in 1747.[5] But between his experience in the slave colony of Suriname in the 1740s, and the inventory of his death in 1795, there is little to demonstrate his relationship with slavery. The historian Graham Russell Hodges asserts that De Ronde was a proponent of black baptism.[6]  But the pages he cites from De Ronde’s work present no evidence to this effect.[7]   Nor is this view supported in Hodges’s other citation to an article by Charles E. Corwin from 1927. Corwin, writing for the Federal Writer’s Project, was confused about De Ronde’s plan for writing a book in “Negro-English and Dutch.” DeRonde planned such a book in Suriname, not in New York, and the language was to be a mixture of the Surinamese Negro-English and Dutch, not American English and Dutch. Corwin states, again with no evidence, that Dutch Reformed ministers regarded black baptism as a matter of course.  Corwin’s logic here is quite poor: “That we have so little definite knowledge of the work of Dutch Colonial pastors for the negro slaves during the English period, is proof that it [baptism] was taken for granted.”[8]  Unfortunately, Corwin’s claim, once taken root in Hodges’ work, can now be found in half a dozen works on Dutch New York and New Jersey slavery.

Corwin’s article is based on scant primary research and can best to seen as an early 20th century mythologizing of the “mild” form of slavery among the Dutch in New York and the promotion of an ethnic pride. He followed a tradition of nineteenth century writes who argued that Dutch slavery was a mild form of slavery, and it was necessary for the economic growth of the state. The Dutch had loved their slaves and treated them well, they said. This is a thesis that I predict historians of a new generation will largely overturn.

The choice of the slaveholding DeRonde as a translator of the Constitution says something very clear about the view of Dutch New Yorkers on slavery in the 1780s. Slavery, in their eyes, had not yet become a sin. For a respected minister, a man trusted with providing a clear translation of the Constitution, it mattered not that he held slaves. In fact, it may have been because DeRonde owned slaves that he could find the free time to finish the project.

[1] Mark Killenbeck, “The Original? Public? Meaning of “Commerce””, Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol 16:2,  289-327.

[2] 12 February, 1796, Rensselaer New York Probate records, Vol 21-23, 1790-1812, New York, Wills and Probate Records, 1659-1999 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: New York County, District and Probate Courts. Accessed 10 Feb 2016)

[3] Gerald F. De Jong, ‘The Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slvaery in Colonial America” Church History 40:4 (Dec., 1971), 423436, speficially -424)

[4] (, accessed March 1, 2016)

[5] E.T. Corwin, editor. Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York, published by the State under the supervision of Hugh Hastings, State Historian. Volume IV (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902), 2877) 2952-2955).

[6] Graham Russell Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863, (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999, p 122-123)

[7] Hodges cites Lambertus De Ronde, A system: containing, the principles of the Christian religion…  (New York:  H. Gaine, 1763) , pages 7, 33, 92, 111.  (via HathiTrust 4 Feb 2016,, original New York Public Library)

[8] Charles E. Corwin, “Efforts of the Dutch Colonial Pastors for the Conversion of the Negroes” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930), 12:5 (April, 1927, 425-425, 434).