The story opens in Manhattan in 1647, where the colony awaits the arrival of its new Governor from Holland, Peter Stuyvesant. Irving selects as his hero the young Brom Broeck, a brave but impulsive fellow who becomes enraged if anyone tries to give him orders. The narrator and his character reflect that this independent streak is characteristic of American citizens.
Brom is in love with Tina Tienhoven, whose father heads the corrupt town council. Brom knows that Tienhoven is selling brandy and firearms to the Indians—a criminal offense. Tienhoven, with the support of his cronies, arranges to have Brom convicted and hanged instead. Brom survives by putting the noose around his waist instead of his neck just as Stuyvesant arrives on the scene. Impressed by the young man’s ingenuity, the Governor pardons him.
Stuyvesant plans to marry Tina and to declare war as his first official act of governance. After many mishaps and recriminations, all ends happily when the narrator reminds Stuyvesant that history will not remember him kindly if he persists in his dictatorial actions. Brom and Tina are free to marry, and the musical ends as Stuyvesant reflects that perhaps he will make a good American, given his own independence and resistance to authority.