History of Holland
By George Edmundson
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXI: The Stadholderless Republic, 1715-1740
The thirty-four years which followed the Peace of Utrecht are a period of decadence and decay; a depressing period exhibiting the spectacle of a State, which had played a heroic part in history, sinking, through its lack of inspiring leadership and the crying defects inherent in its system of government, to the position of a third-rate power. The commanding abilities of the great stadholders of the house of Orange-Nassau, and during the stadholderless period which followed the untimely death of William II, those of the Council-Pensionary, John de Witt, had given an appearance of solidarity to what was really a loose confederation of sovereign provinces. Throughout the 17th century maritime enterprise, naval prowess and world-wide trade had, by the help of skilled diplomacy and wise statesmanship, combined to give to the Dutch Republic a weight in the council of nations altogether disproportionate to its size and the number of its population. In the memorable period of Frederick Henry the foundations were laid of an empire overseas; Dutch seamen and traders had penetrated into every ocean and had almost monopolised the carrying-trade of Europe; and at the same time Holland had become the chosen home of scholarship, science, literature and art. In the great days of John de Witt she contended on equal terms with England for the dominion of the seas; and Amsterdam was the financial clearing-house of the world. To William III the Republic owed its escape from destruction in the critical times of overwhelming French invasion in 1672, when by resolute and heroic leadership he not only rescued the United Provinces from French domination, but before his death had raised them to the rank of a great power. Never did the prestige of the States stand higher in Europe than at the opening of the 18th century. But, as has already been pointed out, the elevation of the great stadholder to the throne of England had been far from an unmixed blessing to his native land. It brought the two maritime and commercial rivals into a close alliance, which placed the smaller and less favoured country at a disadvantage, and ended in the weaker member of the alliance becoming more and more the dependent of the stronger. What would have been the trend of events had William survived for another ten or fifteen years or had he left an heir to succeed him in his high dignities, one can only surmise. It may at least be safely said, that the treaty which ended the war of the Spanish succession would not have been the treaty of Utrecht.
William III by his will made his cousin, John William Friso of Nassau-Siegen, his heir. Friso (despite the opposition of the Prussian king, who was the son of Frederick Henry’s eldest daughter) assumed the title of Prince of Orange; and, as he was a real Netherlander, his branch of the house of Nassau having been continuously stadholders of Friesland since the first days of the existence of the Republic, he soon attracted to himself the affection of the Orangist party. But at the time of William III’s death Friso was but fourteen years of age; and the old “States” or “Republican” party, which had for so many years been afraid to attempt any serious opposition to the imperious will of King William, now saw their opportunity for a return once more to the state of things established by the Great Assembly in 1651. Under the leadership of Holland five provinces now declared for a stadholderless government. The appointment of town-councillors passed into the hands of the corporations or of the Provincial Estates, not, however, without serious disturbances in Gelderland, Utrecht, Overyssel and also in Zeeland, stirred up partly by the old regent-families, who had been excluded from office under William, partly by the gilds and working folk, who vainly hoped that they would be able to exercise a larger share in the government. In many places faction-fights ensued. In Amersfoort two burghers were tried and beheaded; in Nijmwegen the burgomaster, Ronkens, met the same fate. But after a short while the aristocratic States party everywhere gained control in the town-corporations and through them in the Provincial Estates. In Zeeland the dignity of “first noble” was abolished.
The effect of all this was that decentralisation reached its extreme point. Not only were there seven republics, but each town asserted sovereign rights, defying at times the authority of the majority in the Provincial Estates. This was especially seen in the predominant province of Holland, where the city of Amsterdam by its wealth and importance was able to dictate its will to the Estates, and through the Estates to the States-General. Money-making and trade profits were the matters which engrossed everybody’s interest. War interfered with trade; it was costly, and was to be avoided at any price. During this time the policy of the Republic was neutrality; and the States-General, with their army and navy reduced more and more in numbers and efficiency, scarcely counted in the calculations of the cabinets of Europe.
But this very time that was marked by the decline and fall of the Republic from the high position which it occupied during the greater part of the 17th century, was the golden age of the burgher-oligarchies. A haughty “patrician" class, consisting in each place of a very limited number of families, closely inter-related, had little by little possessed themselves, as a matter of hereditary right, of all the offices and dignities in the town, in the province and in the state. Within their own town they reigned supreme, filling up vacancies in the vroedschap by co-option, exercising all authority, occupying or distributing among their relatives all posts of profit, and acquiring great wealth. Their fellow-citizens were excluded from all share in affairs, and were looked down upon as belonging to an inferior caste. The old simple habits of their forefathers were abandoned. French fashions and manners were the vogue amongst them, and English clothes, furniture and food. In the country–platteland–people had no voice whatever in public affairs; they were not even represented, as the ordinary townspeople were by their regents. Thus the United Netherlands had not only ceased to be a unified state in any real sense of the word, but had ceased likewise to be a free state. It consisted of a large number of semi-independent oligarchies of the narrowest description; and the great mass of its population was deprived of every vestige of civic rights.
That such a State should have survived at all is to be explained by the fact that the real control over the foreign policy of the Republic and over its general government continued to be exercised by the band of experienced statesmen who had served under William III and inherited his traditions. Heinsius, the wise and prudent council-pensionary, continued in office until his death cm August 3, 1720, when he was succeeded by Isaac van Hoornbeck, pensionary of Rotterdam. Hoornbeck was not a man of great parts, but he was sound and safe and he had at his side Simon van Slingelandt, secretary of the Council of State since 1690, and others whose experience in public office dated from the preceding century. In their hands the external policy of the Republic, conducted with no lack of skill, was of necessity non-interventionist. In internal matters they could effect little. The finances after the war were in an almost hopeless condition, and again and again the State was threatened with bankruptcy. To make things worse an epidemic of wild speculation spread far and wide during the period 1716-1720 in the bubble companies, the Mississippi Company and the South Sea Company, associated with the name of Edward Law, which proved so ruinous to many in England and France, as well as in Holland. In 1716 such was the miserable condition of the country that the Estates of Overyssel, under the leadership of Count van Rechteren, proposed the summoning of a Great Assembly on the model of that of 1651 to consider the whole question of government and finance. The proposal was ultimately accepted, and the Assembly met at the Hague on November 28. After nine months of ineffectual debate and wrangling it finally came to an end on September 14, 1717, without effecting anything, leaving all who had the best interests of the State at heart in despair.
In the years immediately succeeding the Peace of Utrecht difficulties arose with Charles XII of Sweden; whose privateers had been seizing Dutch and English merchantmen in the Baltic. Under De Witt or William III the fleet of the Republic would speedily have brought the Swedish king to reason. But now other counsels prevailed. Dutch squadrons sailed into the Baltic with instructions to convoy the merchant vessels, but to avoid hostilities. With some difficulty this purpose was achieved; and the death of Charles at the siege of Frederikshald brought all danger of war to an end. And yet in the very interests of trade it would have been good policy for the States to act strongly in this matter of Swedish piracy in the Baltic. Russia was the rising power in those regions. The Dutch had really nothing to fear from Sweden, whose great days came to an end with the crushing defeat of Charles XII at Pultova in 1709. Trade relations had been opened between Holland and Muscovy so early as the end of the 16th century; and, despite English rivalry, the opening out of Russia and of Russian trade had been almost entirely in Dutch hands during the 17th century. The relations between the two countries became much closer and more important after the accession of the enterprising and reforming Tsar, Peter the Great. It is well known how Peter in 1696 visited Holland to learn the art of ship-building and himself toiled as a workman at Zaandam. As a result of this visit he carried back with him to Russia an admiration for all things Dutch. He not only favoured Dutch commerce, but he employed numbers of Hollanders in the building and training of his fleet and in the construction of waterways and roads. In 1716-17 Peter again spent a considerable time in Holland. Nevertheless Dutch policy was again timid and cautious; and no actual alliance was made with Russia, from dread of entanglements, although the opportunity seemed so favourable.
It was the same when in this year 1717 Cardinal Alberoni, at the instigation of Elizabeth of Parma the ambitious second wife of Philip V, attempted to regain Spain’s lost possessions in Italy by an aggressive policy which threatened to involve Europe in war. Elizabeth’s object was to obtain an independent sovereignty for her sons in her native country. Austria, France and England united to resist this attempt to reverse the settlement of Utrecht, and the States were induced to join with them in a quadruple alliance. It was not, however, their intention to take any active part in the hostilities which speedily brought Spain to reason, and led to the fall of Alberoni. But the Spanish queen had not given up her designs, and she found another instrument for carrying them out in Ripperda, a Groningen nobleman, who had originally gone to Spain as ambassador of the States. This able and scheming statesman persuaded Elizabeth that she might best attain her ends by an alliance with Austria, which was actually concluded at Vienna on April 1, 1725. This alliance alarmed France, England and Prussia, but was especially obnoxious to the Republic, for the emperor had in 1722 erected an East India Company at Ostend in spite of the prohibition placed by Holland and Spain in the treaties of 1714-15 upon Belgian overseas commerce. By the Treaty of Alliance in 1725 the Spanish crown recognised the Ostend Company and thus gave it a legal sanction. The States therefore, after some hesitation, became parties to a defensive alliance against Austria and Spain that had been signed by France, England and Prussia at Hanover in September, 1728. These groupings of the powers were of no long duration. The emperor, fearing an invasion of the Belgian provinces, first agreed to suspend the Ostend Company for seven years, and then, in order to secure the assent of the maritime powers to the Pragmatic Sanction, which guaranteed to his daughter, Maria Theresa, the succession to the Austrian hereditary domains, he broke with Spain and consented to suppress the Ostend Company altogether. The negotiations which took place at this time are very involved and complicated, but they ended in a revival of the old alliance between Austria and the maritime powers against the two Bourbon monarchies of France and Spain. This return to the old policy of William III was largely the work of Slingelandt, who had become council-pensionary on July 27, 1727.
Simon van Slingelandt, with the able assistance of his brother-in-law Francis Fagel, clerk of the States-General, was during the nine years in which he directed the foreign policy of the Republic regarded as one of the wisest and most trustworthy, as he was the most experienced statesman of his time. His aim was, in co-operation with England, to maintain by conciliatory and peaceful methods the balance of power. Lord Chesterfield, at that time the British envoy at the Hague, had the highest opinion of Slingelandt’s powers; and the council-pensionary’s writings, more especially his Pensées impartiales, published in 1729, show what a thorough grasp he had of the political situation. Fortunately the most influential ministers in England and France, Robert Walpole and Cardinal Fleury, were like-minded with him in being sincere seekers after peace. The Treaty of Vienna (March 18,1731), which secured the recognition by the powers of the Pragmatic Sanction, was largely his work; and he was also successful in preventing the question of the Polish succession, after the death of Augustus of Saxony in 1733, being the cause of the outbreak of a European war. In domestic policy Slingelandt, though profoundly dissatisfied with the condition of the Republic, took no steps to interfere with the form of government. He saw the defects of the stadholderless system plainly enough, but he had not, like Fagel, strong Orangist sympathies; and on his appointment as council-pensionary he pledged himself to support during his tenure of office the existing state of things. This undertaking he loyally kept, and his strong personality during his life-time alone saved Holland, and through Holland the entire Republic, from falling into utter ruin and disaster. At his death Antony van der Heim became council-pensionary under the same conditions as his predecessor. But Van der Heim, though a capable and hard-working official, was not of the same calibre as Slingelandt. The narrow and grasping burgher-regents had got a firm grip of power, and they used it to suppress the rights of their fellow-citizens and to keep in their own hands the control of municipal and provincial affairs. Corruption reigned everywhere; and the patrician oligarchy, by keeping for themselves and their relations all offices of profit, grew rich at the same time that the finances of the State fell into greater confusion. It was not a condition of things that could endure, should any serious crisis arise.
John William Friso, on whom great hopes had been fixed, met with an untimely death in 1711, leaving a posthumous child who became William IV, Prince of Orange. Faithful Friesland immediately elected William stadholder under the regency of his mother, Maria Louisa of Hesse-Cassel. By her fostering care the boy received an education to fit him for service to the State. Though of weakly bodily frame and slightly deformed, William had marked intelligence, and a very gentle and kindly disposition. Though brave like all his family, he had little inclination for military things. The Republican party had little to fear from a man of such character and disposition. The burgher-regents, secure in the possession of power, knew that the Frisian stadholder was not likely to resort either to violence or intrigue to force on a revolution. Nevertheless the prestige of the name in the prevailing discontent counted for much. William was elected stadholder of Groningen in 1718, of Drente and of Gelderland in 1722, though in each case with certain restrictions. But the other provinces remained obstinate in their refusal to admit him to any place in their councils or to any military post. The Estates of Zeeland went so far as to abolish the marquisate of Flushing and Veere, which carried with it the dignity of first noble and presidency in the meetings of the Estates, and offered to pay 100,000 fl. in compensation to the heir of the Nassaus. William refused to receive it, saying that either the marquisate did not belong to him, in which case he could not accept money for it, or it did belong to him and was not for sale. William’s position was advanced by his marriage in 1734 to Anne, eldest daughter of George II. Thus for the third time a Princess Royal of England became Princess of Orange. The reception of the newly married pair at Amsterdam and the Hague was, however, cool though polite; and despite the representatives of Gelderland, who urged that the falling credit and bad state of the Republic required the appointment of an “eminent head,” Holland, Utrecht, Zeeland and Overyssel remained obdurate in their refusal to change the form of government. William had to content himself with the measure of power he had obtained and to await events. He showed much patience, for he had many slights and rebuffs to put up with. His partisans would have urged him to more vigorous action, but this he steadily refused to take.
The Republic kept drifting meanwhile on the downward path. Its foreign policy was in nerveless hands; jobbery was rampant; trade and industry declined; the dividends of the East India Company fell year by year through the incompetence and greed of officials appointed by family influence; the West India Company was practically bankrupt. Such was the state of the country in 1740, when the outbreak of the Austrian Succession War found the Republic without leadership, hopelessly undecided what course of action it should take, and only seeking to evade its responsibilities.