History of Holland
By George Edmundson
Public Domain Books
WILLIAM V. FIRST PERIOD, 1766-1780
Of all the stadholders of his line William V was the least distinguished. Neither in appearance, character nor manner was he fitted for the position which he had to fill. He had been most carefully educated, and was not wanting in ability, but he lacked energy and thoroughness, and was vacillating and undecided at moments when resolute action was called for. Like his contemporary Louis XVI, had he been born in a private station, he would have adorned it, but like that unhappy monarch he had none of the qualities of a leader of men in critical and difficult times. It was characteristic of him that he asked for confirmation from the Provincial Estates of the dignities and offices which were his by hereditary right. In every thing he relied upon the advice of the Duke of Brunswick, whose methods of government he implicitly followed. To such an extent was this the case that, soon after his accession to power, a secret Act was drawn up (May 3, 1766), known as the Act of Consultation, by which the duke bound himself to remain at the side of the stadholder and to assist him by word and deed in all affairs of State. During the earlier years therefore of William V’s stadholderate he consulted Brunswick in every matter, and was thus encouraged to distrust his own judgment and to be fitful and desultory in his attention to affairs of State.
One of the first of Brunswick’s cares was to provide for the prince a suitable wife. William II, William III and William IV had all married English princesses, but the feeling of hostility to England was strong in Holland, and it was not thought advisable for the young stadholder to seek for a wife in his mother’s family. The choice of the duke was the Prussian Princess Wilhelmina. The new Princess of Orange was niece on the paternal side of Frederick the Great and on the maternal side of the Duke of Brunswick himself. The marriage took place at Berlin on October, 4 1767. The bride was but sixteen years of age, but her attractive manners and vivacious cleverness caused her to win the popular favour on her first entry into her adopted country.
The first eight years of William’s stadholdership passed by quietly. There is little to record. Commerce prospered, but the Hollanders were no longer content with commerce and aimed rather at the rapid accumulation of wealth by successful financial transactions. Stock-dealing had become a national pursuit. Foreign powers came to Amsterdam for loans; and vast amounts of Dutch capital were invested in British and French funds and in the various German states. And yet all the time this rich and prosperous country was surrounded by powerful military and naval powers, and, having no strong natural frontiers, lay exposed defenceless to aggressive attack whether by sea or land. It was in vain that the stadholder, year by year, sent pressing memorials to the States-General urging them to strengthen the navy and the army and to put them on a war footing. The maritime provinces were eager for an increase of the navy, but the inland provinces refused to contribute their quota of the charges. Utrecht, Gelderland, Overyssel and Groningen on the other hand, liable as they were to suffer from military invasion, were ready to sanction a considerable addition to the land forces, but were thwarted by the opposition of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland. So nothing was done, and the Republic, torn by divided interests and with its ruling classes lapped in self-contented comfort and luxury, was a helpless prey that seemed to invite spoliation.
This was the state of things when the British North American colonies rose in revolt against the mother-country. The sympathies of France were from the first with the colonials; and a body of volunteers raised by Lafayette with the connivance of the French overnment crossed the Atlantic to give armed assistance to the rebels. Scarcely less warm was the feeling in the Netherlands. The motives which prompted it were partly sentimental, partly practical. There was a certain similarity between the struggle for independence on the part of the American colonists against a mighty state like Great Britain, and their own struggle with the world-power of Spain. There was also the hope that the rebellion would have the practical result of opening out to the Dutch merchants a lucrative trade with the Americans, one of whose chief grievances against the mother-country had been the severity of the restrictions forbidding all trading with foreign lands. At the same time the whole air was full of revolutionary ideas, which were unsettling men’s minds. This was no less the case in the Netherlands than elsewhere; and the American revolt was regarded as a realisation and vindication in practical politics of the teaching of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, whose works were widely read, and of the Englishmen Hume, Priestley and Richard Price. Foremost among the propagandists of these ideas were Jan Dirk van der Capellen tot de Pol, a nobleman of Overyssel, and the three burgomasters of Amsterdam, Van Berckel, De Vrij Temminck and Hooft, all anti-Orange partisans and pro-French in sentiment. Amidst all these contending factions and opinions, the State remained virtually without a head, William V drifting along incapable of forming an independent decision, or of making a firm and resolute use of the great powers with which he was entrusted.
Torn by internal dissensions, the maintenance of neutrality by the Republic became even more difficult than in the Seven Years’ War. The old questions of illicit trade with the enemy and the carrying of contraband arose. The Dutch islands of St Eustatius and Curaçoa became centres of smuggling enterprise; and Dutch merchant vessels were constantly being searched by the British cruisers and often carried off as prizes into English ports. Strong protests were made and great irritation aroused. Amsterdam was the chief sufferer. Naturally in this hot-bed of Republican opinion and French sympathies, the prince was blamed and was accused of preferring English interests to those of his own country. The arrival of the Duke de la Vauguyon, as French ambassador, did much to fan the flame. Vauguyon entered into close relations with the Amsterdam regents and did all in his power to exacerbate the growing feeling of hostility to England, and to persuade the Republic to abandon the ancient alliance with that country in favour of one with France.
The British ambassador, Yorke, lacked his ingratiating manners; and his language now became imperative and menacing in face of the flourishing contraband trade that was carried on at St Eustatius. In consequence of his strong protest the governor of the island, Van Heyliger, was replaced by De Graeff, but it was soon discovered that the new governor was no improvement upon his predecessor. He caused additional offence to the British government by saluting the American flag on November 16, 1776. The threats of Yorke grew stronger, but with small result. The Americans continued to draw supplies from the Dutch islands. The entry of France into the war on February 6, 1778, followed by that of Spain, complicated matters. England was now fighting with her back to the wall; and her sea-power had to be exerted to its utmost to make head against so many foes. She waged relentless war on merchant ships carrying contraband or suspected contraband, whether enemy or neutral. At last money was voted under pressure from Amsterdam, supported by the prince, for the building of a fleet for protection against privateers and for purposes of convoy. But a fleet cannot be built in a day; and, when Admiral van Bylandt was sent out in 1777, his squadron consisted of five ships only. Meanwhile negotiations with England were proceeding and resulted in certain concessions, consent being given to allow what was called “limited convoy.” The States-General, despite the opposition of Amsterdam, accepted on November 13, 1778, the proffered compromise. But the French ambassador Vauguyon supported the protest of Amsterdam by threatening, unless the States-General insisted upon complete freedom of trade, to withdraw the commercial privileges granted to the Republic by France. Finding that the States-General upheld their resolution of November 13, he carried his threat into execution. This action brought the majority of the Estates of Holland to side with Amsterdam and to call for a repeal of the “limited convoy” resolution. The English on their part, well aware of all this, continued to do their utmost to stop all supplies reaching their enemies in Dutch bottoms, convoy or no convoy. The British government, though confronted by so many foes, now took strong measures. Admiral van Bylandt, convoying a fleet of merchantmen through the Channel, was compelled by a British squadron to strike his flag; and all the Dutch vessels were taken into Portsmouth. This was followed by a demand under the treaty of 1678 for Dutch aid in ships and men, or the abrogation of the treaty of alliance and of the commercial privileges it carried with it. Yorke gave the States-General three weeks for their decision; and on April 17, 1779, the long-standing alliance, which William III had made the keystone of his policy, ceased to exist. War was not declared, but the States-General voted for “unlimited convoy” on April 24; and every effort was made by the Admiralties to build and equip a considerable fleet. The reception given to the American privateer, Paul Jones, who, despite English protests, was not only allowed to remain in Holland for three months, but was feted as a hero (October-December, 1779), accentuated the increasing alienation of the two countries.
At this critical stage the difficult position of England was increased by the formation under the leadership of Russia of a League of Armed Neutrality. Its object was to maintain the principle of the freedom of the seas for the vessels of neutral countries, unless they were carrying contraband of war, i.e. military or naval munitions. Further a blockade would not be recognised if not effective. Sweden and Denmark joined the league; and the Empress Catherine invited the United Provinces and several other neutral powers to do likewise. Her object was to put a curb upon what was described by Britain’s enemies as the tyranny of the Mistress of the Seas. The Republic for some time hesitated. Conscious of their weakness at sea, the majority in the States-General were unwilling to take any overt steps to provoke hostilities, when an event occurred which forced their hands.
In 1778 certain secret negotiations had taken place between the Amsterdam regents and the American representatives at Paris, Franklin and Lee. It chanced that Henry Lawrence, a former President of the Congress, was on his way from New York to Amsterdam in September, 1780, for the purpose of raising a loan. Pursued by an English frigate, the ship on which he was sailing was captured off Newfoundland; and among his papers were found copies of the negotiations of 1778 and of the correspondence which then took place. Great was the indignation of the British government, and it was increased when the Estates of Holland, under the influence of Amsterdam, succeeded in bringing the States-General (by a majority of four provinces to three) to join the League of Armed Neutrality. Better open war than a sham peace. Instructions were therefore sent to the ambassador Yorke to demand the punishment of the Amsterdam regents for their clandestine transactions with the enemies of England. The reply was that the matter should be brought before the Court of Holland; and Van Welderen, the Dutch ambassador in London, in vain endeavoured to give assurances that the States were anxious to maintain a strict neutrality. Yorke demanded immediate satisfaction and once more called upon the Republic to furnish the aid in men and ships in accordance with the treaty. Further instructions were therefore sent to Van Welderen, but they were delayed by tempestuous weather. In any case they would have been of no avail. The British government was in no mood for temporising. On December 20, 1780 war was declared against the United Provinces; and three days later Yorke left the Hague.