History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter XXV: Stadholderate of William V, continued, 1780-1788

The outbreak of war meant the final ruin of the Dutch Republic. Its internal condition at the close of 1780 made it hopelessly unfitted to enter upon a struggle with the overwhelming sea-power of England. Even had William V possessed the qualities of leadership, he would have had to contend against the bitter opposition and enmity of the anti-Orange party among the burgher-regents, of which Van der Capellen was one of the most moving spirits, and which had its chief centre in Amsterdam. But the prince, weak and incompetent, was apparently intent only on evading his responsibilities, and so laid himself open to the charges of neglect and mal-administration that were brought against him by his enemies.

Against an English fleet of more than 300 vessels manned by a force of something like 100,000 seamen, the Dutch had but twenty ships of the line, most of them old and of little value. Large sums of money were now voted for the equipment of a fleet; and the Admiralties were urged to press forward the work with all possible vigour. But progress was necessarily slow. Everything was lacking–material, munitions, equipment, skilled labour–and these could not be supplied in time to prevent Dutch commerce being swept from the seas and the Dutch colonies captured. The Republicans, or Patriots, as they began to name themselves, were at first delighted that the Orange stadholder and his party had been compelled to break with England and to seek the alliance of France; but their joy was but short-lived. Bad tidings followed rapidly one upon another. In the first month of the war 200 merchantmen were captured, of the value of 15,000,000 florins. The fishing fleets dared not put out to sea. In 1780 more than 2000 vessels passed through the Sound, in 1781 only eleven. On February 3 St Eustatius surrendered to Admiral Rodney, when one hundred and thirty merchantmen together with immense stores fell into the hands of the captors. Surinam and Curaçoa received warning and were able to put themselves into a state of defence, but the colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo were taken, also St Martin, Saba and the Dutch establishments on the coast of Guinea. In the East Indies Negapatam and the factories in Bengal passed into English possession; and the Cape, Java and Ceylon would have shared the same fate, but for the timely protection of a French squadron under the command of Suffren, one of the ablest and bravest of French seamen.

The losses were enormous, and loud was the outcry raised in Amsterdam and elsewhere against the prince of being the cause of his country’s misfortunes. “Orange,” so his enemies said, “is to blame for everything. He possessed the power to do whatsoever he would, and he neglected to use it in providing for the navy and the land’s defences.” This was to a considerable extent unjust, for William from 1767 onwards had repeatedly urged an increase of the sea and land forces, but his proposals had been thwarted by bitter opposition, especially in Amsterdam itself. The accusations were to this extent correct that he was undoubtedly invested with large executive power which he had not the strength of will to use. It was at this period that Van der Capellen and others started a most violent press campaign not only against the stadholder, but against the hereditary stadholdership and all that the house of Orange-Nassau stood for in the history of the Dutch Republic. Brunswick was attacked with especial virulence. The “Act of Consultation” had become known; and, had the prince been willing to throw responsibility upon the duke for bad advice he might have gained some fleeting popularity by separating himself from the hated “foreigner.” But William, weak though he was, would not abandon the man who in his youth had been to him and to his house a wise and staunch protector and friend; and he knew, moreover, that the accusations against Brunswick were really aimed at himself. The duke, however, after appealing to the States-General, and being by them declared free from blame, found the spirit of hostility so strong at Amsterdam and in several of the Provincial Estates that he withdrew first (1782) to Hertogenbosch, of which place he was governor, and finally left the country in 1784.

The war meanwhile, which had been the cause, or rather the pretext, for this outburst of popular feeling against Brunswick, was pursuing its course. In the summer of 1781 Rear-Admiral Zoutman, at the head of a squadron of fifteen war-ships, was ordered to convoy seventy-two merchantmen into the Baltic. He met an English force of twelve vessels, which were larger and better armed than the Dutch, under Vice-Admiral Hyde Parker. A fierce encounter took place at the Doggerbank on August 5, which lasted all day without either side being able to claim the victory. Parker was the first to retreat, but Zoutman had likewise to return to the Texel to repair his disabled ships, and his convoy never reached the Baltic. The Dutch however were greatly elated at the result of the fight, and Zoutman and his captains were feted as heroes.

Doggerbank battle was but, at the most, an indecisive engagement on a very small scale, and it brought no relaxation in the English blockade. No Dutch admiral throughout all the rest of the war ventured to face the English squadrons in the North Sea and in the Channel; and the Dutch mercantile marine disappeared from the ocean. England was strong enough to defy the Armed Neutrality, which indeed proved, as its authoress Catherine II is reported to have said, “an armed nullity.” There was deep dissatisfaction throughout the country, and mutual recriminations between the various responsible authorities, but there was some justice in making the stadholder the chief scapegoat, for, whatever may have been the faults of others, a vigorous initiative in the earlier years of his stadholdership might have effected much, and would have certainly gained for him increased influence and respect.

The war lasted for two years, if war that could be called in which there was practically no fighting. There were changes of government in England during that time, and the party of which Fox was the leader had no desire to press hardly upon the Dutch. Several efforts were made to induce them to negotiate in London a separate peace on favourable terms, but the partisans of France in Amsterdam and elsewhere rendered these tentative negotiations fruitless. Being weak, the Republic suffered accordingly by having to accept finally whatever terms its mightier neighbour thought fit to dictate. On November 30, 1782, the preliminary treaty by which Great Britain conceded to the United States of America their independence was concluded. A truce between Great Britain and France followed in January, 1783, in which the United Provinces, as a satellite of France, were included. No further hostilities took place, but the negotiations for a definitive peace dragged on, the protests of the Dutch plenipotentiaries at Paris against the terms arranged between England and France being of no avail. Finally the French government concluded a separate peace on September 3; but it was not till May 20, 1784, that the Dutch could be induced to surrender Negapatam and to grant to the English the right of free entry into the Moluccas. Nor was this the only humiliation the Republic had at this time to suffer, for during the course of the English war serious troubles with the Emperor Joseph II had arisen.

Joseph had in 1780 paid a visit to his Belgian provinces, and he had seen with his own eyes the ruinous condition of the barrier fortresses. On the pretext that the fortresses were now useless, since France and the Republic were allies, Joseph informed the States-General of his intention to dismantle them all with the exception of Antwerp and Luxemburg. This meant of course the withdrawal of the Dutch garrisons. The States-General, being unable to resist, deemed it the wiser course to submit. The troops accordingly left the barrier towns in January, 1782. Such submission, as was to be expected, inevitably led to further demands.

The Treaty of Münster (1648) had left the Dutch in possession of territory on both banks of the Scheldt, and had given them the right to close all access by river to Antwerp, which had for a century and a quarter ceased to be a sea-port. In 1781, during his visit to Belgium, Joseph had received a number of petitions in favour of the liberation of the Scheldt. At the moment he did not see his way to taking action, but in 1783 he took advantage of the embarrassments of the Dutch government to raise the question of a disputed boundary in Dutch Flanders; and in the autumn of that year a body of Imperial troops took forcible possession of some frontier forts near Sluis. Matters were brought to a head in May, 1784, by the emperor sending to the States-General a detailed summary of all his grievances, Tableau sommaire des prétentions. In this he claimed, besides cessions of territory at Maestricht and in Dutch Flanders, the right of free navigation on the Scheldt, the demolition of the Dutch forts closing the river, and freedom of trading from the Belgian ports to the Indies. This document was in fact an ultimatum, the rejection of which meant war. For once all parties in the Republic were united in resistance to the emperor’s demands; and when in October, 1784, two ships attempted to navigate the Scheldt, the one starting from Antwerp, the other from Ostend, they were both stopped; the first at Saftingen on the frontier, the second at Flushing. War seemed imminent. An Austrian army corps was sent to the Netherlands; and the Dutch bestirred themselves with a vigour unknown in the States for many years to equip a strong fleet and raise troops to repel invasion. It is, however, almost certain that, had Joseph carried out his threat of sending a force of 80,000 men to avenge the insult offered to his ships, the hastily enlisted Dutch troops would not have been able to offer effectual resistance. But the question the emperor was raising was no mere local question. He was really seeking to violate important clauses of two international treaties, to which all the great powers were parties, the Treaty of Münster and the Treaty of Utrecht. His own possession of the Belgian Netherlands and the independence and sovereign rights of the Dutch Republic rested on the same title. Joseph had counted upon the help or at least the friendly neutrality of his brother-in-law, Louis XVI, but France had just concluded an exhausting war in which the United Provinces had been her allies. The French, moreover, had no desire to see the Republic over-powered by an act of aggression that might give rise to European complications. Louis XVI offered mediation, and it was accepted.

It is doubtful indeed whether the emperor, whose restless brain was always full of new schemes, really meant to carry his threats into execution. In the autumn of 1784 a plan for exchanging the distant Belgian Netherlands for the contiguous Electorate of Bavaria was beginning to exercise his thoughts and diplomacy. He showed himself therefore ready to make concessions; and by the firmness of the attitude of France both the disputants were after lengthy negotiations brought to terms, which were embodied in a treaty signed at Fontainebleau on November 8,1785. The Dutch retained the right to close the Scheldt, but had to dismantle some of the forts; the frontier of Dutch Flanders was to be that of 1664; and Joseph gave up all claim to Maestricht in consideration of a payment of 9,500,000 florins. A few days later an alliance between France and the Republic, known as “the Defensive Confederacy” of Fontainebleau, was concluded, the French government advancing 4,500,000 florins towards the ransom of Maestricht. The return of peace, however, far from allaying the spirit of faction in the Republic, was to lead to civil strife.

The situation with which William V now had to deal was in some ways more difficult and dangerous than in the days of his greater predecessors. It was no longer a mere struggle for supremacy between the Orange-Stadholder party (prins-gezinderi) and the patrician-regents of the town corporations (staats-gezinderi); a third party had come into existence, the democratic or “patriot” party, which had imbibed the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau and others about the Rights of Man and the Social Contract. These new ideas, spread about with fiery zeal by the two nobles, Van der Capellen tot de Pol and his cousin Van der Capellen van den Marsch, had found a fertile soil in the northern Netherlands, and among all classes, including other nobles and many leading burgomasters. Their aim was to abolish all privileges whether in Church or State, and to establish the principle of the sovereignty of the people. These were the days, be it remembered, which immediately succeeded the American Revolution and preceded the summoning of the States-General in France with its fateful consequences. The atmosphere was full of revolution; and the men of the new ideas had no more sympathy with the pretensions of an aristocratic caste of burgher-regents to exclude their fellow-citizens from a voice in the management of their own affairs, than they had with the quasi-sovereign position of an hereditary stadholder. Among the Orange party were few men of mark. The council-pensionary Bleiswijk was without character, ready to change sides with the shifting wind; and Count Bentinck van Rhoon had little ability. They were, however, to discover in burgomaster Van de Spiegel of Goes a statesman destined soon to play a great part in the history of the country. During this period of acute party strife Patriot and Orangeman were not merely divided from one another on questions of domestic policy. The one party were strong adherents of the French alliance and leant upon its support; the other sought to renew the bonds which had so long united the Republic with England. Indeed the able representatives of France and England at the Hague at this time, the Count de Vérac and Sir James Harris (afterwards Lord Malmesbury), were the real leaders and advisers, behind the scenes, of the opposing factions.

The strength of parties varied in the different provinces. Holland, always more or less anti-stadholder, was the chief centre of the patriots. With Holland were the majority of the Estates of Friesland, Groningen and Overyssel. In Utrecht the nobles and the regents were for the stadholder, but the townsmen were strong patriots. Zeeland supported the prince, who had with him the army, the preachers and the great mass of small bourgeoisie and the country folk. Nothing could exceed the violence and unscrupulousness of the attacks that were directed against the stadholder in the press; and no efforts were spared by his opponents to curtail his rights and to insult him personally. Corps of patriot volunteers were enrolled in different places with self-elected officers. The wearing of the Orange colours and the singing of the Wilhelmus was forbidden, and punished by fine and imprisonment. In September, 1785, a riot at the Hague led to the Estates of Holland taking from the stadholder the command of the troops in that city. They likewise ordered the foot-guards henceforth to salute the members of the Estates, and removed the arms of the prince from the standards and the facings of the troops. As a further slight, the privilege was given to the deputies, while the Estates were in session, to pass through the gate into the Binnenhof, which had hitherto been reserved for the use of the stadholder alone. Filled with indignation and resentment, William left the Hague with his family and withdrew to his country residence at Het Loo. Such a step only increased the confusion and disorder that was filling every part of the country, for it showed that William had neither the spirit nor the energy to make a firm stand against those who were resolved to overthrow his authority.

In Utrecht the strife between the parties led to scenes of violence. The “patriots” found an eloquent leader in the person of a young student named Ondaatje. The Estates of the province were as conservative as the city of Utrecht itself was ultra-democratic; and a long series of disturbances were caused by the burgher-regents of the Town Council refusing to accede to the popular demand for a drastic change in their constitution. Finally they were besieged in the town hall by a numerous gathering of the “free corps” headed by Ondaatje, and were compelled to accede to the people’s demands. A portion of the Estates thereupon assembled at Amersfoort; and at their request a body of 400 troops were sent there from Nijmwegen. Civil war seemed imminent, but it was averted by the timely mediation of the Estates of Holland.

Scarcely less dangerous was the state of affairs in Gelderland. Here the Estates of the Gelderland had an Orange majority, but the patriots had an influential leader in Van der Capellen van den Marsch. Petitions and requests were sent to the Estates demanding popular reforms. The Estates not only refused to receive them but issued a proclamation forbidding the dissemination of revolutionary literature in the province. The small towns of Elburg and Hattem not only refused to obey, but the inhabitants proceeded by force to compel their Councils to yield to their demands. The Estates thereupon called upon the stadholder to send troops to restore order. This was done, and garrisons were placed in Elburg and Hattem. This step caused a very great commotion in Holland and especially at Amsterdam; and the patriot leaders felt that the time had come to take measures by which to unite all their forces in the different parts of the country for common defence and common action. The result of all this was that the movement became more and more revolutionary in its aims. To such an extent was this the case that many of the old aristocratic anti-stadholder regents began to perceive that the carrying out of the patriots’ programme of popular reform would mean the overthrow of the system of government which they upheld, at the same time as that of the stadholderate.

The reply of the Estates of Holland to the strong measures taken against Elburg and Hattem was the “provisional” removal of the prince from the post of captain-general, and the recalling, on their own authority, of all troops in the pay of the province serving in the frontier fortresses (August, 1786). As the year went on the agitation grew in volume; increasing numbers were enrolled in the free corps. The complete ascendancy of the ultra-democratic patriots was proved and assured by tumultuous gatherings at Amsterdam (April 21, 1787), and a few days later at Rotterdam, compelling the Town Councils to dismiss at Amsterdam nine regents and at Rotterdam seven, suspected of Orange leanings. Holland was now entirely under patriot control; and the democrats in other districts were eagerly looking to the forces which Holland could bring into the field to protect the patriot cause from tyrannous acts of oppression by the stadholder’s troops. In the summer of 1787 the forces on both sides were being mustered on the borders of the province of Utrecht, and frequent collisions had already taken place. Nothing but the prince’s indecision had prevented the actual outbreak of a general civil war. At the critical moment of suspense an incident occurred, however, which was to effect a dramatic change in the situation.

William’s pusillanimous attitude (he was actually talking of withdrawing from the country to Nassau) was by no means acceptable to his high-spirited wife. The princess was all for vigorous action, and she wrung from William a reluctant consent to her returning from Nijmwegen, where for security she had been residing with her family, to the Hague. In that political centre she would be in close communication with Sir J. Harris and Van de Spiegel, and would be able to organise a powerful opposition in Holland to patriot ascendancy. It was a bold move, the success of which largely depended on the secrecy with which it was carried out. On June 28 Wilhelmina started from Nijmwegen, but the commandant of the free corps at Gouda, hearing that horses were being ordered at Schoonhoven and Haasrecht for a considerable party, immediately sent to headquarters for instructions. He was told not to allow any suspicious body of persons to pass. He accordingly stopped the princess and detained her at a farm until the arrival at Woerden of the members of the Committee of Defence. By these Her Highness was treated (on learning her quality) with all respect, but she was informed that she could not proceed without the permit of the Estates of Holland. The indignant princess did not wait for the permit to arrive, but returned to Nijmwegen.

The British ambassador, Harris, at once brought the action of the Estates of Holland before the States-General and demanded satisfaction; and on July 10 a still more peremptory demand was made by the Prussian ambassador, von Thulemeyer. Frederick William II was incensed at the treatment his sister had received; and, when the Estates of Holland refused to punish the offending officials, on the ground that no insult had been intended, orders were immediately given for an army of 20,000 men under Charles, Duke of Brunswick, to cross the frontier and exact reparation. The Prussians entered in three columns and met with little opposition. Utrecht, where 7000 “patriot” volunteers were encamped, was evacuated, the whole force taking flight and retreating in disorder to Holland. Gorkum, Dordrecht, Kampen and other towns surrendered without a blow; and on September 17 Brunswick’s troops entered the Hague amidst general rejoicings. The populace wore Orange favours, and the streets rang with the cry of Oranje boven. Amsterdam still held out and prepared for defence, hoping for French succour; and thither the leaders of the patriot party had fled, together with the representatives of six cities. The nobility, the representatives of eight cities, and the council-pensionary remained at the Hague, met as the Estates of Holland, repealed all the anti-Orange edicts, and invited the prince to return. Amidst scenes of great enthusiasm the stadholder made his entry into the Binnenhof on September 20. The hopes held by the patriot refugees at Amsterdam of French aid were vain, for the French government was in no position to help anyone. As soon as the Prussian army appeared before the gates, the Town Council, as in 1650, was unwilling to jeopardise the welfare of the city by armed resistance, and negotiations were opened with Brunswick. On October 3 Amsterdam capitulated, and the campaign was over.

The princess was now in a position to demand reparation for the insult she had received; and, though her terms were severe, the Estates of Holland obsequiously agreed to carry them out (October 6). She demanded the punishment of all who had taken part in her arrest, the disbanding of the free corps, and the purging of the various Town Councils of obnoxious persons. All this was done. In the middle of November the main body of the Prussians departed, but a force of 4000 men remained to assist the Dutch troops in keeping order. The English ambassador, Harris, and Van de Spiegel were the chief advisers of the now dominant Orange government; and drastic steps were taken to establish the hereditary stadholderate henceforth on a firm basis. All persons filling any office were required to swear to maintain the settlement of 1766, and to declare that “the high and hereditary dignities” conferred upon the Princes of Orange were “an essential part not only of the constitution of each province but of the whole State.” An amnesty was proclaimed by the prince on November 21, but it contained so many exceptions that it led to a large number of the patriots seeking a place of refuge in foreign countries, as indeed many of the leaders had already done, chiefly in France and the Belgian Netherlands. It has been said that the exiles numbered as many as 40,000, but this is possibly an exaggeration. The victory of the Orange party was complete; but a triumph achieved by the aid of a foreign invader was dearly purchased. The Prussian troops, as they retired laden with booty after committing many excesses, left behind them a legacy of hatred.


General Preface  •  Prologue  •  Chapter I: The Burgundian Netherlands  •  Chapter II: Habsburg Rule in the Netherlands  •  Chapter III  •  Chapter IV: The Revolt of the Netherlands  •  Chapter V: William the Silent  •  Chapter VI: The Beginnings of the Dutch Republic  •  Chapter VII: The System of Government  •  Chapter VIII: The Twelve Years’ Truce  •  Chapter IX: Maurice and Oldenbarneveldt  •  Chapter X: From the End of the Twelve Years’ Truce to the Peace of Muenster  •  Chapter XI  •  Chapter XII: Letters, Science and Art  •  Chapter XIII: The Stadholderate of William II.  •  Chapter XIV  •  Chapter XV  •  Chapter XVI  •  Chapter XVII  •  Chapter XVIII  •  Chapter XIX  •  Chapter XX: The War of the Spanish Succession and the Treaties of Utrecht, 1702-1715  •  Chapter XXI: The Stadholderless Republic, 1715-1740  •  Chapter XXII: The Austrian Succession War. William Iv, 1740-1751  •  Chapter XXIII: The Regency of Anne and of Brunswick.  •  Chapter XXIV  •  Chapter XXV: Stadholderate of William V, continued, 1780-1788  •  Chapter XXVI: The Orange Restoration. Downfall of the Republic, 1788-1795  •  Chapter XXVII: The Batavian Republic, 1795-1806  •  Chapter XXVIII: The Kingdom of Holland and the French Annexation, 1806-1814  •  Chapter XXIX: The Formation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1814-1815  •  Chapter XXX: The Kingdom of the Netherlands–union of Holland and Belgium, 1815-1830  •  Chapter XXXI: The Belgian Revolution, 1830-1842  •  Chapter XXXII: William II. Revision of the Constitution.  •  Chapter XXXIII: Reign of William III to the Death of Thorbecke, 1849-1872  •  Chapter XXXIV: The Later Reign of William III, and the Regency Of Queen Emma, 1872-1898  •  Chapter XXXV: The Reign of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898-1917  •  Epilogue  •  Footnotes

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History of Holland, (Cambridge historical series)
By George Edmundson
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