History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter XXXII: William II. Revision of the Constitution.


The Dutch nation welcomed the final separation from Belgium with profound relief. The national charges had risen from 15 million florins in 1815 to 38 million florins in 1838. Taxation was oppressive, trade stagnant, and the financial position growing more and more intolerable. The long-tried loyalty of the people, who had entrusted their sovereign with such wide and autocratic powers, had cooled. The king’s Belgian policy had obviously been a complete failure; and the rotten state of public finance was naturally in large part attributed to the sovereign, who had so long been practically his own finance minister. Loud cries began to be raised for a revision of the constitution on liberal lines. To the old king any such revision was repugnant; but, unable to resist the trend of public opinion, he gave his assent to a measure of constitutional reform in the spring of 1840. Its limited concessions satisfied no one. Its principal modifications of the Fundamental Law were: (1) the division of the province of Holland into two parts; (2) the reduction of the Civil List; (3) the necessary alteration of the number of deputies in the Second Chamber due to the separation from Belgium; (4) abolition of the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary budget; (5) a statement of the receipts and expenditure of the colonies to be laid before the States-General. Finally the principle of ministerial responsibility was granted most reluctantly, the king yielding only after the Chambers had declined to consider the estimates without this concession. But William had already made up his mind to abdicate, rather than reign under the new conditions. He knew that he was unpopular and out-of-touch with the times; and his unpopularity had been increased by his announced intention of marrying the Countess Henriette D’Oultremont, a Belgian and a Catholic. On October 7 he issued a proclamation by which he handed over the government to his son William Frederick, Prince of Orange. He then retired quietly to his private estates in Silesia. He died at Berlin in 1843.

William II was forty-eight years of age on his accession to the throne. He was a man of a character very different from that of his father. Amiable, accessible, easily influenced, liberal-handed even to extravagance, he was deservedly popular. He had shown himself in the Peninsula, at Quatre Bras and Waterloo and later in the Ten Days’ Campaign, to be a capable and courageous soldier, but he possessed few of the qualities either of a statesman or a financier. He had married in 1816 Anna Paulovna, sister of the Tsar Alexander I, after his proposed marriage with the Princess Charlotte of England had been broken off.

He entered upon his reign in difficult times. There was a loud demand for a further sweeping revision of the constitution. Religious movements, which had been gathering force during the reign of William I, required careful handling. One minister after another had tried to grapple with the financial problem, but in vain. In 1840 the public debt amounted to 2200 million florins; and the burden of taxation, though it had become almost unendurable, failed to provide for the interest on the debt and the necessary expenses of administration. The State was in fact on the verge of bankruptcy. The appointment in 1842 of F.A. van Hall (formerly an Amsterdam advocate, who had held the post of minister of justice) to be finance minister opened out a means of salvation. The arrears to 1840 amounted to 35 million florins; the deficit for 1841-3 had to be covered, and means provided for the expenditure for 1843-4. Van Hall’s proposals gave the people the choice between providing the necessary money by an extraordinary tax of one and a half per cent, on property and income, and raising a voluntary loan of 150 million florins at 3 per cent. After long debates the States-General accepted the proposal for the voluntary loan, but the amount was reduced to 126 millions. The success of the loan, though at first doubtful, was by March, 1844, complete. The Amsterdam Bourse gave its utmost support; and the royal family set a good example by a joint subscription of 11 million florins. By this means, and by the capitalisation of the annual Belgian payment of five million francs, Van Hall was able to clear off the four years’ arrears and to convert the 5 and 4-1/2 per cent. scrip into 4 per cent. He was helped by the large annual payments, which now began to come in from the Dutch East Indies; and at length an equilibrium was established in the budget between receipts and expenditure.

In the years preceding the French Revolution the Reformed Church in the United Provinces had become honey-combed with rationalism. The official orthodoxy of the Dort synod had become “a fossilised skeleton.” By the Constitution of 1798 Church and State were separated, and the property of the Church was taken by the State, which paid however stipends to the ministers. Under King Louis subsidies were paid from the public funds to teachers of every religious persuasion; and this system continued during the union of Holland and Belgium. A movement known as the Reveil had meanwhile been stirring the dry-bones of Calvinistic orthodoxy in Holland. Its first leaders were Bilderdijk, De Costa and Capadose. Like most religious revivals, this movement gave rise to extravagancies and dissensions. In 1816 a new sect was founded by a sea-captain, Staffel Mulder, on communistic principles after the example of the first Jerusalem converts, which gathered a number of followers among the peasantry. The “New Lighters"–such was the name they assumed–established in 1823 their headquarters at Zwijndrecht. The first enthusiasm however died down, and the sect gradually disappeared. More serious was the liberal revolt against the cut-and-dried orthodoxy of Dort. Slowly it made headway, and it found leaders in Hofstede de Groot, professor at Groningen, and in two eloquent preachers, De Cocq at Ulrum and Scholte at Deventer. These men, finding that their views met with no sympathy or recognition by the synodal authorities, resolved (October 14,1834) on the serious step of separating from the Reformed Church and forming themselves and their adherents into a new church body. They were known as “the Separatists” (de Afgescheidenen). Though deprived of their pulpits, fined and persecuted, the Separatists grew in number. In 1836 the government refused to recognise them as a Church, but permitted local congregations to hold meetings in houses. In 1838 more favourable conditions were offered, which De Cocq and Scholte finally agreed to accept, but no subsidies were paid to the sect by the State. William II, in 1842, made a further concession by allowing religious teaching to be given daily in the public schools (out of school hours) by the Separatist ministers, as well as by those of other denominations. All this while, however, certain congregations refused to accept the compromise of 1838; and a large number, headed by a preacher named Van Raalte, in order to obtain freedom of worship, emigrated to Michigan to form the nucleus of a flourishing Dutch colony.

The accession of William II coincided with a period of political unrest, not only in Holland but throughout Europe. A strong reaction had set in against the system of autocratic rule, which had been the marked feature of the period which followed 1815. Liberal and progressive ideas had during the later years been making headway in Holland under the inspiring leadership of Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, at that time a professor of jurisprudence at Leyden. He had many followers; and the cause he championed had the support of the brilliant writers and publicists, Donker-Curtius, Luzac, Potgieter, Bakhuizen van der Brink and others. A strong demand arose for a thorough revision of the constitution. In 1844 a body of nine members of the Second Chamber, chief amongst them Thorbecke, drew up a definite proposal for a revision; but the king expressed his dislike to it, and it was rejected. The Van Hall ministry had meanwhile been carrying out those excellent financial measures which had saved the credit of the State, and was now endeavouring to conduct the government on opportunist lines. But the potato famine in 1845-46 caused great distress among the labouring classes, and gave added force to the spirit of discontent in the country. The king himself grew nervous in the presence of the revolutionary ferment spreading throughout Europe, and was more especially alarmed (February, 1848) by the sudden overthrow of the monarchy of Louis Philippe and the proclamation of a republic at Paris. He now resolved himself to take the initiative. He saw that the proposals hitherto made for revision did not satisfy public opinion; and on March 8, without consulting his ministers, he took the unusual step of sending for the President of the Second Chamber, Boreel van Hogelanden. He asked him to ascertain the opinions and wishes of the Chamber on the matter of revision and to report to him. The ministry on this resigned and a new liberal ministry was formed, at the head of which was Count Schimmelpenninck, formerly minister in London. On March 17 a special Commission was appointed to draw up a draft scheme of revision. It consisted of five members, four of whom, Thorbecke, Luzac, Donker-Curtius and Kempenaer, were prominent liberals and the fifth a Catholic from North Brabant. Their work was completed by April 11 and the report presented to the king. Schimmelpenninck, not agreeing with the proposals of the Commission, resigned; and on May 11 a new ministry under the leadership of Donker-Curtius was formed for the express purpose of carrying out the proposed revision. A periodical election of the Second Chamber took place in July, and difficulties at first confronted the new scheme. These were, however, overcome; and on October 14 the revised constitution received the king’s assent. It was solemnly proclaimed on November 3.

The Constitution of 1848 left in the hands of the king the executive power, i.e. the conduct of foreign affairs, the right of declaring war and making peace, the supreme command of the military and naval forces, the administration of the overseas possessions, and the right of dissolving the Chambers; but these prerogatives were modified by the introduction of the principle of ministerial responsibility. The ministers were responsible for all acts of the government, and the king could legally do no wrong. The king was president of the Council of State (15 members), whose duty it was to consider all proposals made to or by the States-General. The king shared the legislative power with the States-General, but the Second Chamber had the right of initiative, amendment and investigation; and annual budgets were henceforth to be presented for its approval. All members of the States-General were to be at least 30 years of age. The First Chamber of 39 members was elected by the Provincial Estates from those most highly assessed to direct taxation; the members sat for nine years, but one-third vacated their seats every third year. All citizens of full age paying a certain sum to direct taxation had the right of voting for members of the Second Chamber, the country for this purpose being divided into districts containing 45,000 inhabitants. The members held their seats for four years, but half the Chamber retired every second year. Freedom of worship to all denominations, liberty of the press and the right of public meeting were guaranteed. Primary education in public schools was placed under State control, but private schools were not interfered with. The provincial and communal administration was likewise reformed and made dependent on the direct popular vote.

The ministry of Donker-Curtius at once took steps for holding fresh elections, as soon as the new constitution became the fundamental law of the country. A large majority of liberals was returned to the Second Chamber. The king in person opened the States-General on February 13, 1849, and expressed his intention of accepting loyally the changes to which he had given his assent. He was, however, suffering and weak from illness, and a month later (March 17) he died at Tilburg. His gracious and kindly personality had endeared him to his subjects, who deeply regretted that at this moment of constitutional change the States should lose his experienced guidance. He was succeeded by his son, William III.


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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