History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter XXXIII: Reign of William III to the Death of Thorbecke, 1849-1872

William III succeeded to the throne at a moment of transition. He was thirty-two years of age, and his natural leanings were autocratic; but he accepted loyally the principle of ministerial responsibility, and throughout his long reign endeavoured honestly and impartially to fulfil his duties as a constitutional sovereign. There were at this time in Holland four political parties: (1) the old conservative party, which after 1849 gradually dwindled in numbers and soon ceased to be a power in the State; (2) the liberals, under the leadership of Thorbecke; (3) the anti-revolutionary or orthodox Protestant party, ably led by G. Groen van Prinsterer, better known perhaps as a distinguished historian, but at the same time a good debater and resourceful parliamentarian; (4) the Catholic party. The Catholics for the first time obtained in 1849 the full privileges of citizenship. They owed this to the liberals, and for some years they gave their support to that party, though differing from them fundamentally on many points. The anti-revolutionaries placed in the foreground the upholding of the Reformed (orthodox Calvinistic) faith in the State, and of religious teaching in the schools. In this last article of their political creed they were at one with the Catholics, and in its defence the two parties were destined to become allies.

The liberal majority in the newly elected States-General was considerable; and it was the general expectation that Thorbecke would become head of the government. The king however suspected the aims of the liberal leader, and personally disliked him. He therefore kept in office the Donker-Curtius-De Kempenaer cabinet; but, after a vain struggle against the hostile majority, it was compelled to resign, and Thorbecke was called upon to form a ministry.

Thorbecke was thus the first constitutional prime-minister of Holland. His answer to his opponents, who asked for his programme, was contained in words which he was speedily to justify: “Wait for our deeds.” A law was passed which added 55,000 votes to the electorate; and by two other laws the provincial and communal assemblies were placed upon a popular representative basis. The system of finance was reformed by the gradual substitution of direct for indirect taxation. By the Navigation Laws all differential and transit dues upon shipping were reduced; tolls on through-cargoes on the rivers were abolished, and the tariff on raw materials lowered. It was a considerable step forward in the direction of free-trade. Various changes were made to lighten the incidence of taxation on the poorer classes. Among the public works carried to completion at this time (1852) was the empoldering of the Haarlem lake, which converted a large expanse of water into good pasture land.

It was not on political grounds that the Thorbecke ministry was to be wrecked, but by their action in matters which aroused religious passions and prejudices. The prime-minister wished to bring all charitable institutions and agencies under State supervision. Their number was more than 3500; and a large proportion of these were connected with and supported by religious bodies. It is needless to say the proposal aroused strong opposition. More serious was the introduction of a Catholic episcopate into Holland. By the Fundamental Law of 1848 complete freedom of worship and of organisation had been guaranteed to every form of religious belief. It was the wish of the Catholics that the system which had endured ever since the 16th century of a “Dutch mission” under the direction of an Italian prelate (generally the internuncio) should come to an end, and that they should have bishops of their own. The proposal was quite constitutional and, far from giving the papal curia more power in the Netherlands, it decreased it. A petition to Pius IX in 1847 met with little favour at Rome; but in 1851 another petition, much more widely signed, urged the Pope to seize the favourable opportunity for establishing a native hierarchy. Negotiations were accordingly opened by the papal see with the Dutch government, which ended (October, 1852) in a recognition of the right of the Catholic Church in Holland to have freedom of organisation. It was stipulated, however, that a previous communication should be made to the government of the papal intentions and plans, before they were carried out. The only communication that was made was not official, but confidential; and it merely stated that Utrecht was to be erected into an archbishopric with Haarlem, Breda, Hertogenbosch and Roeremonde, as suffragans. The ministry regarded the choice of such Protestant centres as Utrecht and Haarlem with resentment, but were faced with the fait accompli. This strong-handed action of the Roman authorities was made still more offensive by the issuing of a papal allocution, again without any consultation with the Dutch government, in which Pius IX described the establishment of the new hierarchy as a means of counteracting in the Netherlands the heresy of Calvin.

A wave of fierce indignation swept over Protestant Holland, which united in one camp orthodox Calvinists (anti-revolutionaries), conservatives and anti-papal liberals. The preachers everywhere inveighed against a ministry which had permitted such an act of aggression on the part of a foreign potentate against the Protestantism of the nation. Utrecht took the lead in drawing up an address to the king and to the States-General (which obtained two hundred thousand signatures), asking them not to recognise the proposed hierarchy. At the meeting of the Second Chamber of the States-General on April 12, Thorbecke had little difficulty in convincing the majority that the Pope had proceeded without Consultation with the ministry, and that under the Constitution the Catholics had acted within their rights in re-modelling their Church organisation. But his arguments were far from satisfying outside public opinion. On the occasion of a visit of the king to Amsterdam the ministry took the step of advising him not to receive any address hostile to the establishment of the hierarchy, on the ground that this did not require the royal approval. William, who had never been friendly to Thorbecke, was annoyed at being thus instructed in the discharge of his duties; and he not only received an address containing 51,000 signatures but expressed his great pleasure in being thus approached (April 15). At the same time he summoned Van Hall, the leader of the opposition, to Amsterdam for a private consultation. The ministry, on hearing of what had taken place, sent its resignation, which was accepted on April 19. Thus fell the Thorbecke ministry, not by a parliamentary defeat, but because the king associated himself with the uprising of hostile public opinion, known as the “April Movement.”

A new ministry was formed under the joint leadership of Van Hall and Donker-Curtius; and an appeal to the electors resulted in the defeat of the liberals. The majority was a coalition of conservatives and anti-revolutionaries. The followers of Groen van Prinsterer were small in number, but of importance through the strong religious convictions and debating ability of the leader. The presence of Donker-Curtius was a guarantee for moderation; and, as Van Hall was an adept in political opportunism, the new ministry differed from its liberal predecessor chiefly in its more cautious attitude towards the reforms which both were ready to adopt. As it had been carried into office by the April Movement, a Church Association Bill was passed into law making it illegal for a foreigner to hold any Church office without the royal assent, and forbidding the wearing of a distinctive religious dress outside closed buildings. Various measures were introduced dealing with ministerial responsibility, poor-law administration and other matters, such as the abolition of the excise on meat and of barbarous punishments on the scaffold.

The question of primary education was to prove for the next half-century a source of continuous political and religious strife, dividing the people of Holland into hostile camps. The question was whether the State schools should be “mixed” i.e. neutral schools, where only those simple truths which were common to all denominations should be taught; or should be “separate” i.e. denominational schools, in which religious instruction should be given in accordance with the wishes of the parents. A bill was brought in by the government (September, 1854) which was intended to be a compromise. It affirmed the general principle that the State schools should be “neutral,” but allowed “separate” schools to be built and maintained. This proposal was fiercely opposed by Groen and gave rise to a violent agitation. The ministry struggled on, but its existence was precarious and internal dissensions at length led to its resignation (July, 1856). The elections of 1856 had effected but little change in the constitution of the Second Chamber, and the anti-revolutionary J.J.L. van der Brugghen was called upon to form a ministry. Groen himself declined office, Van der Brugghen made an effort to conciliate opposition; and a bill for primary education was introduced (1857) upholding the principle of the “mixed” schools, but with the proviso that the aim of the teaching was to be the instruction of the children “in Christian and social virtues"; at the same time “separate” schools were permitted and under certain conditions would be subsidised by the State. Groen again did his utmost to defeat this bill, but he was not successful; and after stormy debates it became law (July, 1857). The liberals obtained a majority at the elections of 1858, and Van der Brugghen resigned. But the king would not send for Thorbecke; and J.J. Rochussen, a former governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, was asked to form a “fusion” ministry. During his tenure of office (1858-60) slavery was abolished in the East Indies, though not the cultivation-system, which was but a kind of disguised slavery. The way in which the Javanese suffered by this system of compulsory labour for the profit of the home country–the amount received by the Dutch treasury being not less than 250 million florins in thirty years–was now scathingly exposed by the brilliant writer Douwes Dekker. He had been an official in Java, and his novel Max Havelaar, published in 1860 under the pseudonym “Multatuli,” was widely read, and brought to the knowledge of the Dutch public the character of the system which was being enforced.

Holland was at this time far behind Belgium in the construction of a system of railroads, to the great hindrance of trade. A bill, however, proposed by the ministry to remedy this want was rejected by the First Chamber, and Rochussen resigned. The king again declined to send for Thorbecke; and Van Hall was summoned for the third time to form a ministry. He succeeded in securing the passage of a proposal to spend not less than 10 million florins annually in the building of State railways. All Van Hall’s parliamentary adroitness and practised opportunism could not, however, long maintain in office a ministry supported cordially by no party. Van Hall gave up the unthankful task (February, 1861), but still it was not Thorbecke, but Baron S. van Heemstra that was called upon to take his place. For a few months only was the ministry able to struggle on in the face of a liberal majority. There was now no alternative but to offer the post of first minister to Thorbecke, who accepted the office (January 31, 1862).

The second ministry of Thorbecke lasted for four years, and was actively engaged during that period in domestic, trade and colonial reforms. Thorbecke, as a free-trader, at once took in hand the policy of lowering all duties except for revenue purposes. The communal dues were extinguished. A law for secondary and technical education was passed in 1863; and in the same year slavery was abolished in Surinam and the West Indies. Other bills were passed for the canalising of the Hook of Holland, and the reclaiming of the estuary of the Y. This last project included the construction of a canal, the Canal of Holland, with the artificial harbour of Ymuiden at its entrance, deep enough for ocean liners to reach Amsterdam. With the advent of Fransen van de Putte, as colonial minister in 1863, began a series of far-reaching reforms in the East Indies, including the lowering of the differential duties. His views, however, concerning the scandal of the cultivation-system in Java did not meet with the approval of some of his colleagues; and Thorbecke himself supported the dissentients. The ministry resigned, and Van de Putte became head of the government. He held office for four months only. His bill for the abolition of the cultivation-system and the conversion of the native cultivators into possessors of their farms was thrown out by a small majority, Thorbecke with a few liberals and some Catholics voting with the conservatives against it. This was the beginning of a definite liberal split, which was to continue for years.

A coalition-ministry followed under the presidency of J. van Heemskerk (Interior) and Baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt (Foreign Affairs). The colonial minister Mijer shortly afterwards resigned in order to take the post of governor-general of the East Indies. This appointment did not meet with the approval of the Second Chamber; and the government suffered a defeat. On this they persuaded the king not only to dissolve the Chamber, but to issue a proclamation impressing upon the electors the need of the country for a more stable administration. The result was the return of a majority for the Heemskerk-Van Zuylen combination. It is needless to say that Thorbecke and his followers protested strongly against the dragging of the king’s name into a political contest, as gravely unconstitutional. The ministry had a troubled existence.

The results of the victory of Prussia over Austria at Sadowa, and the formation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership, rendered the conduct of foreign relations a difficult and delicate task, especially as regards Luxemburg and Limburg, both of which were under the personal sovereignty of William III, and at the same time formed part of the old German Confederation. The rapid success of Prussia had seriously perturbed public opinion in France; and Napoleon III, anxious to obtain some territorial compensation which would satisfy French amour-propre, entered into negotiations with William III for the sale of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. The king was himself alarmed at the Prussian annexations, and Queen Sophie and the Prince of Orange had decided French leanings; and, as Bismarck had given the king reason to believe that no objection would be raised, the negotiations for the sale were seriously undertaken. On March 26, 1867, the Prince of Orange actually left the Hague, bearing the document containing the Grand Duke’s consent; and on April 1 the cession was to be finally completed. On that very day the Prussian ambassadors at Paris and the Hague were instructed to say that any cession of Luxemburg to France would mean war with Prussia. It was a difficult situation; and a conference of the Great Powers met at London on May 11 to deal with it. Its decision was that Luxemburg should remain as an independent state, whose neutrality was guaranteed collectively by the Powers, under the sovereignty of the House of Nassau; that the town of Luxemburg should be evacuated by its Prussian garrison; and that Limburg should henceforth be an integral part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Van Zuylen was assailed in the Second Chamber for his exposing the country to danger and humiliation in this matter; and the Foreign Office vote was rejected by a small majority. The ministry resigned; but, rather than address himself to Thorbecke, the king sanctioned a dissolution, with the result of a small gain of seats to the liberals. Heemskerk and Van Zuylen retained office for a short time in the face of adverse votes, but finally resigned; and the king had no alternative but to ask Thorbecke to form a ministry. He himself declined office, but he chose a cabinet of young liberals who had taken no part in the recent political struggles, P.P. van Bosse becoming first minister.

From this time forward there was no further attempt on the part of the royal authority to interfere in the constitutional course of parliamentary government. Van Bosse’s ministry, scoffingly called by their opponents “Thorbecke’s marionettes,” maintained themselves in office for two years(1868-70), passing several useful measures, but are chiefly remembered for the abolition of capital punishment. The outbreak of the Franco-German war in 1870 found, however, the Dutch army and fortresses ill-prepared for an emergency, when the maintenance of strict neutrality demanded an efficient defence of the frontiers. The ministry was not strong enough to resist the attacks made upon it; and at last the real leader of the liberal party, the veteran Thorbecke, formed his third ministry (January, 1871). But Thorbecke was now in ill-health, and the only noteworthy achievement of his last premiership was an agreement with Great Britain by which the Dutch possessions on the coast of Guinea were ceded to that country in exchange for a free hand being given to the Dutch in Surinam. The ministry, having suffered a defeat on the subject of the cost of the proposed army re-organisation, was on the point of resigning, when Thorbecke suddenly died (June 5, 1872). His death brought forth striking expressions of sympathy and appreciation from men and journals representing all parties in the State. For five-and-twenty years, in or out of office, his had been the dominating influence in Dutch politics; and it was felt on all sides that the country was the poorer for the loss of a man of outstanding ability and genuine patriotism.


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