History of Holland
By George Edmundson

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Chapter VII: The System of Government

One of the reasons which influenced the archdukes and the King of Spain to make large concessions in order to secure the assent of the States-General to the conclusion of a twelve years’ truce was their firm belief that the unstable political condition of the United Provinces must lead to civil discord, as soon as the relaxing of the pressure of war loosened the bonds which had, since Leicester’s departure, held together a number of separate authorities and discordant interests. They were right in their supposition. In order, therefore, to understand the course of events in the republic, which had been correctly recognised by the treaty not as a single state, but as a group of “free and independent States,” it is necessary to give a brief account of one of the most strangely complicated systems of government that the world has ever seen–especially strange because no one could ever say positively where or with whom the sovereignty really resided.

Let us take into separate consideration the powers and functions of (1) the Council of State, (2) the States-General, (3) the Provincial Estates, (4) the Stadholders, (5) the Advocate (later the Raad-Pensionarius or Council-Pensionary) of Holland, (6) the Admiralty Colleges.

The Council of State was not a legislative, but an executive, body. In the time of Leicester the Council was the executive arm of the governor-general and had large powers. After his departure the presence of the English ambassador, who by treaty had a seat in the Council, caused the States-General gradually to absorb its powers, and to make its functions subordinate to their own, until at last its authority was confined to the administration of the affairs of war and of finance. The right of the English representative to sit in the Council and take an active part in its deliberations continued till 1626. The Stadholders were also ex officio members. The Provinces, since 1588, were represented by twelve councillors. Holland had three; Gelderland, Zeeland and Friesland two each; Utrecht, Overyssel and Groningen (Stad en Landeri) one each. The treasurer-general and the clerk (Griffier) of the States-General took part in the deliberations and had great influence. The chief duty of the Council, during the period with which we are dealing, was the raising of the “quotas” from the various provinces for the military defence of the State. The General Petition or War Budget was prepared by the Council and presented to the States-General at the end of each year, providing for the military expenses in the following twelve months. The “quotas” due towards these expenses from the several provinces were set forth in smaller petitions sent to the Provincial Estates, whose consent was necessary. The so-called repartitie fixing the amount of these quotas was likewise drawn up by the Council of State, and was the subject at times of considerable haggling and discontent. In 1612 it was settled that the proportions to be borne by the provinces should be Holland 57.1 per cent.; Friesland 11.4; Zeeland 11 (afterwards reduced to 9); Utrecht and Groningen 5.5; Overyssel 3.5. It will thus be seen that the quota of Holland was considerably more than half of the whole; and, as the naval expenditure was to an even larger extent borne by Holland, the preponderating influence of this province in the Union can be easily understood. The forces of the republic that were distributed in the several provinces received their pay from the provinces, but those maintained by the Council, as troops of the State, were paid by monies received from the Generality lands, i.e. lands such as the conquered portions of Brabant and Flanders, governed by the States-General, but without representation in that body. The Council of State, though its political powers were curtailed and absorbed by the States-General, continued to exercise, as a court of justice, appellate jurisdiction in military and financial questions.

The States-General consisted of representatives of the Estates of the seven sovereign provinces of Gelderland, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Overyssel, and Groningen (Stad en Landeri) in the order of precedence given above. Gelderland, having been a duchy, ranked before those that had formerly been counties or lordships. The provinces sent deputations varying in number; Holland and Gelderland generally six, the others less. Each province had but a single vote. The president changed week by week, being chosen in turn from each province according to their order of precedence. Holland had nominally no more weight than the others; its practical influence, however, was great in proportion to the burden of taxation that it bore and was increased by the fact that the sessions, which after 1593 were permanent, were held at the Hague in the same building with the Estates of Holland, and that the Council-Pensionary of Holland was the spokesman of the province in the States-General. The States-General had control of the foreign affairs of the Union. To them belonged the supreme control of military and naval matters. The Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Union were appointed by them; and a deputation of the States-General accompanied the army into the field and the commanders were bound to consult it. They exercised a strong supervision of finance, and sovereign authority over the entire administration of the “Generality” lands. Ambassadors were appointed by them, also the Treasurer-General of the Union, and numerous other important officials. Yet with all these attributes and powers the States-General possessed only a derived, not an inherent, authority. To foreigners the sovereignty of the republic of the United Netherlands appeared to be vested in their “High-Mightinesses.” In reality the States-General was, as already stated, a gathering of deputations from the seven sovereign provinces. Each deputation voted as a unit; and in all important affairs of peace and war, treaties and finance, there must be no dissentient. A single province, however small, could, by obstinate opposition, block the way to the acceptance of any given proposal. Moreover the members, despite their lofty designation as High-Mightinesses, did not vote according to their convictions or persuasions, but according to the charge they had received from their principals. The deputation of a province had no right to sanction any disputable measure or proposal without referring it back to the Estates of that province for approval or disapproval. Hence arose endless opportunities and occasions for friction and dissension and manifold delays in the transaction of the business of the republic, oftentimes in a manner inimical to its vital interests.

The Provincial Estates in their turn were by no means homogeneous or truly representative bodies. In Holland the nobles had one vote; and eighteen towns, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Delft, Leyden, Amsterdam, Gouda, Rotterdam, Gorkum, Schiedam, Schoonhoven, Brill, Alkmaar, Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Edam, Monnikendam, Medemblik and Purmerend, had one each. The nobles, though they had only one vote, were influential, as they represented the rural districts and the small towns which had no franchise, and they voted first. Here again, as in the States-General, though each of the privileged towns counted equal in the voting, as a matter of fact their weight and influence was very different. The opposition of wealthy and populous Amsterdam was again and again sufficient to override the decision of the majority, for there was no power to enforce its submission, except the employment of armed force. For at this point it may be as well to explain that each one of these municipalities (vroedschappen) claimed to be a sovereign entity, and yet, far from being bodies representing the citizens as a whole, they were close corporations of the narrowest description. The ordinary inhabitants of these towns had no voice whatever in the management of their own affairs. The governing body or vroedschap consisted of a limited number of persons, sometimes not more than forty, belonging to certain families, which filled up vacancies by co-option and chose the burgomasters and sheriffs (schepenen). Thus it will be seen that popular representation had no place in Holland. The regent-burghers were a small patrician oligarchy, in whose hands the entire government and administration of the towns rested, and from their number were chosen the deputies, who represented the eighteen privileged cities in the Provincial Estates.

The other provinces do not need such detailed notice. In Zeeland the Estates consisted of seven members, the “first noble” (who presided) and six towns. There was but one noble, the Marquis of Flushing and Veere. William the Silent in 1581 obtained this marquisate by purchase; and his heirs, through its possession, continued to exercise great influence in the Provincial Estates. As Philip William, Prince of Orange, was in Madrid, Maurice sat in the assembly as “first noble” in his place. In Utrecht the three Estates were represented, i.e. the nobles, the towns (four in number) and the clergy. The representatives of the clergy were, however, chosen no longer from the Chapter but from the possessors of what had been Church lands and property. They were elected by the knights and the small towns out of a list drawn up by the corporation of Utrecht. They necessarily belonged to the Reformed (Calvinist) faith. Gelderland was divided into three (so-called) quarters, Nijmwegen, Zutphen and Arnhem. Each of these quarters had its separate assembly; and there was also a general diet. The nobles, who were numerous and had large estates, were here very influential. Friesland was divided into four quarters, three of which (Oostergoo, Westergoo and Zevenwolden) were country districts, the fourth a gathering of the deputies of eleven towns. The Diet of Friesland was not formed of Estates, the nobles and the town representatives sitting together in the same assembly, which was elected by a popular vote, all who had a small property-qualification possessing the franchise, Roman Catholics excepted. The system of administration and divided authority was in Friesland a very complicated one, inherited from mediaeval times, but here again the nobles, being large land-owners, had much influence. The stadholder presided at the diet and had a casting vote. The Estates of Groningen were divided into two parts–town and districts–each with one vote. The districts were those of Hunsingoo, Fivelingoo and the West-Quarter. Here also the stadholder had a casting vote. In Overyssel the Estates, like those of Groningen, consisted of two members, the nobles from the three quarters, Sallant, Twente and Vollenhove, and the deputies of the three towns, Deventer, Kampen and Zwolle.

The ordinary executive and administrative work of Provincial government was carried out in Holland by a body known as the Commissioned-Councillors–Gecommitteerde-Raden; in the other provinces by Deputed-Estates–Gedeputeerde-Staten. The Commissioned-Councillors were to the Estates of Holland what the Council of State was to the States-General. They enjoyed considerable independence, for they were not appointed by the Estates but directly by the nobles and cities according to a fixed system of rotation, and they sat continuously, whereas the Estates only met for short sessions. Their duty was to see that all provincial edicts and ordinances decreed by the Estates were published and enforced, to control the finances and to undertake the provision and oversight of all military requirements; and to them it belonged to summon the meetings of the Estates. The Deputed-Estates in the other provinces had similar but generally less extensive and authoritative functions.

Such a medley of diverse and often conflicting authorities within a state of so small an area has no counterpart in history. It seemed impossible that government could be carried on, or that there could be any concerted action or national policy in a republic which was rather a many-headed confederation than a federal state. That the United Netherlands, in spite of all these disadvantages, rapidly rose in the 17th century to be a maritime and commercial power of the first rank was largely due to the fact that the foreign policy of the republic and the general control of its administration was directed by a succession of very able men, the stadholders of the house of Orange-Nassau and the council-pensionaries of Holland. For a right understanding of the period of Dutch history with which we are about to deal, it is necessary to define clearly what was the position of the stadholder and of the council-pensionary in this cumbrous and creaking machinery of government that has just been described, and the character of those offices, which conferred upon their holders such wide-reaching influence and authority.

The Stadholder or governor was really, both in title and office, an anomaly in a republic. Under the Burgundian and Habsburg rulers the Stadholder exercised the local authority in civil and also in military matters as representing the sovereign duke, count or lord in the province to which he was appointed, and was by that fact clothed with certain sovereign attributes during his tenure of office. William the Silent was Stadholder of Holland and Zeeland at the outbreak of the revolt, and, though deprived of his offices, he continued until the time of the Union of Utrecht to exercise authority in those and other provinces professedly in the name of the king. After his death one would have expected that the office would have fallen into abeyance, but the coming of Leicester into the Netherlands led to a revival of the stadholderate. Holland and Zeeland, in their desire to exercise a check upon the governor-general’s arbitrary exercise of his powers, appointed Maurice of Nassau to take his father’s place; and at the same time William Lewis of Nassau became Stadholder of Friesland, and stadholders were also appointed in Utrecht, Gelderland and Overyssel. In 1609 Maurice was Stadholder in the five provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, Utrecht and Overyssel; his cousin William Lewis in Friesland and Groningen with Drente. The powers of the stadholder were not the same in the different provinces, but generally speaking he was the executive officer of the Estates; and in Holland, where his authority was the greatest, he had the supervision of the administration of justice, the appointment of a large number of municipal magistrates, and the prerogative of pardon, and he was charged with the military and naval defence of the province. The stadholder received his commission both from the Provincial Estates and from the States-General and took an oath of allegiance to the latter. In so far, then, as he exercised quasi-sovereign functions, he did it in the name of the States, whose servant he nominally was. But when the stadholder, as was the case with Maurice and the other Princes of Orange, was himself a sovereign-prince and the heir of a great name, he was able to exercise an authority far exceeding those of a mere official. The descendants of William the Silent–Maurice, Frederick Henry, William II and William III–were, moreover, all of them men of exceptional ability; and the stadholderate became in their hands a position of almost semi-monarchical dignity and influence, the stadholder being regarded both by foreign potentates and by the people of the Netherlands generally as “the eminent head of the State.” Maurice, as stated above, was stadholder in five provinces; Frederick Henry, William II and William III in six; the seventh province, Friesland, remaining loyal, right through the 17th century, to their cousins of the house of Nassau-Siegen, the ancestors of the present Dutch royal family. That the authority of the States-General and States-Provincial should from time to time come into conflict with that of the stadholder was to be expected, for the relations between them were anomalous in the extreme. The Stadholder of Holland for instance appointed, directly or indirectly, the larger part of the municipal magistrates; they in their turn the representatives who formed the Estates of the Province. But, as the stadholder was the servant of the Estates, he, in a sense, may be said to have had the power of appointing his own masters. The stadholders of the house of Orange had also, in addition to the prestige attaching to their name, the possession of large property and considerable wealth, which with the emoluments they received from the States-General, as Captain-General and Admiral-General of the Union, and from the various provinces, where they held the post of stadholder, enabled them in the days of Frederick Henry and his successors to maintain the state and dignity of a court.

The office of Land’s Advocate or Council-Pensionary was different altogether in character from the stadholderate, but at times scarcely less influential, when filled by a man of commanding talents. The Advocate in the time of Oldenbarneveldt combined the duties of being legal adviser to the Estates of Holland, and of presiding over and conducting the business of the Estates at their meetings, and also those of the Commissioned-Councillors. He was the leader and spokesman of the Holland deputies in the States-General. He kept the minutes, introduced the business and counted the votes at the provincial assemblies. It was his duty to draw up and register the resolutions. What was perhaps equally important, he carried on the correspondence with the ambassadors of the republic at foreign courts, and received their despatches, and conducted negotiations with the foreign ambassadors at the Hague. It is easy to see how a man like Oldenbarneveldt, of great industry and capacity for affairs, although nominally the paid servant of the Estates, gradually acquired an almost complete control over every department of administration and became, as it were, a Minister of State of all affairs. In Oldenbarneveldt’s time the post was held for life; and, as Maurice did not for many years trouble himself about matters of internal government and foreign diplomacy, the Advocate by the length of his tenure of office had at the opening of the 17th century become the virtual director and arbiter of the policy of the State. After his death the title of advocate and the life-tenure ceased. His successors were known as Council-Pensionaries, and they held office for five years only, but with the possibility of re-election. The career of John de Witt showed, however, that in the case of a supremely able man these restrictions did not prevent a Raad-Pensionarius[4] from exercising for eighteen years an authority and influence greater even than that of Oldenbarneveldt.

An account of the multiplied subdivision of administrative control in the United Provinces would not be complete without some mention of the Admiralty Colleges in Holland. Holland with Zeeland furnished the fleets on which the existence and well-being of the republic depended. Both William the Silent and his son Maurice were, as stadholders, admirals of Holland and of Zeeland, and both likewise were by the States-General appointed Admirals-General of the Union. They thus wielded a double authority over maritime affairs in the two provinces. In 1574 William had at his side a Council of Admiralty erected by the Provincial Estates, but Leicester in 1585 was annoyed by the immediate control of naval matters being withdrawn from the governor-general and the Council of State. He succeeded therefore in obtaining a division of the Council of Admiralty into three Chambers, shortly afterwards increased to five–Rotterdam, Hoorn with Enkhuizen, Veere, Amsterdam and Harlingen with Dokkum. In 1597 it was determined that each Admiralty should consist of seven members nominated by the States-General. The Admiral-General presided over each College and over joint meetings of the five Colleges. The Admiralties nominated the lieutenants of the ships and proposed a list of captains to be finally chosen by the States-General. The Lieutenant-Admiral and Vice-Admirals of Holland and the Vice-Admiral of Zeeland were chosen by the Provincial Estates. The States-General appointed the Commander-in-Chief. Such a system seemed to be devised to prevent any prompt action or swift decision being taken at times of emergency or sudden danger.


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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