In the summer of 1787 it was possible to travel two days northeast from Paris and arrive in the midst of a revolution. The setting for this turmoil was deceptive: the gabled squares and placid canals of the Dutch Republic that had long been a byword for political stability. And the element of spontaneous and, later, managed violence that would be the distinctive sign of the French Revolution was largely absent in Holland. There would be no cartloads of condemned aristocrats nor baskets of severed heads in Amsterdam. But the turmoil of Dutch politics in the 1780s was no less revolutionary for that. Utrecht, Leiden and Haarlem were patrolled by regiments of armed citizens’ militia: the Free Corps. Parading and drilling beneath banners extolling “Liberty or Death” they engaged in ceremonies of oath-taking by day and patriotic bonfires by night. At a great assembly in Leiden in 1785 thousands of these Patriot militiamen came together to swear an “act of federation” that bound them in common defense.
To what were they committed? In the principal square of Utrecht, a “Temple of Liberty” had been erected to proclaim the defeat of dynasticism and aristocracy and the victory of representation. And it was in the same town that the Free Corps had used their muscle to mobilize crowds against the sitting patrician regime of the Town Hall. In its place were installed “people’s representatives” elected directly, as were the officers of the militia themselves. A radical manifesto published in Leiden in 1785, and strongly reminiscent of both the American Declaration of Independence and the Bordeaux lawyer Saige’s Catechism of the Citizen, made the same point even more forcefully. “Liberty,” it insisted, “is an inalienable right of all citizens of the commonwealth. No power on earth much less any power derived truly from the people… can challenge or obstruct the enjoyment of this liberty when it is so desired.” Likewise, “the Sovereign is none other than the vote of the people.”
Within five years, politics in Holland had exploded from the realm of a politely circumscribed elite to a chaotic and impulsive mass activity. An uncensored, radical press was directed at a readership among shopkeepers and the petty professions. The two most popular weeklies, the Post van Neder Rijn and the Politieke Kruijer, both reached at least five thousand readers with each issue. Their pages denounced Prince William V of Orange as a drunken imbecile and his Prussian wife as a haughty termagant. And before long the targeted enemies extended to recalcitrant “aristocrats” (the traditional “regent” classes of the towns) attempting to preserve systems of nepotism and oligarchy in local government. Efforts to muffle the outspokenness of the Patriot press only resulted in its editors and publishers becoming overnight popular heroes. Hespe, the editor of the Kruijer in Amsterdam, cultivated his celebrity as a political prisoner by having visiting cards printed with broken fetters as his personal emblem. Invective flowed from the printed page to the world of images: caricatures pillorying Orangists and “aristocrats” and counter-caricatures against the Patriots circulated in coffeehouses and taverns. Rival establishments decorated their premises and signs with appropriate emblems: the Orange tree and ribbons for the supporters of the Stadtholder, the black cockade and the Patriot keeshond for their opponents. The tone of these polemics could be aggressively vulgar. One Patriot print showed the keeshond with its leg up against the Orange tree. Even domestic life retreated before the onslaught of sloganizing. Snuffboxes, engraved goblets, beer tankards, porcelain dishes were all covered in partisan mottoes. Even baking boards and pudding basins were carved so that loaves and puddings could emerge bearing the appropriate devices of the family line.
This saturation of daily life by political contention directly anticipated the climate of the French Revolution. There were many other similarities: the transfer of patriotic sentiment from Prince to Citizens, the imputation of sinister foreign motives to the Prince’s consort, the creation of clubs to “educate” people in their rights and an emphasis on public ceremonies and parades to dramatize the “armed freedom.” And although the conflict had begun as a protest against the power of the Stadtholder’s government in controlling local appointments, the radical means used to press those claims had themselves generated new ends. From attacking the House of Orange, the journalists and Free Corps leaders had turned sharply against the entire traditional system of officeholding in the Netherlands by which “regents” were installed for life and replaced by co-opted members of the same clique. Against this “aristocracy,” described in the polemical literature as a “Gothic monstrosity” and a “tyranny,” a democratic system of direct and frequent elections was supposed to purify Dutch politics and recreate the Republic in the imagined vigor of its origins.
Though Dutch Patriot rhetoric was mostly expressed in the standard late eighteenth-century idiom of universal rights, there would have been much about this miniature revolution that would have seemed bewilderingly parochial to the French visotor. In the appeals to the memory of dead heroes like Admiral de Ruyter and Johan de Witt he would have found echoes of the past rather than auguries of the future. It would have seemed more like a quarrel of factions than a war between “aristocracy” and “democracy.” Yet although the Patriot tumults were never treated by French governments with anything like the seriousness given to American affairs, there were complicated ways in which the fate of each of the two countries was tangled up with that of the other.
Since the American war the Dutch Republic had been an ally and an important if rather hapless element of the anti-British coalition put together by Vergennes. Increasingly, too, the Amsterdam money market had become a vital source of short-term loans and annuities, much of it supplied through syndicates that were themselves Patriot rather than Orangist in their sympathies. Money and “American” Patriot politics seemed to march in step. Since the House of Orange was traditionally pro-British, the more acute its embarrassment, the better the chances of establishing a Francophile Patriot regime in its stead. But this golden opportunity was by no means risk-free. The confrontation in the Dutch Republic was rapidly turning into an all-out civil war. As street tactics became rougher, the level of alarm at Versailles rose correspondingly. A French envoy from Holland reported that “the ferment here has made terrifying progress and if it is not stopped it is to be feared that it may cause an explosion which will have incalculable consequences.”
The militarization of the conflict, however, intensified during the spring of 1787. In May the first pitched battle took place, albeit on a small scale, near Utrecht, with the Patriots getting the better of the action. At the end of June, Princess Wilhelmina was apprehended by Patriot guards while attempting to travel from the Orangist stronghold of Gelderland to The Hague to rally supporters. Inside the eastern border of the province of Holland she was held in close and undignified arrest. Her brother the King of Prussia, Frederick William, took umbrage at this humiliation and, egged on by the British Ambassador, prepared an invasion.
What was France to do about this crisis? Louis XVI had made no secret of his distaste for the conduct of the Dutch Patriots and was disinclined to intervene on their behalf. Before his death in February, Vergennes had made it clear that the satisfaction to be derived from dislodging British influence was not to be taken as an endorsement of insurrection. But despite these reservations the impression had undoubtedly been given in Holland that France would use its own military power to offset and deter the threat of an Anglo-Prussian intervention. And there were voices in France itself, some of them famous and eloquent, that proclaimed the cause of freedom to be indivisible – as apparent in Amsterdam and Utrecht as it had been in Boston and Philadelphia. Mirabeau (with the blessing of his latest patron, the Duc d’Orléans) had published an appeal, To the Batavians, denouncing Stadtholderian infamy. And Lafayette actually rode hard to the Dutch border expecting to be named to the command of the Patriot troops, only to find (to his disgust) that it had been given to an incompetent mercenary, the Rhinegrave of Salm.
The dilemma for French policy was acute. If nothing was done to forestall a Prussian invasion, the credibility of French power and authority would suffer a disastrous humiliation virtually on France’s doorstep. A token military presence, together with rumors of mobilization, might be enough to have a deterrent effect, but if the bluff was called the choice between war and capitulation would be even more galling. But war in behalf of a cause repudiated by the King seemed equally foolhardy. In the event, the deciding factor was money. Though the ministers of the army and navy, Ségur and de Castries, thought it unseemly to put a price on the honor and integrity of France, they were overruled by the new chief minister, Loménie de Brienne. Reviving Turgot’s predictions about the costs of the American war, and reinforced by the bleak lessons of hindsight, Brienne warned that any kind of military action would immediately drive the state into bankruptcy. “Pas un sou” was the grim message relayed from Versailles to the French Ambassador at The Hague.
It did not take long for the British and the Prussians to discover that the rumors of an encampment of thirty thousand French soldiers on the southern border of the Republic were a sham. For all the posturing of citizens’ militias, armed Patriot resistance melted before the Prussian troops and within a month the Duke of Brunswick’s Prussian grenadiers had reached Amsterdam and The Hague. Thousands of embittered Patriots fled to France, where they added to the burden of the French debt by demanding (and receiving) pensions as honorable refugees. Lafayette grieved in public for the tarnished honor of France, raised high in America and brought low in Holland.
What the Dutch crisis had done was to expose the loss of credibility of French power in the most brutally naked way. Things had come to such a pass, it seemed, that until drastic action was taken France could not afford a foreign policy befitting a great power. Brienne’s exclusion of the military option was a somber recognition that the monarchy was already a hostage to the deficit. It also meant that the monarchy would never regain its freedom of action through any kind of palliatives. Pushing the argument a little further, it was apparent that from this painful moment, traditional absolutism was dead. There were but two alternatives left, neither of which could possibly restore to the French crown the plenitude of power enjoyed by Louis XIV. The first was reform from above, sufficiently dramatic to galvanize popular support and through which the crown might at least preserve the initiative in the reshaping of the constitution. The second, more ominous option was a kind of self-imposed abdication in which the authority of the state would be transferred from the crown alone to some sort of quasi-parliamentary regime vested in the Estates-General. Some observers in 1787 believed this had already happened. Reporting on one particularly captious meeting of the Notables, Du Pont de Nemours commented that
on the 1st of May France was still a monarchy and the first in Europe. On the 9th of May… France became a Republic in which there remains a magistrate decorated with the title and honors of royalty but forever obliged to assemble his people to ask them to supply his wants, for which the public revenue without this new national consent would be forever inadequate. The King of France became a king of England.
Not everyone, though, was prepared to accept that the old regime had in fact perished from inanition. The entire history of its last, remarkable government, that of Loménie de Brienne, amounted to a stubborn defense of the possibilities of enlightened absolutism. And its eventual defeat was an acknowledgment that representation was the condition of reform, not the other way round.