The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century

The Dutch Republic owed its inception to the Union of Utrecht (1579) by which Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, Utrecht, Groningen, Guelderland and Overyssel, together with several states from the southern Netherlands, combined their resources to defy Spanish rule. Although Spain succeeded in detaching the southern Netherland, thanks largely to the military ability of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, the Seven Provinces retained their independence. They signed an armistice with Spain in 1609 but did not receive full recognition until the Treaty of Munster in 1648.

The rise of the Dutch Republic to prominence in the seventeenth century was rapid. It can be attributed largely to a highly intensive use of its resources, an administration which encouraged free enterprise, and an initially favourable international situation. Unfortunately, the vulnerability of the United Provinces was already apparent by the mid-seventeenth century as these favourable conditions began to change. An examination of the Dutch economy, the administration and the international situation will show that there was always a narrow margin between strength and weakness, between rise and decline.

Dutch power was, above all, economic. Already, under Spanish rule, the seaward provinces of Holland and Zeeland had developed a strong commercial potential, making the most of their control over the mouths of the Rhine, Maas and Scheldt. Although they did suffer economic depression in the 1560s and 1570s, they were presented with a unique opportunity for further commercial expansion in the 1590s. This they seized with remarkable speed. By the last few decades of the sixteenth century Europe was experiencing an accelerating population growth. This coincided with a series of bad harvests, especially in the 1590s, to produce a serious shortage of food in southern Europe, although the grain–producing countries of the Baltic (especially Poland) continued to yield a surplus. The Dutch merchants from Amsterdam and Rotterdam proceeded to develop an enormous bulk trade, conveying Baltic grain to areas of need like Spain and Italy. In 1591, for example, 200 shiploads entered the Mediterranean. At the same time, there was an increase in trade in other articles: timber, iron and copper from the Baltic to western and southern Europe, and salt from France and Portugal to the Baltic. Hence the United Provinces became a major European entrepot. Cities like Amsterdam, Leyden and Utrecht developed industries which turned raw materials into finished articles for re–export. The Dutch also succeeded in breaking into the Spanish and Portuguese imperial monopolies with the establishment of the East India Company in 1602 and the West India Company in 1621, and became Europe's major dealers in tropical wares, especially in spices and cochineal. Daniel Defoe later expressed the redistributive nature of the Dutch economy by describing the Dutch as ‘the Middle Persons in trade, the Factors and Brokers of Europe’.1 A similar view had already been expressed by the French merchants of Nantes, who complained to the King's Council in 1645 that the Republic ‘is made to serve as a way station and storehouse’, the purpose being ‘to distribute and sell to other nations’.2

Economic growth was sustained by a no less remarkable capacity for building ships and providing credit. A significant advance in ship design occurred in the 1590s when the Dutch, always conscious of the shallow water of their ports, developed the fluyt or flyboat. This could be used in river mouths as well as at sea, and had the additional advantages of being cheap to build, of having a large cargo–carrying capacity in proportion to its size and of requiring small crews. It gave the Dutch a head start over every other country in Europe, and by 1670 the total of Dutch shipping amounted to 568,000 tons, larger than that of all the other major powers combined. If this provided the machinery to sustain the flow of trade, the lubrication was ensured by the availability of credit and of convenient methods of exchange. This was due primarily to the estab lishment of the Exchange Bank at Amsterdam (1609), an imitation of the system used in some Italian states, especially Venice. Throughout the seventeenth century Amsterdam remained the unquestioned banking and financial centre of Europe.

Success, however, brought vulnerability: the Dutch Republic became the target of jealous rivals, especially England and France. In the commercial struggles of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands had the disadvantage of limited natural resources, long and vulnerable lines of communication, and a small population. English retaliation occurred first, taking the form of the 1651 Navigation Acts and the Treaties of Westminster (1654 and 1674) and the insistence that Dutch fishermen in English waters take out licences. French resentment of Dutch success expressed itself in the 1660s and Colbert, in an effort to smash the Dutch economy, imposed high French tariffs in 1664 and 1667. From the middle of the century onwards the Dutch economy was under constant pressure. The Dutch fought back and thwarted the efforts of their rivals to break into their commercial network. But eventually the strain took its toll. Security for Dutch shipping could be guaranteed only by convoys, which involved considerable expenditure. As the Republic became involved in wars with England (1652–4, 1665–7 and 1672– 4) and with France (1672–8, 1688–97 and 1702–13) the administration had to resort to heavier taxation until, by the end of the seventeenth century, the average rate of taxation, most of it indirect, was three times larger than that in France. The full effects of this became apparent in the eighteenth century. Wages were forced up by the rising cost of living. This raised the price of Dutch manufactures which had previously been low enough to give the Republic a competitive edge in its export trade. Although there was no rapid decline after 1713, the Dutch economy ceased to expand and it did not take its share in the overall increase in world trade. In maturing it seemed to have lost some of its aggressive characteristics.

The Dutch Republic provided one of the first examples in modern history of the rejection of dynasticism by revolution, and the formation of a voluntary federal union. The drift towards republicanism occurred after the failure to establish an alternative monarchy to the Habsburgs, but there is no doubt that the Régime was effective in keeping the Seven Provinces together during the period of severe external pressure between 1574 and 1648. It also maintained a generally tolerant atmosphere, apparently influenced by the belief of Erasmus that ‘he does not sail badly who steers a course between two several evils’.3 Despite the victory of militant Calvinism at the Synod of Dort (1618), the government always contrived to prevent it from establishing a stranglehold on thought and economic activity. The United Provinces became a haven for immigrants, many of whom brought with them valuable economic skills. They also reached a high level of cultural achievement in the seventeenth century; a few of the more important figures included such artists as Rembrandt, Steen, Cuyp, Van Goyen, Vermeer, Brouwer, Ostade, de Hoogh and Vouwermans; the poet van den Vondel; the philosophers Descartes and Spinoza; and Huygens, Leeuwenhock and Boerhaave (scientists). In more ways than one the concepts of free enterprise and minimal government interference seemed to be firmly vindicated.

There was, however, a price. Two fundamental problems connected with the administrative system soon became apparent.

The first was the effect of decentralization. The Union of Utrecht (1579) contained an inherent contradiction which the Republic never solved. Although the member states were to form ‘an alliance, confederation and union.. .as if they constituted only a single province’, each, nevertheless, should retain ‘undiminished its special and particular privileges’.4 The attempt to carry out these two principles produced a weak constitution. Each province was largely autonomous and possessed its own legislative bodies (States). The central legislature, the States General, met at the Hague, but important issues required unanimity, and delegates frequently had to refer back to the Provincial States for further instructions. As a result, the conduct of foreign policy became increasingly inefficient through the loss of speed and secrecy. There was no officially constituted central executive; although the Grand Pensionary of Holland tended to act on behalf of the Republic as a whole, each of the other provinces jealously guarded its local privileges. The Netherlands therefore remained one of the exceptions to the growing centralization of government which was taking place throughout Europe.

The second was a prolonged conflict between two interest groups: the Regents (who included the Grand Pensionary) and the Stadholder (normally the head of the House of Orange). The Regents wanted to avoid any possibility of the Republic drifting towards a monarchy ruled by an Orangist dynasty; for monarchy, according to the writer de la Court, would be ‘a death from which there is no resurrection’.2 The Stadholder, on the other hand, offered more obvious leadership in times of emergency as, for example, during the French invasion of 1672. During the seventeenth century the Republic oscillated from one side to the other, with little chance of a permanent constitutional settlement. Before 1619 the Regents were in control but, following the execution of Oldenbarneveldt, the Grand Pensionary, the Orangist Stadholders ruled the country (Maurice of Nassau 1619–25, Frederick Henry 1625–47 and William II 1647–50). The Regents dominated the scene again from 1650 to 1672, until Johan de Witt was overthrown during the war with France and replaced by the Stadholder William III (1672– 1702). The latter's assumption of English responsibilities from 1689, however, prevented him from giving his attention to the Dutch scene. Similar swings of the pendulum occurred in the eighteenth century, and by the 1770s and 1780s Dutch patriots were expressing their hostility to the lack of definition in the constitutional structure and asserting that ‘The Republic must be one and indivisible.’5


Figure 6. The Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century

The rise of the Dutch Republic was connected directly with the international situation. In the first stage Philip II was preoccupied with a series of problems between 1585 and 1598, of which the Revolt of the Netherlands formed only a part (see Chapter 9). He divided his resources between the reconquest of the Low Countries and the Enterprise of England and, from 1592, pressure on the Dutch was further decreased by Spanish involvement in the French Wars of Religion. The second stage saw the further weakening of Spain; this time Dutch survival was made possible by the involvement of all Habsburg resources in the enormously destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). The Republic was able to take advantage of Spanish preoccupation in Germany to launch attacks on Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Even in 1648, the Republic was in a favourable position. Western Europe was in a hiatus, between the decline of Spain and the rise of France, and Central Europe was in a state of confusion. Finally, at this stage, the Republic was still not regarded by the other powers as a potential threat. France, for example, was much more concerned with the apparent military strength of Sweden, who seemed the most aggressive of all the Protestant countries.

The Republic benefited from being underestimated and suffered no grievous damage in its struggle for nationhood. Indeed, it was sustained on the rapid weakening of Spain; Dutch ascendancy was in direct relationship with Spanish decline. This situation, however, could not be expected to last. Inevitably the Republic reached a stage in its development where war became thoroughly undesirable. De la Court, giving his priorities for Holland's welfare, observed: ‘War is much worse than an uncertain Peace. And among all pernicious things, except the intolerable slavery of being govern'd by the Will of a single Person, nothing is more mischievous than a War.’6 It was in the second half of the seventeenth century, the period in which the Dutch were struggling to maintain their commercial supremacy, that the most bitter conflicts occurred. The first was with England. The First, Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–4, 1665–7 and 1672–4) sapped some of the Dutch energy at sea and resulted in the capture of large amounts of shipping. But it was the rivalry with France which proved most damaging. During the first half of the seventeenth century, France and the Republic had co–operated in dealing with Spain, the common enemy. The turning point, however, came in 1668, when Johan de Witt, fearing that the complete destruction of Spanish power would release an even greater store of energy from France, was instrumental in forming the defensive Triple Alliance against Louis XIV. The French king now turned on the Republic in an effort to destroy it. This was a situation with which de Witt found it impossible to deal. William of Orange, who assumed the leadership of the Netherlands after the lynching of de Witt in 1672, conducted an effective defensive strategy but saved the country only by the ruinous expedient of cutting the dykes. French resentment was not checked by the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678), and the Republic found itself ranged against France in the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13). The tables seemed to have turned. The Spanish hold on the northern Netherlands in the sixteenth century had been weakened and lost because of the enterprise and determination of the Dutch partisans and Sea Beggars. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the Dutch themselves were confronted by a new military power with the largest armies seen in Europe since the time of Augustus. Although Louis XIV was eventually checked by a European coalition and the Netherlands were given a long respite in the eighteenth century, the spectre of a French invasion remained. When the troops of a rejuvenated France poured into the Netherlands in 1795, the Republic, politically disunited and economically weakened, collapsed under the strain.

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