Everybody liked the Dutch. The Danish dramatist Holberg, who visited the United Provinces (“Holland”) and “Belgium” in 1704, enthused especially over their canals, whose boats, he said, “transport me from one place to another” in dulcet peace, and “enable me to spend every night in a town of considerable size, so that of an evening I have been able to go to the opera or the theater directly upon arrival.”7 Twelve years later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was similarly pleased:
The whole country [Holland] appears a large garden; the roads all well paved, shaded on each side with rows of trees, and bordered with large canals full of boats passing and repassing. … All the streets [in Rotterdam] … so neatly kept that … I walked almost all over town yesterday, incognita, in my slippers, without receiving one spot of dirt; and you may see the Dutch maids washing the pavement … with more application than ours do our bedchambers. … The merchants’ ships come [on the canals] to the very doors of the houses. The shops and warehouses are of a surprising neatness and magnificence, filled with an incredible quantity of fine merchandise.8
But these rosy reports described Holland before she had felt the economic effects of her victory over Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession. Then she had bled her men and money close to exhaustion; her public debt was enormous; much of her carrying trade had been lost to her military allies but commercial competitors—and to Germany. The dividends of the Dutch East India Company fell from forty per cent in 1715 to twelve and a half per cent in 1737, those of the Dutch West India Company from five per cent in 1700 to two per cent in 1740.9 The Seven Years’ War brought further damage. The bankers of Amsterdam grew rich on high interest loans to the warring powers, but the peace of 1763 ended this boon, and many Dutch banks failed, leaving every major business harmed. Boswell, in Holland in 1763, reported “many of the principal towns sadly decayed. … You meet with multitudes of poor creatures who are starving in idleness.”10 Taxes were raised, leading to the emigration of capital and sturdy human stock; now Dutch and German colonists mingled their blood in South Africa, slowly forming the Boers.
Recovery came through Dutch character, industry, and integrity. A calm, strong, frugal people tilled the land, oiled their windmills, tended their cows, cleaned their dairies, and produced delectable malodorous cheeses; Holland led Europe in scientific farming.11Delft recaptured its market for porcelain. The Dutch and Jewish bankers of Amsterdam regained their reputation for reliability and resourcefulness; they lent at low interest and risk, received lucrative contracts to pay and provision troops; governments and business applied to Amsterdam for loans, and rarely went away empty; through nearly all that turbulent century the bourse in Amsterdam was the financial center of the Western world. Said Adam Smith about 1775: “The province of Holland, … in proportion to the extent of its territory and the number of its people, is a richer country than England.”12
What most impressed Voltaire in 172513 was the almost peaceful cohabitation of diverse faiths. Here were orthodox Catholics and Jansenist Catholics (had not Jansen himself been Dutch?), Arminian free-will Protestants and Calvinist predestination Protestants, Anabaptists and Socinians, Moravian Brethren and Jews, and a sprinkling of freethinkers basking in the French Enlightenment.14 Most of the magistrates were Protestant, but they “regularly took money from the Catholics,” says a Dutch historian, “for conniving at their religious exercises, and allowing them to hold office.”15 The Catholics were now a third of the three million population. The upper classes, acquainted through commerce with a dozen faiths, were skeptical of them all, and did not allow’them to interfere with gambling, drinking, gourmandizing, and some discreet adultery in Gallic style.16
French was the language of the cultured. Schools were numerous, and the University of Leiden was famous for its courses in medicine, which remembered the great Boerhaave. Nearly all towns had art societies, libraries, and “chambers of rhetoric” with periodic contests in poetry. Dutch art dealers had a European reputation for their treasures and frauds.17 The great age of Dutch painting had ended with Hobbema (d. 1709), but Cornells Troost was at least an echo of its glory. Perhaps the most brilliant product of Dutch art in this age was glass delicately stippled, or engraved with diamond points.18 Amsterdam was a nest of publishers, some of them gentlemen, some pirates. Creative activity in literature sank to a low level in the first half of the eighteenth century; but toward 1780 a revival of letters nourished a real poet, Willem Bilderdijk.
One of Boswell’s friends told him that he would find the Dutch “happy in their own dullness”;19 but Boswell reported from Utrecht: “We have brilliant assemblies twice a week, and private parties almost every evening. … There are so many beautiful and amiable ladies in our circle that a quire of paper could not contain their praises.”20 The most fascinating pages in Boswell’s Holland jottings are those that describe his hesitant romance with “Zélide,” or “Belle de Zuylen”—i.e., Isabella van Tuyll. She belonged to an old and distinguished family; her father, “lord of Zuilen and Westbroek,” was one of the governors of Utrecht province. She received more education than she could hold, became proudly heterodox, and flouted conventions, morals, religion, and rank, but she charmed any number of men with her beauty, gaiety, and exciting candor. She shrank from genteel and dutiful marriage. “If I had neither father nor mother I would not get married.... I should be well pleased with a husband who would take me as his mistress; I should say to him, ‘Do not look upon faithfulness as a duty. You should have none but the rights and jealousies of a lover.’”21 To which Boswell, the most assiduous fornicator in Europe, replied, “Fie, my Zélide, what fancies are these?” She persisted: “I would prefer being my lover’s laundress, and living in a garret, to the arid freedom and good manners of our great families.”22
Zélide passed through a succession of love affairs that left her single and permanently scarred. Already at twenty-four she was quieting her nerves with opium. At thirty (1771) she married Saint-Hyacinthe de Charrière, a Swiss tutor, and went to live with him near Lausanne. Finding him intellectually inadequate, she fell in love in her forties with a man ten years younger than herself; he used her and left her. She sought catharsis in writing a novel, Caliste (1785-88), which sent Sainte-Beuve into raptures. At forty-seven, in Paris, she met Benjamin Constant, aged twenty, and seduced him with her mind (1787). “Mme. de Charrière,” he wrote, “had so original and lively a manner of looking at life, so deep a contempt for prejudice, so powerful an intellect, and so vigorous and disdainful a superiority over the common run of men, that, … bizarre and arrogant like her, I discovered in her conversation a pleasure I had not known before. . . We became intoxicated with our scorn of the human race.”23 This went on till 1794, when Benjamin found a fresh intoxication with Mme. de Staël. Zélide retired into a bitter seclusion, and died at sixty-five, having created and exhausted the emptiness of life.
She could have found food for pessimism in the political history of the United Provinces in the eighteenth century. After the death of William III (1702) the government was monopolized by an oligarchy of business leaders devoted to taxation, nepotism, and intrigue. “The citizens,” complained a Dutch writer in 1737, “are shut out of the administration, … and no advice or vote is asked in affairs of state.”24 The military incompetence of this regime was exposed when Holland entered the War of the Austrian Succession (1743): a French army invaded Holland, and met with little resistance; many towns surrendered without argument; Maréchal de Noailles reported, “We have to do with some very obliging people.”25 Not all; most of the citizens cried out for a martial leader to save the country, as William III had done in 1672; his collateral descendant William IV, Prince of Orange, was made stadholder of the seven provinces, captain of the army, admiral of the navy (May 3, 1747); in October these offices were made hereditary in his family; in effect monarchy was restored. But the fourth William was too much of a Christian to be a good general; he was unable to re-establish discipline in the army; defeat followed defeat; and in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) Holland was lucky to survive territorially intact but again economically desolate. William died of erysipelas at forty (1751); his widow, Princess Anne, served as regent till her death (1759); Prince Ludwig Ernst of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel ruled sternly but ably till William V came of age (1766).
In the war between England and the American colonies Holland protested British interference with Dutch shipping, and joined Russia in the “Armed Neutrality” of 1780; England declared war, and captured nearly all Dutch shipping. In the Treaty of Paris (1783) the interests of Holland were almost ignored; she surrendered Negapatam (in south India) to England, and allowed the English free navigation through the Moluccas. Holland ceased to play a part among the powers.
These disasters destroyed the popularity of William V. Moreover, the success of the revolt in America stimulated democratic ideas in the Netherlands, and led to the rise of a party of “Patriots” hostile to the ruling family. Through every change of government the moneyed minority had so absorbed the declining wealth of the nation that many men turned to begging, and many women to prostitution, in once flourishing and orderly towns. In 1783 companies of “free shooters” were secretly formed in Amsterdam and The Hague to prepare revolution. In 1787 the Patriots seized power, but William V was restored by armed intervention from Prussia. The French Revolution revived the ardor of the Patriots; they invited France to come to their aid. In 1794 French troops invaded Holland; the Dutch army was overwhelmed; William V fled to England; and the Dutch revolutionists joined with the French in organizing the Batavian Republic (1795-1806). In 1815 the son of William V restored the house of Orange-Nassau to power as King William I. His descendants reign in the Netherlands today (1967).