The seven Dutch provinces were now united in a proud and victorious republic whose wealth and expansion stirred the wonder and jealousy of its neighbors. Here was a nation anomalously without a king; each town was almost independently governed by a council of rich burghers; each town council sent delegates to a provincial assembly; each such assembly sent representatives to a States-General that ruled the interrelations of the provinces, and their foreign affairs. So far it was an ideal government for the merchant princes whose fortunes were swelling with the growth of Dutch trade. Against this oligarchy of businessmen stood one aristocratic force: the descendants of that William I and Silent of Orange and Nassau who had led the country through the darkest days of its struggle with Spain. The States-General had rewarded him with the title of stadholder and command of its armies; he had been able to transmit that title and command to his descendants; and the control of the military was now a power ever threatening to transform the oligarchic republic into an aristocratic monarchy. In July, 1650, William II of Orange, as stadholder and captain general, tried by a coup d’état to establish his supreme authority over all the United Provinces; several provincial leaders resisted; William and his soldiers imprisoned six of them, including Jacob de Witt, burgomaster of Dordrecht. But smallpox defeated William in victory; he died on November 6, 1650, aged twenty-four. A week later his widow, Mary Stuart (great-granddaughter of the last Queen of Scots), gave birth to William III of Orange, destined to surpass his father’s dreams by becoming King of England.
Beneath these rival ruling classes the farmers and fishermen who fed the nation shared only such remnant of its prosperity as the merchants, manufacturers, and landowners neglected to absorb. If we may believe the Dutch painters, the peasants had been depressed by war and exploitation to an almost bestial poverty, redeemed by festivals and dulled by drink. The craftsmen in their shops, and the workers in the factories of Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Leiden were better paid than their like in England, 6 but they staged a bitter strike in 1672. Huguenot immigrants from France enriched Dutch industry with their savings and their skills. By 1700 the United Provinces had replaced France as the leading industrial nation in the world.
The greatest fortunes were derived from overseas commerce and development. In 1652 the Dutch made their first settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, and founded Capetown. The Dutch East India Company paid dividends averaging eighteen per cent over a period of 198 years. 7 The natives in the Dutch colonies were sold or worked as slaves; the investors at home heard little about this, and took their dividends with Dutch placidity. Dutch foreign trade continued till 1740 to exceed that of any other nation; 8 of twenty thousands vessels carrying the maritime commerce of Europe in 1665, fifteen thousand were Dutch. 9 The merchants and financiers of Holland were by general agreement the ablest of the time. The Bank of Amsterdam had evolved practically all the techniques of modern finance; its deposits were estimated at what would now be $100,000,000; 10 accounts running into millions could be settled there in an hour; and confidence in Dutch solvency and reliability was so high that the Dutch Republic could borrow money at a lower rate of interest—sometimes as low as four per cent—than any other government. 11 Amsterdam was probably the most beautiful and civilized city in Europe in this age. We have seen Descartes’ eulogy of it; Spinoza spoke likewise. 12Pepys was equally enthusiastic about The Hague—“a most neat place in all respects, the houses so neat in all places and things as possible.” 13
These thriving provinces would have been a paradise but for the nature of man. Their prosperity invited attacks by England and France; the struggle for internal control led to the tragedy of Jan de Witt; and the rivalry of religious creeds divided an otherwise amiable people into devout hostilities. The predominant Calvinists, wherever they could, prevented the public exercise of Catholic worship. In 1682 the Synod of Dort (Dordrecht), probably retaliating the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, drew up a confession of orthodox Calvinism, required every pastor to sign it or be dismissed, appointed Pierre Jurieu, an ex-French Huguenot, to conduct a Calvinist Inquisition, subpoenaed, tried, and excommunicated heretics, and invoked the “secular arm” to imprison them.14Nevertheless the Arminian heresy grew; bold men dared to think that God had not predestined the majority of mankind to everlasting hell. Dissenting sects—Mennonites, Collegiants (who sheltered Spinoza), Lucianites, Pietists, even Unitarians—found it possible to live in Holland in the interstices and slumbers of the law. Socinians had sought refuge in the United Provinces from persecution in Poland, but their Unitarian worship was forbidden by a Dutch statute of 1653. Daniel Zwicker published at Amsterdam in 1658 a treatise questioning the divinity of Christ, and subordinating the Bible to “the universal reason of mankind”; yet he managed to die as peaceably as a general. In 1668, however, one Kerbagh, for expressing similar ideas, was sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died. Hadrian Beverland was jailed for suggesting that the original sin of Adam and Eve was sexual intercourse and had little to do with apples.
Toward the close of the seventeenth century religious toleration increased. Dealing with many countries of diverse cultures, opening their ports and bourse to merchants of many faiths or none, the Dutch found it profitable to practice a degree of toleration imperfect indeed, but considerably broader than elsewhere in Christendom. Though the Calvinists were politically supreme, the Catholics were so numerous that their suppression was impracticable. Moreover, as Sir William Temple noted, the social and political dominance of the business classes left the clergy with far less influence than in other states. Refugees from other lands, contributing to the economy or the culture, demanded and received a limited religious freedom. When Cromwell seized power in England, its Royalists sought safety in Holland; when Charles II was restored, English republicans took refuge in the Dutch Republic; when Louis XIV oppressed the Huguenots, they escaped in part to the United Provinces; when Locke, Collins, and Bayle feared persecution in England or France, they found a haven in Holland; when the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam excommunicated Spinoza he was received and aided by Dutch scholars, and pensioned by Jan de Witt. Little Holland became “the school of Europe” 15 in business and finance, in science and philosophy.
This civilization would have been depressingly materialistic had it not been for its religious liberty, its science, its literature, and its art. Huygens and other Dutch scientists will meet us later. There were Dutch poets, dramatists, and historians, but their language confined their fame. The Dutch cities were alive with books and publishers. England had only two publishing centers, London and Oxford, France had Paris and Lyons; the United Provinces had Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leiden, Utrecht, and The Hague, printing books in Latin, Greek, German, English, French, and Hebrew as well as in Dutch; Amsterdam alone had four hundred shops printing, publishing, and selling books. 16
The taste for art competed with the lust for money and the bargaining for eternal salvation. The Dutch burghers, who had denuded their Protestant churches of ornament, gave to their women and their homes the decoration they had taken from the Lord. They quieted their wives with velvet, silk, and gems; they spread their tables with gold and silver plate; they brightened their walls with tapestries, and their shelves or cupboards with pottery or engraved glass. At Delft, after 1650, Dutch potters, inspired by imported Chinese and Japanese wares, produced glazed earthenware, chiefly blue on white, that gave a bright loveliness to homes that had once been puritanically bare. And there was hardly a Dutch family but had at least one of those little paintings that brought the ideal of the clean and peaceful dwelling, and the refreshment of trees, flowers, and streams, within arm’s reach on domestic walls.