Their independence won, the United Provinces, after the Treaty of Westphalia, gave themselves to the pursuit of money, pleasure, and war. They were the least self-contained nation in history; the products of their soil could support only an eighth of their population; the life of the country depended upon foreign trade and colonial exploitation; and these depended upon a navy capable of protecting Dutch vessels and settlements. The Spanish mastery of the seas had ended with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The English navy, bouncy with victory, spread its sails out over the ocean. Soon English mercantile expansion encountered Dutch ships and Dutch settlements in India, the East Indies, Africa, even in the “New Amsterdam” that was to become New York. Some Englishmen, still warm with the fire of Hawkins and Drake, felt that these ubiquitous Dutch should be replaced by ubiquitous Britons, and that this could be done with a naval victory or two. “The merchants,” reported the Earl of Clarendon, “took to discourse of ‘the infinite benefit that would accrue’ from a barefaced war against the Dutch, how easily they might be subdued, and the trade carried on by the English.” 44 Cromwell thought it a good idea.
In 1651 the English Parliament passed a Navigation Act forbidding foreign vessels to bring into England any merchandise except that produced in their own country. The Dutch had been shipping to England the products of their colonies; now this lucrative trade was stopped. They sent an embassy to London to secure some modification of the act; the English not only refused, but demanded that Dutch vessels meeting English ships in “English waters” (i.e., all the waters between England, France, and the Netherlands) should lower their flags in recognition of English dominance of those seas. The Dutch emissaries returned empty-handed to The Hague. In February, 1652, the English seized seventy Dutch merchantmen found in “English waters.” On May 19 an English fleet under Robert Blake met a Dutch squadron under Maarten Tromp; Tromp refused to lower his flag; Blake attacked; Tromp withdrew. So began the “First Dutch War.”
The separatism of the supposedly United Provinces now brought them close to disaster. The unified military leadership formerly provided by the princes of Orange had lapsed; the States-General became a debating society instead of a state. The English had a strong and centralized government under the resolute Cromwell; they had a better navy; they had all the advantages of geography and prevailing westerly winds. They destroyed Dutch fishing fleets, captured Dutch merchantmen, and defeated the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter off the coast of Kent. Tromp won over Blake off Dungeness (November 30, 1652), but died in battle in the following July. The result of a year’s war was the overwhelming demonstration of English naval power. English blockade of the Dutch coast brought economic life almost to a standstill in the Provinces. Thousands of their population approached starvation, and threatened revolt.
It was at this unhappy juncture that Jan de Witt undertook the leadership of the country. He came of a family long prominent in Dutch commerce and politics. His father, Jacob de Witt, was six times elected burgomaster of Dordrecht. Jan himself received all available education, traveled in France with his older brother, Cornelis, met Cromwell in England, and then settled down as a lawyer in The Hague (1647). Three years later his father was among the six republican leaders imprisoned by William II of Orange, the Stadholder, who wished to establish his political, as well as his military, authority over all the seven provinces. When William II died (1650) the States-General, perhaps influenced by the apparently successful creation (1649) of a republic in England, refused to accept his posthumous son as his successor, and discontinued the stadholdership. The internal drama of the United Provinces became a struggle between the mercantile republican and pacific spirit represented by de Witt, and the martial aristocratic spirit soon to be revived in the young and ardent William III.
On December 21, 1650, Jan de Witt, still a youth of twenty-five, was elected pensionary (chief magistrate) of Dordrecht, and its representative in the States-General of the United Provinces. In February, 1653, that body named him grand pensionary of the republic, and gave him the bitter task of negotiating peace with victorious England. Cromwell was merciless. He demanded that the Dutch acknowledge English dominance, and salute the English flag, in the Channel; that they admit the right of English captains to search Dutch vessels at sea; that they pay for the privilege of fishing in English waters, and give compensation for the murder of Englishmen by the Dutch in Amboyna in 1623; and that they perpetually exclude from office or power all members of the house of Orange—which, being allied by marriage to the Stuarts, had vowed to restore that dynasty in England. De Witt removed this last clause from the treaty as presented to the States-General and ratified by it (April 22, 1654); then he induced the Estates of the one province of Holland to accept the treaty with this clause included. William III never forgave him.
De Witt consolidated his position by marrying the wealthy Wendela Bicker; through her he became related to the mercantile princes of Amsterdam; with their support he filled the most important posts in Holland with his father, his brother, his cousins, and his friends; soon he had in his hands all the reins of government in the province. Other provinces reluctantly accepted his lead, for Holland, enriched by its ports, paid fifty-seven per cent of the Union’s expenses, and provided most of the Dutch fleet. He was unpopular with the masses, but his administration was enlightened and competent. He checked extravagant outlays, reduced the interest on the federal debt, overhauled the fleet, built better ships, trained new naval personnel. Reflecting the sentiments of the merchants, he strove for peace but prepared for war. In 1658, and again in 1663, he was re-elected as grand pensionary of the United Provinces. He impressed observers with his devotion to the tasks of government, the simplicity and modesty of his bearing, and the integrity of his family life. The wealth of his wife enabled him to live in a sumptuous home, where he could receive foreign emissaries in imposing surroundings; but that home was a center of Dutch culture rather than of luxurious display; poetry mingled there with politics; science and philosophy were discussed perhaps too freely for de Witt’s Calvinistic constituents; and even the dreaded heretic Spinoza found a loyal friend and protector in the Grand Pensionary.
It was always his tragedy that he loved peace more than war, while the neighbors of the rich republic gathered their forces to destroy it. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne of England. He pointedly recommended his nephew, William III of Orange, to the good will of Jan de Witt; soon he demanded the annulment of that “Act of Seclusion” by which William was barred from office; de Witt consented; and so the Stuart King unwittingly prepared the fall of the Stuart dynasty. In October, 1664, an English expedition seized the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, and renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York (the future James II), then head of the English navy. The States-General of the United Provinces protested; the protest was ignored; in March, 1665, the Second Dutch War began.
The preparations that de Witt had made were now vindicated. Weakness of leadership had passed from the States-General to the careless and incompetent government of Charles II; and while the Merrie Monarch danced with his mistress, de Witt won the applause even of his enemies by the energy and devotion with which he attended to all the aspects and details of military organization. Repeatedly he sailed with the fleet, exposed himself to all the perils of battle, and inspired the crews with his courage and zeal. The Dutch navy was not yet equal to the English in vessels, men, or discipline; and in the first major encounter of the war the English navy under the Duke of York decisively defeated the Dutch (Lowestoft, June 13, 1665). The patient burghers reconstituted the fleet, and put it under the command of one of history’s ablest and most daring admirals. In June, 1667, Michel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter led sixty-six ships into the Thames, captured the fort of Sheerness (some forty miles east of London), broke the barriers that had blocked entry into the Medway (which flows into the Thames at Sheerness), and captured, burned, or sank sixteen English men-of-war that lay there unprepared for so unmannerly a visitor (June 12, 1667). Charles II, having no taste for war, bade his diplomats offer the Dutch an acceptable peace. On July 21, 1667, the two powers signed the Treaty of Breda. The Dutch surrendered the apparently unimportant New York to England, and agreed to salute the English flag in English waters; England surrendered the colony of Surinam (Dutch Guiana, in South America) to the Dutch, and modified the Navigation Act in favor of Dutch trade. The treaty was a moderate victory for de Witt, and brought him to the height of his career.
But he made now a succession of fatal blunders. He further alienated the supporters of William III by putting through the provincial assembly of Holland (August 5, 1667) a “Perpetual Edict” excluding any stadholder of any province from supreme military or naval command of the Union. Thereupon the adherents of the young Prince resigned from the army, leaving it without experienced leadership. Unfortunately, this act of family rivalry occurred while France was invading the Spanish Netherlands, thereby threatening the vital interests of the United Provinces. A France controlling the southern provinces would soon reopen the Scheldt to foreign trade; Antwerp, revived, would challenge the commercial ascendancy of Amsterdam; the whole economy of the northern provinces would be imperiled. And how long would Louis XIV stop at the Dutch frontier? If he should decide to absorb the United Provinces, and take control of the mouths of the Rhine, the country would in effect cease to exist, and Dutch Protestantism would be doomed.
De Witt offered the aggressive King a series of compromises; they were refused. He arranged with England (January 23, 1668), and shortly thereafter with Sweden, a Triple Alliance for common defense against expanding France. Louis tactfully agreed to end his “War of Devolution” on condition of retaining a cordon of cities and fortresses that he had captured in Flanders and Hainaut. These terms were accepted by England and Sweden, and therefore by the United Provinces, in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (May 2, 1668). Apparently the danger had been averted by de Witt’s diplomacy. In July he was elected to a fourth term of five years as grand pensionary of the republic.
But he had misread the policies of the French and English kings. Louis never forgave the Dutch for interfering with his conquest of the Spanish Netherlands. He vowed that “if Holland should trouble him as it had done the Spanish, he would send his men with shovels and pickaxes to throw it into the sea,” 45 presumably by opening the dykes. He resented the republic and coveted the Rhine; he was resolved to destroy the one and control the other. A war of tariffs heated the conflict: Colbert had laid prohibitive duties upon Dutch goods entering France, and the Dutch had retaliated in kind. A clever exception was made for munitions; Louvois, French minister of war, persuaded the Dutch manufacturers to sell him great quantities of war material; 46 meanwhile the Dutch businessmen withheld rheir consent to the taxes that de Witt proposed for replenishing the army and its supplies. The French diplomatic corps proved its skill, or affluence, by detaching England and Sweden from alliance with the United Provinces. By the secret Treaty of Dover (June 1, 1670) Charles II agreed to abandon the Triple Alliance and join Louis in war against the Dutch. In 1672 Sweden, needing French help against Denmark and Germany, withdrew from the same alliance. Spain, the Empire, and Brandenburg promised aid to the republic, but their available forces were too meager or distant to count much in meeting the immense levies that were now let loose upon the United Provinces by land and sea. Again de Witt offered concessions and compromises; they were rejected.
On March 23, 1672, England began the attack upon the Dutch Republic; on April 6 France declared war. Some 130,000 men marched against the little state, under Turenne, Condé, Luxembourg, Vauban, and Louis himself; “Never had there been such a magnificent army,” said Voltaire. 47 By clever and unexpected strategy the main French force passed through German territory—appeasing the villages with “gifts”—to assault less strongly fortified points. On June 12, under the fire of the Dutch and the eyes of the King, the French crossed the Rhine, swimming the sixty feet of its width that were too deep for wading; this became a favorite episode in the iconography of the King. Moving north into the heart of the United Provinces, the royal armies easily captured one city after another. Utrecht surrendered without resistance; the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland submitted; soon only Amsterdam and The Hague remained to be taken. It availed little that on June 6 de Ruyter had defeated the combined English and French fleets at Southwold Bay. De Witt asked Louis for terms; Louis demanded a large indemnity, French control of all Dutch highways and waterways, and the re-establishment of the Catholic religion throughout the republic. Rejecting these conditions as tantamount to slavery, the Dutch resorted to their last defense: they opened the dykes, letting in their ancient enemy, the sea, as a saving friend. Soon the waters were pouring over the land, and the French armies, unprepared for such an inundation, retreated helplessly.
Nevertheless the country was devastated; the troops of the bishop of Münster and the Elector of Cologne, allied with Louis, were marching unhindered through the province of Overijssel; French and English vessels, despite de Ruyter, were raiding Dutch commerce; the economic life of the beleaguered state neared collapse. De Witt, during these bitter months, had labored as hardly any man in Dutch history before him—raising funds, equipping and provisioning the fleet, standing on deck beside de Ruyter in the battle of Southwold Bay, and striving through embassy after embassy to negotiate a saving peace. In June, 1672, he sent Louis an offer to cede to him Maastricht and parts of Dutch Brabant, and to pay all the costs of the war. But this offer too was scorned; and when de Witt’s countrymen heard of it they denounced him as planning a treasonable surrender. 48 The people now cast upon him all the responsibility for their misfortunes. They charged him with naïve and reckless trust in the words of Charles II and Louis XIV; they accused him of filling a dozen lucrative offices with his relatives; above all, they could not forgive him for refusing to the house of Orange the military and political honors that through a century had kept the Dutch provinces free. They laid at his door the incompetence and cowardice of his bourgeois generals. The Calvinist clergymen denounced him as a secret freethinker, as a follower of Descartes and friend of Spinoza. 49 Even the commercial classes, which had been his main support, turned against him now as the organizer of defeat.
His brother Cornelis, who had shared with him the emoluments of office and the burdens and perils of war, received with him the hatred and insults of the populace. On June 21, 1672, an unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate Jan; two days later a like attempt was made upon Cornelis. On July 24 the officials of The Hague arrested Cornelis on a charge of plotting against the Prince of Orange. On August 4 Jan resigned his office as grand pensionary. On August 19 Cornelis was put to the torture, and was condemned to exile. Though warned that he was risking his life, Jan made his way through a hostile city to the Gevangenpoort prison to see his brother. Soon a crowd collected outside, urged on by a sheriff, a goldsmith, and a barber. A civic guard commissioned to hold back the mob shared its hatred of the de Witts, and made no resistance when it battered down the doors of the jail and rushed in. Jan and Cornelis were seized, dragged into the square, and beaten to death, and their bodies were hung head downward on a lamppost (August 20, 1672).
The Dutch Republic died with them, and the house of Orange returned to power.