SOON AFTER the old century had turned over into the 18th, the multinational war called the War of the Spanish Succession came to an end. Essentially a war to prevent France from dominating Europe by combining the thrones of Spain and France in one kingship, it flickered out at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 with the successful thwarting of Louis XIV’s boast, “Il n’y a plus de Pyrénées” (There are no more Pyrenees).
For all their worldly success, the Dutch in 1780 were losing their hold through a malfunctioning system of government, conflicting domestic interests, disunited policies and obvious military weakness. Immensely competent in their formative period, brave and determined in the 16th century, enterprising, invincible and even glorious in the 17th, the Dutch had allowed the disunity of their component parts to paralyze effective policy in the 18th century. The fragmented political system could hardly have allowed anything else. The constitution was “so complicated and whimsical a thing,” wrote Adams to the President of the Congress at home, and the structure of government so cumbersome and the antagonisms of the parties so various, as to make his post here “the most difficult embassy in Europe.”
Every province of the Netherlands had its own stadtholder, the provincial office often being given by election to the Prince of Orange in addition to his chief position. William the Silent while Stadtholder had also held the stadtholderships of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Every province also had its own Pensionary, an executive office equivalent to the Governor of an American state. Over all, a Grand Pensionary elected by his colleagues functioned as the virtual Prime Minister. The Grand Pensionary of Holland, Pieter Van Bleiswijk, though described by Adams as “a great scholar, linguist, natural philosopher, mathematician and even physician … with great experience in public affairs,” had no force of personality animating these talents and apparently no decided political position one way or another.
Money and empire had not had charms enough to placate separatism in the Netherlands and lure the Dutch toward unity. Business interests, to be sure, had succeeded in amalgamating merchant adventurers in the great trading companies, but the management of naval affairs with the duty to oversee the maintenance of warships was divided among no less than five regional admiralties: at Rotterdam on the Meuse in South Holland, at Amsterdam, Zeeland, Friesland and the “North Quarter.” Their rival interests, conditioned by geographical location, made impossible a national naval policy essential to support an adequate and healthy fleet. The five admiralties could occupy themselves in protection of coastal waters against privateers and other marauders and in the supervision of prize courts and of the rowdy element, in all the port cities, of sailing men, who reportedly numbered some 80,000. Any man who could stand the appalling physical conditions of shipboard life—with its floggings and filth and poor or inadequate nourishment, plus the storms and the crashing of shells and flying splinters from enemy fire—was likely to be a rough character and, when ashore, ready for any riot or disturbance if discontented with the division of prize money or any other cause, or just to let off steam after being confined on the ship. Though an orderly people with a reputation for propriety and probity, the Dutch, like other nations, had their roughnecks.
In contrast, the governing class, called the Regents, was exclusively patrician. The Regents were the body and soul of Dutch governorship. They filled the offices of town councilors and deputies to the provincial and national states. They held office under a system nominally elective, but no candidate could even be considered for office unless he belonged to a known and substantial family of property and recognized social position, based on fortune and connections. Regents married into each other’s families, supported each other, appointed each other to the important offices of town government—burgomaster, sheriff, captains of militia, members of the town council, directors of financial corporations, including the sacred seventeen who were the East India Company’s Board of Governors—and through town offices to seats as representatives in the provincial and general estates. They kept outsiders outside. The system was the same as—and in fact was derived from—the medieval system of filling the offices of local government. As it became entrenched, the whole of the Republic came to be dominated after the Abjuration of 1581 by an oligarchy of the upper middle class representing some 10,000 persons, one-eighth the number of working sailors. Yet, whether sailor or Regent, every man called himself a Haarlemer or Leydener, or Amsterdammer, identifying with his city rather than with the nation—to its loss.
Complacent and conservative, the Regents shared the point of view toward the working class of any privileged class prior to the French Revolution, seeing them as the “little people”—the popolo minuto, as the Italians called them—and were not shy about expressing it. “While the burgher is small,” said a Regent of Dordrecht, whose family had been Regents in his city for generations, “he should be kept small.” It was a calm assertion of the social order established, as was firmly believed, by the Almighty.
The belief of the Regents—like that of the English governing class, who undertook the actual work of government, and unlike the French gratin, who did nothing for the state but fuss about protocol and precedence based on the relative antiquity of their respective titles—was that they were qualified for the task, whereas “unqualified and mean persons,” in the words of Jan de Witt, called “the perfect Hollander,” should have nothing to do with government or administration “which must be reserved for qualified people alone.” As Grand Pensionary or Governor of the province of Holland and the most effective statesman his country had produced to date, Jan de Witt could justifiably call himself qualified, except perhaps in political tact. Too open in his contempt for the commoners, de Witt made himself hated, with the result that he and his brother Cornelis were torn to pieces by a lynch mob in 1672, when the commoners, suffering the fury of a French invasion, believed the de Witts were responsible for failing to prevent it. The murder was a strange paradox of extremism to erupt through the orderly surface of Dutch life.
The Regents of the Netherlands upholding a tradition of care for the poor, not always a feature of a comfortable ruling class, supported a system of public charity that impressed foreign visitors. In Amsterdam every house had a box hanging by a chain on which was written “Think of the Poor.” Small change from every merchants’ sale was deposited and the boxes kept locked until the deacons came on their rounds to retrieve the money. Twice a week they rang a bell at every house to ask what donation the resident might be expected to leave in the box. Amsterdam’s almshouse for the aged and indigent was a handsome building with a charming garden, which is still selected as a tourist sight in guidebooks. Orphanages, hospitals for “lame and decrepit” soldiers, shelters for aged sailors and for care of the insane were part of the system whose acts of charity were thought by William Carr, a contemporary English visitor, to “surpass all other cities in the world.”
Political voice was confined to the upper class. Because commoners without property qualification had no franchise, there could be no popular vote. Policy was decided by vote of the States General depending upon an authorizing vote in the provincial states, which were headed by burgomasters of the town councils and made up of two councilors, two burgomasters, two schepens or judges and the Pensionary of the province. Though an important person, the Pensionary was under the authority of the burgomasters.
The political system reached an extremity of nominal democracy. Decisions of policy by the States General had to be referred back to the provincial states for a positive or negative vote, and by them to the town councils and by them forwarded back to the States General, with the result that a decision might have to be discussed by some 2,000 people representing fifty cities. As has been said of the Polish Diet, “They created chaos and called it a constitution.” The result in delay and subdivision of authority was another sacrifice of efficiency to fear of dictatorship—sometimes, in cases of crisis, with serious consequences. In a petty case the problem was epitomized when the Grand Pensionary in an interview with the French Ambassador on an urgent matter was asked for an early answer to report back to the King. He replied, in despair and almost in tears, “You know I cannot get an answer in three weeks.”
Though a tight and narrow company representing only one economic and social section of the population, Dutch government was so restricted by its method of policymaking as to be as impotent as Gulliver tied down by the strings of the Lilliputians. The system, as Adams, disenchanted, soon found out when he had to work with it, was a “complicated and perplexed constitution.” In the first place, where was sovereignty? For nationals no less than for foreigners it was hard to locate. Nominally it resided in the Prince-Stadtholder, but did the last word lie with him or with their High Mightinesses of the States General representing the union of the seven United Provinces? The presidency of the States General rotated weekly among the deputies, hardly an effective method of functioning, but the Dutch seemed so afraid of any ruler gaining dictatorial control that they preferred an almost ridiculous precaution to the dangers of efficiency. Americans, too, in designing their constitution dreaded any whiff of monarchy, but they managed simply to write it out of bounds rather than put the chief of their deliberative body in a condition of helpless desuetude. In general, the Americans, facing many of the same decisions of statehood as the Dutch, came to more sensible solutions, no doubt because they were fortunate in the sensible and sophisticated political thinkers to whom their constitution is owed.
The chief of state was the Stadtholder, formerly the representative or viceroy for the Emperor Charles V in his capacity as King of Spain, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, who had come into possession of the Low Countries or Netherlands by inheritance from Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, son of the King of France, and from the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian through a convoluted set of relationships and dynastic marriages which we may ignore. Possession passed, when Charles V abdicated in 1555, to his son Philip II.
In 1579, year of the Union of Utrecht, the office of Stadtholder, then held by William the Silent, was made hereditary, though not royal. At independence it was occupied by his grandson William II. A young man with the Orange family truculence, he opposed the terms of independence at the Treaty of Münster because he believed there should be no dealing with Spain but only war to the bitter end. More significantly, he married the eldest daughter of Charles I of England, starting the succession by the Oranges of marriages to princesses of England that forged the connection with the English royal family in spite of past wars and future quarrels. Their son, William III of Orange, made the most noticeable of these alliances when he married Mary, daughter of James II of England. When her father was ousted in the overthrow called the Glorious Revolution of 1688, his Dutch son-in-law was invited to succeed him. Fitting neatly into the English numerical line, William accepted the invitation and became King of England as William III, ruling jointly with his consort as William and Mary. As England’s King and, in his Dutch capacity, as ally, William was the centerpiece and driving force of the European coalition to stem the advance of Louis XIV for the control of Europe. Louis, seeing him as his chief European enemy, hated him vengefully and set his mind to destroy him and regain the former French Netherlands along the frontier. In his insatiable lust for extending French territory, Louis XIV was the prime generator of the epidemic of wars that afflicted Europe during his mature reign (c. 1660–1715). His drive for supremacy, and the determination of his fellow-nations to contain him, was the source of ceaseless conflicts at every border, most famously represented by the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, and by its chief captain, the Duke of Marlborough. “But what they fought each other for, I could not well make out,” says the old grandfather in answer to the child’s question in Southey’s poem. With a greater perspective, we can suggest the answer. What they fought for was that bodiless yet weighty matter called the balance of power—essentially, that France should not gain supremacy in Europe by absorbing the dominions of the Hapsburg or Spanish empires.
Monarch since the age of five, Louis XIV had fed so long on autocratic command that his appetite grew by what it fed on and needed to be satisfied by continual increase. The appetite for power is old and irrepressible in humankind, and in its action almost always destructive. When exercised for the seizure of territory or suppression of liberties, it cannot be said to add to the welfare or happiness or improve the quality of life of those it rules, nor bring content to the ruler. What is it good for? As an inveterate activity of our species, it is largely a waste of time. Between Genghis Khan and Hitler, Louis XIV was its primary exponent, reflecting his era which, as Lord Acton, who had more than one thing to say about power, declared, was one of “abject idolatry of power, when laws both human and divine were made to yield to the intoxication of authority and the reign of will.” As the wars spread to the world outside Europe, Macaulay finds a different candidate for blame in Frederick the Great and his endless quarrels with Maria Theresa of Austria for possession of Silesia. A place that few could identify or locate, Silesia was like a magic stone that if rubbed, would cause wars to spring up. Frederick’s greed and deceit, wrote Macaulay, who teaches history through a gift for language, was “felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown,” where “in order that he [Frederick] might rob a neighbour … black men fought on the coast of Coromandel [India] and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.”
William III died childless in 1702, in a fall when his horse stumbled over a molehill, an obstacle that seems as if it should have some philosophical significance but, as far as can be seen, does not. William was succeeded in England by his wife’s sister Queen Anne, and in the Netherlands by a collateral cousin of the Nassau family designated William IV. Not an adventurer, William IV dutifully followed the path of English marriage, taking as his wife, Anne, daughter of George II. A genuine Hanover—who were not an easygoing family—Anne or Anna was left a widow with a three-year-old son, William V, who was to be Stadtholder in the years that concern us. As Regent of the Netherlands during his minority, she is called the Governess Anna by English-speaking historians, an ill-chosen term meaning merely the female of governor.
Ruling with stern authority, the Governess Anna left as her legacy the choice as adviser for her son of yet another strong character, who was to dominate the Prince and take hold as the real governor of affairs during the period of this narrative. He was the Duke of Brunswick, Louis Ernest Wilhelm of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to distinguish him from many other Brunswicks of his family. He was a brother of the more famous Karl Wilhelm, reigning Duke of the German principality adjoining Prussia, an admired warrior, considered to be the very pattern of “an enlightened despot.” This ruler fell rather short of the attributes that might be expected of such a figure in the episode for which history remembers him—his proclamation of the notorious Brunswick Manifesto, which exemplifies in a single case the nature of the ruling princes of the old regime—and their fall. In time to come, in 1792, the Duke was to command the Austrian and Prussian armies in the allied campaign to crush the French Revolution. Marching on Paris, he announced as his forces approached the French frontier that the allies proposed to restore Louis XVI to the throne and that the French people who dared to oppose his armies “shall be punished” according to the most stringent laws of war, and that “their houses shall be burned. If any harm was done to the King and Queen, the allies would inflict an ever-to-be-remembered vengeance by delivering the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction.” This fire-eating pronouncement naturally convinced the French public that the King in whose behalf it was issued was a traitor to France, in league with the Prussians and Austrians. The Brunswick Manifesto, rather than accomplishing Louis XVI’s rescue, paved his way to the guillotine, which could have been foreseen if Karl Wilhelm had given the matter any forethought, but thinking ahead is given to chess players, not to autocrats.
We must not allow Louis Ernest of Brunswick to suffer from folly by association with his brother, for he seems to have been a reasonable man. He was a nephew and favorite of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who called him “fat Louis” with reason—for the Duke was indeed obese—if not with politeness. Are Kings polite? Perhaps not at the Prussian court.
Formerly Field Marshal of the Austrian Army, Louis of Brunswick had been brought to the Netherlands by William IV of Orange, who made his acquaintance in the course of one of the European wars, and was impressed by the abilities of the large Duke. Not an Orange by blood, William IV had no great military talents but enough to recognize the ill condition of the Dutch Army. He invited the Duke home to manage the reform of the army with the promise of a salary of 60,000 guilders and retention of his title of Field Marshal and a territorial estate of his own. After declining three times, the Duke accepted and was named Commander-in-Chief. The Regent Anna also formed a high opinion of him and gave him charge of the six-year-old Prince, the future William V, whom the Duke persuaded to sign a Secret Act of Advisership conferring governing powers on a personal Cabinet consisting of Duke Louis, the Grand Pensionary, the veteran greffier Fagel and the aged secretary of the Cabinet, De Larrey.
“I have rarely seen,” wrote the visiting English diarist, Sir William Wraxall, speaking of Brunswick, “a man of more enormous bodily dimensions … but this prodigious mass of flesh, which it was natural to suppose, would enervate or enfeeble the powers of his mind, seemed neither to have rendered him indolent or inactive.” Attached as he was, of course, to the pro-British party of his patron, Brunswick not unnaturally received kindly notices from a British observer. “The strength of his character,” continued Wraxall, “and the solidity of his talents, while they supplied in some measure the defects of the Prince of Orange, animated and impelled the vast machine that he inhabited.… On the parade, and in his military capacity,” Wraxall added, “Brunswick displayed equal animation and professional knowledge.… He manifested no somnolency when in company; nor was he ever betrayed at table, into excesses injurious to his reputation.” These were delicate allusions to the Prince-Stadtholder, who himself tended to fall asleep at table and in the Council chamber because of what Wraxall diagnosed as a “constitutional somnolency … too frequently accompanied by excesses of the table particularly of wine.”
Under the governance of a Hanoverian mother and a Prussian tutor, the meager share of Orange vigor that might have slipped through collateral inheritance into William’s blood did not flourish, even less so when after his marriage yet another strong-minded character entered the domestic circle. His wife was Frederika Sophia Wilhelmina, a niece of Frederick the Great. Described as “well-educated, intelligent, energetic and amiable,” she was well equipped to join mother and tutor in doing the Prince’s thinking for him, leaving her husband all too aware of her effect.
“He is so jealous, not of her virtue but of her sense and power,” wrote Malmesbury, “that he would not even go to paradise by her influence; and she has so mean an opinion of his capacity and in general that kind of contempt a high-spirited woman feels for an inferior male being, that I see no hopes of bringing them into cohesion.”
In physical appearance, with the same bulging eyes and thick lips and pudgy body, William V resembled his cousin of Hanover blood, George III of England, while he lacked George’s emphatic temperament. “His understanding,” reported Wraxall, “was cultivated, his conversation … entertaining and even instructive, abounding with historical information that displayed extensive acquaintance with polite letters.”
Suffering from the same sense of inadequacy felt by many of his English contemporaries who gained important governing positions from rank, rather than from merit and experience, William felt convinced that he was unequipped for the responsibility he held, a feeling that disabled him from acting with firmness or conviction. He tried to make up for the lack by conscientious attention to duty, rising at six and often working till midnight, filling his day with court levees and military reviews interspersed with prayers and meals. But keeping busy failed to dispel his anxieties or his belief that all his military training had fitted him for no higher rank than corporal. In one hard moment he exclaimed that he wished his father had never become Stadtholder and added, in so many words, “I wish I were dead.” This was the unhappy man who was Sovereign of the Netherlands.
In this situation, weak and irresolute government began at the top. The Prince’s advisers provided no one of reliable strength and consistency on whom to lean. Duke Louis of Brunswick was strong but unpopular, because his efforts to stay friendly with every faction made him distrusted by all and because he was resented for his influence with the Prince. Princess Wilhelmina, who might have formed a useful partnership with him in support of the insecure sovereign, resented his sway over her husband. Influenced by the pro-French sympathies of her uncle Frederick II, she took the opposite side from Brunswick of the great divide between the pro-British and pro-French parties. Consequently, William’s two closest associates could give him only divided counsel in place of firm guidance. Engelbert François Van Berckel, Pensionary of the city of Amsterdam, with its dominant influence as the major mercantile center and largest taxpayer, was too firmly attached to the commercial and therefore anti-British interests to give any but one-sided advice or to put into the balance of policy anything but the direct interests of his city. The jealous friction of geographical regions and major cities had become the curse of the Netherlands. In their old struggle against the King of Spain and the Duke of Alva, counties and duchies and bishoprics had fought each other for advantage, laying the foundations of the deep and habitual rivalries that cut rifts through the country.
Deepest and most dangerous to the state was the rift over the issue of whether rearmament should go to the army or the navy. Both were in poor, close to useless, condition and the question of which was to receive priority of the state’s expenditure divided the country in bitter political dispute, between friends of England, who wanted improvement of the land forces against France, and the mercantile interests led by Amsterdam, who wanted improvement of the navy to resist British interference with their trade. The Stadtholder, being half-English himself, naturally favored the British position but in his hesitations could not give a strong lead or come to a firm decision on which military arm should have priority. With the provinces and the States General blocking each other from a deciding vote, the result was that no new funds for either arm were appropriated and neither army nor navy was strengthened.
The army’s forces at this time had fallen to a worrisome level below 30,000, of which a majority were German mercenaries. Recruits were not coming in because, according to Sir Joseph Yorke, who was of course tireless in pointing out the army’s deficiency, the service was too ill-paid and could not subsist at all without half the force being absent on furlough. Some deep illogic seems to lie in a war-oriented society that was so careless about paying its armed forces. Non-payment precipitated the fury of the troops, who had erupted in the terrible sack of Rome in 1527 and again, as we have seen, in the mutiny of the Spanish troops who sacked Antwerp. It was true too of the American Congress which early in the Revolution did not exert itself to find the funds to pay the farmers and citizens who enlisted from their homes to fight for the birthright of their country. If the object was worth a war, why was attention to the strength of the armed forces so lax? Why were soldiers, the instrument of every state’s policy, so stingily treated as bound to be mutinous and dispirited? The reason was less in some mysterious illogic than in the simple absence of regular revenue for organized armies. Military service had once been a required feudal service owed to the state without recompense. When history moved slowly, as it did before 1900, rulers were slow in learning realities in the exercise of government, and some, like the Bourbons, never learned at all. It took a very long time before rulers came to realize that armed service would have to be paid for or that they needed to concern themselves with the wants of the lower orders from whom their armies were drawn. We have been living since under Henry Adams’ law of the acceleration of changing times, which obscures for us the time lag that existed for our ancestors between the fact of change and the social and political understanding of what had happened.
The navy, so bold and hardy in the days of Tromp and de Ruyter, today lay neglected at its moorings with torn sails and rotting timber. Harbors and dockyards had silted up; even the Texel, the deepwater roadstead in the Zuyder Zee that was the gateway to Amsterdam, had lost draft for seagoing vessels. Because the wage scale for sailors had sunk too low for voluntary recruitment in competition with merchantmen in the contraband trade, enough crews could not be assembled to man the ships even had they been seaworthy. Fortification of harbors had been neglected, so that any petty pirate or English privateer could break and enter. Increasing the disrespect for the Stadtholder, the public in the ports and maritime cities was demanding that measures be taken to protect shipping from British insolence. When a plan was proposed to send a squadron of twenty ships to the Caribbean to protect Dutch Colonies of the West Indies and the shipping that provisioned them, the navy did not have 20 ships available nor the sailors to man them nor the money for competitive wages. In fact, in 1767 William V had urged the States General to implement previous resolutions for building and equipping a fleet of 25 ships, but the provinces had refused to bear the cost. Ten years later, the province of Holland, declaring that the navy was near to ruin unless something was done, proposed construction of 24 ships of the line, the largest class, at a cost of 4 million guilders. Endlessly discussed for seven years, the proposal was only adopted in 1778, when Holland threatened to disband its land forces to enable the admiralties to pay for the ships. By then the hour was already late.
Foreign visitors to the Netherlands at this time felt a noticeable decline from the extraordinary ascent of the United Provinces to major power. What was left of Holland’s dynamic energy, said Sir Joseph Yorke, who, while certainly not objective, was not alone in his judgment, “was the passion of her people for money making. They were all literally merchants or money getters at present.” Sir Joseph, like the English gentry as a whole, equated commerce with avarice without noticing that the same could be said of politics in England, where greed for office and its monetary potential was as intense as commerce in Holland. Continental and even American visitors to Holland, with the snobbery of people who adopt the values of those who look down on them, reflected the English scorn of Dutch commercial success and saw it as a sign of decadence. A German visitor, Johann Herder, in 1769 thought Holland “is sinking of its own weight … the Republic counts for less in the balance of Europe.… There will come a time when Holland will be nothing more than a dead warehouse which is emptying out its goods and is unable to replace them.” John Adams, disgruntled by his frustration in failing to persuade the Dutch to risk investment in a loan to his country, and disenchanted after his first enthusiasm, wrote, “This country is indeed in a melancholy situation; sunk in ease, devoted to the pursuits of gain, incumbered with a complicated and perplexed constitution, divided among themselves in interest and sentiment, they seem afraid of every thing.” While deteriorating in their economy and lack of national unity, as Adams now saw it, and with a deep gap between rich and poor, they remain “too complacent,” with a faded pride in the “strong sense of independence and republican temper” that was once so vital a trait of the national character.
From the perspective of a century later, the 19th century Dutch historian Herman Colenbrander acknowledged the urge to make money as the national passion, but said that in the period of William V it was “no longer the necessity which in earlier days drove profit-seeking Dutchmen over the whole world. They did not have to go abroad any more to gain gold, it could be found at home in the heritage from the fathers and they wanted only to increase it by piling interest upon interest.”
Even more than Dutch complacency, it was the growing competition and new enterprise of other nations in foreign trade that started the slide downhill. The British had chartered a competitive company to enter the herring fisheries of the North Sea, and were luring Dutch fishermen into their employ; the countless fishing boats of the Dutch herring fleet that had employed thousands were reduced to a scattered few. The British were also taking the trade and, in some cases, the territories of the East Indies; Horace Walpole waxed lyrical over the products from Ceylon when the British, with the aid of local Rajahs, opened trade with the Island in 1782. Ceylon “is called a terrestrial paradise,” he wrote, “we expect to be up to the ears in rubies, elephants, cinnamon and pepper. It produces … long pepper, fine cotton, ivory, silk, tobacco, ebony, musk, crystal, saltpetre, sulphur, lead, iron, steel, copper, besides cinnamon, gold and silver, and all kinds of precious stones, except diamonds.… Its chief commodity is cinnamon, the best in all Asia,” and, for another superlative, “the Ceylon elephant is preferred to all others, especially if spotted.”
Prussia, Sweden and every nation that could command a sail scrambled for a share of the Indies trade. Sweden pre-empted the tea trade with China; the commerce of Spain and Portugal was drawn away by France, England, Sweden and the Hanseatic merchants. Markets and manufacturers once monopolized by the Dutch were cut into by foreign “enterprisers” from all sides. Industries lacking the former fresh supply of raw materials for cloth and other manufactures were losing markets and closing down. Unemployment rose, spreading from town to town and from one occupation to the next. Beggars and the homeless appeared in the streets. Formerly spotless walkways were now littered, once shining and polished windows were dust-stained, no longer reflecting the green of tall trees along the canal.
Spokesmen of liberal discontent, impatient of the conservative status quo, were active partisans of the American cause. Their spokesman was the radical Baron Johan Derck van der Capellen tot den Pol, representative in the States General of Zwolle, capital of the Province of Overyssel. Member of an old noble family who had absorbed in every fiber the 18th century’s ideals of liberty, van der Capellen was the author of a pamphlet on the history of liberty from ancient Thebes to his own country’s struggle against Spain. His critics called him “a Lafayette with an even lighter head.”
Rising to his feet in Parliament in December, 1775, he caused a sensation by a speech denouncing the loan to England of the Scots Brigade, the key issue of the pro-English party, and proposing a loan to relieve the financial poverty of the American Colonies, where money for conducting war was almost as short as gunpowder. The Scots Brigade had come to Holland after independence to help against the Catholic power of Spain and had remained in Dutch service as a barrier against the French. By the terms of the Dutch Treaty of Alliance with England in 1678, it was supposed to be loaned back upon request as one of the mutual subsidies the treaty called for if either party were attacked by a third. Supposed to number 6,000, it had dwindled because of the expense to 1,800, hardly proportionate to the hubbub it was exciting.
If the troops were loaned, England offered to lend the Netherlands a Hanoverian regiment in exchange or pay the cost of equipping a Dutch regiment to fill the place of the Scots. Creating yet another divided counsel, the Duke of Brunswick as Commander-in-Chief opposed the Prince on the issue, believing that to let the brigade go would reduce the land forces still further and that the loss would probably not be made up. Political adversaries of lending the brigade suspected that Lord North, the British Prime Minister, had planned the request expecting it to be refused. He could then use the refusal as justification for demanding from Parliament a vote for additional German mercenaries for the American war, whose use, because of the hatred they aroused in the Colonies, was strongly opposed by the Whigs of the Opposition.
Certain that discussion of the Scots Brigade would be prolonged in the United Provinces where it had become a divisive issue, the British, to make it no easier, asked for a reply in a month.
Van der Capellen, roughly trampling on the local tradition of moderate discourse, excoriated the loan of the Scots Brigade as a violation of neutrality and an act of injustice to the Americans who were fighting for a righteous cause. Partisanship over the issue was growing sharp and neutrality thin and ever harder to maintain because the principle of “free ships, free goods” offered such profitable opportunity for making money. Nevertheless, no one yet ventured to come out openly for the rebellious American cause. Van der Capellen was the first to do so, and he did not stint. He said that whatever the outcome in America, he would always regard it as a glory and honor to have upheld the cause which he regarded as that of all humankind. He scorned neutrality as being merely a position taken for the benefit of Dutch commerce and industry. It would be shameful for a people who themselves had been rebels to intervene against a brave nation which deserved the respect of all the world for defending the rights received from God, not from England. It would disgrace Holland, he cried, to send a Dutch unit to fight against them.
The furor grew when van der Capellen had his speech printed and distributed, to the outrage of the Stadtholder, who could feel strongly even if he could not make up his mind.
Whether by the influence of the Prince or the members’ own unwillingness to adopt the American cause, van der Capellen was expelled from his seat in the States General, an act that, as in the similar case of John Wilkes in England, caused a profound parliamentary scandal. In the Netherlands, domestic political liberty was still on the nation’s tongue, not yet in its bones.
In his outright embrace of the revolutionaries in America, van der Capellen shocked even his own province, causing him to be expelled as a deputy and even dismissed as a Regent. They were expressing their disapproval of encouraging the Americans, for in spite of the golden dreams of commerce, the Regents’ dislike of the social “leveling” they sensed in the Revolution was stronger. Moreover, they feared that American independence might set an example to the Netherlands’ own colonies.
The question whether to grant Britain’s request for loan of the Scots Brigade added another hot coal to the ill-tempers rising between the Netherlands and Britain. The issue provoked turbulent debate in the States General, with the pro-American provinces, led by influential Holland, firmly opposed. Holland objected chiefly on the ground of the cost to the army of replacing the manpower of the brigade. Ironically, not in response to van der Capellen’s passionate plea but owing to Amsterdam’s adamant refusal to lay out money for the cost, the States General after a lengthy debate voted in April, 1776, to reject loan of the Scots Brigade, whatever the cost in British wrath. As an unfriendly act and considering that Britain had offered to pay the cost, the vote was ill-advised, the more so in that it was not matched by preparations to meet a predictable hostile consequence.
England did not immediately press her demand, but her impression grew that the Netherlands was not showing itself a true ally in terms of the “law of sociability.” This charming concept, so characteristic of the 18th century’s desire for polite manners in all forms of intercourse, was not of course enacted law but an ideal of international relations according to which a state was expected to treat an ally or friendly neighbor in a helpful and obliging manner, as for instance by not refusing transit to its nationals, by giving shelter to its ships in storms, and help for the wounded after battle, and further to offer the same facilities to either of two opponents. At a time when every state had its claws into every other with intent to “confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks,” as the British National Anthem has it, the idea of “sociability” in international relations reminds us that this was the age of Lord Chesterfield.
British hostility had been steadily rising ever since de Graaff’s salute of the rebel flag. The indignation that swelled in British hearts over the affair endowed the incident with more significance than it had. “I find,” wrote Captain Colpoys of the Seaford to his superior, Admiral Young, “that the salutes of their [the American] armed vessels are returned at St. Croix as well as at Statia.” This additional insult had occurred in Colpoys’ imagination, as no such salute at St. Croix had taken place. Sir Joseph Yorke had no need to call on his imagination to keep informed on the continued Dutch smuggling of contraband. He had the most highly organized secret service in Europe, and it was supplying a stream of evidence on the shipments that were evading the Dutch embargo, their amounts and the routes they took. Shippers were sending their cargoes via Portugal, where they would be sold and the goods transferred to American agents. The brig Smack, prevented from leaving Amsterdam for fear of being seized by British vessels waiting outside, was sold by an American agent in Amsterdam and presumed to have left port under new ownership, a new name, a fresh coat of paint and neutral papers. Another smuggler, the brig Betsy owned in Boston, was reported to have carried 200 barrels of gunpowder of 112 pounds each, 1,000 muskets and 500 pairs of pistols with other stores.
Britain’s humiliating inability to suppress the rebellion, which she held against the Dutch for their steady supply of arms to the Colonies, evoked from Yorke the most self-revealing British remark of the war. Some military success was essential, he wrote in May, 1778, to Lord Suffolk, a minister in Lord North’s government, “to restore the appearance which Britain had such a right to assume,” assuring that her neighbors would again speak the “language of respect and friendship.” Crucial for empire though it might be, Yorke voiced something deeper, the craving not merely for respect but to be acknowledged top dog as the British nation felt itself to be. Philosophers may talk all they like about why men go to war; there are many reasons, but they need seek no further than Joseph Yorke for one answer. What he said about the desire for respect exactly describes the Kaiser’s Germany in 1914. Believing themselves the most industrious and civilized of contemporary peoples, chosen by Providence to occupy the supreme place in history, the Germans wanted desperately to be acknowledged as paramount by lesser nations. It galled the Kaiser that visitors always went to Paris as the goal of civilized culture and not to his capital. In that sense, war, as Joseph Yorke’s words suggest, can often arise from injured ego as much as from more serious cause.
The crosscurrents of Dutch politics in the conflict between rearming the army or navy determined the positions taken toward the American Revolution. The Stadtholder, followed by his party, was of course opposed to the American rebels not merely because he was by heritage in the British camp but because his domestic opponents who sympathized with the American cause expressed revolutionary republican views threatening his status as a hereditary sovereign. This group called themselves by the French wordpatriotes, and their strength grew in proportion as the Prince’s place in public respect sank. The Duke of Brunswick as a British partisan, and believed by the public to have kept the Prince ignorant of the true state of affairs, was a prime object of the Patriotes’ dislike.
The most important influence with regard to the Americans was the mercantile interest dominated by Amsterdam, whose leaders were convinced that the great unknown continent of America, once independent and freed from the grip of British mercantalism, offered a flowing fountain of trade for the export of Haarlem cloth and Schiedam gin and the import of rice, indigo, sugar, cotton, coffee and rum, and the financing of loans to American merchants that in their hands would break British supremacy of the Atlantic. As reported by a French envoy at The Hague, the opportunities were expected to “multiply like sand” and the Dutch would not want any other nation to get ahead of them in their relationship to a new nation of such “vast possibilities.”
Yet, even in Amsterdam, Adams found few men of influence who took the Colonies’ battle seriously, as anything but “a desultory rage of a few enthusiasts without order, discipline, law or government.” Scarcely anyone had direct knowledge of America and its growing population and trade. In their golden dreams, what did the Dutch really know of America? Its immensity left a feeling of awe which bred some very odd notions fostered by pseudo-scientists and scholarly pretenders to universal knowledge, such as the omniscient Abbé Raynal in his Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the Two Indies. As a late creation, America was pronounced to be still incomplete and unfit for human life, much less civilization. Its natural physical conditions, which the famed naturalist Buffon, in one of the wilder leaps of European fiction, managed somehow to describe as a “niggardly sky and unprolific land,” prevented healthy development of flora and fauna and even of the human race, who were believed weak in virility. Buffon, of course, never crossed the Atlantic to see America in person. According to similarly qualified scientists, fully grown adults from other climates who settled there “lost their powers,” and Buffon was able to satisfy himself in another of his peculiar findings that the native Indians “have small organs of generation” and “little sexual capacity.” Climate in the New World, according to a best-selling French treatise translated into Dutch in 1775, made men listless and indolent; they might become happy but never stalwart. America, affirmed this scholar, “was formed for happiness, but not for empire.” If this was intended to be reassuring, it hints at an underlying fear in Europeans of some huge primitive force in the New World that could rise to overwhelm them.
Fantasies about America produced two strongly contradictory conclusions that in the end came to the same point of injecting some caution into the golden dreams. According to one school, America was too big, too divided, ever to become a single country, its communications too distended for the country ever to be united. Were it to gain independence, it would fall apart in civil war, nor could its long coastline be defended against a foe unless it acquired decisive sea power. The other school maintained that America’s immensity and large resources destined her for great power that must inevitably clash with the Dutch and threaten their trade, especially in the Colonies. Expectation of lucrative commerce, pessimists warned, must be held within this framework. Both arguments, that America was too weak and contrariwise too strong, were taken up by British propagandists in the effort to dampen enthusiasm within the Amsterdam group for closer ties with the American Colonies.
Combat at sea in 1779 over the tangled issue of neutral rights brought matters to increased tension. The reason neutrality was a subject so rife in nuisance value was because in a climate of incessant wars the belligerents were in everlasting need of supplies, for which they were dependent on neutral shipping. Neutrality law, supposedly established upon the simple principle of “free ships, free goods,” had been formulated by the great Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in 1625; essentially it provided that anything carried in neutral bottoms except actual munitions of war was “free” to be delivered to a belligerent, while anything in a belligerent ship was ipso facto a prize of war. Subsidiary questions of what materials were “free” and what were contraband, what were a belligerent’s rights of search and seizure and a shipper’s right of convoy to protect against such action, had become so overregulated by treaties and protocols as to constitute a maze from which Theseus himself could not have found his way out. The purity of Grotius’ principle had been modified with disorderly effect to exempt naval “stores,” meaning materials, mainly timber, for ship construction, from the category of contraband. Limiting Britain’s freedom of action, the naval stores’ exemption and the principle of “free ships, free goods” were hated by the British, yet had been accepted in their Treaty of Westminster with the Dutch in 1674 in order to end the expensive and endless Dutch wars.
Naval stores brought the French vigorously into the picture. While individuals in France were fired by the ideals of liberty in the revolt of the Colonies, French official policy was not concerned with liberty but with aiding the rebels as a means of avenging herself on Britain for the loss of Canada and other defeats in the Seven Years’ War. To this end France needed to build up her decayed fleet, for which she counted on Baltic timber delivered in neutral Dutch bottoms. Therefore adequate Dutch convoy, which was meager because of lack of ships, was an urgent French interest. To reduce and strictly limit convoy was of equal interest to the British.
Debate in the provincial states over the need and the cost of more ships was strenuous, plunging the provinces into more than their normal antagonism to each other, with Holland and Friesland, as the most dependent on foreign commerce and ship-building, ranged against Utrecht, Overyssel and Gelderland, which wanted reinforcement of land forces. Focus of the debate was the fiercely disputed issue of “unlimited convoy,” meaning escort for all merchantmen that sailed from the Netherlands with any or all goods not specifically listed as contraband. As this raised the issue of naval stores and would have protected delivery of timber to the French, the British could not allow it, while the French insisted on it. For Britian the issue was wider than just ship-building material for France. Convoy implied resistance to search, disputing England’s claim to sovereignty of the seas between her coast and the continent of Europe, as laid down, to the unbounded satisfaction of the nation, by the erudite historian of law John Selden in Mare Clausum, his answer to Grotius. In asserting Britain’s exclusive rights over the seas surrounding her islands, Selden affirmed the supremacy that Yorke believed Britain had “the right to assume.” Unlimited convoy would become another test of ego as a casus belli. Believing that England would fight rather than give up her right of search, there were many in Holland who advised against making the test.
Crossing provincial lines, the debate drew parties and groups into a turmoil of conflicts. The Stadtholder, counting on England as his supporter against the revolutionary ideas of the Patriotes, knew his mind well enough in the matter to be sturdily opposed. Artisans of the middle class and proletarians, seeing unlimited convoy as a means of increasing trade and reviving manufacture, were as strongly advocates. Had the Dutch been united, they could have taken a firm stand one way or the other, but there was no person or body having the force or authority to impose a decision.
The French Ambassador, the Duc de la Vauguyon, a suave and soft-spoken diplomat schooled in the tactful manners of the French court, where his father had been tutor to Louis XVI, was soothingly recommending to the Dutch to follow a policy of ease and quiet without expense, saying that they had nothing to fear from France but that, for their own sake, their national dignity required a strong navy. Yorke, growing more harsh and overbearing the more he despaired of stopping the Dutch contraband trade, resorted to dire warnings, raising the prospect of England abrogating the Treaty of Westminster, leaving all Dutch trade open to seizure.
The States General failed to see in this a sign that Britain was approaching active reprisal, perhaps because Sir Joseph, the Thunderer, was too prolific in threats, and more because they could not believe that Britain, now engaged against both France and Spain as well as in America, would be so reckless as to take on another war. Events proved otherwise. In June, 1779, Spain had just entered the war on the side of the Colonies against Britain. As the most rockbound of monarchies, she had no interest in the success of the American rebellion, rather the contrary, and made no treaty of alliance with the Americans but only with France, in furtherance of their existing alliance known as the Bourbon Family Compact. Renewal of the compact was intended to bring the partners to that long-awaited day of which so many of her enemies have dreamed, the invasion of Britain. In joining the war, Spain planned the occasion for 1779, one hundred and ninety-one years since the drowned hopes of Philip’s Armada. Her more modest war aim was the recovery of Gibraltar and Minorca, lost to Britain in 1704 in the War of the Spanish Succession. With Britain now pressed by both major continental powers at once, Spain believed her moment had come.
Dutch vessels carrying supplies to France were every week being stopped at sea by the British, deepening the anxiety of Dutch naval officers about their inferiority in a possible war. Advocates of the navy had urged the addition of more ships as convoys to protect the trade, but the reluctance of the inland provinces to vote for the cost and the ensuing prolonged debate had brought no additional naval guardians. At the same time, Admiral Bylandt, a commander of convoys, reported on the lack of island defenses in the West Indies, mentioning especially St. Eustatius, which he warned must have added arms and installations to enable her to resist attack and protect her flourishing commerce. No adequate response was made to his demand. Eight ships, not 24, were put under Bylandt’s command for convoy duty when the building program produced its results.
Ease and quiet for the Dutch were not to be had in the new decade. As a means of bringing pressure for additional convoy, France was threatening to cancel import privileges granted to individual cities and provinces, doing injury to the Dutch pocketbook. On second thought, recognizing that a gift is always more persuasive than a threat, France instead granted exemption from import duties to Amsterdam and Haarlem and reaped a reward in the form of Holland’s vote in March, 1779, in favor of unlimited convoy. But the controversy was kept alive when the States General, anxious about the British reaction, failed to confirm the provincial vote.
Ignoring this negative, which amounted to a prohibition, a convoy that had been waiting for permission to escort merchantmen with naval stores from the Baltic set sail anyway, under Admiral Bylandt, with four men-of-war. On December 31, 1779, the last day of the year and of the troubled decade, Bylandt met, off the Isle of Wight, a British squadron of six ships commanded by Commodore Fielding, who was under orders to examine all ships, convoyed or not. When his intention was signaled, Bylandt refused to permit the search, declaring on oath that none of the merchantmen under his escort carried contraband or timber. Asserting that iron and hemp could also be considered contraband, Commodore Fielding dispatched a sloop to conduct the search. As a warning to stop, Admiral Bylandt fired two shots and was instantly attacked by a heavy broadside from Fielding’s squadron. Whether fearing to be overpowered by superior strength or to risk being the cause of war, Bylandt signaled to his captains to yield and, refusing to abandon his charges, was taken with them by the enemy to a port in England. In the Netherlands, disbelief was followed by furious indignation at England as the tyrant and scourge of the seas, and talk began of maintaining neutral rights, if necessary by force of arms. Still hoping to enjoy the profits of neutrality, the Dutch did not want war, but Britain’s interference with her trade and maritime rights, and apprehension that Britain meant to destroy her life as a trading nation, made her reckless. When combined with indignation in the Fielding affair, this recklessness led the States General as a whole to vote defiantly in April, 1780, for unlimited convoy.
Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney at forty-two, by Joshua Reynolds, 1761
St. Eustatius, copperplate engraving by C. F. Bendorp, Dordrecht, Holland, 1782
Southeast view of New York Harbor in the years just preceding the Revolution, by an unidentified artist, 1757
Sir Joseph Yorke, by Perroneau
Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse at Yorktown, from London magazine, 1782
Action between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard, September 23, 1779, line engraving by Lerpinière and Fittler, 1780
Sir Henry Clinton in 1787, miniature by Thomas Day
General Count de Rochambeau, by Charles Willson Peale
The Battle of Cowpens, 1781, by Frederick Kemmelmeyer, 1809
“America Triumphant and Britannia in Distress”
I America sitting on that quarter of the globe with the Flag of the United States displayed over her head; holding in one hand the Olive branch, inviting the ships of all nations to partake of her commerce; and in the other hand supporting the Cap of Liberty.
II Fame proclaiming the joyful news to all the world.
III Britannia weeping at the loss of the trade of America, attended with an evil genius.
IV The British flag struck, on her strong Fortresses.
V French, Spanish, Dutch, &c. shipping in the harbours of America.
VI A view of New-York, wherein is exhibited the Trator Arnold, taken with remorse for selling his country, and Judas like hanging himself.
(American print published in Weatherwise’s Town and Country Almanac, 1782)
To the British, the vote was a hostile act, as injurious as Fielding’s fire was to the Dutch. Both sides now had cause for wrath, and more was to follow when Britain suffered a blow to reputation and self-esteem that heated her growing war fever. The blow came not from the United Provinces but from the rebel colonies, dealt single-handed by the most intrepid fighter to burst from American ranks.
John Paul Jones, apprenticed as a sailor from the age of thirteen, had served as midshipman and mate aboard trading ships to the West Indies. When on one voyage the captain and mate both died on board, he took over command of the ship. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Continental Navy, which, under the difficulties of recruiting, was described by one member of Congress as a collection of “tinkers, shoe-makers and horse jockeys,” he was given preliminary command of the Alfred and took part in the fight with theGlasgow on the return from the raid on New Providence in the Bahamas. Though known as contentious, with commanding ambitions and eccentricities that could be “seen in his eyes,” and though under accusation of killing a mutineer on his ship off Tobago, he was advanced to Captain in the navy in 1776. Sensing an enterprising captain, the Marine Committee let itself go in a rash of visionary schemes they planned for him to accomplish as if he were a fairy prince of the sea: to capture storeships bound to Quebec, destroy the British fishery at Newfoundland, show the flag in French islands of the St. Lawrence, release American prisoners being forced to work in the coal mines at Cape Breton and capture the British collier fleet supplying General Howe’s army in New York. In the course of rather more restricted operations, he showed his mettle in the capture of eight prizes and the destruction of several British schooners and brigs of superior size.
In 1777, happy to bear the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, Jones, in command of the 18-gun Ranger, sailed for France, where he expected to be given command of the strong new warship L’Indien, under construction in Amsterdam. Charging that this was a violation of neutrality, Britain exerted pressure through her partisans in Holland to prevent the transfer; instead, Jones was given an ancient French merchantman, which he caused to be rebuilt and altered to fighting condition and renamed the Bonhomme Richard, in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Before the refitting and diplomatic arrangements could be accomplished, he received orders to conduct a free-lance cruise for “distressing the Enemies of the United States,” a mission perfectly suited to his temperament. He headed from France in the Ranger straight into enemy waters, where he sailed right around England making raids on coastal towns, firing ships in the harbors, capturing merchantmen and capping his venture by seizure of the 20-gun frigate Drake. When he took this prize and the others into France, he was greeted as a hero and his European reputation began to build.
Seeking greater glory, and now in command of the Bonhomme Richard, he learned of a British convoy bringing home a large number of merchantmen, and scouted the seas for a sight of them. He caught up with them at sunset on September 23, 1779, off Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire coast. Ahead of him he saw a huge quarry of 41 ships escorted by the powerful new British two-decker Serapis. Her armament was 50 guns, including twenty 18-pounders, superior to Jones’s 40 guns with six 18-pounders. As the two warships approached each other, both opened fire. For the next three hours, as the scene darkened between sunset and moonlight, onlookers watched the melodrama of a battle unforgettable in naval history. When the ships closed to a distance within pistol shot, a hit by the Serapis exploded powder charges on the Richard’s gundeck, killing many of the gunners and putting Jones’s heaviest guns out of action. Having the advantage of the wind in his sails, an unquenchable spirit and a mastery of seamanship, he furled his mainsail to slow the Richard and bring her across the Serapis’ stern in position for greater broadside or raking fire. Calculating his only chance, he closed for boarding and in a smart maneuver brought his ship alongside the enemy. Calling for grappling hooks, he fastened the Richard onto the Serapis while his sharpshooters fired at every British head, knocking men off the yardarms and strewing the deck with dead. Grenades lobbed onto the Serapis’ deck blew up a pile of powder cartridges, wrecking half her cannon. Under the darkening sky, both ships at close range poured on fire. For the onlookers, flashes of flame lit the silhouettes of the two ships locked in their death grip like two fighting elk. The Richard’s decks were on fire and her hull taking in water. With his ship faced with the danger of sinking, the Richard’s chief gunner screamed to the Serapis, “Quarter! quarter! for God’s sake!” Jones hurled a pistol at the man, felling him. But the cry had been heard by Pearson, the Serapis’ commander, who called, “Do you ask for quarter?” Through the clash of battle, gunshot and crackle of fire the famous reply came faintly back to him: “I have not yet begun to fight!” Making good his boast, Jones sprang to a 9-pounder whose gun crew were killed or wounded, loaded and fired it himself, aiming at the Serapis’ mainmast, then loaded and fired again. As the mast toppled, Pearson, surrounded by dead, with rigging on fire, hauled down his red ensign in token of surrender. Escorted to Richard’s quarterdeck, he handed over his sword to Jones just as theSerapis’ mainmast crashed over the side and its sail, nevermore to carry the wind, collapsed in a dying billow into the sea. Bonhomme Richard, the shattered victor, too damaged to repair, sank the next day. On board the Serapisas his prize, Jones headed east for Holland and, after a ten days’ crippled sail, limped into the Texel on October 3. His destination, requiring shelter in a neutral harbor for his captive ship and the provisioning and care of the wounded and guard of his prisoners, was certain to make trouble for Holland with the British, and it did, exacerbating the British resentment that already existed.
That this was the deliberate purpose of Jones in going to Holland instead of to France, as he might have done, was believed to have been ordered as part of his mission by the Committee of Secret Correspondence of the Continental Congress, the department in charge of foreign affairs, and conveyed to Jones by Charles Dumas, the Committee’s semi-official agent and general busybody. Dumas was a collaborator of Ben Franklin, who was then in Paris conducting America’s relations with France and was said to have acted as intermediary. Supposedly, the maneuver to use Jones as a cat’s-paw to put Holland at war with Britain was a French idea of which the British were made aware through Sir Joseph Yorke’s network of channels. He had access to Dumas’ correspondence with Vergennes, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, which was intercepted and copied for him by a person especially assigned to the task and who, over time, learned the cipher. In the 18th century, embassies were penetrated without benefit of electronic devices or seducible marines. It was the general practice of nations to open and copy correspondence of a foreign minister. Jones was happy to oblige the French idea. His greatest satisfaction, he wrote to Edward Bancroft, a correspondent of the American Commissioners and in fact a secret agent in the service of British espionage who has been called the “supreme spy of his century,” “is in having used his position here to strain relations between Holland and England to a point past mending. Nothing now keeps Holland neutral except the influence of the ship owners who are doing almost the entire commerce of Europe at enormous rates.” The Dutch people are for us, Jones reported, and Adams relayed his words in a letter to Congress. “Every day the blessed women come to the ships in great numbers, mothers, daughters, even little girls, bringing with them for our wounded all the numberless little comforts of Dutch homes, a tribute that came from the hearts of the people, and therefore far overlaid in effect all statecraft and all diplomacy against us.”
Popular songs were composed in Jones’s honor, and ballads celebrating his presence in Amsterdam were sold in the streets. His presence—and even more that of the shorn Serapis, which had nothing left abovedeck and lay rocking meekly in the harbor in sad solitude like a lost dog—was a daily unpleasantness for the British Ambassador, who began at once to assert his usual demands for retribution and his insistence that Jones be expelled. As a subject of the King, he informed the States General, Jones could only be considered a rebel and a “pirate” and, together with his ship and crew, should be surrendered to His Majesty’s government. He told the Prince that he believed Jones’s entrance into the Texel was “a plan formed to embroil the States with Great Britain,” an outcome he professed to welcome, for it was better, he said, to have an outright enemy than one masquerading as a neutral, although the popular enthusiasm displayed for Jones was a constant distress.
“A thought struck me yesterday,” Yorke wrote to the Admiralty on October 8, 1779, that “we could arrest him …” when he left his ship to come into the city. Sir Joseph was not a man to worry about the propriety of an ambassador arresting the guest of a neutral country. “I despatched a friend on purpose to attempt it,” he continued matter-of-factly, but found himself thwarted by the High Bailiff, who said that “without proofs and affidavits of robberies and demands of moneys all of which we had not at hand,” it was not in his power, as the affair would immediately become a political one, “I was obliged to give up that scent to my great regret.” There is something irresistible about the straightforward methods of this ornament of the British foreign service.
If he could not effect a physical arrest, he tried next for a court order to force Jones’s eviction, but that too was refused, because of the strong sentiment of the Amsterdam and other merchants. Jones’s efforts to obtain care for the wounded—including the wounded English prisoners—became highly complex, because the problem of guarding English prisoners by American soldiers on neutral Dutch soil defied a solution. Finally, Jones was allowed to land a number of wounded prisoners on the Texel island and “to guard them by our American soldiers on the fort of that island with the drawbridges hauled up or let down at our discretion.” Food and water and repairs of the ship, without which she could not sail, absorbed further discussion and were finally obtained with the help of Jean de Neufville, chief of a prominent merchants’ firm of Amsterdam, who was deeply engaged in another American matter of greater moment.
While Jones was waiting for a wind that would let him leave the channel and escape the British who were lying in wait outside, de Neufville was negotiating a project that would break through the morass that clogged Dutch affairs and precipitate decisive action. The year before, France had signed a treaty of amity and commerce with America to take effect when the Colonies should become independent, and Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, the American Commissioners in Paris, had sent a copy to the Grand Pensionary, Van Bleiswijk, suggesting that Holland do the same. The matter was also submitted to the more dynamic Pensionary of the city of Amsterdam, Engelbert François Van Berckel, a lawyer of combative character. As a leader of his city and of its dreams of America as a trading partner, he was eager to conclude a business contract with the Americans before they might succumb to British peace offers and fall back under the dominion of Britain.
With the Carlisle Peace Commission presently in the Colonies making overtures to Congress, the prospect of America yielding and never becoming an independent trading partner was now feared, even by those who did not relish a victory of the Revolution. For some past indignity, Van Berckel nourished a hatred of Britain, and for personal reasons would be delighted to see the de Neufville treaty puncture their pride. Although de Neufville’s proposed treaty as an alliance with England’s enemies was supposed to be kept secret, the Grand Pensionary, Van Bleiswijk, quite properly consulted his sovereign, William V, who flew into a passion, declaring the treaty was equal to recognizing the Americans as an independent state. He would lay down the Stadtholdership and quit the country with his entire family, he informed the Duke of Brunswick, rather than accept anything of the kind. The Duke was able to calm him and persuade him to approve the secret discussion of the proposal. Meanwhile, Van Berckel advised the Amsterdam Council not to communicate the proposed treaty officially to the States General but to pave the way by informing the other town councils. As a result, the secret was soon known to several hundred people, and before the end of the year the Republic buzzed with rumors, and leaks appeared in the English papers. Van Berckel also authorized de Neufville to negotiate a draft treaty with the Americans intended to be kept secret until England had recognized American independence. For Yorke, the rumors were the culmination of a series of affronts extending from de Graaff’s salute to the adulation of John Paul Jones, and behind it all the constant nagging inability of the British to suppress the American rebellion. And now here was talk of a major power actually proposing to treat with the rebels.
He could see no answer but war. As an extension of policy, it was not in that era fearful to contemplate, but considered feasible and possibly advantageous. If prosecuted with proper energy and a sufficiency of arms and men, it offered British planners the opportunity to regain lost, or gain new, colonies to compensate public opinion for the failure in America up to now. The disadvantages—that Britain already had difficulty in making up a sufficiency of soldiers in America and, even more, that twenty additional enemy ships of the line would be added against Britain’s ships already too few for her needs—were, like most contraindications to a happy plan, thrust under a mental rug. Yorke, unworried, held a reproachful interview with the Prince of Orange, expressing his distress that William had not discussed the proposed treaty first with his English ally. On his dignity, the Prince, who did not possess the status of royalty in the Dutch Republic, a deficiency that greatly annoyed his royal kinsmen in England, replied that since it was a document of state, he was not obliged to discuss it with anyone whatsoever. Not hesitating to rebuke the sovereign, Yorke stated that a project of “three wretches,” meaning the American Commissioners in Paris, rebels against their King, could not be a state secret. As no action or further information was at hand, Yorke could not press his usual hot demands for “condign punishment” of the perpetrators; for the moment the matter was not pursued.
While the secret treaty smoldered quietly like a lighted fuse, a more importunate flame burned in the open. This was an international League of Armed Neutrality designed for common resistance to British assaults at sea and personally conceived and sponsored by a newcomer on the scene, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, an adventuress in power whom Voltaire named the Semiramis of the North and the world would come to know as Catherine the Great. With a territorial appetite like that of Louis XIV, she wanted to expand her borders over Austria and Poland, from which she had already taken a piece and was to take two more in the three partitions of that country. Another of her aims was to overthrow the Ottoman regime in order to revive the Byzantine Empire under Russian patronage. Most of all she wanted a warm-water base in the Mediterranean. When Malmesbury was Ambassador in St. Petersburg before he came to The Hague, he actually succeeded in persuading his government to offer Catherine England’s precious Minorca if Russia would enter an offensive and defensive alliance and would succeed in mediating a just and honorable peace among Britain, France and Spain. Although it would have given her the prize she so long coveted, Catherine resisted the temptation because she suspected a trick in which too much would be asked of her in return, or, as she put it in a phrase that became a byword in diplomacy, “La mariée est trop belle. On veut me tromper.” (The bride is too beautiful. They want to deceive me.)
Holland was not alone in resentment of British interference with trade. “Every nation in Europe,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, “wishes to see Britain humbled, having all in their time been offended by her insolence.” Catherine wanted a league to voice this sentiment not only because joint force would obviously be stronger than single, but because she did not wish to stand out herself as too anti-British. She wanted to be accepted as mediator in what had swollen from a mere colonial to a general war: Catherine saw her mediation as enhancing her prestige, of which, like all Russian rulers, she was a little uncertain. Besides, like everyone else, she wanted a head start in American trade, which, also like everyone else, she expected to be a bountiful cascade as soon as the Americans were free of the British. She wanted, too, to increase exports to take advantage of the increased demand by the belligerents for Russian goods, mainly naval stores which were being shipped to France and Spain by the Dutch. Two fuses—armed neutrality and the still-hidden treaty of commerce—were creeping toward each other. When they met, as soon they would, their junction was to light the spark of war.
WHEN two Russian ships were seized by Spain off Gibraltar while penetrating a declared but not substantiated Spanish blockade, the Empress determined that she was the woman to bring order out of the maritime anarchy. She proclaimed her purpose on February 29, 1780, laying down five principles of neutrality which subscribers to the League would be expected to defend. Three of these specified that naval stores were to be exempted from contraband as before; that a declared blockade of a given port or ports would only be recognized if the blockading power assigned sufficient force to make it physically effective; that neutral vessels could navigate freely from port to port along the coast of belligerent nations. The remaining two principles concerned the property of belligerents in relation to contraband. Sweden and Denmark joined Russia as adherents of the League, announcing they would use their naval forces to protect their own ships under the declared terms. In the Netherlands, which had been invited to join, the League immediately became a divisive issue, setting Amsterdam against the Orangists and every faction at odds with every other. No agreement could be reached for eight months. The known unreadiness of the Dutch Navy to face British retaliation if the Netherlands opted for armed defense of neutrality was cause enough for hesitation. Amsterdam, determined to protect her commerce, was able to extract from the States of Holland a vote for adherence, but when at first the States General accepted it, the provinces of Zeeland, Gelderland and Utrecht protested. Under their pressure and the storms raised by Sir Joseph Yorke, who denounced the vote as a violation of the Treaty of Alliance of 1678 and went into his routine of demanding “satisfaction for the insult,” the States General disavowed the vote and reopened the debate. Sir Joseph and his government were not satisfied. Clearly the Dutch were turning more inimical in their feelings and acts. The refusal of Amsterdam to require John Paul Jones to restore his prizes and the refusal of the aids and subsidies claimed under the old treaties and the hostile vote for unlimited convoy registered just at this time in April, 1780, disqualified the Dutch, Britain said, from all former privileges under these treaties. The British government, having come to a decision, was ready for a fight. Their decision had been taken at a Cabinet meeting at which Lord North fell asleep when the problem was discussed and Lords Hillsborough and Sandwich dozed—the result, it was said, of making policy decisions after dinner. It would mean, as Malmesbury wrote to a colleague, that Britain would have to contend alone against four nations—the French, Spanish and Dutch and the American rebels, “three of which after herself were the most powerful at sea.” To fight against four at once seems not the most judicious choice of contest, but taking on the Dutch seems to have been welcomed by the British as a show of bravado, in spite of, and perhaps because of, their ailing performance in America. Besides, they were angry at the Dutch, never a mood for clear thinking. The need to cut off Dutch provisioning of the French fleet was felt to be even more important than supplying the Americans. The emotional feeling against the Dutch appears in the remarks of Malmesbury, who in advance of taking over from Sir Joseph Yorke seems to have imbibed the acrimony of his predecessor. The Dutch, he wrote nastily to a fellow-ambassador while still in St. Petersburg, are “ungrateful dirty senseless boors,” and “since they will be ruined, must submit to their fate.”
A more material motive than anger was present in British minds. Even the British, so disdainful of commerce, had joined the commercial crowd in greedily contemplating the prospect of “a new and lucrative trade with America.” Malmesbury included this candidly in his letter as one of the “contributing factors” in the decision for war on the Dutch, who would be the most serious competitor for American trade. Timing was an urgent concern. One did not know what the Dutch in their peculiar politics were going to do now about the Neutrality League, but if they were to join, armed neutrality must not be allowed to be the casus belli, for in that case the Dutch would have the advantage of fellow-members of the League as their allies. It became apparent to the British that if they were going to declare war, they must do so before and not after the Dutch joined the League, if that indeed was their intent.
In search of a more immediate pretext, they complained of Dutch failure to grant the aids and subsidies (among them the Scots Brigade) called for by the Treaty of Alliance of 1678. But they were afraid of taking any overt action that might precipitate the Dutch into the League. At this point a curious and welcome accident that no one could have foreseen helped them out of their dilemma. The draft treaty of amity of commerce with America, drafted by de Neufville, turned up along with correspondence connected with its origin, wet from a dunking in the sea but no less useful for all that. The American who had negotiated and drafted it with de Neufville had been William Lee, a meddlesome member of the large family of Virginia Lees. Congress had appointed him an envoy to Prussia and Austria, but he had not been accredited in Vienna or Berlin because they were not ready to place themselves in trouble with Britain by officially recognizing an American minister. Lee made his way to Holland, where he hoped to block the appointment of Silas Deane (to replace Adams) and divert the post to himself. Under the wing of the Amsterdam Pensionary Van Berckel, who was steaming with plans to promote Amsterdam’s trade, Lee was soon in contact with de Neufville and working with him on the terms of a treaty of amity and commerce patterned on the model drawn up for hopeful use with future allies by Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, William’s brother, in 1776. When it was completed, William sent it off in triumph to friends in Congress as his ticket for the diplomatic post. He had no authority to negotiate a treaty for his country any more than did Van Berckel or de Neufville for theirs, but no one worried about that for the moment. In Philadelphia the draft was submitted to Henry Laurens, a wealthy planter of South Carolina, lately President of the Congress. He was the man who had actually been appointed to The Hague to follow Adams. As he was about to sail in August, 1780, to his post, he took the draft of the treaty with him to examine the terms. Traveling not in convoy but in a lone packet (a passenger or mail ship), his ship the Mercury was chased by a British cruiser, H.M.S. Vestal, off Newfoundland. Quickly, Laurens emptied the diplomatic papers from his trunk, stuffed them into a bag weighted with shot and threw it overboard. Unfortunately, he had not deflated the air, so the bag floated, was sighted by an alert sailor on the Vestal and hooked on board. Boarders from the Vestal, on discovering Laurens’ identity as “a gentleman on his way to Holland to conclude a loan for the use of the persons calling themselves the United States of America,” arrested him on September 3 and carried him off to prison in the Tower of London, where he remained until the end of the war.
Discovery of the treaty in Laurens’ papers, and the correspondence associated with it, excited the British as a hostile act by the Dutch perfectly suiting their need. Here was proof, wrote Lord Stormont, now British Minister for Colonial Affairs, to Yorke, that Amsterdam was in direct contact with the Americans, conduct which he luxuriously described, as “to all intents and purposes equivalent to actual aggression.” Considering that the treaty was provisional and drawn by unofficial persons with no authority to act for either Holland or America, British intensity over the document was exaggerated—deliberately. They wanted to make a commotion that would frighten the Dutch out of entering the Neutrality League, and they carried on about the Laurens disclosure as if it were a plot to assassinate the King. If the States General were found to have had a hand in it, wrote Lord Stormont to Yorke, it could be used as a casus belli for a declaration of war. If the Netherlands under the influence of the French party entered the Neutrality League, the Laurens papers would “justify before the whole world any measure they [Britain] wished to take” and “give the properest direction to the war, by making it a particular quarrel between Great Britain and Holland in which no neutral power has any concern.” Yorke at once took up the agreeable task of conveying the British threat to the Prince. Publication of the affair, he reported, could not “fail to occasion a wonderful alarm in the country … and will thoroughly cool the ardour for the Northern League.” But Yorke pushed the matter rather too heavily, demanding in his most domineering manner that the draft treaty must be disavowed by the Stadtholder and that Van Berckel and his accomplices must be given exemplary punishment as “disturbers of the public peace and violators of the law of nations”; otherwise His Majesty would be obliged to take measures to uphold his dignity. Adams, not yet replaced, repeated that “the arrogant English were treating Amsterdam exactly as they had Boston.” With that fatal gift for the unlearned lesson, they produced the same result—unity against the oppressor, which in America had brought the fractious colonies into their first federation. Adams reported a wide expectation of war. On Christmas Day he wrote that a “violent struggle” gripped the Republic. Anti-English songs calculated to please the taste of sailors were sung in the streets. “A woman who sung it … the day before yesterday sold six hundred of them in an hour and in one spot. These are symptoms of war.” While debate on the Neutrality League resumed, the British issued an ultimatum claiming that the Dutch had failed to fulfill the terms of the Treaty of Alliance of 1678. On their part, the Dutch replied that since the treaty’s aids had been requested for a colonial revolt and not because of attack by a third party, the treaty did not apply. They rejected the ultimatum and on November 20, 1780, reached agreement to enter the League of Neutrals. Belligerents were officially notified of that decision on December 10.
Further indignity was added by the secret treaty as the case of a friendly nation treating with rebels, and also by the flow of contraband which the British could not stop, except by a drastic measure: the seizing of St. Eustatius to stop it at the source. This measure was suggested to his government, it is said, by Sir Joseph Yorke. Admiral Rodney was selected for the mission.
A rejected ultimatum requires some action by the party that issues it. On December 20, the British, as predicted, declared war on the United Provinces. They were able to convey instructions to their commanders at sea, in particular, Admiral Sir George Rodney, who was instructed to proceed against St. Eustatius, before the Dutch could notify the island to prepare for attack. In his speech to Parliament announcing the war, Lord North listed the wrongs suffered by Britain at Dutch hands. “In open violation of treaties” they had refused assistance to Britain to which she was entitled, they had furnished France with warlike stores, they had countenanced by Amsterdam an “insult upon this country by entering into a treaty with the rebellious colonies,” they had allowed John Paul Jones, a “Scotchman and a pirate [apparently equal offenses], to bring British ships into their ports and refit there,” they had permitted a “rebel privateer” to be saluted at St. Eustatius after it had captured two British ships “within cannon shot of their forts.” While Lord North exaggerated the crimes of the Andrew Doria, which had not, as we know, captured any British ships, much less two, his citing the salute of the Continental flag as one in his list of causes for war showed that de Graaff’s gesture rankled deeply in the British mind, not only in having given recognition to “traitorous rebels” but in treating the Americans, whom the British regarded as in some way lower-class, as equals.
Curiously, what seemed to annoy Lord North the most was the Dutch lack of preparedness, as if it made him feel guilty in taking the offensive. In spite of their provocations, he told the House, “they had not acted with any degree of prudence, made no preparation for war, in case of being attacked; and although they must have been aware that, in direct violation of every acknowledged law of nations, their merchants had constantly supplied Britain’s enemies with warlike stores and provisions, of which they had made the island of St. Eustatius the depot, yet they had not thought it necessary either to take any precautions against detection, or to guard against surprise by the British naval and military commanders in those seas, of whose vigilance and activity they could not have been ignorant.” Clearly, North would have felt better if Britain had declared war on a ready-to-fire opponent.
The peripheral, almost disregarded, war that followed, called by the Dutch the Fourth English War, was in world terms a small affair with disproportionate consequences. Locally, in the continued saga following de Graaff’s salute, it would bring down St. Eustatius and bring in a major actor, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney—a central figure of British sea power, who by an act of omission was to play a critical part in the fate of the American war.
For Holland it would lead to capture by the British of colonies, trade and ships, and to the ultimate destruction of the Prince’s prestige when he was blamed for neglect of the navy, for delay in joining the Neutrality League and for everything else disastrous. As a result, the French party of the Patriotes secured political control, the Stadtholdership was overthrown and, through the prevailing of French influence, the United Provinces were incorporated into France by Napoleon in 1795, marking for the present the fall of the Dutch Republic after less than 150 years of its hard-won independence.