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9-08-2015, 17:25

The Dutch Republic

The tumultuous nature of England’s path to a limited monarchy sometimes benefi ted its neighbor – and often rival – across the Channel, the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands that had won their independence from the Spanish Habsburgs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. (This long offi cial name is shortened in various ways: the United Provinces, the Netherlands – which means “low countries” – and the Dutch Republic all refer to the same political entity; “Dutch” is a variant of the word “Deutsch,” meaning German. This area is also sometimes called “Holland,” the name of its westernmost province, whose provincial capital, The Hague, became the capital of the country.) Individuals and groups who opposed Stuart or Cromwellian rule were welcome in the tolerant Netherlands, as were those fl eeing religious or political persecution in other parts of Europe. The French philosopher René Descartes lived most of his adult life in the Netherlands, where he felt freer to write and publish than he did in France. The English philosopher John Locke published many of his important works while living in the Netherlands during the 1680s, where he shared the streets of Dutch cities with French Protestants who had left France after Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Thousands of Jews from the Iberian peninsula, especially from Portugal, emigrated to Amsterdam, where in the 1670s they built what is still the largest synagogue in the world outside Israel, a beautiful building that is still in use today. All of this immigration dramatically increased the size of Dutch cities – Amsterdam’s population grew from 30,000 in 1570 to 200,000 in 1700 – and provided a basis for economic prosperity that was the envy of the world. Politically, the successful war with Spain left the United Provinces without a clear monarch, and the representative assemblies, called States, in each of the seven provinces determined that they liked things this way. They sent representatives to a centralized assembly, the States General, which met in The Hague and decided matters of foreign policy and war, though its decisions had to be ratifi ed by each provincial Estate. The States General appointed an administrator, called the stadholder , for each province. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the same individual was generally chosen as the stadholder in all seven provinces, all of them descendants of William the Silent from the house of Orange-Nassau, the nobleman who had led Dutch armies against the Spanish and been assassinated in 1584. This situation might have led to the establishment of a centralized monarchy, but it did not, as real power in both the States General and the provincial States was held by wealthy merchants and fi nanciers called “regents.” The regents resisted any move that would have turned their confederation into a unifi ed state or made the offi ce of stadholder more like that of a king. One of these stadholders , William III (held offi ce 1672–1702), was the man invited to take over the English throne in 1688, together with his wife, Mary, but this brought no major changes in the Dutch political system. William did end a series of commercial wars between the Netherlands and England – instead uniting England and the Netherlands against France – but on his death (with no heirs) the Netherlands simply operated without a stadholder for nearly fi fty years, with the States General making all political decisions. This political independence was facilitated by amazing commercial prosperity. Even during the Thirty Years War, the Dutch acted as middlemen for trade, especially in raw materials such as grain, metals, and timber from the Baltic, and fi sh from the Atlantic and Scandinavia. As we saw in chapter 6 , the Dutch invented and then massproduced new types of boats to carry merchandise, developed new types of processes to transform raw materials into fi nished products, and created new types of fi nancial institutions to handle the money pouring in. All of these ventures could be extremely profi table for merchants, and created a higher standard of living for peasants and artisans in the Netherlands than anywhere else in Europe. Dutch success was often regarded as an enviable mystery by merchants in other parts of the world. By the middle of the seventeenth century, many countries in Europe attempted to exclude Dutch merchants with policies favoring their own ships and traders, including restrictive tariffs, subsidies, prohibitions, and at times outright commercial warfare. Such measures were not initially successful, but gradually Dutch prosperity lessened, particularly with losses of men and money in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century. Dutch achievements were a mystery to contemporaries in other parts of Europe, but historians differ in their explanations of Dutch success. Because the majority of leading regent families were Calvinist, the original explanations linked Dutch successes to Calvinist theology and principles of thrift and frugality. The problem is that the Dutch were hardly thrifty, but spent money on elaborate dinners, imported carpets, brass chandeliers, oil paintings of their families and houses, and (most famously) ever more exotic types of cultivated tulips. Such luxuries were paid for by hard work, however, and accompanied by a sense of social responsibility. The Dutch supported orphanages, hospitals, old-age homes, and almshouses, all directed by boards of men and women from regent families. Spending money on luxuries made in the Netherlands or imported in Dutch ships just returned wealth back into the economy, so that their own willingness to spend explains some of Dutch prosperity. Religious toleration – unique in the Europe of the seventeenth century – explains more of it, as this attracted people and capital to Dutch cities. What we might call “social toleration” also played a role, for it was far easier for successful and intelligent artisans or lesser merchants to rise in stature, gaining local or even provincial offi ces and marrying into regent families, than it was for commoners in countries of Europe dominated by aristocracies to move into the highest circles of power.

 

 

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