The Story of Nations - Holland/Chapter 28

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The Story of Nations - Holland by James Edwin Thorold Rogers
Chapter XXVIII: The Administration of John De Witt

Between 1650 and 1672, the affairs of Holland were practically managed by John de Witt. This able and accomplished statesman, whose work on “The Interest of Holland” is a very complete summary of the political and mercantile condition of the Republic, was the son of Jacob de Witt, one of the members of the States of Holland, who had, in the last year of the Stadtholderate of William II, been arbitrarily and illegally imprisoned in Loevenstein, and only released on condition that they abdicated their offices. This outrage made a deep impression on the mind of the son, and was the reason why he was and remained hostile to the pretensions of the young prince.

Had it been possible to restrain the Orange party, De Witt would have obviated these occasions of difference and ultimately of wars, which were so disastrous to Holland, during the time of the English Commonwealth. It was he who negotiated the treaty of 1654, and acquiesced in the exclusion of the Prince of Orange from the office of Stadtholder, and the expulsion of the Stewarts from Holland. In all likelihood he was no unwilling agent in deposing the house of Orange, for it is said that his father, old Jacob de Witt, was used, when he met him in the morning, to say, “Remember the prison of Loevenstein.” After the war was brought to an end, De Witt, though only twenty-eight years of age, was and remained practically Prime Minister of Holland, under the title of Pensionary.

Still, as we have seen, De Witt was exceedingly complaisant to Charles before his restoration to the English throne, more so when it was finally effected, and even afterwards when Charles showed himself so captious and arrogant with the Dutch envoys. De Witt knew that Holland had now more to lose than gain by any conflict, and saw that if by any means short of a public humiliation he could keep on good terms with France and England, the losses which Holland had sustained could be easily repaired. His countrymen called him “the Wisdom of Holland.” In order to conciliate the Orange party, De Witt induced the prince's grandmother to entrust his education to the States of Holland. The Princess Dowager agreed, and the youth's household, modelled on what De Witt thought was the public interest, was superintended by himself. That De Witt intended to give a bias to the Prince's character, which would make him prefer the interest of Holland to any other, is certain, and it is equally certain that the object was attained. No one, not even William the Silent, was more entirely devoted to his country than William III. of Holland and afterwards of England was. No man divined the dangers which threatened the Republic more clearly than William did, no one was more prompt in meeting them, and more confident, even under rebuffs, disappointments, and defeats. He conferred, beyond doubt, great benefits on two nations, and the one revered his memory, the other treated him with signal ingratitude, for William was the worst used king who ever sat on the English throne.

By the treaty of the Pyrenees, in 1659, Louis XIV. had renounced all claims to the throne of Spain through his wife, the king's eldest daughter. This had been effected at the King of Spain's instance. But in 1663 De Witt found out that the French king was by no means disposed to abide by his engagements, and that he meditated, whenever the occasion should arise, the occupation of the Spanish Netherlands. The discovery was made when he proposed to Louis, that the proposed treaty of Partition of 1635 should be carried into effect, in case the Netherlanders did not vindicate their own independence. All that Louis, however, would concede was that, in the event of the death of the Spanish king and his only male heir, he would recognize the independence of the Netherlands under a French protectorate, which of course would be no independence at all. So early had Louis formed that plan, which he pertinaciously strove to effect during his life, and left as a tradition to his successors. So startled was De Witt at this discovery that he approached the Spanish ambassador, and proposed to him to form a treaty between the Republic and Spain on the basis of the Pacification of Ghent, in 1576. Louis discovered the negotiation, and concealing his anger, resolved to be revenged on the first convenient opportunity. De Witt must have recognized that Holland was running the risk, soon to be the certainty, of a struggle which would be more perilous and more prolonged than the War of Independence was.

Meanwhile, the relations between the States-General and the English Government were every day becoming more strained. Charles, who was on the point of sacrificing his wisest and most faithful counsellor, Lord Clarendon, by throwing on him the scandal of the sale of Dunkirk, was not likely to make any effort for the republic which had sheltered him and his adherents in the time of their greatest danger and penury, and had braved the wrath, and increased the anxiety, of the great Protector by doing so. On the contrary, he strove to embitter public opinion in England against the Republic by stimulating the cupidity of the English East India Company, an association which was indeed prosperous, but was fast becoming one of the worst instruments of corruption in the country, by systematically bribing Parliament in the interests of its monopoly; for while the Dutch were striving to secure a trade for themselves alone in that part of the world, the East India Company were, by virtue of their charter, excluding every Englishman but themselves from any commerce in the Indian seas.

Before Parliament had given shape to its ill-will, the Court began war by attacking the Dutch settlements in the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern shore of North America. Shortly after the discovery of the Hudson River the Dutch had planted a colony on Manhattan Island, with the name of New Amsterdam. In 1664 the colony was attacked by the English admiral, Holmes. As the attack was unexpected, and the town was undefended, it was immediately surrendered and annexed to the British plantations. Its name was changed in compliment to the royal buccaneer who planned this expedition, and it became New York.

Charles disavowed the acts of Holmes, and even imprisoned him, but made no restitution. He gave the Dutch envoy fair words which cost him nothing, and made vigorous preparations for war, which cost the English and Dutch a good deal. On the other hand, De Witt, who saw through the king's duplicity, and had put a considerable fleet under the command of De Ruyter, sent his admiral secret orders to proceed at once to the coast of Guinea and retake the forts which the English had seized. De Ruyter was generally successful. Charles retaliated by seizing all the Dutch vessels which he could lay his hands on, and having obtained large grants from Parliament, by declaring war. The first battle of the war, that of Southwold Bay, was disastrous to the Dutch, and in the next year nothing of importance was done. In the great battle of 1666, the advantage was on the side of the Dutch; and in 1667, De Ruyter burnt the English fleet in the Medway, and peace was soon negotiated.

Shortly after the peace was proclaimed, Charles, whose people began to discern what were the designs of the King of France in the Netherlands, despite his reluctance at giving any offence to Louis, sent Sir William Temple to the Hague, for the purpose of negotiating an alliance with Holland. De Witt unwillingly acceded to the proposal, for he foresaw that no reliance could be placed on Charles, that he would irreconciliably offend Louis, and that if recourse was had to arms, Holland alone would have to bear the brunt of the struggle. But he gave in, and induced the deputies of the States to acquiesce in his policy. The terms of the treaty allowed Louis to keep some of his Flemish conquests, but restrained him, under the risks of war with England and the States, from making further acquisitions. This treaty, as Sweden shortly after joined it, was the famous “Triple Alliance,” which Temple always considered his greatest achievement. It formed the basis and model of those great alliances which, at a subsequent period, were entered into with the view of chastising the ambition of Louis.

The terms of this treaty have been justly criticised. Spain had been despoiled, and England and Holland sanctioned the spoliation. It was a poor show of courage to condone a wrong, and to avow a determination that the wrong should go no further. But England and Holland were in no condition to give effect to their resolve. The costs of the late war weighed heavily on both, and the, distrust of the English towards the king and his administration was profound. Had it not been for the intense dread which the English had of the possible revival of a man and an army like that of Cromwell and the new model, it seems impossible to doubt that the English nation would have sent Charles and his brother “on their travels again” as the king used to call his exile. The strength of Charles' position was the hatred of the Commonwealth, the memory of which was still as keen as ever. So they tried a middle course; in attempting to exclude James from the succession, failed, and were constrained finally to get rid of the reigning house. But the value of the Triple Alliance was not in its immediate effects. It was of force as a precedent.

The Triple Alliance was hardly signed when Louis seduced Charles by bribes and a new mistress, into breaking it. The temptation was strong. Charles was to be subsidized to such an extent as to be made independent of Parliament. He was to be enabled to restore Romanism in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and acquiesce in the conquest of the United Provinces. The bribes and the mistress were conveyed to Charles by his sister, the Duchess of Orleans, the king's brother's wife. On her return to France, she died speedily, not without suspicions of poison.

De Witt was entirely deceived. He had information as to the designs of Louis and the despotism of Charles, but he disbelieved his informants. He could not conceive it possible that the English king, would acquiesce in such an aggrandisement of France as would result from the subjugation of the United Provinces. He did not understand his man. The first thing which Charles thought of was the means of gratifying his appetites; the second that of restoring the religion to which he secretly inclined, if indeed he had not already joined it; the third was the re-establishment of absolute government. He believed, and with some justice, that the odious memories of the Commonwealth could enable him to almost, if not quite, achieve the last object. In order to complete the deception, Charles assured the Dutch envoy that his mind was made up, and that he was firmly resolved to maintain the alliance. He had even deceived Temple by his assurances, though he was already bound to Louis by a secret treaty, and was receiving the reward of his perfidy.

Meanwhile Louis had conquered Lorraine, and Charles had agreed to admit the Emperor of Germany into the alliance. Next he recalled Temple, and De Witt's eyes were opened. Had De Witt been served, as William the Silent had been served at the court of Philip the Second a century before, when all the secrets of the Escorial were duly forwarded to him, the Dutch would not have been hoodwinked. Had De Witt boldly faced the situation, and seeing that the reconciliation of the Dutch factions was the one thing necessary, had acquiesced without grudging in the elevation of William to the office of Stadtholder and Captain-General, he might have averted danger from himself and his country, have forced Charles to drop his bribes, and enlisted English sympathy on his side. But his hatred of the house of Orange and of William's father paralysed his judgment. Temple soon discovered on his return to England, what were the sentiments of the king and the cabal. Disappointed and disgusted at being made a tool and a dupe, Temple retired into private life.

As De Witt was deceived in the character of Charles, so he was duped by Louis. The French king flattered him, and tried to bribe him, complimented him on his disinterestedness and integrity, and assured him of his continued goodwill. He had affected to sympathise with his dislike and distrust of the house of Orange, and with his unwillingness to admit William into any share of the administration. Meanwhile Louis did his best to induce the German princes to be neutral. He succeeded with the emperor, and with the ecclesiastical states which lay on the Dutch border. He subsidised the disaffected Hungarians, with a view of effectually preventing the emperor from disregarding his engagement, and he succeeded in bribing the Swedes into a desertion of the Triple Alliance. He had thus bought or entrapped all possible enemies, and had effectually isolated the Dutch, who, alarmed at his preparations, and asking their import, were told that they would know next spring. Meanwhile Charles assured the Dutch envoy that he would prevent France from making war on them, and would assist them in case he found Louis disposed to be aggressive with his fleet.

Just as war was seen to be inevitable, William of Orange was made Captain-General. No other course was possible. But De Witt contrived to load his commission with disagreeable and irritating conditions, and to limit its duration to a year. In addition to inexperience and want of military training, William was put over an army which had been disorganized by long abstention from military duties, and by the sloth and negligence of its officers. Louis declared war, without alleging any pretext beyond this, that it was not consistent with his glory to endure the conduct of the States any longer, and commenced the campaign with an army of 120,000 men. De Witt lost all courage and proposed to treat. But the terms which they offered were rejected by Louis, and Holland recovered the courage of despair. De Ruyter was more fortunate in his encounter with the English fleet.

But soon the Orange mob at Amsterdam, after vainly endeavouring to assassinate the brothers De Witt, John and Cornelius, and having then striven to destroy them on a false accusation, attacked the prison in which they were, dragged them out and murdered them, near the spot where Barneveldt had been judicially slain. It is difficult to acquit the Prince of Orange of tacit compliance with the outrage. Besides, he gave a pension to the false accuser of the two statesmen.