Littell's Living Age/Volume 163/Issue 2114/John de Witt
These volumes record the events of a life of high renown in a memorable age. John de Witt was not the most illustrious of the soldiers and statesmen who, in the seventeenth century were placed at the head of the Dutch republic; but there is not a more noble and impressive figure in that long procession of distinguished worthies. The grand pensionary had not, indeed, all the qualities of a born ruler of men; and his training and habits were not of a kind that removed the inherent defects in his character. He had not the quick intuitive genius which seizes the occasion at great crises, and adjusts the course of the State to it; and, though capable of heroic conduct, he was rather too prone to a policy of device, or compromise, and of attending events, which he sometimes failed to foresee or to master. With an intellect, too, more serene than vivid, and essentially that of a philosophic jurist, he was apt to forget how passion and feeling blind nations, like men, to their real interests; and being a member of a great middle class, accomplished and learned but somewhat exclusive, he was at this disadvantage in conducting affairs, that he was not versed in the intrigues of courts, and that he stood aloof from popular sympathies. And yet this eminent man ruled the Seven Provinces, during a long period of danger abroad and trouble at home, with a success that must be pronounced remarkable; and the commonwealth, under his auspicious policy, attained its highest degree of power and greatness. The republic seemed on the verge of ruin through revolution and a destructive war, when he took in his hand the reins of government but he extricated it from this extremity of peril; and he enabled it ere long to assume a position of formidable weight among the powers of Europe. He was, besides, the principal author of the celebrated league which, for the first time, checked the ambitious violence of Louis XIV.; and he may be said to have prepared the way for the grand alliances which, at last, set bounds to the immoderate power and pretensions of France. Though he failed, too, at the end of his career to free his country from foreign invasion, it is now known that he in no sense merited the furious obloquy that broke out against him, and that led to his calamitous death; his exertions, indeed, for the defence of the State, if somewhat tardy, deserve high praise, and were frustrated only by causes beyond the control of men at a disastrous time; and, in fact, he cemented the very alliances, through which, under his famous successor, the republic ultimately emerged from danger. He accomplished all these things, moreover, though he ruled the commonwealth with a doubtful title; and though, during the whole time of his power, he was opposed and thwarted by a large party in the State, and by a pretender of imposing claims, the efforts of both being a continual source of division, strife, and national weakness. Nevertheless, though great as a man of action, it is chiefly as a far-sighted thinker that John de Witt claims the attention of history. He was the most judicious statesman of his time; the one who most clearly perceived what were the permanent interests of the States of Europe, apart from passing and disturbing influences; and in this respect he was like Richelieu, but Richelieu without his hard craft and ambition. The counsels he offered to Louis XIV., though given with a view to national interests, remain a monument of his sagacious insight, and attest his deep political wisdom. Had not the great king, in the pride of his power, turned a deaf ear to the Dutch statesman, William III. might never have ruled these kingdoms, and England, perhaps, would not have attained the supremacy on the seas she has so long enjoyed. On the other hand, France would have been spared the fierce and protracted strife with Europe, which left her exhausted at the Peace of Utrecht; her sovereign would have died the chief of the Continent; and the seeds might never have grown on her soil, of which the Revolution was the deadly harvest.
The life and career of John de Witt are not, we believe, well known in England, partly because most of the accounts of them were written in the Dutch tongue; and partly because his fame has suffered from the discredit that follows a defeated cause. We eagerly turned to these volumes to ascertain if they were worthy of the theme, but we cannot say very much in their favor. M. Pontalis, no doubt, has toiled hard at his work; he has collected materials of real value from the library and the archives of the Hague, from the correspondence of the De Witt family, and from State papers in London and Paris; and the Duc d'Aumale, with characteristic kindness, has placed at his disposal a number of letters of the Great Condé, preserved at Chantilly, which throw fresh light on the invasion of Holland. The author's researches on other points have also produced some fruitful results; we would especially refer to important details contained in the De Witt papers, respecting the policy of the grand pensionary, and his preparations for the defence of the States, before the campaign of 1672; and many incidents of the frightful tragedy, in which the brothers De Witt perished and William III. succeeded to power, have been disclosed, for the first time, in these pages. The book, however, is in some respects disappointing; it is a dull chronicle, and not a biography connecting important events in history; it is a mere assemblage of ill-digested facts, not the well-ordered work of a skilful artist. Notwithstanding his long and assiduous labors, M. Pontalis has failed to place before us the living images of John de Witt, of the remarkable men who shared his councils, and of the statesmen with whom he played for nearly twenty years the great game of politics; and Mazarin and Cromwell, Charles II. and Temple, De Lionne, Louis XIV., and Louvois, nowhere stand out on his crowded canvas in their personality and true lineaments. His narrative, too, is confused and obscure; it is, no doubt, difficult to describe clearly the shifts and moves on the stage of Europe, of which the Peace of Breda, the Triple Alliance, the Treaty of Dover, and the war of 1672, were only the outward and visible signs; but we seek in vain for a clue in this book to that intricate maze of intrigue and statecraft, in which John de Witt played a conspicuous part. Even external events are badly depicted; and such striking scenes as the great naval battles between the fleets of the States and of England from 1652 to 1666, and the memorable campaign of 1672, are feebly and indistinctly portrayed. We must add that mistakes in names abound, which we charitably hope are errors of the press; and the book, in a word, is another example of a singular fact in the literature of our day, how the French intellect, ever in extremes, has forsaken its methods of the last century in the province of history and kindred studies, and contents itself with amassing details, without an attempt to generalize, or to observe the rules of art, order, or clear arrangement.
John de Witt was born in 1625. The family of the future head of the commonwealth had been originally feudal nobles; but, like many of their order, they had turned from the land to commerce in the sixteenth century; and they had long formed a part of the high burgher caste, which had freely lavished its wealth and its blood in the protracted struggle with the monarchy of Spain. Jacob de Witt, father of his illustrious son, had, like many of his ancestors, filled offices in the governing bodies of his native town, Dort; and he had even risen to high place in the States, for he was an ambassador from the republic to the court of Sweden. The boy was brought up with the attentive care bestowed by his class in that day on their offspring; he was sent at an early age to the high school of Dort, a seminary of European fame, and in time he became a student at Leyden, the chief university of the seventeenth century. Young John gave proof at these places of learning, of great industry, and the finest parts; he showed an extraordinary turn for law, especially in its noblest branch, developed lately by the hand of Grotius; and he not only mastered mathematics with ease, but displayed much aptitude in applying the science to numerous inventions of his ingenious countrymen. The influences, too, which surrounded the youth in the circle of home were well fitted to make the student a cultivated man of the world. At this period many eminent men of letters in France held close relations with the aristocracy of the burghers of the States; Montaigne and other distinguished Frenchmen had found an asylum or home in the Provinces, and the philosophy and manners of France flourished at Dort and other chief towns of Holland. John de Witt, in his teens, had the great advantage of mixing with this brilliant society; he became a disciple and friend of Descartes; and the French sympathies, which he felt through life, were largely due to the memories of these days. As the high burgher, too, like the noble of Venice, received a very comprehensive training, John de Witt became versed in many accomplishments; he learned fencing, tennis, music, and so forth; and, like other future heads of States, he dabbled in verse with some success. To complete an education of the most liberal kind, he made, with his elder brother Cornelius, — for in life, as in death, the pair were united, — the grand tour of the seventeenth century; the brothers travelled through a large part of France, and visited London and the southern counties. It was the time of the troubles of the Fronde, of the close of the civil wars of England, and of the tragical fate of Charles I.; but, curiously enough, the letters of the De Witts take no notice of these great events, though they certainly must have impressed them deeply. Very probably, with characteristic caution, the young men were unwilling, when in foreign lands, to place on record their views respecting affairs of State of the highest moment.
At the age of twenty-four John de Witt became an advocate of the Supreme Court at the Hague. He carried to the bar precocious fame, and some of his youthful pleadings are extremely good; but he was not destined to devote to law abilities fit for a nobler calling. In 1650 the Seven Provinces were shaken by a revolutionary movement, which, after a series of rapid changes, ended in assuring the ascendency, for a time, of the high burgher families that ruled Holland. William II., the stadtholder, the hot-brained chief of the illustrious house of Orange-Nassau, had for years aspired to a higher position than that of a mere chief magistrate. Allied by marriage with the king of England, he naturally desired to wear a crown; and with the connivance, perhaps, of Charles I., and certainly of the crafty Mazarin, he had secretly plotted to subvert the republic. A proposition made by the States of Holland to reduce the army under his command, gave the prince the opportunity he sought; at the head of a soldiery devoted to him, he attempted to surprise and take Amsterdam; and he suddenly arrested and cast into prison six deputies of the obnoxious province. His supremacy seemed, for the moment, complete, for, though loud murmurs of discontent were heard, the different States of the Seven Provinces were not agreed on the vote for the army, and in many respects were ill in accord but death unexpectedly closed his career, and, for a time, defeated the hopes of his party. A counter-revolution speedily followed; and as the stadtholder's heir was only an infant — William III. was born eight days after his father's death — and the States-General had little real power without the support of the chief magistrate, authority passed to the States of Holland, at all times the first of the United Provinces, and, as we have said, centred in its great burgher houses. The occasion brought John de Witt forth from the obscurity of a learned profession. His father had been one of the imprisoned deputies; he was known to be a young man of parts; and he was chosen, accordingly, by his fellow-townsmen, as pensionary, or head of its governing body, to represent Dort in the States of the province. He took a prominent part in the long debates which followed the recent change of government; sustained with great force a scheme to exclude the young child of the late stadtholder from the hereditary place of chief of the army; and gave proof of such talent and ripe discretion, that he became known in the States as the "wise youth of Holland." His rise, in fact, was so complete and sudden, that in 1652 he was selected to fill the office, temporarily, of grand pensionary, or head of the province; and this, too, at a critical juncture, when the commonwealth was in extreme danger. The choice, nevertheless, was well justified; he showed ability of the highest order in negotiations with foreign powers; and he succeeded by admirable skill and firmness in preventing an Orange rising in Zealand, which threatened to overthrow the existing government. Already recognized as the real leader of the class now dominant in the republic, John de Witt was confirmed, in 1653,in the high place he had held for a time, and he was made grand pensionary for the legal term of five years. He was a little older than Pitt when that great minister came to the helm of affairs in England; and, like Pitt, he was for nearly twenty years supreme.
The office to which John de Witt succeeded made him president of the States of Holland, and administrative head of the whole province, through the governing bodies of the leading towns; and it gave him large influence in the States-General, especially in their external relations. By the law, however, the grand pensionary was in no sense chief of the entire commonwealth; and his prerogatives, in fact, were strictly limited to the narrow bounds of a single province. Partly, however, because, as we have said, after the decline of constitutional powers, authority naturally passed to Holland, which was always the dominant State, but chiefly perhaps, because a great man almost always draws authority to himself, John de Witt became, in a short time, the virtual ruler of the Dutch republic. It was fortunate that he attained this position, for a master hand was needed, at this time, to guide the nation through a sea of troubles. The jealousy of a rival maritime power had brought on a terrible war with England; but, though Tromp had upheld the glory of his flag, the fleets of the States had been defeated in a series of fiercely contested actions, and had taken refuge within their harbors, and the victorious enemy was preying upon the vast commerce of the defenceless commonwealth, and was sapping its resources by a strict blockade, from the mouths of the Scheldt to those of the Ems. Meanwhile a quarrel had broken out with France, curiously enough concerning the right of search; and other States, which had felt the arms or envied the wealth of the Venice of the north, had tacitly combined in a league against her. The Portuguese had reconquered Brazil and certain Dutch settlements in the Indian seas; the Court of Sweden was openly hostile; and even the Empire and its subject princes anticipated gladly the ruin of a power which, in many respects, had presented a contrast humiliating to their own needy arrogance. Revolution, besides, with its train of evils, had, as we have seen, disturbed the nation; it had envenomed faction, destroyed credit, and generally impaired that steadfast patriotism which is the best hope of a people in danger. The disasters that soon overtook a community depending for the most part on commerce were grievous, and threatened to become intolerable. The public distress was so great that "grass," it was said, "grew in the streets of Amsterdam, and hundreds of ships rotted along the wharves;" many of the chief citizens of the large trading towns shut up their houses and shops in despair; a whole population was reduced to want, deprived of its yearly harvests of the sea; even the peasantry suffered and murmured loudly; and it had become impossible to collect the taxes, the State being menaced with general bankruptcy. The nation which, a few years before, had emerged victorious from a death-struggle, which had founded colonies in many lands, had extended its commerce to distant continents, and had made Europe minister to its wealth, seemed about to fall from its high estate.
The grand pensionary contrived to rescue his countrymen from these depths of disaster by a policy necessarily not brilliant, and even, in some degree, tortuous, but well considered and ably conducted. The one great enemy of the States was England, which, under the vigorous rule of Cromwell, was making Europe feel how intense may be the energy of a revolutionary power, and which seemed to have so completely beaten down the republic, that the Protector contemplated its annexation. To make peace with England, on any fair conditions, John de Witt perceived was therefore essential; and he addressed himself to the arduous task with characteristic skill and judgment. The existing English and Dutch governments had one common ground of feeling and interest: Cromwell was naturally jealous of the Prince of Orange, a kinsman of the fallen house of Stuart; the high burghers of Holland regarded the child as a dangerous pretender to their own power; and both viewed with dislike the royalist exiles, who, with Charles II. had fled from England and taken refuge in the territory of the Seven Provinces. Making dexterous use of these sentiments, the grand pensionary, after a long game of diplomatic address and intrigue, succeeded in obtaining the coveted peace, and that on better terms than might have been thought possible. England, indeed, obtained a complete recognition of her ancient claim to the sovereignty of the seas, and compensation for bygone injuries; but the States suffered little material loss, and the idea of annexation was forever abandoned. It was stipulated, too, between the contracting powers, that an asylum should be refused in the States to the royal family of England and their adherents; and the Prince of Orange was declared excluded from the high commands that had belonged to his house. A singular incident proves how complete was the ascendency of Holland at this time. John de Witt, foreseeing that the States-General, and indeed the States of the other provinces, would never consent to the clause of exclusion, proposed that it should be submitted to, and ratified by, the States of Holland only; and Cromwell accepted this strange compromise, though it had no sanction from usage or law, and though it was opposed by many even of the Holland deputies. The treaty, however, if irregularly made, had brought the war with England to a close; and, as John de Witt had correctly judged, the republic could deal with her remaining enemies. The dispute with France was quickly patched up, though it left bitter recollections behind; for France, at this period, had no navy that could pretend to cope with the Dutch squadrons. As for the Portuguese, they retained Brazil, but they were driven from the Indian islands and seas, and their government was soon brought to reason, a fleet under De Ruyter having blockaded Lisbon. A great naval victory won in the Baltic disposed equally of the threats of Sweden, and the Empire and its vassals were obliged to acquiesce in the revival of the successful republic. Within eighteen months from the Treaty of Westminster, the commonwealth was at peace with all foreign powers, and was able, so to speak, to breathe freely again.
During the years that followed, the States regained, and even increased, their former prosperity; and they attained the highest point of their power. The navy of the commonwealth, which had always been the favorite service of the high burgher class, became more formidable than at any previous time; the ships of its merchants filled every port, and carried the products of more than half of Europe; and the world — forgetting how frail and precarious was all that sustained this brilliant opulence — admired the restoration of the Dutch republic. The government, meanwhile, appeared secure; taxation was lessened by the reduction of the debt; the great office committed to John de Witt was entrusted to him for the second time, and the Orange party was for a while silent amidst general plenty and content. A new era, however, soon opened in Europe; the Commonwealth of England passed away with Cromwell; Charles II. sat on his father's throne, and France, rich in all kinds of resources, and ruled by a young and ambitious king, had become the dominant power of the Continent. The Dutch republic felt ere long the consequences of these momentous changes. Charles II. had made smooth professions to the States, and had sailed from the Hague on his way to England; but he had not forgotten the Treaty of Westminster, and he longed to chastise the insolent burghers who had dared to offer an affront to royalty. Besides, an increasing rivalry kept up the old feud between the States and England; the traders and seamen of the two nations had quarrels in every part of the globe; the Cavalier Parliament joined in the outcry, and the king encouraged a national sentiment that fell in with his own purpose. Filibustering expeditions against the settlements of the States in Africa and the West Indies provoked a rupture already imminent; the republic instantly declared war, and the two nations rushed to arms once more. We shall not attempt even to sketch the scenes of the short but tremendous struggle that followed, and which is described at length, but not well, in this book. England was never engaged in such another strife at sea as the terrible Battle of Four Days, and England has seen few such days of shame as that on which the Dutch ships forced their way past Chatham, and made their guns to be heard at Gravesend. Of the fleets of the contending powers, the English, on which the Duke of York had certainly bestowed extreme care, apparently made the braver show; it went into action in a more orderly line, its manœuvres were more exact and brilliant. But the artillery of the Dutch was the more formidable; they possessed in De Ruyter a great commander, of immense weight in the scale of fortune; and De Ruyter, it would appear, succeeded more than once in breaking the enemy's line, a sure sign of a superiority in skill. As for the common seamen in either fleet, they were foemen worthy of each other's steel; well matched in dexterity, strength, and determined courage.
John de Witt played a great part in this war. With a tendency to temporize, which was perhaps his most distinctive fault as a statesman, he had endeavored too long to avert the storm by mere diplomacy and expedients of the kind; and, with a statecraft not deserving praise, he had given up three of the regicide judges to appease the ill-will of Charles II. The war, however, found the States prepared; and the grand pensionary, as head of the government, not only planned some of the chief operations, but took a large share in its stirring events. After the defeat of Obdam off the coasts of Suffolk, he went on board the fleet to direct a commission charged to enquire into the admiral's conduct; and he did not leave the flagship until the armament, refitted under his careful eye, was ready to put again to sea. It was he, too, who ordered the descent on Chatham, superintended by his brother Cornelius; and, had the war continued, he had projected attacks on the ill-defended coasts of Scotland and Ireland, which would probably have had great results. His scientific and mechanical knowledge, too, proved valuable in the highest degree; the accuracy of his calculations on winds and tides was repeatedly of great service; he perfected several naval instruments, and chain-shot, a terrible missile now disused, was one of his ingenious inventions. The young French nobles of the embassy at the Hague have described with sneers how the great "burgher thought himself the equal of a Venetian noble, and, dressed in uniform, and with a long dangling sword, stalked about the fleet with an air of importance;" but the close friendship between John de Witt and De Ruyter, which dated from this very occasion, proves what the foremost seaman of the age thought of the assistance of the civilian statesman. The arduous exertions of the grand pensionary were rewarded by no uncertain success; and though the effects of the Great Fire and the Plague contributed to the final result, it was the disaster in the Medway that made England treat. The Peace of Breda in 1667 was not, as has been said, disgraceful; but it was different from that dictated by Cromwell. Each power practically retained its conquests; but the States kept possession of one of the Sunda Islands, which they had undertaken to cede to England; the Navigation Act was, in part, relaxed; a favorable treaty of commerce was made, and England in some degree modified her imperious claim to the dominion of the seas.
Long before the Peace of Breda, however, the republic had begun to feel the pressure of the other great monarchy that approached its borders. Philip IV. Of Spain had died in 1665 and Louis XIV. set about accomplishing the traditional policy of the house of Bourbon for the increase of the power and dominions of France. He laid claim, in right of his wife, Maria Theresa, an infanta of Spain, to the greater part of the Spanish Netherlands and to large possessions in Franche Comté, and, with the calculating craft which often marked his conduct, he took ample means to enforce his pretensions. Everything seemed to favor the ambitious monarch: his army, led by the first generals of the age, and organized to a high degree of perfection, was beyond comparison the best in Europe; his diplomatists were men of parts and experience, and his finances seemed equal to any effort. By his alliances, too, he had, he thought, secured the consent of Christendom to his schemes of conquest. He was giving apparent aid at this time to the States; but it is now known that he was offering Charles II. a share of the spoil of the Spanish monarchy, if England would be friendly or neutral, and Charles lent a willing ear to his overtures, though no positive engagement was made. As for the rest of Europe, Louis had obtained the acquiescence of the emperor Leopold by a policy of promises, threats, and bribes, carried out with remarkable boldness and skill; and he had bought over, cajoled, or terrified, a majority of the princes along the Rhine, who were almost vassals of France since the Peace of Westphalia. The northern courts, moreover, had been won by similar means, and also because Louis had soothed their fears by renouncing a project to place a French prince on the throne of Poland; and even Frederick William, the great elector, already jealous of French ambition, and meditating a league of German States against it, had been brought into an alliance with the king. In 1666, when England and the States were destroying each other in a deadly conflict, it seemed all but certain that the coveted provinces would soon drop into the lap of France.
One statesman only in Europe had tried to check these projects of French aggression, and had already foreseen their natural results. Even before the death of Philip IV., John de Witt had exchanged ideas with De Lionne with reference to the Spanish Netherlands; and it would have been well for the world and France had Louis given heed to his enlightened counsels. The object of the Dutch statesman was to keep France at a distance from the United Provinces; he perfectly understood the kind of neighbor she would prove to be if seated on the Scheldt; and he proposed that, in the event of Spain being obliged to cede her Netherland provinces, these — according to a project of Richelieu — should be constituted an independent State, under the protection of the great powers of Europe, — anticipating, in fact, the modern settlement of Belgium; or, as an alternative, that France and the States should agree to divide these debatable lands, a fortified barrier being raised between them. The arguments he addressed to the king and his ministers in favor of this far-sighted scheme — which, it will be remarked, forestalled the policy with regard to France and the Low Countries, since carried out in different ways from the Peace of Utrecht to 1830 — are remarkable for their provident wisdom. The grand pensionary, endeavoring to further the interests of the States, but reasoning to influence French statesmen, distinctly pointed out that England would never permit France to become mistress of the Spanish Netherlands; that a terrible conflict would be the consequence; and that, in any case, it was the true policy of France to keep the maritime power of England in check by a cordial alliance with the Dutch republic, this depending upon the frank adoption of the plan of which we have traced the outline. The subsequent course of European history attests the sagacity of these views; and how different would have been the march of events had they been accepted by Louis XIV.! But when did arrogance and conscious power listen to the voice of justice and reason? Colbert, it is said, backed John de Witt's proposals; but the king paid little attention to them; and, when everything was ready, the invasion began. In the spring of 1667 three French armies marched from Picardy and Lorraine into the Spanish Netherlands, under the command of Louis himself and Turenne; and the campaign, it was said, was a "summer journey." In an incredibly short time the Spanish fortresses on the Lys, the Dender, the Scheldt, and the Sambre, ill-provided, surprised, and weakly defended, opened their gates to the exulting conquerors; Lille alone stood a regular siege; and as autumn approached, the French watch-fires might have been descried from the walls of Brussels.
The grand pensionary, as may be supposed, beheld with alarm the extreme rapidity and suddenness of this easy conquest; and the policy he had advocated was no longer feasible. Skilled, however, beyond most men in expedients, and, as usual, manœuvring to gain time, he submitted to Louis a new project, and proposed that, in the existing state of affairs, Spain should acquiesce in accomplished facts, and that France should retain a part of the Netherlands; and the republic, he added, would support the king, should Spain not accept the proffered conditions. But on the death of the young king of Spain — a decrepit child not expected to live — his old plan was to be entertained again; and the residue of the Netherlands was to be made a neutral state — like the Belgium, as we have said, of the present day — and to be partitioned, leaving a fortified barrier. To the surprise of Saint-Germain, and of John de Witt himself, Louis, towards the close of 1667, accepted in principle the proposed terms; nay, he claimed a smaller part of his late conquests than he had demanded two months previously. The grand pensionary nevertheless paused; maintained a dubious attitude for a time; and then, with a quickness scarcely his wont, adopted a policy almost wholly new. The attack on the Low Countries, and the dangerous progress made in a few weeks by the arms of France, had aroused general alarm in Europe; and in England, especially, the old jealousy of France had been made intense by these events — the feeling, in truth, had been growing for years — and had provoked an outburst of national wrath. At this juncture, too, the men who had inclined to a French alliance in the closet of Charles, and had usually supported a French policy, had been driven from office, or had lost power; and a set of ministers were in their places, who were generally believed to regard France with distrust, and who, it might be supposed, from their professed sympathies, would uphold a Protestant power like the States. The new administration, nay the king himself, yielding to the force of popular sentiment, made overtures to the Dutch republic; and the grand pensionary saw in these proposals the means of assuring at least the success of his projects as to the Spanish Netherlands, and of providing that Louis should keep his word. The result is well known to students of history; John de Witt and Temple met at the Hague; and the Triple Alliance was the fruit of the negotiations of a few momentous days. By this compact, England, the Dutch, and Sweden — that State, too, had become jealous of Louis — agreed that Spain ought to be made to cede — if necessary by force — the strip of the Netherlands claimed recently by the king of France; but provision was made by a secret article, that, should Louis depart from his own terms, the three powers would declare war against him, and would enter into a closer alliance. Of the future of the Low Countries little was said, and, to ensure secrecy and expedition, the instrument was approved by a small committee only, chosen from the body of the States-General, and was not submitted, according to the law, to the States of any of the Seven Provinces, an expedient which shows how great was the power of John de Witt and his confidence in himself.
There is always danger when a State changes its old alliances for a new system; and in this instance the change was certainly fraught with ill to the Dutch republic. Very possibly, too, the grand pensionary would not have taken a course opposed to his usual policy of leaning on France, had he thoroughly understood our insular politics, and read the hearts of Charles and the Cabal. Yet we now know that he was completely justified in distrusting the proposals of Louis; and he was in the right in endeavoring to find security against the aggressiveness of the king. The offers of Louis were not sincere; at this very time he had made a secret treaty with the emperor for the final partition, in certain events, of the whole Spanish monarchy, inconsistent with his pledges to John de Witt; and it was perhaps the knowledge of this audacious compact that caused the Dutch statesman to treat with Temple. As for the Triple Alliance, it soon came to nothing. It lasted, in fact, a few months only, and it had but little effect on the subsequent Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668, by which Spain lost a great part of the Netherlands. It may appear strange, therefore, that this celebrated league was regarded by a generation of Englishmen as a political event of supreme importance, and that it really forms a landmark in the history of the time; and yet it is not difficult to understand the reason. Up to this period the power of France had been growing for fully half a century, until it had become dangerous to every nation. In fact it overshadowed Europe; and yet it had seemed impossible to check its progress, and no coalition had made the attempt. But the Triple Alliance opposed resistance, for the first time, to this evil ascendency; and, what is more significant, it proved the forerunner of the alliances which, during the next forty years, curbed the ambition and pride of Louis XIV., and finally triumphed at the Peace of Utrecht. For our fathers, therefore, it was the first turn in a tide of events long viewed with alarm, the first ray that shows a break in the storm; and it became the harbinger of an age of glory, succeeding years of national decline and weakness. Many of the generation that had heard of Seneffe, and were eye-witnesses of the disaster at Chatham, lived to exult over the great deeds of Marlborough, and to see England the first power in Europe. The Triple Alliance, in the eyes of these men, was as certainly connected with the later events, as the rising of Spain in 1807—8 was associated in our fathers' thoughts with the triumphs of Wellington and the Allies and the fall of Napoleon.
The republic was, for a brief season, at rest after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. John de Witt, re-elected in 1663, had become grand pensionary by a fourth election; and the States basked in the sun of good fortune which had usually shone during his long supremacy. But a dark hour of disaster was near; and though, after a fearful trial, the commonwealth escaped from the danger, its illustrious head was to perish in the shock. Louis XIV. never forgave the insult, as he thought it, of the Triple Alliance. That a junto of traders should thwart the policy and distrust the word of the royalty of France, was a plebeian outrage not to be borne; and fuel was added to the wrath of the king by caricatures from the free press of the States, and by a tariff hostile to Colbert's views. To humble, perhaps to destroy the republic, became with Louis a settled resolve; and to effect his object he toiled for two years with an assiduous energy, which attests alike the vindictiveness of his despotic nature, and his high estimate of the power of the States. His army, fresh from a recent campaign in Franche Comté, as brilliant as that of 1667 in the Low Countries, was raised to full two hundred thousand men; and extraordinary exertions were made to fit out a fleet capable, to some extent, of contending with the renowned Dutch navy. As was his wont, too, Louis spared no effort to form alliances against the intended enemy; and, like Napoleon in the great war of 1812, the king united more than half Europe in a league to crush the imperilled commonwealth. He turned to England in the first instance, and the secret negotiations and Treaty of Dover secured the compliance of the Cabal with his views, by pandering to the wants and passions of Charles, by encouraging royal intrigues in Parliament, and even by solid provision for English interests in a proposed partition of the territories of the States, and a guarantee in favor of the Spanish Netherlands, or rather of what remained of them. The other allies of the king were gained by expedients, for the most part, similar to those which had proved successful in 1666—7. The secret treaty for the partitioning of Spain was dangled before the eyes of the emperor; and he was told, on the one hand, that the ruin of the States would facilitate this iniquitous scheme, and, on the other, that, if he opposed the king, all Hungary would be stirred up against him. Extraordinary precautions were taken to assure the cooperation of the Rhenish princes, especially of the great bishops of Münster and Cologne, for the territories along the lower Rhine were to be the theatre of the projected attack; and the elector of Bavaria, and other States, were induced or compelled to join the alliance. The northern courts were won over also; and, in fact, all Europe north of the Danube, if we except the grand elector and a few petty princes, were combined in a league to assail the States when the king of France should give the first signal. The preparations for the great enterprise went on during 1670 and 1671, and John de Witt labored to avert the danger already gathering around his country. As usual, however, he regarded politics as an affair of reason undisturbed by passion; he hesitated, perhaps, too long to act; and in one instance, certainly of supreme importance, the hopes he entertained were completely frustrated. He made great efforts to turn away Louis from his evident purpose by tempting offers; he kept Spain outside the Triple Alliance, and opened again the question of the Spanish succession and he once more proposed that France and the States should reduce the naval pretensions of England, which had already given the king umbrage. Louis, however, put these projects aside, or trifled with them merely to gain time; and the Dutch statesman, it must be admitted, from his lifelong sympathies or from ignorance of courts, was not suspicious enough of this dubious attitude. As for the rest of the Continent, John de Witt appears to have thought that the Empire and its dependents could not be induced to form a league so obviously fatal to their own interests, as would lead to an attack on the States; and if this conclusion was at the moment wrong, it rested on grounds of solid sense, as subsequent history amply proved. For the time, however, the States were forestalled, and had secret foes where they ought to have found allies; and, as regards England, the grand pensionary unquestionably was altogether deceived, with consequences even more disastrous. The diplomatists of the States at Whitehall failed to get wind of the Treaty of Dover; John de Witt was left in complete ignorance of the late revolution in English policy; and, as Parliament and the nation still clearly pronounced for the Triple Alliance and all that was implied in it, he believed that he could rely on England, in the last resort, against French aggression. As a general consequence, the States remained almost isolated in a hostile Europe, and French statecraft had opened a way apparently safe for French conquest. Yet John de Witt was not wholly discomfited in this long game of intrigue; Spain and Frederick William promised assistance; and these alliances ultimately proved of incalculable value in the hour of need. To the disasters that threatened the States from abroad, was to be added, besides, a peril at home, which had grown for years, and become most formidable. The Orange party had at no period accepted cordially a high-burgher government, and on several occasions it had angrily stirred and created serious and widespread trouble. On the whole, however, it had acquiesced, in prosperous times, in the rule of John de Witt; and during the boyhood of the young prince it was a defeated faction without a head. The grand pensionary too, with characteristic skill, had successfully labored to divide and lessen the dreaded influence of William III.: he had dexterously played on family jealousies to separate and weaken his closest adherents; and he had contrived to enact a law by which future stadtholders were pronounced, in certain events, ineligible to hold military and civil posts at the same time. Nevertheless, with his habitual love of compromise, he had indirectly opposed the States of Holland in a proposition to abolish the office of stadtholder, and to transfer its functions; and he actually undertook in person to superintend the studies and education of the prince, sincerely believing that he was a friend of the lad, and that he could mould William III. to high-burgher sympathies. Calm and self-contained, like his great ancestor, but apt to dissimulate, even in his teens, the young man silently accepted his lot, and treated his preceptor with studied deference; but he suddenly quitted John de Witt's roof, on the first occasion when a chance offered, and he contrived to make his escape into Zealand, always the stronghold of the Orange party. He was received in the province with general acclaim, was declared by the States their "first noble," the local rank enjoyed by his house; and he was soon at the head of a great following, enthusiastically attached to his name and cause. The contagion spread through the other provinces, and William found himself, at the age of twenty, the leader of a formidable party in the States, strong in the support of the Calvinist clergy (always on the side of the house of Orange), of the mass of the people, who bore with ill-will the domination of the high-burgher caste, and of the classes and persons who are at all times dissatisfied with an existing government. At this moment, in fact, when invasion was near, revolution threatened the republic at home; and John de Witt, who had unwillingly raised the Prince of Orange to high place in the State, was compelled at the close of 1671, by general pressure impossible to resist, to give him the chief command in the army, and to entrust the defence of the commonwealth to an untried general of twenty-two. This was a heavy blow to the grand pensionary's power; and other causes conspired to shake the authority already slipping from him, and to weaken and undermine his government. All who had felt jealous of his supremacy, and the false friends who had fawned on his greatness, fell away from him in the hour of danger; and it had become impossible to act with the vigor and energy required at a tremendous crisis in a State torn by domestic faction.
John de Witt, however, was not found wanting, or unworthy of himself, at this great emergency; and the author of this book deserves the credit of having relieved this part of the statesman's career from the obloquy which has been thrown upon it. When it had become evident that war was certain, that is in the first months of 1672, the grand pensionary addressed himself to preparations for the national defence, with the intelligence and firmness of a real man of action. The navy, under the command of De Ruyter, was already in a high state of perfection; it numbered a hundred and thirty men-of-war and frigates — a proof how immense was the power of the States at sea. John de Witt, still ignorant of the Treaty of Dover, proposed to employ a part of this armament in shutting up the French fleets in their harbors, and in making descents on the coasts of France; and great exertions were made to accomplish a plan cordially approved by De Ruyter. By land, too, with a true instinct, the grand pensionary desired to forestall the enemy's attack, and to take the offensive, or, at least, to keep the French at a distance; and he wished to fall suddenly on the exposed territories of the allies of Louis along the Rhine, and to occupy in force the strong places upon the lower course of the river, throwing garrisons, besides, into the fortresses of the Meuse. Unfortunately the military power of the States was not equal to efforts like these; and time was wanting to increase it largely, especially in the distracted state of the commonwealth. The army of the republic had always been an appanage of the house of Orange; it had not been favored by the high-burgher class; and during the long years of repose on the frontier, which had followed the end of the war with Spain, it had gradually been greatly reduced in numbers, and had fallen into a state of decline and indiscipline. Corruption, weakness, and insubordination of all kinds, in fact, prevailed at this time in the force which had once contended with Parma's legions, and had repeatedly baffled the art of Spinola; and, with a strength on paper of one hundred thousand men, it numbered less than thirty thousand soldiers. In this state of things, and also because the fortresses, which in past wars had proved such formidable points of defence, were many of them ill-prepared and ill-armed, John de Witt was compelled to abandon his project; and the army of the States, under the Prince of Orange, was concentrated behind the line of the Yssel, with garrisons only in the fortified towns along the banks of the Meuse and the Rhine. Extraordinary exertions, however, were made to raise new levies, and to improve the fortresses; and if the grand pensionary cannot escape blame for having, during his protracted rule, neglected the military force of the States, and for being too late at this conjuncture, he made good use of the resources at hand to place the commonwealth in a state of defence.
In May, 1672, the long-threatened tempest suddenly burst. Three armies, organized with extreme care, and furnished with every appliance required to master rivers and overcome fortresses, were directed against the territories of the States: the first, under the command of Luxembourg, advancing to meet the allied contingents of the two bishops on the lower Rhine; the second, with the great Condé at its head, moving on a parallel line by the Meuse; the third, led by Turenne and Louis, by the Sambre across the Spanish Netherlands, the neutrality of which had been violated with contempt, as in the case, long afterwards, of the campaign of Ulm. The second and third armies effected their junction not far from Maestricht, on the lower Meuse. That celebrated fortress did not arrest the movement, having been masked by a sufficient detachment; and Louis, following the counsel of Turenne, a master of the great operations of war, made, with his united forces, for the lower Rhine. The celerity of the invaders' march was unexampled in the seventeenth century; fortress after fortress, assailed with the art and resources perfected by the renowned Vauban, and feebly defended, opened their gates; and by the second week of June, the victorious French had turned the great defensive line of the Wahal, and had penetrated into the province of Gelderland. The barrier of the Leck was next broken through, an advanced guard of horse having forced the passage, under the eyes of the king, with audacious courage; and by the 14th of June the conquering army, from sixty to eighty thousand strong, was rapidly marching towards the Yssel. The Prince of Orange had not more than thirty thousand men to defend the river; his army, besides, was too extended; and he was compelled to retreat from the last line of vantage, and to fall back to the verge of Holland. Meanwhile Luxembourg and his auxiliary forces were overrunning the northern provinces; towards the middle of June they had reached the Yssel and drawn near to the main army; and, in a few days, the fortified towns on the river, following the example of their sisters on the Rhine, had succumbed to the invader's efforts. Louis, before this, had approached Utrecht and taken possession of the surrounding country; and, by the 18th of June, the citizens of Amsterdam heard with terror that a vast hostile force was encamped within a few leagues of their walls. Had the king listened to the advice of Condé – the most daring and brilliant general of the age — a few thousand horsemen might at this crisis have fallen upon and captured the city; and, in that event, it is difficult to see how the commonwealth could have escaped destruction.
Hostilities had begun a month only; the invaders had marched from conquest to conquest; and now Zealand and Holland were the only provinces of the republic outside their iron grasp. Even at sea the projects of the grand pensionary had been to a great extent frustrated; Charles, throwing off the mask, had declared war, and endeavored to suppress the voice of his people; and the junction of the English and French squadrons had made the intended descents impossible. De Ruyter, indeed, had vindicated his high renown; he had surprised the allied fleets in the roads of Solebay, and had gained a bloody but indecisive victory; but the navy of the States, after the disasters on land, was compelled gradually to abandon the sea, and was drawn towards the coast for the national defence. The situation seemed all but hopeless; and, in the universal panic caused by the rapidity and completeness of the French invasion, John de Witt assembled the States-General, and, with their approval, sent a deputation to Louis. It may well be that the proposal to treat, at this terrible crisis, was an unwise policy; the grand pensionary ought probably to have seen that concession and compromise were now useless, and that resistance to the death was the one chance for his country; but the step he took, it is just to recollect, was sanctioned by the great national council, by a large majority of his own order, and even by many of the people of Holland; and finally it was in no sense opposed by the Prince of Orange and the military chiefs, who thought it impossible to prolong the war. On the other hand, the author of this work, with an industry and research deserving all praise, has shown that the heroic resolve which first arrested the invader's progress, and proved the salvation of the republic, was due in the main to the high-minded statesman, who is described by more than one historian of the time as, at this conjuncture, a pusillanimous coward. Before the French army had drawn near Utrecht, John de Witt had secretly given directions to have everything ready to pierce the dykes; and at the very time when he was parleying with the foe, he was inviting the chief men of the towns of Holland to venture upon a tremendous experiment, to be justified only by the extremity of danger. The assembly was by no means unanimous; many angry or timid protests were raised, but the grand pensionary was firm in his purpose; and the magistrates of Amsterdam having declared on his side, the orders were issued in the third week of June. In a few days the devouring sea, regaining with joy its ancient domain, had blotted out a rich and prosperous landscape formed by the toil of industrious ages; and villages, houses, pastures, and gardens, had disappeared under its silent wastes. But a broad and impassable expanse of waters lay between Amsterdam and the French army; and men-of-war, floating like fortresses on the waves, formed a line of defence round the still imperilled city.
By this time the republican envoys — of whom De Groot, a son of the famous Grotius, and formerly ambassador from the States to France, was the most eminent — had made their way to the camp of Louis. The king scornfully refused to see them, and handed them over to the pitiless Louvois, who, on the pretence that they had not sufficient powers, sent them back to the States without a word of hope. De Groot and his colleagues were at the Hague on the 25th and 26th of June; but they found the government almost in anarchy, and a revolution already imminent. The disasters of the commonwealth had brought disgrace on the long dominant high-burgher caste, and had enormously strengthened the Orange party; an insurrectionary movement had begun; and the grand pensionary, a mark for conspiracy, had been severely wounded by the hands of assassins. Long and angry debates, not restrained by the wisdom and moderating influence of John de Witt, followed in the States of Holland and the States. General on the question of treating further with Louis; the deputies of Amsterdam and of five other towns insisted on breaking off, and refused to vote; the representatives in the States-General of five of the provinces were absent, or uttered doubtful protests; but ultimately a majority in the States of Holland gave De Grout full powers in the name of the commonwealth, the secretary of the States-General withholding his signature to an instrument which expressed their consent. The vote, due in the main to the influence of a discredited class in a single province, became the signal for a great Orange rising, and for a tremendous outburst of popular passion. A cry went forth from Zealand and Holland, and found an echo in the other provinces, that the base merchants who had mismanaged everything, and had brought the nation to the verge of ruin, were about to save their wealth and their skins, by making an ignominious peace with the enemy; and a furious demand for a change in the government was adroitly encouraged by the adherents of William, and was backed by a mass of angry discontent, and by the army almost to a man; while it was even approved by reflecting persons, who sincerely thought that, at this crisis, the best chance for the commonwealth lay in a transfer of power to the Prince of Orange. Words rapidly passed into significant acts; a general insurrection broke out; in several towns the existing head men were violently replaced by Orange partisans; in others the magistrates were forced to swear allegiance to the young chief of the army, who was already hailed as the new chief of the State; in many, the government was denounced by excited and shouting mobs as knaves and cowards; and in some the burgher class had to hide their heads, or fly for their lives from the wrath of the populace. The movement was wild, but, on the whole, national; and rude banners worked with the quaint inscription of "Orange open, Witt (White) onder," as they were flung out from many a tower and steeple, or were borne on high in a hundred market-places, attested the force of the prevailing sentiment. Nor was the success of the rising doubtful; the States of Holland — the centre and seat of the authority of the late ruling order — were compelled in terror, and under the threats of the populace, to give the revolution a solemn sanction, and to place William at the head of the commonwealth. On the 1st of July the prince was invested with the full authority of the ancient stadtholders by the assembly which, a few years before, had tried hard to abolish the office.
The change in the government was sudden and complete. John de Witt ere long retired from the post he had filled with honor for nearly twenty years, and the administration of the two unconquered provinces was transferred to adherents of the Prince of Orange. Revolution, how ever, thirsts for blood, and the abettors of faction and popular fury united in a fierce cry for vengeance on the alleged traitors and foes of the States. The late grand pensionary was naturally the chief object of this passionate hate; but the first blow fell on the faithful brother, who had been for years his best friend and adviser. Cornelius de Witt, as high commissioner of the States, had been at sea during the late contest, and his presence of mind, of which he had given proof on De Ruyter's deck during the fight of Solebay, had won the admiration of the great seamen and his crew. But party madness thrust aside such memories: he had resented the violent change of magistrates at Dort, where the revolution first broke out, and this was enough in itself to mark him for a victim. An informer, infamous in life and character, made a false and scandalous charge against him, of having conspired against the Prince of Orange; and, having been arrested, and, contrary to law, taken out of the jurisdiction of Dort, he was cast into the state prison of the Hague. The judges of the supreme court of Holland, either being partisans of the new government or influenced by the frenzy of the hour, felt no scruples about trying to extort a confession from him by the direst tortures, and when the barbarous attempt had failed, and no proof of guilt could be found, they sentenced him to banishment for life. This example, however, went for nothing, while the other brother, a greater criminal in the eyes of the multitude, remained unpunished. John de Witt had been the head of the high-burgher class; he had always favored the national enemy; he had done nothing for the defence of the provinces; he had neglected, wasted, and misdirected everything; and mingled with these terrible charges, in which falsehood was artfully combined with truth, calumny noised about that he had betrayed the republic, that his private life had been steeped in vice, and that he was a bad citizen and a designing traitor. Denunciations like these breed crime, as a matter of course, at a popular crisis, and a conspiracy was hatched to murder the statesman who a few months before had been the pride of his countrymen. The wretches who had informed against one brother, and, terrible to relate, one of that brother's judges, were deep in the plot against the late grand pensionary; and it was finally agreed that a visit, to be made by John de Witt to Cornelius in prison, should be the occasion for the slaughter of both. The deed was to be done by a mob directed against the prison when the brothers were inside; but the conspiracy had skilful and determined leaders, and the sympathy at least of the multitude; and it is not improbable that John de Witt was lured to the terrible fate prepared for him by an invitation forged in his brother's name.
The tragedy that followed was not only a national crime of the deepest dye, with horrible and revolting incidents, but it illustrates one of the lessons of history, that in a revolution authority will often fail, be untrue to itself, and become powerless in presence of reckless and audacious wickedness. The charge of the state prison and the adjoining precincts was, it seems, divided between a committee of the States of Holland, at this time in session, and the magistrates of the town council of the Hague; and, as intelligence of a plot had perhaps been obtained, a body of soldiers from the regular army and parties from the train-bands of the guilds had been stationed around the building, with orders to keep the peace and to drive off a crowd. As soon, however, as an excited multitude, stirred to fury by the authors of the plot, had surged into the square around the prison, the members of the committee of the States slunk away, or only protested feebly; the magistrates, retreating to the town hall, entered into a parley with the very men who had been told off to commit the crime, and the soldiers were marched away on a false pretext, the commander, alone true to his duty, exclaiming against the desertion of their post. Thus the work to be done became easy; the train-band parties made no resistance; and one of these bodies actually furnished hands to consummate the execrable deed. We transcribe from the volumes before us details of the crime and the scenes that followed; the narrative is copious and less dull than usual. The assassins found the doomed men together: —
- The brothers heard them approach without alarm. Cornelius de Witt, broken down by the agonies of torture, was stretched upon his bed; he wore a nightcap, and was dressed in a robe of foreign stuff. John de Witt, who had kept on his shoulders his velvet cloak, was seated before a table at the foot of the bed. He was reading the Bible to his brother, to strengthen him against the fear of death, and the anguish of the last hour of life. The officers of the guilds, who were their guardians, tried in vain to defend them against the murderers; these drove them back, charged them with having been bribed, and threatened them with the fate of the prisoners.
A kind of prelude to the crime followed: —
- Impatient to hasten to the bloody end, Verhoef, followed by his band, rushes to the bed of Cornelius de Witt, rudely draws the curtains, and exclaims, "Traitor, you must die; pray to God, and get ready." "What harm have done you?" was the calm answer of the victim. "You intended to take away the Prince's life; make haste, get up at once," said Verhoef. Proud and resigned, as he had been in the presence of the torturer, and with his bands joined, the magistrate collects himself in a last prayer, while a blow with the butt-end of a musket, directed against him, and turned aside by Verhoef, strikes one of the posts of the bed and breaks it. He is commanded to dress, and as he is putting a stocking on, a dagger is brandished at him, and he is forced to get up. John de Witt, separated from his brother by the irruption of the assassins, and having tried in vain to lay hold of a sword to defend himself and die, boldly advances to meet them, and asks them if they propose to slay him likewise. "Yes," is the cry; "traitor, scoundrel, thief, the fate of your brother will be yours." At this moment, Van Soenen, a notary, strikes him on the back of his head with a pike, and blood gushes out. The Grand Pensionary calmly takes off his hat, and binds the wound with his pocket-handkerchief. Crossing his arms, he exclaims, in a firm tone of voice, "Do you wish my life? throw me, then, on the ground at your feet," And he bared his breast.
The victims were then dragged forth from the prison, and massacred in sight of the populace: —
- By Verhoef's orders, John and Cornelius de Witt, forced from their room, are violently driven towards the circular staircase, with its twenty-nine steps. The Grand Pensionary is dragged down first; his brother, wounded by a blow from a board, is nearly thrown over and hurled to the lowest banister. Scarcely able to move, he stretches out his arms. Their hands join in a parting clasp; and, looking at each other for the last time, each says, "Brother, good-bye!"
- When they reached the bottom of the staircase, they could not speak, and lost sight of each other. Verhoef had made John de Witt go on first; he kept close to him, like an executioner. "Troubled by the power of his eye," as be himself declared, he would not have dared to strike the first blow, even with the aid of two comrades, had John de Witt possessed a weapon to defend himself. He admitted that he was confounded by the coolness of the Grand Pensionary, who, having now only his honor to save, justified himself from the crime of treason laid to his charge, and exclaimed, "If all had done as I, not a town would have been surrendered," Hearing this conversation, and fearing that the prey would escape, the murderers began to accuse Verhoef of having been bribed, and of accepting from John de Witt his purse and watch. To clear himself, he pushed his victim away, and handed him over to the band of savages, who were waiting for him at the entrance of the prison, in order to conduct him, with his brother, sixty paces further to the scaffold in front of his house in the Kneuterdijk. Their fury prevented them from carrying out their orders, and the two prisoners were immolated before they reached the customary place of execution.
- Cornelius de Witt, having been dragged rather than led in the footsteps of his brother, — he had been behind him, — was the first to perish by the hands of the murderers. "What do you wish me to do?" he said; "whither am I to go?" Scarcely has be passed from the prison vault, driven along at the point of daggers and pikes, and entered the adjoining square, when, forced against the balustrade that overlooks the canal, he stumbles, falls to the ground, and is trodden under foot. Two citizens, a wineseller called Van Kyp and one Louw, a butcher, strike him down with the butts of their guns. He was trying to raise himself on his hands, when Cornelis d'Assigny, an engraver, the lieutenant of the Blue train-band, stabs him with a dagger, while a sailor splits his skull with a hatchet. The bystanders then rush forward and dance on the corpse.
- The agony of his brother follows close upon his own. John de Witt, having been led from the prison bareheaded, and with blood flowing down his face from the stroke of the pike, had wrapped himself up in a cloak, and was making use of it to ward off the blows that were aimed at him from every side, He had been delivered from Verhoef, who, wounded by a blow from a musket, had thought it unsafe to stay by his side, and was trying to escape; and he was addressing the spectators in last words like these, "What are you doing? surely you do not wish this?" when the pitiless men of the Blue train-band drive him back, and close their ranks, while he makes a vain attempt to get through their double line. He was turning his head, horror-stricken, as the frightful sounds that announced the death of his brother reached his ears, when he is shot from behind by a pistol fired by John Van Valme, a navy officer, whose brother had been one of Verhoef's band. Seeing him totter and fall, the assassin exclaims, "There is the Perpetual Edict on the ground!"
- John de Witt, bruised and dying, is nevertheless still able to lift his head, and to stretch his clasped hands towards heaven, when this last insult is not spared: "You pray to God? why you don't believe in Him; you have long ago abjured Him, you traitor and miscreant!" At this moment, another assassin, Peter Verhaguen, an innkeeper, leaves the ranks of the Blue train-band; his gun having missed fire, he gives the Grand Pensionary a violent blow on the head with a musket, which leaves him senseless; and then some other men of the same company — a butcher, Christopher Haan, was one of them — fire at him point-blank, and thus despatch him. It was half past four in the afternoon.
The atrocities that followed bear a strong resemblance to the revolting scenes of the Reign of Terror: —
- Two corpses were all that remained of the great citizens who, after faithful and glorious services, had been immolated as their country's enemies. These, too, were not spared. Having brought them to one spot, the train-bands next the prison form into a circle, and discharge their pieces in sign of rejoicing. The corpses were then dragged to the scaffold; they were hung up by employing the locks and bandoliers of the muskets. A sailor tied them back to back by the feet, and fastened them to the highest steps of the gibbet, declaring that criminals such as these ought not to be hanged by their heads." Their clothes were torn away and the fragments divided. Adrian Van Vaalm, a postboy, one of the chief conspirators, got hold of the velvet cloak of John de Witt, and ran through the streets, crying out, "Here are the rags of great John the traitor!"
- In the midst of the howling of a mob thirsting for blood, the victims after death received treatment of the most barbarous kind. The two first fingers of John de Witt's right hand were cut off, as if to make him expiate the use he had put them to in signing and assenting to the Perpetual Edict. In wanton outrage the more excited wretches in the crowd mutilated the corpses in the most shameful and obscene fashion. As if to exhibit the last excesses of savage brutality, one of those at this abominable work took a piece of flesh, and boasted that he would eat it. The mangled remnants of the bodies were sold by auction. "I bought," an eyewitness said, "a finger of John de Witt's hand for two sous and a pot of beer."
The 20th of August, 1672, a day long remembered with grief in Europe, was the date of this execrable deed of blood.
The conduct of William in the revolution, of which we have briefly sketched the outline, was of a piece with his well-known character. With habitual self-command and prudence, he took care not to forestall events or to make a single premature step; he had the warrant of law for all his acts; he even refused with grave decorum the office of stadtholder when proffered to him, until he had been formally absolved from the oath he had sworn to obey the fallen government. But he had not uttered a word to restrain the savage violence of his extreme partisans; he allowed the revolution to run its course and to raise him to power, without an attempt to moderate its disgraceful excesses; he acquiesced in anarchy, and profited by it. As for the brothers De Witt, we do not believe that he compassed or even connived at their deaths; his nature was superior to deeds of blood, and, as a statesman, he knew that crimes are blunders; but he artfully encouraged the movement against them; he did not raise a finger to avert their fate; he cynically remarked when all was over that it "was a lamentable but a fortunate accident;" and the principal murderers were, beyond question rewarded or amnestied under his government. Yet genuine and even ardent patriotism undoubtedly blended with selfish ambition in prompting. William to pursue this course of calculating but far-sighted statecraft. He felt, and he was soon to show, that the safety of the republic depended on himself; and, not to speak of the extraordinary powers he was before long to reveal to the world, the ties that linked him to royal houses, and that became the means of securing the aid of more than one monarchy to the Seven Provinces, caused him to be at this crisis their most fitting governor. These considerations tell strongly for him; nor ought we to blame his party for seeking a change in the government at this conjuncture. The services of John de Witt had, no doubt, been splendid; he was personally very little to blame for the comparatively defenceless state of the Provinces; he had labored more successfully than was generally supposed to combine alliances against the enemy; in the hour of trial he had proved himself not unequal to cope with a dire emergency. But he was the representative and head of a class which had in some measure betrayed its trust, and did not possess the national sympathy; he had always favored the alliance with France, and his policy was naturally condemned and decried when a French army was at the gates of Amsterdam. In these circumstances, a general movement to deprive him of office and to place in his stead a scion of a great race of heroes, who on other occasions had saved the commonwealth, was to he expected and was not blameworthy; what history justly censures are the abominable crimes of the revolution which was the consequence.
Success was ere long to justify William, and to shed a ray of light on the States their darkness. A turn in the tide of military events set in by the autumn of 1672. The progress of French conquest was slowly arrested; two other towns made a brave resistance, and Louis returned to France in the winter. In the following year the young statesman, who was now supreme in the Dutch republic, had contrived to win over the great elector and the emperor to a cordial alliance; and, though beaten over and over again in the field by the brilliant generals of France, he pursued his course until he had freed the territory of the States from their late invaders. By the Treaty of Nimeguen, largely due to the authority and renown of William, a fine province was indeed added to France; but the republic suffered no loss whatever; and a nation, lately on the verge of ruin, appeared once more as a great power in Europe. The result must be ascribed, in a great degree, to the ability and perseverance of the Prince of Orange. Yet we ought not to forget that it was John de Witt who prepared the way for the very league which ultimately saved the States from destruction, and who chiefly promoted the heroic purpose through which the French were stayed in their career of conquest. After the tragic death of the grand pensionary, the history of the republic, and indeed of Europe, ran into a new and eventful course; and a period of violent changes and wars, surpassing those of his youth and manhood, and more permanent in their general results, opened on a troubled and long harassed world. The broad consequence was to destroy forever the menacing ascendency of the Bourbon monarchy, to assure England supremacy at sea, and to reduce the power of the Dutch republic; and the order of things established at the Peace of Utrecht proved for many years an enduring settlement. That state of Europe, which it was one main object of the policy of John de Witt to assure, has been made impossible in the march of events. His republic is now a third-rate monarchy, no longer resting on France by land while endeavoring to restrain her ambitious neighbor, and no longer the rival of England at sea; and the aspirations of the Dutch statesman are among the forgotten dreams of the past. Nevertheless history still does justice to the wisdom of his far-sighted views on the ambitious pretensions of Louis XIV.; and the barrier fortresses of the eighteenth century, and the free and neutral Belgium of our own, attest his clear in and sagacious forethoug1gt. We have endeavored briefly to trace the outlines of the life and career of a great worthy, not without faults as a ruler of men, but eminent among the deep-thinking statesmen whom Europe looks up to with love and reverence.
- ^ Jean de Witt, Grand Pensionnaire de Hollande. Par M. Antonin Lefèvre Pontalis. Paris, 1884.
- ^ We mention some of these, and could mention more: Vol. i., p. 7, "Spinosa" for "Spinola;" p. 143, "Askue" for "Ascue;" p. 371, "Robert" for "Rupert;" p. 378, "Hartman" for "Harman;" p. 402, "Sherness" for "Sherness" Vol. ii., p. 103, "Ossery" for "Ossory;" p. 314, "Sotsbay" for "Solebay."
- ^ The attempt of Charles I. to arrest the leaders of the opposition in the House of Commons will recur to the mind of the reader of English history.
- ^ The Duc d'Aumale, in the forthcoming volumes of his "Lives of the Condgés," will, no doubt, explain this important passage of the campaign.
- ^ M. Pontalis denies this; but see Henri Martin and his authorities on the other side. (Histoire de France, vol. xiii., p. 404.)