Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands/Introduction

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In the letters about his travels which were published in 1687 the historian Gilbert Burnet referred to Sir William Temple's Observations upon the United Provinces as 'the most perfect book of its kind that is perhaps in being' and we learn from a contemporary letter that this caused it to be 'bought up mightily upon a suddaine.' It was already in its fourth edition, and it had held for fourteen years the position of the leading English authority on the Dutch republic, better in expression and arrangement and judgment than any of the numerous other books on that state, and as well-informed as any of them. When Temple published it in 1673 the Dutch and the English were at war for the third time within his recollection, and he seems to have written it for the occasion, though a remark in the Preface suggests that parts of it (especially perhaps the second chapter) were copied or adapted from a formal report after his embassy, which ended in 1670 when the war was brewing. The experience of this and his other visits to Holland, from his first private visit in 1652, were the main sources of the book. He refers in it to some historical writers, but not by name to contemporary political or economic authors. Nor, in the later editions, did he make any attempt to bring it up to date. He seems only to have corrected it once: I believe this was for the second edition, but, as this is not in the British Museum or the Bodleian, I have not seen these alterations in any edition earlier than the third. They are not important. The brief account of the provinces other than Holland at the end of chapter II is an addition; the paragraph about the Zuyder Zee is lengthened; and in chapter V the words 'and not admitted to any publick charges' are added to the account of the Roman Catholics. That is all, and the subsequent editions contribute nothing except changes in spelling and capitals and some new printer's errors. The present reprint follows the text of the fifth edition published in 1690. No alterations have been made except that obvious misprints have been corrected.

Temple was characteristically pleased with his book. He wrote that he wished King Charles II had leisure to read his two short chapters on religion and trade. As time went on he must have seen himself that the book was not perfect. Before very long it was pointed out that he had shown the reasons of the fall of the United Provinces 'before they were down.' A generation later the cosmopolitan reviewer Jean le Clerc examined it minutely. He drew attention to some minor obscurities in the constitutional part, to the needlessly guarded statements about the soundness of the Bank of Amsterdam, to the error of describing the prosperous years 1669 and 1670 as a time when Dutch foreign trade was bad, and to the too-close identification of the states-party with Arminianism. Beyond that he could find no errors of fact except that the water in the Haarlemmer Meer was not fresh but brackish. It is indeed not in errors but in omissions that a modern reader finds the book weakest. There is nothing about Dutch painting or learning or science, three of the great wonders of that age. And if Temple had known anything about Dutch poetry he would not have made his absurd remarks about the Dutch as lovers.

His purpose in writing was not merely to convey information about the Dutch, but to explain and indeed to expatiate. He gives his views not only on politics, and economics and history, but on geology and human character and medicine. As specimens of the thought of his time they are all interesting and some of them are important. His passage about the spleen may border on the irrelevant, but it belongs to the same point of view with, what he has to say about the low rate of interest and trade cycles and (not wisely) about population or the balance of trade. What holds the book together is a method of interpreting history, a method which is summed up in the dictum: 'Most national customs are the effect of some unseen, or unobserved, natural causes or necessities.' This idea and ideas related to it were kindling much of the best thought of that time, and Temple must have been in contact with them from his youth. As an undergraduate at Cambridge his humour was too lively to pursue the harsh studies of logic and philosophy and he spent most of his time on 'entertainments,' especially tennis; but, even so, two years at Emmanuel with Cudworth as his tutor may have taught him much without his knowing it.

Since the book is explanatory it requires little explanation even now. For the few rare or obsolete words, including the Gallicisms (licensed, fond, force, digues), it is not necessary to look further than the Oxford English Dictionary. Some of the place-names are oddly spelt, but they are not difficult except perhaps 'the Burse' or 'the Barse,' variants of 'the Buss,' the then familiar English name for 'den Bosch' or Bois-le-Duc. I wish I knew exactly how Temple came to pitch on the village of Molkwerum near Stavoren as a type of the old Germanic settlement: the paragraph in which he talks about it anticipates modern historical methods in a most striking way. There are indeed plenty of other passages which illustrate the scantiness and inaccuracy of the historical information at Temple's disposal; but, although in the seventeenth century modern historical methods were only beginning to be used, their emergence was a vital part of a great intellectual movement. Knowledge from every branch of science was being brought to bear on the interpretation of human history and human society, and the permanence of this book is due to Temple's belief in this study as one science among the others.



24 October 1932