Historians have usually described the government of the Netherlands in the two centuries between 1579 and the political system’s collapse in the late 18th century as a “republic.” Consistent with his commentary about the government of Venice, James Madison did not approve of this characterization. In Number 20 of The Federalist, he deemed the United Netherlands “a confederacy of republics, or rather of aristocracies, of a very remarkable texture.” While at times complimentary in his assessment, overall he saw in their government further evidence of what ailed, in his view, all confederations, including the United States under the Articles of Confederation.
Like the Articles, the Dutch system was forged in a war for independence, the first goal of which was to survive militarily. The Dutch referred to their Revolt of the Netherlands as the “Eighty Years’ War.” Fighting against Spain began in 1566, the seven northern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands formally united in their common cause through the Union of Utrecht in 1579, a watershed step not unlike the agreements of mutual aid and action among the North American colonies in the years before 1776. The Dutch analogue to the American Declaration of Independence was the Act of Abjuration of 1581 against the king of Spain. There were some truces and cessations of hostilities in subsequent decades, but independence was not officially recognized until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the much broader European conflict known as the Thirty-Years’ War. Still, the Dutch Republic had been functioning as an independent nation long before the status became official.
In the romanticized founding myths of the Dutch, the struggle was about religious toleration and national independence precipitated by an inquisition launched by the Spanish crown in support of the Council of Trent of 1543 and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. That may have been the motivator for some portion of the populace, and the assertion was useful in papering over the tensions which arose among the provinces during the war. The general reality was less lofty and more prosaic.
The Habsburg family ruled the Holy Roman Empire. They had received 17 provinces of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1482, which were allotted to the family’s Spanish branch in 1556. What happened next sounds familiar to the student of American history. The new Spanish king, Philip II, sought to centralize administration over these provinces located some distance from Spain, and to increase the efficiency of tax collecting. This would diminish the power that local bodies had previously exercised under the more hands-off approach of the Burgundians and the Emperor. The commercial towns in the southern provinces and the local nobles viewed this as an attack on their ancient privileges, secular and religious.
With resistance turning into rioting in 1566, the Spanish government sent an army, led by the Duke of Alba. Although a very capable military leader said by some to be one of the greatest of all time, he was a harsh governor, referred to by the Dutch as the “Iron Duke.” His army was generally successful against the rebels, but his policy of mass executions, sackings of towns, and massacres coalesced the population against the Spanish. The rebels received the support of a Catholic German-Dutch prince, William of the House of Orange-Nassau, the incumbent royal governor of several of the provinces. Colloquially—but unjustifiably—known as William the Silent for his supposed self-control not to erupt in anger, he was an effective political leader. As one of the richest Dutch nobles, he was also an important financial supporter of the rebels.
Although William had some successes against the Spanish army, the Duke of Alba eventually defeated his forces. William fled to his ancestral lands in Germany, from where he organized several mostly unsuccessful invasions. In 1573, Philip II relieved Alba of command and instituted a policy of reconciliation and acquiescence to greater local control. That split the rebels. The mostly Catholic southern provinces, which constitute Belgium today, returned to the Spanish fold. The seven increasingly Protestant provinces of the north remained in rebellion under William’s leadership. Dutch military fortunes brightened after the army of the United Provinces was formed following the Union of Utrecht. The army was placed under the command of William’s son, Maurice, after William was assassinated by a Spanish agent in 1584. Prince Maurice remained a prominent military and political leader for the next forty years.
One facet of the conflict at which the Dutch were consistently better than the Spanish was at sea. The northern provinces had long been oriented to fishing and maritime trade. Their coastal trade surpassed that of England and France in the 16th century. By the 17th century, their horizon had expanded to oceanic trade and the acquisition of colonies and foreign trading concessions. Along with that experience came skills in naval warfare. Professor Scott Gordon, in his thorough work on checks and balances in older constitutions, Controlling the State, estimates that, in the middle of the 17th century, the United Provinces owned more shipping capacity than England, France, the German states, Spain, and Portugal—combined. Amsterdam became the leading financial center of the world until it was finally replaced by London a century and a half later. It was the Dutch bankers from whom John Adams sought help during the American Revolution, because that was where the money was. Amsterdam was also one of the largest cities in Europe in the 17th century, having grown from 100,000 to 200,000 population in the middle decades.
Although the seven provinces were formally the main constituent parts of the “United Provinces of the Netherlands,” the towns were the actual foundation of the Dutch Republic’s political structure. The approximately 200 native Dutch noble families had status but limited power. There was not the same tradition of feudalism based on relationships of lord and vassal as in other European domains. In part, this was due to the closeness to the sea, with its sources of sustenance and wealth. In part it was due to the fact that for generations, land had been recovered by draining swamps or building dikes. These “polders” were claimed by commoners.
The towns were governed by the Regents, a wealthy subgroup of the merchant elite. The towns traced their charters and privileges to the medieval period. The Regents claimed to act for and represent the citizenry. However, their authority did not rest on broad political participation. From that perspective, the structure was not a republic, but an oligarchy. Meetings of the town councils controlled by the Regents were not open to the public. At the same time, the Regents did not constitute a class-conscious bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense. Rather, their actions seem to have been driven by local identity and preserving their local power. This town-centric system of governance remained until the reorganization of the Netherlands after the end of the Republic in the 1790s.
The towns built their own defense installations and levied taxes to maintain them, to preserve public order, and to provide for the poor. They also operated their own courts, enforced provincial laws, and administered provincial policies. The policy-making bodies, the town councils, generally had between 20 and 40 members. They elected various burgomasters annually from the Regent class to carry out executive and judicial functions.
The oligarchic character of the town governments was modulated somewhat through the militia, a combination military unit and social club. They were composed of troops of well-trained and heavily-armed men. Because members had to supply their own weapons, the militias consisted of middle and upper-middle class volunteers. They were led by officers from Regent families appointed by the town councils and were expected to carry out the latter’s wishes in case of civil disturbances. According to sources cited by Professor Gordon, riots were a not-uncommon manner for the citizenry to provide feedback to the Regents about their policies. The militia sometimes stood back if they opposed those policies themselves. Such expressions of popular discontent would have been particularly potent because the towns were still rather small, with the homes of the Regent families in close proximity to the other residents.
Gordon considers the failure of the Dutch Republic to provide less destructive means of popular expression of opposition to the town councils as one of its defects. Perhaps. But such riots were not uncommon in the history of the American republic, with apparently a customary acceptance of a degree of violence before the militia would be summoned. Recent events show that still to be a characteristic of American society. Whether that shows a defect in the republican nature of the political structure created in the constitutions of the United States and the several states is an interesting speculation.
The level of government above the towns were the provinces, formally the constitutional heart of the Dutch Republic. They were governed by entities called the “provincial states,” another institution formed in the Middle Ages. This term is not to be confused with the American concept of “states” as distinct political domains. Rather, the term refers to specific constitutional bodies which governed such political domains. These were assemblies of delegates from the towns. The members were selected by the town councils typically from the members of the Regent families. A town could send more than one delegate, but each town only had one vote, regardless of its population. However, despite this formal equality where decisions were generally reached by compromise and consensus, a dominant town would necessarily exercise a greater influence. Amsterdam as the largest and wealthiest town within the province of Holland provides a telling example. A province’s nobility also had one vote.
The principal obligation of the provincial states was to maintain the province’s military forces and to provide a system of provincial courts to preside over trials for various crimes and for appeals from the local courts. These assemblies could also assess taxes, but were dependent on the towns to collect them. Not infrequently there might be tension between the provincial state and the stadholder, the province’s chief executive from the House of Orange. Those tensions were especially acute and frequent in Holland, due to the strong anti-Orangist sentiments of Amsterdam, with its bourgeois merchants, its growing tradition of secular and religious dissent, and its cosmopolitanism. At times, Holland, as well as other provinces, refused to elect a stadholder when the prior one died.
At the apex of the Republic’s constitutional structure was the States-General, the body of around 50 delegates from the provinces. It met at The Hague. Although a province might send more than one delegate, each province had one vote. This equality of sovereigns marked the constitutional nature of the Republic in Madison’s characterization of it as a confederacy. As with the provincial states, this formal equality was tempered by the inequality of size and wealth among the provinces, in particular, Holland. That province’s delegation’s willingness to provide—or not—needed funding gave it influence which better reflected its economic position. The terms of office of the delegates were determined by the provinces and could be at pleasure, for one or more years, or for life. The agenda of the States-General was set by its president, which position rotated weekly among the provinces. Unanimity was required for action, although that was sometimes ignored if a particular need arose. It had various working committees to formulate policy and a Council of State to carry out its executive functions. The Council of State was composed of the provincial stadholder and twelve other appointees of the provincial states.
Initially, the States-General was to deal with the military campaign for independence. Thereafter, its role continued to be about war in the various conflicts in which the republic found itself in the 17th century. Beyond that, the States-General had broad responsibilities over coinage, diplomacy and foreign commerce and, as the Dutch quickly entered the pursuit of overseas empire, colonial affairs. Although it had the potential to become a national legislative body, that potential remained inchoate. Aside from the overarching political jealousies of the provinces and towns to maintain their local privileges, there were more direct limitations on the powers of the States-General, as well. For one, that body could not generally impose taxes directly. It could tax the colonies, but that yielded rather little. It could make assessments on the provinces, but that depended on the willingness of their delegates to agree, especially the delegation from Holland which typically had to bear at least half of the burden of an assessment. Any loans sought by the States-General for the benefit of the Republic must be approved by the provinces. It becomes clear why Madison saw the Republic as a case study for the fate of the Articles of Confederation.
Finally, there were the stadholder of the provinces and the de facto stadholder of the United Provinces. The office was derived from the provincial governorships the Holy Roman Emperor had established. Each provincial state selected that province’s stadholder for life. More than one province could appoint the same person, a very common scenario. During the two centuries of the Republic after 1589, all provinces always appointed members of the House of Orange-Nassau. When the need arose, the province of Holland, as the most important of the union, always appointed the head of that family. Technically, there was no Stadholder of the United Provinces. However, by customary practice, the States-General always appointed the stadholder of Holland to be the Republic’s commander-in-chief. This made the head of the House of Orange the main political leader of the most populous and prosperous province and the commander-in-chief of the Republic’s armed forces. The stadholderships generally became hereditary in the mid-17th century.
The power of the Prince of Orange over the armed forces included the power to set up military tribunals and to appoint higher-level officers. He also met with foreign ambassadors and had some adjudicatory powers, such as settling disputes among the provinces. His influence was bolstered by two broad sources. First, at the level of the union, he sat on all working committees of the States-General and on the Council of State. Together with his life term, this gave him broad knowledge about political matters over a much longer time frame than the provincial delegation, analogous to the Venetian Doge’s position in relation to the Senate and Great Council. If knowledge is power, this made the prince powerful, indeed.
Second, being the stadholder of Holland and, usually, several other provinces gave him significant control over provincial and even town affairs. The provincial stadholder was the head the province’s highest court, could pardon criminals, and had significant patronage powers over the appointment of officials at all levels. He could appoint certain burgomasters, although those had to be made from lists submitted by the Regent-controlled town councils. These roles, some formal, others by accepted practice, exercised at all levels of government, and extending to civil, military, and judicial matters, made the Prince of Orange in some ways the vortex around which Dutch politics swirled. In the end, however, with the vague constitutional dimensions of the office, it was the personality and talents of the particular stadholder which defined his powers.
A curious spectacle occasionally arose when various provinces left their stadholderships unoccupied. Even the province of Holland at one point in the 18th century left that position unoccupied for 45 years. In the 17th century Holland also prohibited the House of Orange from holding the stadholderships. Soon thereafter, its provincial state abolished the office altogether. That experiment lasted only five years, when those acts were repealed in the face of an invasion by England and France. One modern commentator quoted by Professor Gordon described the princes of the House of Orange as having “a special status within the Dutch state, almost mystical … in its nature.”
The Republic’s constitution was weakened in the 18th century in part due to factional rivalries in Amsterdam, the largest and wealthiest city in the largest and wealthiest province. The monarchist pretentious of the House of Orange clashed with the increasingly militant endemic anti-Orangist attitudes of the urban bourgeoisie. With a hardening of factional positions, political accommodations became more difficult. As well, the financial burdens of the colonial empire and the military needed to support it began to overwhelm the capacities of what was, after all, a rather small country. Still, it took the military might of, first, the Prussian Army and, thereafter, Napoleon’s forces, to end the Republic’s two centuries of successful government.
Madison in Number 20 of The Federalist disparages the Dutch system, his stand-in for the Articles of Confederation, as, “Imbecility in the government; discord among the provinces; foreign influence and indignities; a precarious existence in peace; and peculiar calamities from war.” He seems to have derived his information from a book by Sir William Temple, a 17th century British ambassador to the United Provinces. But Temple was hardly an unsympathetic observer of the Republic. Where Madison saw deadlock leading to eventual dissolution and anarchy, Temple saw a system which attracted large numbers of foreigners from polities less conducive to liberty. Certainly, the federal nature of the United Provinces stood in stark contrast to the centralization of power in national governments generally, and in monarchs particularly, which was ascendant in the Europe of the time.
If one uses classic designations of constitutions, the Dutch system at first blush most closely resembles an oligarchy. If one uses Madison’s definition in Number 10 of The Federalist, it was a closed system controlled by the wealthy Regent families and the Prince of Orange. It failed the test of broad public participation even by the limited standards of the early American polities. But, if one evaluates a republic functionally, as a political structure which provides overall social stability, fosters the general well-being of the people, and promotes the liberty of individuals to follow their own paths to fulfilled lives, all by reigning in various political institutions through a functioning balancing of powers, the constitution of the United Provinces qualifies. The mutual checks provided among the levels of government (town, provinces, union), among the provinces themselves, and between the stadholder on the one hand and the provincial states and States-General created a system which protected the liberties of the people better than other contemporaneous countries. More bluntly, as Professor Gordon explains, “[W]ith this political system, the Dutch not only fought Spain and France to a standstill and invaded England, but also made their little collection of swamps and polders into the richest, most civilized, nation in the early modern world.”
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.