Patriots and Liberators

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2759

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Simon Schama’s Patriots and Liberators is a major contribution to the history of the Netherlands and to the history of revolution in modern Europe. Documented with a mass of hitherto unused material in Dutch and French archives, the book is an impressively detailed account of the demise of the old regime in the United Provinces and the emergence of a modern nation state. Following the revolutionary odyssey embarked on by the Dutch people at the end of the eighteenth century, the reader winds his way through a dazzling succession of regimes representing successively the initial republican revolution, a Jacobin coup d’etat, an aristocratic counterrevolution, a return to one-man rule in the form of a “Grand Pensionary,” a Kingdom of Holland ruled by Louis Bonaparte, and finally, outright annexation as départements of France in 1810. Notwithstanding these disruptions of traditional life, the Dutch suffered no less than four humiliating invasions by England, Prussia, Russia, and France during the period between 1780 and 1813.

Despite repeated foreign intervention in Dutch affairs, Schama takes issue with earlier historians who viewed the Batavian Republic as merely a footnote to the foreign policy of revolutionary France. Instead, he follows more recent historians such as Pieter Geyl, who sought to remove the taint of treason from the Republic. But, whereas Geyl was content to rehabilitate the Republic, Schama takes a thoroughly revisionist approach to the problem in conceiving the republican revolution as the crucial formative experience in the development of a national consciousness for a modern state.

Why should the Dutch polity be in need of such drastic change at this moment in history? One reason is that the power and prosperity engendered by the corporate and mercantilist order of the “Golden” seventeenth century had greatly withered. During their long struggle for independence against the Spanish Hapsburgs from 1568 to 1648, the seven Provinces of the Low Countries loosely united themselves in the Union of Utrecht, investing sovereignty in the hereditary Stadholderate of the House of Orange (1579). Once the Spanish had withdrawn, the United Provinces, led by great trading centers in Holland, reaped full reward as premier European entrepôts for colonial re-export products. By the eighteenth century, however, Dutch economic predominance in Europe had gone into decline, largely as the result of competition from England and Baltic ports like Hamburg. The remnants of the old feudal structure with their innumerable taxes and tolls made Dutch products still more costly in export markets. The economic crisis of the Dutch state had serious social and political repercussions. Population remained stagnant at about two million souls throughout the eighteenth century. Major industries such as shipbuilding in Zeeland and clothmaking in Leiden were depressed. Drawing on recent quantified studies, Schama paints a gloomy picture of the economic malaise encapsulating the United Provinces at the end of the eighteenth century, but stops short of suggesting any direct economic causes of the revolution.

For Schama, the longterm causes of the Patriot Revolution were largely political and moral in nature. The alienation of office and its monopoly by the Stadholder and the landed nobility were bitterly resented by the mercantile patriciate and the educated classes. In the periodical press, the economic crisis was linked to the ostentatious lifestyle of the periwigged oligarchs. Invidious contrasts were drawn between the contemporary decadent order and the virtuous republic of the ancient Bataves, the Germanic tribe to whom sixteenth and seventeenth century historians ascribed the founding of the Republic.

Schama locates the emergence of Patriot politics during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784). Aiming to break British economic supremacy in the Atlantic and stimulate a commercial revival at home, Dutch merchants attempted to capture the markets of the rebellious colonies in North America. The move was a pathetic failure. Not only was the treasury driven toward the edge of bankruptcy during the ensuing war, but the combined Dutch-French Navy suffered a humiliating defeat off the coast of Brest. The Stadholder, whose sympathies inclined toward the Hanoverians, was seen as politically impotent and increasingly as an impediment to any attempt at national revitalization. Thanks to the influence of John Adams, who drafted the alliance for arms and trade with the States-General, American emancipation became a rallying point for many Dutchmen who saw the cause as a reenactment of their own ancient struggle for liberty. Styling themselves “Patriots,” opponents of the Prince of Orange took up the cause of political reform in earnest.

Soon a distinct revolutionary movement appeared. Inflammatory literature like the Tract to the Netherlands People (1781), issued by the renegade aristocrat Baron Joan Derk Van Der Capellen, summoned the people to insurrection. Others, such as the young law clerk Pieter Paulus, sought to move beyond the enumeration of grievances for freedom of the press, assembly, and for universal sufferage to establish justifications for a new democratic republic. According to Paulus, the basis for a new constitution lay in the teachings of ancient religious and political leaders. Jesus was seen as the “architect of civil rights” while Claudius Civilis, the leader of the Bataves, demonstrated that “Christ preached equality.” Schama is at his best when analyzing the ideological underpinnings of the Patriot revolution. He illustrates the influence of popular evangelism and the reforming ethos of Dutch Christianity on the mentalities of revolutionary leaders and contrasts this with the movement for dechristianization in France. Yet, while stressing the importance of inherited patterns of thought, Schama greatly underestimates the influence of the Enlightenment’s critique of the old regime on the ideological context of the Patriot Revolution.

As words led to actions, a dual power situation developed. By 1785, radical clubs in most urban areas and many smaller towns had initiated petition campaigns aimed at the recall of governing officials. In some instances, regents were forcibly ejected by impatient crowds of merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers, and new regimes were installed. More serious for the government at the Hague, the old town watches or Schutterij (shooters) had been heavily infiltrated by radical democrats who renamed them “Free Corps.” Anticipating the famous Tennis Court Oath by six years, the Free Corps signed an Act of Association in June, 1785, pledging to continue the struggle until a democratic government was installed in power. Their hopes were shortlived. The arrest of the Princess Wilhelmina by radicals on June 28, 1787, at last provoked the Stadholder to decisive action. William V’s ally, the Duke of Brunswick, was appealed to, and soon Prussian grenadiers had safely reinstalled order in the country. The press was muzzled, Patriot societies were closed and the Free Corps disbanded. The regime of the Stadholder was saved—for the moment.

Thenceforth, the fortunes of the Patriot Revolution became inextricably linked with another momentous upheaval at the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution. Schama skillfully traces the changing status of the Dutch émigré leaders in Paris and their education in this “School of Revolution.” The Dutch émigrés were initially welcomed with fraternal good will by the French and responded by organizing newspapers and societies like the “Club des Sans-Culottes Bataves.” As in France, however, moderate and radical revolutionaries were deeply divided among themselves over what type of government they would build in place of the old: a constitutional monarchy with a limited franchise or a legislative assembly with a more broadly based suffrage. In the end, both moderates and Jacobin supporters hitched their fate to the expansionist Giróndins, hoping that French arms might achieve their mission for liberty. This was a fateful moment for the Patriot Revolution. Once attached to the French “Liberators,” the Patriots would find it impossible to disengage themselves from the clutch of machpolitik.

The unsuccessful invasion of the Netherlands by the army of General Dumouriez in 1793 and the General’s subsequent defection to Austria, led the Committee of Public Safety in Paris to institute repressive measures against the Batavian “Free Foreign Legion.” In 1795, when the crusade for liberty was successfully achieved and William V had departed for England, the terms of the Treaty of the Hague demonstrated in no uncertain terms that fraternity and opportunism would coexist no matter how contradictory. In return for recognition, the Batavian Republic was required to pay an indemnity of one hundred million guilders and make substantial territorial concessions in Dutch Flanders. Moreover, a secret clause committed the Dutch to maintain a force of twenty-five thousand French soldiers until peace with England had been won.

Safely installed in power, the Patriot revolutionaries quickly fell to quarreling among themselves. Should the States-General be reformed or should sovereignty rest in a National Assembly? Should the provinces and towns be left with their political and fiscal prerogatives in a federal system or would a unitary government best serve the needs of national rejuvenation? Would the economy prosper or fail if the guilds and corporations were abolished and capitalism allowed to flourish unrestrained? Schama describes in great detail how these discords at the center led to multiple fractures of power in large cities such as Amsterdam and Utrecht and in provincial backwaters such as Sneek and Hindloopen.

With the Batavian National Assembly (finally instituted in 1796) temporizing over the nature of the constitution, and the country in a state of anarchy, the radicals lost patience. Swearing an oath against “Stadholderate, aristocracy, federalism, and anarchy,” they staged a coup d’état on January 22, 1798. Orangist leaders and supporters were imprisoned. Paulus was proclaimed President of the Assembly and a constitution inaugurating a unitary state was adopted. Eliminating fiscal qualifications for (male) suffrage, save for the indigent, the Constitution of 1798 set the pattern for a democratic state. Abolishing sinecures, guilds, and the cumbersome system of internal tolls, the constitution aimed to promote a laissez-faire economy. By establishing national ministries in such fields as justice, police, and interior and foreign affairs, the constitution established the basis for a modern bureaucratic infrastructure.

In practice, the constitution of 1798 fell hostage to the dead hand of tradition. Towns and corporations resented the loss of independence and resorted to subterfuge and outright defiance to circumvent the law. The doctors, lawyers, and predikants (lay preachers) who constituted the radical elite were unwilling to institute a reign of terror to achieve their ends. Schama notes that the Patriot Revolution never produced a popular movement comparable to the “Sans-Culottes” to push for fulfillment of promises of natural rights egalitarianism, but does not satisfactorily explain why. While the Dutch penchant for sobriety and order may possibly have been a factor in the relatively bloodless nature of the revolution as Schama believes, historians for the most part are wary of searching for motivations in the amorphous area known as “national character.” Moreover, the numerous invasions of municipal council chambers by radicals and conservatives which Schama documents, would seem to indicate a greater degree of militancy in the revolution than is suggested.

The institution of a unitary state was further “stunted” by external events. As Schama perceptively notes, war, which had made the Patriot Revolution possible, also set serious limitations on its realization. The renewal of hostilities between France and the powers of the Second Coalition in 1799, resulted in the capitulation of the fleet at Texel and a brief invasion by thirty thousand English and Russian soldiers. The closing of Dutch ports created a serious economic depression and up to a third of the population in many cities and towns sought public relief. Survival now became the most pressing task of the revolution and the Dutch people.

In 1801, a counterrevolution was successfully engineered. Failing to build a constituency in provincial and municipal administrations, the radical democrat leaders found few defenders. Once restored to power, aristocrats and Orangists reverted to oligarchy and restored the parochialism of the provinces. As Schama notes, however, the restoration was incomplete. Though shorn of its powers, the National Assembly was not abolished. William V, six years in England and soon to die there, was not requested to return from the wilderness, a move that would surely have provoked a French occupation.

While supporting the aristocratic countercoup, Napoleon had no desire to turn the clock back to 1787. What he hoped to obtain were loans, ships, troops, and an end to clandestine trading with England. Obtaining none of these in any satisfactory amount, he soon tired of the new regime and installed Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck as “Grand Pensionary” of the country in 1805. Schimmelpenninck, a landowner from Overijessel, had been active in both the Patriot and Batavian phases of the revolution and had officially represented the cause in Paris. Installed as titular president largely through the intrigues of Talleyrand, Schimmelpenninck assumed a savior’s role modeled after Napoleon. In the opinion of Simon Schama, the regime assumed the characteristics of a “quasi-Stadholderate.”

Schama parts company with scholars who perceived Schimmelpenninck as a complete quisling. Not denying the humiliating loans and levies the government was forced to pay Napoleon, Schama points to progress made by Schimmelpenninck’s regime toward creating a central government. He cites the work of Issac Gogel, veteran revolutionary and financial wizard, in developing the foundation for fiscal health in the country through his General Taxation Plan.

Schimmelpenninck’s blindness and the French defeat at Austerlitz led Napoleon to institute yet another change of regime in the Netherlands. Hoping for a government more closely tied to the imperialist war machine, Napoleon installed his brother Louis Bonaparte as “King of Holland.” Schama presents a tragicomic yet rather sympathetic portrait of the reign of King Louis from 1806 to 1810. To the consternation of his brother, Louis Bonaparte became a champion of the Dutch cause. He turned a blind eye toward the illicit trade with England and refused to satisfy Napoleon’s insatiable demands for money and material. Schama credits Louis Bonaparte with making significant contributions toward the emergent unitary system, particularly in the fields of education and public welfare. Yet as Schama also notes, Louis’ love for his adopted land rendered him oblivious to Napoleon’s increasing determination to absorb fully the troublesome little country.

The Dutch made no concerted efforts at opposition when the country was finally annexed to France in 1810. Schama explains this by noting that initially the occupation changed little in the substance of Franco-Dutch relations. Preoccupied as they were with the war effort, the French made no attempt to integrate the new départements into the mother country, preferring instead to drain off manpower and resources as they had done for the past few years. Inevitably though, the occupation bred resistance, especially in the form of conscription riots and demonstrations. After the defeat of the Grand Armée in Russia in 1812, in which thousands of Dutch troops perished, the insurrection became widespread. Equipped by the British, the twenty-two-year-old Stadholder William VI landed on Dutch soil and provided a symbol for unity for the war-weary Dutch.

Not until the revolution of 1848, did the Dutch finally achieve a lasting system of representative government. Yet, as Schama notes in a postscript, the return to power of the Stadholder did not signal a return to the political structures of the old regime. The shift of sovereignty from the provinces to the center was maintained and the laissez-faire economy was left undisturbed. More concerned to establish a government than a court, William VI preserved and extended the administrative reforms of the Batavian period.

For Schama, progress made toward developing a modern bureaucratic infrastructure for government is the key to understanding the significance of the Patriot Revolution and the standard by which the various regimes of the period from 1780 to 1813 are measured. The concept is used, effectively, when contrasted with the impermanence of the revolution. It also acts as a counterweight to traditional negative views of the Republic as a shameful imitator of French styles and traditions by highlighting indigenous ideas and practices which characterized the revolution. Yet, in the immediate sense, it was the French who made ultimate decisions on fundamentals. Napoleon’s claim that the Revolution was completed in France, held true for the Netherlands. Wavering between restoration and revolution, Napoleon opted for the personnel of the former and the policies of the latter. Schama never considers the possibility that, given the absence of the French, a movement similar to the “Sans-Culottes” might have developed. Certainly all the ingredients were there—hunger, unemployment, strikes, political unrest, fear of aristocratic plots and so on. We need to know more about the role of the majority in the Dutch revolution, who they were and how they expressed themselves on the issues. Schama periodically describes aspects of popular history in the Revolution and does a particularly good job with his account of poor relief. Yet, overall this brilliantly written book is lacking a coherent social dimension.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26

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Kirkus Reviews. XLV, February 1, 1977, p. 146.

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