Patriots and Liberators Analysis
by Simon Schama

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Patriots and Liberators

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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 Once the Spanish had withdrawn, the United Provinces, led by great trading centers in Holland, reaped full reward as premier European entrepôts for colonial re-export products.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...

(The entire section is 2,785 words.)