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 Once the Spanish had withdrawn, the United Provinces, led by great trading centers in Holland, reaped full reward as premier European entrepôts for colonial re-export products.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

(The entire section is 2759 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Economist. CCLXIV, August 6, 1977, p. 84.

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

Library Journal. CII, April 1, 1977, p. 806.

New York Times Book Review. May 15, 1977, p. 16.

Times Literary Supplement. July 29, 1977, p. 906.