“No scholar cares much to keep company with calamity for long.” Thus Dr. Schama explains the paucity of studies of the Dutch age of catastrophe when the Netherlands were successively defeated at sea by England in 1784, invaded by Prussians in 1787, by the Russians and by the French in 1795, bankrupted, robbed of their colonies, and finally turned into a Department of Napoleon’s Empire. Small wonder that this “time of troubles” is not the most popular subject of historians, though distinguished specialized studies of it have been written by H.T. Colenbrander and Peter Geyl, and (more recently) by I. Leonard Leeb and C.H.E. de Wit.

Dr. Schama’s very long (his own words are “indecently corpulent”), detailed but eloquent book is justified, in his view, by a revised interpretation of the importance of the reforming Patriot movement that arose in the 1780s, of the Batavian Republic set up after French troops entered the Netherlands in 1795, and of the “French times” that followed. What apparently started for Dr. Schama as a study of the French Revolution as it was mirrored in Dutch history ended as an autonomous study of the Dutch “revolution” itself. More than that, his bold theory of the specifically Dutch contribution to their own later development after 1813 takes unequivocal form. “…[I]t seems incontestable that the Dutch monarchy of the nineteenth century, conservative before 1848 and liberal after it, was not merely preceded but caused by the Batavian Republic and its successor Kingdom. The origins of the second Dutch state are to be found…in the travail and tribulations recorded in this history” (p. 648, Dr. Schama’s italics).

What were these tribulations? They were manifold and pervasive, penetrating the very underpinnings of Dutch political, economic, and social life, and they had been festering, politically, since 1747 when the republican party lost power and Willem IV of the House of Orange became hereditary Stadholder, or ruling official, in all of the seven Dutch provinces. Economically and socially they had been festering much, much longer. Dr. Schama is not primarily concerned with the economic history of a declining Netherlands; his is a sophisticated “total” view of the origin of the troubles. He accordingly takes full account of those recent researches into Netherlands economic history (e.g., those of Professors Johan de Vries and A.M. van der Woude) which have substituted for the older view of over-all economic decline a less cataclysmic and more relative view.

Traditional Dutch industry was in a poor way; trade static or worse. But agriculture was expansive and buoyant, and finance, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. (Dr. Buist, in a recent history of Hope’s bank, has concluded that the Dutch came out of their “troubles” with much more of their extensive overseas investments intact than used to be thought.)

Not a happy picture but certainly not one of gloom and catastrophe so unrelieved as to “explain” the discontent and “revolution” that were gathering to a climax. There was a “social dimension” to the troubles, not an economic “explanation.” The true explanation, Dr. Schama seems to suggest, lay in the superimposition of a succession of political decisions and mistakes upon an accumulating pile of socio-economic problems. Among the problems was the personality of the Stadholder Prince of Orange, Willem V, for whom Dr. Schama (like most historians) has scant regard. Whether his wholly pejorative opinion of Willem explains the alienation of first executive from the people is less clear. (We will return to this later.)

The division and mistrust between the patricians who ruled the Dutch cities and the House of Orange were nothing new: they went back even to William the Silent himself. The divisions among the patricians themselves, their objectives and motives, still defy accurate analysis. From Elias’s classic genealogy we can discern their family and business relationships. Their politics remain obscure—as obscure as the alignments of US Democrats and Republicans to lay Europeans or the alignment of eighteenth-century Whigs and Tories to most Americans and not a few British. Alas! There is no Dutch Namier.

What is plain is that in the years following the American Revolution, and as the forces of revolt gathered in France, a critical change in political, diplomatic, and financial alignments took place in the Netherlands. Ever since 1688, England had provided the major refuge for Dutch capital seeking a safe and remunerative home. Now there was a switch away from England, first to America, later to France. Mutual distrust between England and Holland had conditioned their relations in the seventeenth century until 1688, when William III crossed the North Sea and accepted the English throne. Now, under the ingenious proddings of John Adams and others, the old feelings were revived.

A section of Dutch opinion had (with some reason) always had reservations about England’s policies in Europe; another, composed of bankers not of the inner sanctum of Anglo-Dutch tycoons (as were the Willinks and Staphorsts), was anxious to grasp the opportunities for investment and land speculation offered by North America. Still another faction was jealous of the rising tide of English manufactured products that were now invading the Dutch and Continental markets as successfully as the Dutch had swamped English markets a century earlier.


The acceptance of John Adams’s letters of credence as American Minister Plenipotentiary to Holland in 1782, following hard on the outbreak of the fourth Anglo-Dutch War, marked not only the fundamental realignment in world diplomacy but also the profound influence of American radical patriotism upon the domestic political scene in the Netherlands. Such influence took concrete form in public meetings and campaigns and in agitation for a citizens’ militia. In what was one of the most literate societies in Europe, as Dr. Schama remind us, printed propaganda was a critical factor in radical protest. The old Republic was, in his words, in its dotage.

The first phase of protest, the Patriot Revolt, lasted from 1781 to 1787. If it revealed a kind of revolutionary temper in the shape of an organized “Free Corps” (militia), especially at Utrecht—did the ghosts of the Earl of Leicester and his anti-Holland conspirators of the 1580s still walk there?—there was ample evidence of its lack of clear ideological or class basis. Its head was Joan Derk van der Capellen, a baron from Overijssel educated at Utrecht. A natural demagogue and patrician, he nevertheless protested that he was “no friend of pure democracy.” He would be a rash man who claimed that the Patriots never described themselves as “revolutionaries” (so that there is risk of confusion when a later age describes them so); but most often they thought of themselves as patriots, citizens, dedicated to the recovery of ancient Dutch rights to representative government usurped by (alternately) the patrician town rulers or the House of Orange and its satellites. Included in their grievances, and of growing urgency as the threat of national bankruptcy and universal indigency loomed larger, was a system of (mainly) indirect taxation which bore most heavily on the lower classes.

The year 1783 Dr. Schama describes as “the honeymoon of regents and patriots”—not of the poor or the “workers” in the ports or shipyards, it should be noted. They were still unthinkingly loyal to Orange. The Patriot leaders were well-to-do merchants, lawyers, bankers, gentry, and the like; the rank and file small tradesmen or manufacturers, just as in Paris. The numbers of the Free Corps might grow to thousands; a military force, even led by a dashing thug like Herman Willem Daendels, could not clarify the minds of the Patriots or identify their political target. Somewhat like their radical brethren in Britain they remained moon-struck, confused, sitting targets for a trained opponent.

What the English radicals wanted (R.J. White once remarked) was “free men, free farms and common decency.” Their Dutch counterparts pursued objectives equally admirable; they were equally unclear how to reach them. After much tumult and shouting, the humiliation of the Prince and Princess of Orange—who left Holland in 1786—and much bravado against the singing of Orange songs, the Patriot movement went up in smoke before the invasion, in 1787, of an army sent in by the King of Prussia (the brother of the Princess).

The objectives of Patriots and anti-Patriots (including both Orangists and anti-Orangists) were little clearer than those of the States party and Orangists had been in the first half of the seventeenth century. As in the English civil war, personal and family loyalties and regional or municipal traditions continued to be vital. Even the title “Batavian” which became attached to the reforming movements recalled vividly the antiquarian image of primitive rights to which the Dutch opponents of Spain in their original revolt had appealed.* Neither the original Patriots nor the later Batavians were particularly blood-thirsty, apparently preferring noise and uproar to physical violence or bloodshed. And at the heart of their beliefs was what Dr. Schama calls “the doctrine of Christian sociability,” just as among their leaders were numerous pastors.

The next eight years, including the French revolutionary year of 1789, were to pass in a state of political indeterminacy which was to include two unsuccessful French attempts at invasion. Only the freezing of the rivers in the exceptionally severe winter of 1794-1795 finally opened the door to the French army under Pichegru. From the same Scheveningen beach from which Charles II had embarked in 1660, Willem V left for Harwich on January 18, 1795. He has not had a good press from historians, and Dr. Schama endorses their lack of respect. Certainly Willem was immature, his political judgment poor. He could nevertheless show courage, even if it was of a rash and obstinate kind. It is, after all, easy to under-estimate the problems faced by princes of the Ancien Régime condemned by heredity to grapple with situations which would have taxed seasoned professional statesmen. Very few of those who helped to drive him out were to show greater courage or consistency.


It is of the essence of Dr. Schama’s argument that the “revolutionary” movement in the Netherlands was less conditioned in its ideas and objectives by the events in France than historians have commonly supposed. Few of those Patriots who stayed in the Netherlands in these last years of the old Republic, he believes, “looked to France for instruction.” Theirs was a Dutch view of Dutch “revolution.” Meanwhile, those who had fled to France were learning some hard basic truths about their French brothers. They had bustled into Paris intoxicated by declarations of fraternal good will from many quarters in France, and the more martial of them (like Daendels) were straining to see active service alongside the soldiers of France.

They did not have to wait long to be disillusioned. At once they found themselves victims of intrigues among their French hosts. What is more serious, they ran into fundamental problems such as the French desire to see the navigation of the Scheldt river (closed under treaty since 1648) re-opened—a step which threatened the interests of the Dutch ports, merchants, and ship-owners. But if the Dutch exiles were baffled and frustrated by French betrayal of their promises, the French were irritated by the inability of their wealthy ally (as they regarded the Dutch) to enter the war against the common English enemy and (even more crucial) help to pay for it.

The French government, on the other hand, viewed with cautious mistrust the fire-eating pronouncements of Daendels who, true to form, failed to understand that his allies always had at the back (sometimes the front) of their minds the possible need to come to terms with anti-revolutionary opinion in Holland if it served their purposes. In short, neither for the first nor for the last time, the Batavian Patriots, naïve and inept as only doctrinaire radicals know how to be, found themselves the dupes of French politics. In spite of all their undertakings, the leaders of the French revolution from the Convention to Waterloo cared, quite naturally, for one thing only: the interests of France. The full implications of the Patriot predicament were still to be revealed.

When the Abbé Sieyès finally disclosed French intentions in 1795 they were nothing short of a nightmare: the Revolutionary government wanted from the Dutch an indemnity of 100 (or 200) million florins, a loan of 100 million, and the cession of tracts of Dutch territory. This was the bonne-bouche with which the exiles returned home. The news they brought did nothing to still those local manifestations around the parish pumps which had been the very essence of the old Republic in its Golden Age, and which remained very much alive. The regents of the Orange provinces were still able to dish the Patriots in these places where they were weak by calling up the spirit of Orange among the fishermen and peasants. Cities like Amsterdam and The Hague demanded back their traditional autonomy.

The French ex-revolutionaries, naturally, took fright at this embarrassing persistence of revolution in denial of the claims of order—and of contributions to the French war effort. In fact the battle was slowly being joined for the critical objective: was the Netherlands to remain its old federal self, or become a unitary state and pay up?

The French might be clear what they wanted: the Dutch were, and for long were to remain, bitterly divided. The Batavian Republic’s first National Assembly of 1796 immediately fell into undignified rows over church disestablishment and education, and it finally rejected a draft new constitution by votes in the proportion of four to one. At sea the Dutch disappointed their French masters bitterly by allowing the English to defeat them soundly at the Battle of Camperdown.

Finally, French patience broke. The Hague was sealed off, the “federalist” members of the Assembly locked up, and a series of purges of dissident Patriots vigorously inaugurated. With a thoroughgoing cynicism which foreshadowed the fate of collaborators in Eastern Europe nearly two centuries later, the “unreliable” were treated as half-wits or condemned criminals and stripped of all political rights. From this time onward, a procession of humiliated Dutch delegates (Dr. Schama invokes the comparison with Schüssnig and Dubcek) trailed to Paris to receive their orders, rewards, or (more often) punishments.

The role of Brezhnev was played by a number of actors ending with Napoleon. Meanwhile the toadies, office-seekers, and profiteers (against whose predecessors in crime the whole reform movement had been launched) reappeared in all their ingloriousness. The end—predictable with our modern hindsight of Asian, African, and Indian politics—was a military coup engineered by Daendels (now General Daendels). That Patriot unity was in tatters was plain for all, including the French, to see.

What fruits have the people so far plucked from the liberty tree? asked a Dutch newspaper soon after Daendels’s coup; and answered, surprisingly truthfully, “not much.” Nor was the future to hold better news. On the contrary, the escalation of the war meant that the Dutch were held to ransom for larger subscriptions, until their public expenditure was double their income.

When Napoleon finally dissolved the Directory, the Dutch found themselves faced by demands and language which made his predecessors seem like sweetest reason; their Commonwealth, as Schama writes, was “reduced to the function of auxiliary implement to an imperialist war machine.” The peace of 1801 seemed to restore some economic buoyancy as well as a degree of local political rights. But those who believed the clock could not be put back were soon proved right. In 1803 back came the war, back came French troops and free pillage. The head of the Regency of State Government was Schimmelpenninck, lawyer, federalist, pastiche bonhomme rustique. His brief reign (before he went blind and was promptly ditched by Napoleon) was spent agreeing to ever growing burdens of taxation in the Netherlands and contemplating ever growing armies of Dutch paupers. He was replaced by that symbol of Corsican nepotism, Louis Bonaparte. Louis proved better than the Dutch could have hoped. He had the temperament they liked, he was well-meaning, energetic, and humane. (When a gunpowder barge blew up in the center of Leiden, causing frightful destruction, he was early on the scene, taking personal charge of rescue operations.)

Louis did well by his new kingdom: so well that in the end he was trapped between his sense of duty to it and what seemed to his brother treachery to France. Spied on by his wife and in fear of assassination by agents of his brother he finally fled. A week later the Netherlands became a Department of France.

It was the logical end to which events since 1780 had consistently pointed. But if any Dutchman was so misguided as to think he might under the new dispensation escape the miseries of its predecessors he was to be sadly disillusioned. The Netherlands got the worst of both worlds, for taxes and customs remained, indeed were raised. To protests Napoleon replied: “I will do just whatever I judge to be suitable for the interests of my Empire.” Yet even as he spoke, the Empire began to collapse. In the face of continuing French pressure—especially conscription which sent thousands of Dutch soldiers to their deaths in Russia and elsewhere—Patriots and Orangists sank their differences. As the riots spread among the Dutch and the end of French dominance came into sight, the roads to Antwerp and France were crowded with French officials and their families for whom discretion seemed the better part of valor. With them went Isaac Gogel, the would-be engineer of a fiscally and administratively unified Dutch state. Amid a general burying of hatchets, Gogel, a triumph of stiff-necked Dutch principle (or priggishness), stood apart, carefully nurturing his grievances until he could return finally to his small starch factory in South Holland.

Dr. Schama’s narrative of these events is a remarkable piece of research and historical presentation. His documentation is impressively detailed and meticulous, and his mastery of both Dutch and French sources striking. Even if the mind is inclined to boggle at a book of over 700 pages on what was an unhappy, often dreary, thirty-odd years of Dutch history, the task actually becomes easier as the narrative gains momentum. On the whole the second half of the book is easier going than the first. For it is not (with respect to Dr. Schama) calamity in itself that is boring but the nature of the calamity. Like the crimes and follies of mankind, calamities need to possess inherent interest and importance to hold the attention. As soon as the Bonapartes come on stage, the action quickens sensibly: it is not always easy to digest the naïvetés, confusions, the innocent hopes and predictable disappointments of the scores of nondescript Patriots who inhabit the earlier chapters. Here we find all the childish ineptitude, gullibility, and gormlessness which are the hallmark of radical revolution. Nevertheless the story of the hopes and failures of these early minor Patriots is a salutary tale: it should be made compulsory reading for all young radicals aspiring to political office.

It is more difficult to evaluate Dr. Schama’s main general argument—that the Dutch “revolutionary” reformers shaped the future destiny of the Netherlands. This is partly because his argument seems to involve unreal antitheses among the Patriots, the French, and the Netherlands’ own historic past, and partly because his ripe and involved style, often well suited to the narrative history which forms an important part of his study, is less well adapted to his analytical and historiographical passages.

These are often obscure. Not until chapter four does he begin to recognize how closely the Patriot movement was tied to its Dutch past. Not only did the movement often provide an excuse to rekindle old feuds “which long predated the Revolution”; its nostrums also included traditional religious beliefs, as we have noted, as well as a generous selection of modish English, French, and American thinking, political and economic. Dr. Schama is right to attach importance to the new system of elementary education that was installed in the 1800s under French rule. But it is also surely right to note that one of its main founders, Adriaan Van den Ende, was as much influenced by Priestley and Paley as by his Dutch contemporaries, and that in any case such men were building on a past in which the Dutch had long been well known for their literacy.

Such external influences were common. Isaac Gogel, the Patriot economic reformer, is almost Dr. Schama’s only near-hero, though he recognizes his weaknesses. Yet Gogel was strongly influenced by Adam Smith as well as by everyday problems of the Republic whose solution was his business. Gogel’s objective was a rational, national system of taxation within a unitary state. Yet again, the Dutch past provided him with foundations—a long-established system of public finance and a wide range of indirect taxation—as well as problems: inequality and corruption. But would Gogel or anybody else have felt it necessary to tackle the fiscal problem, head-on and with disastrous results, if he had not felt the relentless turn of the screw by France and her demands for war? It is simply not possible, in that age of universal programs of reform, to deny that educational fiscal and political reform in the Netherlands could well have come without revolution—had the Dutch been a free nation.

But we need not even venture that far into the realms of hypothesis to suspect that Dr. Schama’s theory claims too much for the Batavians. The forces which “caused” the Netherlands Kingdom of the nineteenth century were not exclusively generated domestically in the “revolutionary” period. These forces were a mélange of ancient rifts, frictions, and alliances dating back to the original revolt against Spain and now mirrored in the events and movements of this “French” period and in universal political fashions repudiating the Ancien Régime and all its works. But above all some of the large changes that took place reflected the demands and pressures exerted upon the gullible Dutch radicals, their heads well inside the French noose, by the ruthless real-politik of Paris. The “unitary” state in the Netherlands was made a reality (in Parliamentary but apposite language) by peremptory guillotine motions largely (although not entirely) dictated by the wartime needs of France and backed by French troops.

It is right that French influences should not be allowed to hog the whole road that led from 1780 to 1813. At the same time, we should remember that from the age of Louis XIV to Robespierre and Napoleon and thence to the present, the genius of France has always had an irresistible fascination (of opposites?) for the Dutch. The Hollandsche Spectator of Justus van Effen earlier in the eighteenth century felt duty-bound to campaign against the lure of French frippery, intellectual and material, for his countrymen. It did not prevent them, regent or revolutionary, from continuing their genuflections toward Paris, even up to the days of van Gogh, Van Dongen, and the Constructivists.

The Dutch were late in deserting federalism and local option for the “unitary” state—later than Britain and France at least. Many of them had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into their new, reformed condition. It is doubtful if they would have done so when they did, or as hastily as they did, if they had been left free to decide for themselves. Nor must we necessarily assume, as we in Great Britain back away from our unitary condition in a state of mental and political confusion unequaled in our modern history, that the solution of a unitary state—fashionable though it had become—was necessarily better for the Dutch than its federal predecessor. Anybody who has had to deal with local and central government in the Netherlands knows (in contrast to the British state of affairs) that the former is still better managed than the latter.

Gustaf Renier (who succeeded Pieter Geyl in the London Chair of Dutch History) once wrote of seventeenth-century Dutch history that it contained no villains. Substitute “major villains” and the same can be said of Dr. Schama’s period. Minor villains the “revolution” produced in abundance—demagogues, petty swindlers, place seekers, profiteers, wide boys, and plain hoodlums, all addressing each other in the spurious, prefabricated language of fraternity which is the regular adornment of revolutionary propaganda, and then sliding off to Paris to see what pickings they could find there. The shopkeeper visionaries—butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers—could only gape open-mouthed and goggleeyed as they saw their Utopia shrinking away to nothing.

Were there any heroes? Certainly: most of the ordinary people. They took little part in these cavortings. They could only look on, passive witnesses, resigned victims as things seemed to get steadily worse, praying fervently that in the Lord’s good time revolution and revolutionaries might melt silently away like the snow and ice in springtime: and this, in the end, they did.

This Issue

June 9, 1977