The Dutch Republic’s Warning for America

December 17, 2014

In the Absence of a Common Foe 

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States lost a portion of the glue that is holding it together. We witness the unraveling in the dysfunction of our federal government with the election of ever more extreme members of Congress. These developments are not new. One strong parallel is found in the history of the Dutch Republic of the 17th century. Then, as now, the main issue was that of states’ rights versus central control and it manifested itself as a culture war. It nearly tore the country apart. 

The year was 1609. The Republic had just signed a truce with Spain that was to last twelve years. In itself it was a great victory for the small but rich nation. Some forty years earlier the Netherlands had been ruled by Spain. But, while the Dutch provinces slowly on moved away from the Church of Rome and increasingly embraced Protestantism (Calvinism mainly), Spain’s government cracked down on the heretics ever more venomously. By some estimates 50,000 people were killed at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish troops killed many more during the struggle for independence known as the Dutch Revolt. 

Already during the negotiations for a truce it became clear that there were two diverging thoughts on the matter. John Barneveld, the Advocate General and leading politician in the country, was the chief proponent of a truce and was also the chief negotiator for it. Barneveld’s motives were compelling. The main Dutch ally, King James I of England, had been pressing for peace. Other allies also were growing weary. However, the leader of the armed forces, Stadholder Prince Maurice of Orange, wanted to continue the war now that Spain was on its knees and could be defeated once and for all. He also feared that the brewing religious unrest in the country would find an outlet in the vacuum of peace. 

The problem was that both men were correct in their assumptions. King James was ever more belligerent and increasingly showed his impatience with the Dutch Republic. Losing the support of England would have deprived the Dutch of British troops that were stationed in the so-called cautionary towns. It would also have deprived Dutch ships of safe harbor in British ports. And there was James’s irritation with some of the religious discourse in the Netherlands. He regarded himself the leading expert on Calvinist doctrine. He had translated the bible into English after all. Barneveld discounted the religious disagreements. He advocated that the people had to determine for themselves what religious doctrines to follow. The country was founded on religious freedom after all. And, if some level of government had to be involved, then surely the States (provinces) were the highest authority. The country was a confederation, not a federation with a central government. 

And so the nation threw itself into turmoil. Various partisan ministers and scholars engaged in increasingly heated discussions. Pamphlets that vilified opponents were printed in reams. The discourse grew nasty. King James meddled by pressing for a resolution of the questions of doctrine according to his beliefs. Barneveld, somewhat successfully, attempted to placate the monarch. But riots erupted in several cities and each city and state clamped down in support of their own convictions. Barneveld was sympathetic to the states but Maurice was not. He saw a country that was disintegrating. As head of the armed forces he sent national troops into various cities and deposed some city governments. Barneveld objected and encouraged the cities to stand up for their rights. In Utrecht Maurice was surprised by a municipal force and barely got away with his life. By 1618 Maurice had had enough. He ordered the arrest of Barneveld. This was highly irregular since the Stadholder had no legal powers to do so. Only the Province of Holland had jurisdiction. Unperturbed, Maurice had the States General make the arrest. They, too, did not have jurisdiction. Barneveld was first locked up in Maurice’s quarters but then quickly moved to a building belonging to the Province of Holland. There he was kept with a measure of comfort but completely isolated from the outside world. His detractors were too afraid of his allies. Over the next eight months pamphleteering, preaching, and silence from Barneveld had achieved their intended effect and by May, 1618, the statesman was reviled by most. In the mean time a court case was conducted and he was found guilty of trumped up deeds. Without access to his papers Barneveld was not able to put up a good defense and that same month the foremost statesman of the Dutch Republic, a man considered a friend of important monarchs, was led to the scaffold and beheaded. His head and body were thrown in a dirty old box.

Central control won over states rights. Maurice’s action possibly saved the Union but at a very high cost. Barneveld’s state sanctioned murder was probably not necessary but so it often went. Eventually the Dutch Republic fought Spain to its knees and the final peace was signed in 1648.

In our present state without a significant enemy, our union is likely not at risk. However, the infighting and divisions will weaken the nation. Furthermore, dysfunctional government allows non-governmental forces, i.e. corporations and moneyed individuals, to dismantle those parts of the State that regulate or otherwise restrict their freedom of movement. Inequality will likely increase. Product safety will decrease. Social welfare will suffer.

According to some economists these consequences will benefit the wealthy in the short term but will harm them in the long run. After all, who will buy the products if the people have no money? Who will pay for infrastructure needed to move goods if there is no tax revenue? What entity will be able to control epidemics that break out in poor, squalid neighborhoods?

The controversy surrounding Barneveld is described in detail in the book MANY HEADS and MANY HANDS, James Madison’s Search for a More Perfect Union.

It is an exciting, newly published book takes a long look at the pre-history of America, why and how the Pilgrims came to settle and live in Leiden. It also sheds some light on the reasons why the Pilgrims landed on the Massachusetts coast rather than further south. The significance of Robinson’s letter for the further development of law and governance is explained. The knowledge and values that immigrants brought to America helped James Madison in his research for a More Perfect Union. Many Heads and Many Hands was James Madison’s response to praise from Thomas Jefferson for Madison’s accomplishments with the new Constitution. This book examines these heads and hands that created the conditions in which democracy and the rule of law could exist and on whose work our Founders built.

Available for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo or their various apps.

Mau VanDuren

2 Responses to “The Dutch Republic’s Warning for America”

  1. jgunncool said

    Unfortunately this problem seems to be quite ancient. I agree that the experience of the Dutch Republic has some unnerving similarities with our own.

    Having also read Piketty’s book on inequality (global, not just U.S.) it seemed to me that the “good ol days” were back when we had the Soviet Union not just as an external enemy, but a profound philosophical threat to western elites. Given the possibility of serious worker unrest (including communist sympathies within the labor movements of the 1920s and 1930s), the elites saw it in their interest to ensure that workers could realistically aspire to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. They even put up with high taxes and regulations.

    Now that the “communist threat” is a thing of the past, they keep demanding (and receiving from our politicians) more and more tax breaks and loopholes, and fight against any/all environmental or financial sector regulations.

    They have succeeded in distracting the American middle class with the “culture wars” and buying up politicians from both parties (e.g., see Schumer, Chuck). It’s no accident that we’ve witnessed congressional gridlock for the entire year, and then at the last minute, along with the “must pass” budget resolution, we see tons of goodies for the elites, including yet more opportunities to flood our political system with money.

    The lesson from the Dutch Republic is that we need to see beyond the “culture war” issues of guns and gays that divide us, and keep focused on the critical economic issues and especially the nexus of economics and politics fueled by dark money. We need to fight for transparency in political spending.

    Personally I am working with “Get Money Out of Maryland” and with WolfPac in Virginia to push for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United.

    “Eternal vigilance …”

  2. crudley said

    I entirely agree with your comments. This vigilance has to include activism.
    Interestingly, you could view this Dutch warning the second that America receives. James Madison used much of the Dutch Union’s problems of the 18th century as an example of what to avoid and fix in the American Union. And that study lead him to write most of our Constitution.

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