Known to his contemporaries for his sharpness of mind, strength of purpose, fortitude, and good humor, John de Witt was a brilliant leader whose career ended in a death of horror rarely paralleled in history. Herbert Rowen's biography embraces all aspects of De Witt's political, intellectual, and personal life, including his role as a mathematician admired by Newton, an "unphilosophical Cartesian," and a political thinker.
The author describes De Witt's youth, Dutch society of his day, and his central part in the domestic and foreign politics of the Dutch Republic from 1651 to 1672. He puts De Witt's relation to the House of Orange in a new light, more subtle than in the traditional history. He also examines in detail De Witt's system of government as councilor pensionary of Holland.
Originally published in 1978.
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John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1625-1672
By Herbert Harvey Rowen
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Dordrecht (or Dort, as it is also known in Dutch and English), as the oldest city in Holland — it dates from the eleventh century — was the first in rank in the province. Situated in the heart of the Rhine-Maas delta, it had seemed destined for economic leadership during the Middle Ages. Its merchants traded upstream to Germany and over the North Sea to England in such wares as Rhine and Moselle wines and lumber, and it had the staple for English cloth. By the seventeenth century, however, its trade had fallen far behind Amsterdam's, while Leiden and Haarlem were more important as industrial centers and Rotterdam was moving ahead as a harbor. Dordrecht had few more than three thousand houses early in the century and less than four thousand at the end. The Trips, an energetic and successful family, moved to Amsterdam, where they climbed from affluence to immense wealth. Those who stayed behind accepted a more modest role for their town and for themselves.
Among these were the De Witts, a family whose name first appears in Dordrecht town and guild records during the thirteenth century. A genealogy drawn up for Grand Pensionary De Witt four hundred years later begins with a Geert de Witt, who was an alderman in 1255 and 1266. We do not know how much earlier the De Witts were in Dordrecht or whence they came. The records tell us little more than their names and posts in government until the sixteenth century, although twelve generations of De Witts can be traced before the John who attained fame. The name, however spelled, merely means White, and the Grand Pensionary, like the ancestor recorded as "Jan die Witte," bore the same name as any Englishman called John White.
By the thirteenth century the De Witts were probably already enjoying a measure of affluence, chiefly as lumber merchants. Jan die Witte Godschalkszoon, who lived in the second half of the fourteenth century, began the procession of De Witts in the service of their town. He served repeatedly as an alderman after 1367 and became burgomaster in 1375. More than a century passed, however, before another De Witt came into the government; the family produced instead a goodly number of priests, nuns and priors. Cornelius de Witt, born in 1485, served twice as a member of the council and then four terms as alderman before his death in 1537. Cornelius's son Frans is already recorded as owning the lumber business which remained in the family for another century. His marriage to Liduwe van Beveren in 1539 advanced the family's standing in Dordrecht. The Van Beverens were perhaps the most eminent family in town, and Liduwe's mother, Aleyd Muys van Holy, also bore a distinguished name. Although Frans lived to see Lutheranism and even Calvinism enter the Low Countries, he remained a strict and staunch Catholic.
His younger son, Cornelius, was the first De Witt to embrace the Reformed faith and the first to play a major political role in the country. When he was converted is not known, but by the time he was elected as an alderman, in 1575, Dordrecht was under the sway of the Revolt and Cornelius was a Calvinist. He governed Dordrecht as burgomaster for eighteen years, and his position of power there made him an active participant in provincial and national politics. While "deputy in the field," representing the States General with the army besieging Grave in 1602, he won the favor and esteem of Prince Maurice.
The close tie between the De Witts and Prince Maurice was maintained by Cornelius's elder son, Andrew. The first De Witt to take up a career in the law, he was pensionary of Dordrecht for a few months in 1618. During the final year of the conflict between the prince and John van Oldenbarnevelt (who shared the founding of the Dutch Republic with William the Silent), Andrew de Witt, as pensionary of Holland's first town, was called to The Hague to act as land's advocate after Oldenbarnevelt's arrest. After Oldenbarnevelt was executed, Andrew became acting land's advocate and held the office until 1621.
Cornelius de Witt's youngest son, Jacob, was the father of the Grand Pensionary. Like Andrew, he took a doctorate in law, presumably at Leiden. His excellence as a writer, notably of Latin verse, brought him appointment in 1611 as curator of the Latin school of Dordrecht and as town librarian. After making a grand tour which lasted several years and took him through Germany, France, and England, Jacob returned home to marry a seventeen-year-old girl, Anna van den Corput, at Breda, on October 9, 1616.
The Van den Corputs, "a celebrated family of Brabant," had long been active in the political life of Breda, although Anna was born in Dordrecht. Many of the Van den Corput women married members of patrician families in Holland and Utrecht, certainly as much for sound political reasons as for love. The part of Brabant recaptured by the States General from the Spaniards had not been accorded equality by its liberators, who gave it neither a seat and a vote in the States General at The Hague, nor any right of self-government.
The Van den Corputs went north to seek protection and favor from the De Witts and other marriage connections, not the other way around as might have happened a century before. As for Anna herself, not much is known of her as a personality. Contemporaries called her "pious and respectable," and apparently she could be quite stern. In appearance she was a buxom Dutch matron, whose round face bore no more resemblance to the thin, long-nosed visage of her famous younger son than did that of her square-faced husband. After his marriage, Jacob de Witt settled down in Dordrecht, where for almost two decades he operated the family lumber business in the yard behind the De Witt home on the Grotekerksbuurt.
In 1618, Jacob, a supporter of the Prince of Orange in the struggle against the Remonstrants, was chosen as treasurer of the national synod of Dordrecht. The post was no sinecure, although it did not involve Jacob directly in the savage debates; for that matter, his father, who was a delegate, did not play any role of importance. Jacob provided for the finances of the entire synod and made arrangements for the foreign delegates in particular, who praised the bountiful Dutch hospitality which they received from his hands.
A career in Dordrecht town government opened wide for Jacob in 1620. His brother Andrew gave up the post of town pensionary, which he had continued to hold while acting as land's advocate, in order to take a seat in the Court of Holland. Jacob was elected as an alderman for the first time and was repeatedly renamed over the decades. In 1622, when his father died, Jacob was elected burgomaster to replace him. He was also named by the Old Council (as Dordrecht called its governing body) to sit for the city in the Chamber of the Maas of the West India Company, which met at Rotterdam. Although named on April 3, 1622, he did not take the oath of office until 1626. The honor was clearly greater than the function. In 1625, the year when his youngest child, John, was born, Jacob de Witt was also named receiver of taxes for Holland in Dordrecht and continued in this lucrative post until 1637.
Jacob's prosperity was coming to depend more upon his government service than upon the income from his lumber business. No evidence has been found to substantiate the charge made by a hostile pamphleteer years later that he had gone bankrupt, but it is clear that he sold the business, part in 1633 and the remainder in 1651. His transformation from a merchant capitalist into a regent (a member of the governing bodies) was complete. Indeed, in 1637, when he was elected a delegated councilor, that is, a member of the standing committee of the States of Holland which acted for the whole assembly in the intervals between its meetings, he had to accept frequent stays in The Hague. He was renamed a delegated councilor in 1638 and 1639, and then again in 1649 and 1650. But in 1639 he became burgomaster of Dordrecht and was renamed five times, in 1640, 1646, 1647, 1654 and 1655. His increasing weight in national politics was shown in May 1644, when he was named one of the three extraordinary members added by the States of Holland to its deputation to the States General on the occasion of the preparation of instructions to the ambassadors going off to Münster to negotiate peace with Spain.
The prosperity of the De Witt family enabled it to live well but not high. They did not compete in way of life with the great ones of the land, either the courtiers assembled about Prince Frederick Henry or the merchant princes of Amsterdam. It was in this period that Jacob acquired the right to call himself "Lord (Heer) of Manizee, Melissant and Cromstrijen," after estates which he bought wholly or in part. Although most members of the town patriciates gladly proclaimed their eminence with the titulature of lordship, Jacob de Witt continued to call himself by his family name. When he died in 1674, his total fortune amounted to about 150,000 guilders, a sum which for the time meant solid prosperity but not dazzling wealth.
Jacob de Witt had strong intellectual interests. He was one of the circle of literary-minded regents around Jacob Cats, who was elected pensionary of Dordrecht in 1623 — the "Father Cats" who is famed in the Netherlands not for his public service , but as the poet of Everyman. At this time Jacob de Witt began to compose verse himself, mere occasional poems which display firmness of character and strength of mind but not literary talent or the fiery personality we know him to have possessed.
John de Witt was a Dordrechter, the most celebrated in the city's history. Yet we do not know with certainty that he was born there, on September 25, 1625. He was not baptized in the family church, the Grote Kerk close by the De Witt home, and no baptismal record for him has been found elsewhere. But his rights as a natural-born citizen were never called into question, even by the most bitter of his opponents.
Although we do not know as much about the years of De Witt's childhood and youth as we do for kings and princes, the general quality of his upbringing is clear. He was a vigorous nurseling; years later his mother recalled that he "sucked her so dry that now she had almost no breast." What such hard nursing implied for the grown man may be left to the psychologizers, but the warmth of the De Witt family circle is well attested. Jacob de Witt was a father whose strong emotions and obvious sternness did not unduly strain his sons' affection for him. John's vision of proper relations between father and son, expressed when he was just short of thirty years of age, almost certainly reflects his own memory of his early upbringing. "Well-born children," he wrote, followed closely in their father's footsteps, and "generous parents" delighted in bringing up children for "greater things" and in seeing them acquire competence. Cornelius, who was two years older, had more of Jacob's passionate intensity; John, the baby, was the wiser head and better mind, even while they were children. Yet they were as close as brothers could be, through the years of boyhood, youth, and maturity, until the day they died together. Dutch family life is notoriously close: the De Witts were a close and healthy family. We know less about Anna van den Corput than about her husband, but the reports tell of a warmer personality. Two older sisters, Maria and Johanna, who were five and seven years older than John, treated him all his life with a combination of bossy affection and admiring respect.
Little though we know specifically about John's education, it was clearly anything but the "simple upbringing" one historian describes. Jacob de Witt was too devoted to learning to neglect his children's education. His sons, despite the two years' difference in their ages, went through all their schooling together; their intimacy was intellectual as well as personal. At home they learned their daily prayers and the tenets of a Calvinism at once orthodox and tender. As John later put it, they were taught "that we had to subject ourselves to the will of the Lord and that all happens for the best to those who fear God." They learned to read, write, and calculate, probably at the "trivial school" which they attended. It may have been the elementary school attached to the Latin school of Dordrecht, of which their father was curator. In any event, they began their secondary education in the Latin school in 1635, just after it had been renamed the Illustrious School, in recognition of a celebrity extending far beyond the borders of Holland. The rector, Dr. Isaac Beeckman, headed a faculty of distinction, which taught physics, medicine, surgery, Greek, history, and the language and literature of the Netherlands, as well as Latin, of course. Beeckman was a mathematician and philosopher, respected by his longtime friend, Rene Descartes. 2 8
It was probably from Beeckman that John acquired his first taste for mathematics, although it was not taught in class. Two years after the De Witt boys entered the academy, Beeckman died. His successor, Gaspar Parduyn, was a pupils' pet, who "employed neither switch nor cane" as instruments of education. But he does not seem to have been a strong shaper of minds. John probably learned more about language and its uses from Johannes Michaelius and Peter van Godewijck, who were both humanist scholars and practising poets; Van Godewijk was on close terms with the De Witt family and dedicated much verse to them, including some to his pupil John. Latin was obviously well taught, for John learned to write it with fluent correctness and to use Latin tags and citations with easy familiarity. It was during these years that he acquired facility in French; it was a favored second language at home. He also acquired a bit of German and English, but never used them as he did French or Latin; he could probably read them, no more, and in later years he had German documents translated for his use. He may have shared his brother's delight in the pure beauties of literature — witnesses differ as to this — but in later life, unlike his father, he did not cultivate the friendship of men of letters. If he played the part of Julius Caesar in a school play written by Michaelius, this would have been a tribute not to his literary talents but to his general intellectual achievements, for the leading role generally went to the best student. He took with pleasure to training in "all the exercises of a cavalier," winning the honor of being held up to his fellow-students as a model to follow. A contemporary tells us that he was "diligent and uncomplaining" at his studies and already gave signs of being another Wunderkind like Hugo de Groot (Grotius). Yet, when mealtime came, he was "most joyous, whether pleasantly playing upon Instruments, or dancing a Ballet, or engaging in several permitted arts, or conversation, or chess." His musical instrument was the violin, and the "permitted arts" probably included fencing, at which he became adept, and card games.
Excerpted from John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, 1625-1672 by Herbert Harvey Rowen. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. v
- Preface, pg. vii
- A Note on Names, Personal and Geographical, pg. xi
- Abbreviations, pg. xiii
- Prologue: The Lances are Blunted, pg. 1
- 1. Youth (1625-1650), pg. 5
- 2. Holland Versus the Prince (1649-1650), pg. 25
- 3. The Path to Power (January 1651-February 1652), pg. 50
- 4. War with Cromwell (May 1652-July 1653), pg. 68
- 5. Life in The Hague (1653-1660), pg. 97
- 6. From Affluence to Fortune, pg. 112
- 7. The Craft of Politics, pg. 133
- 8. The Master of Patronage, pg. 154
- 9. The Manager of State Finances, pg. 170
- 10. Toward Peace (July 1653-April 1654), pg. 191
- 11. Exclusion of the Prince (April-August 1654), pg. 215
- 12. Diplomacy: Craft and Art, pg. 238
- 13. As England Goes ... (1654-1660), pg. 257
- 14. Not Quite Friends or Foes (1652-1660), pg. 271
- 15. The Embroiled Baltic (1652-1657), pg. 303
- 16. Storm in the North (1657-1660), pg. 317
- 17. Holland Politics (1654-1660), pg. 334
- 18. A Clashing Harmony (1654-1660), pg. 356
- 19. The Anomalous Republican, pg. 380
- 20. The Unphilosophical Cartesian, pg. 401
- 21. The Churches and the State, pg. 420
- 22. The Royal Guest (May-June 1660), pg. 442
- 23. England: The Collapse of Friendship (1660-1664), pg. 448
- 24. France: The Dubious Ally (1660-1664), pg. 465
- 25. Life in The Hague (1660-1672), pg. 491
- 26. ANew Place for Orange? (1660-1664), pg. 513
- 27. Politics at Home (1660-1664), pg. 546
- 28. King Charles's War (1665-1667), pg. 574
- 29. The Mouse That Bit a Lion (1665-1666), pg. 598
- 30. The Way to Breda (1665-1667), pg. 611
- 31. France: The Reluctant Ally (1665-1667), pg. 634
- 32. Wartime Politics (1665-1667), pg. 659
- 33. The Triple Alliance (August 1667-June 1668), pg. 683
- 34. The Dover Treaty (June 1668-June 1670), pg. 709
- 35. The Fruits of Dover (June 167o-April 1672), pg. 731
- 36. Quest for New Allies (1668- I 672), pg. 760
- 37. The Prince Starts Back (1667-1670), pg. 781
- 38. The Prince Advances (June 167o-April 1672), pg. 798
- 39. The Desperate Months (April-June 1672), pg. 815
- 40. The Fall from Power (June-August 1672), pg. 840
- 41. The Final Horror (July-August 1672), pg. 861
- Epilogue, pg. 885
- Bibliography, pg. 894
- Index, pg. 931