The civic militia (exercitiegenootschap) of Sneek, gathered on the market square in 1786

The Patriottentijd (English: Patriot Period) was a period of political instability in the Dutch Republic between approximately 1780 and 1787. It takes its name from the radical political faction known as the Patriotten (English Patriots) who opposed the rule of the stadtholder, William V, Prince of Orange, and his supporters who were known as Orangists.

In 1781 one of the leaders of the Patriots, Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol anonymously published a pamphlet, entitled Aan het Volk van Nederland ("To the People of the Netherlands"), in which he advocated the formation of civic militias on the Swiss and American model to help restore the republican constitution of the Republic. Such militias were subsequently organised in many localities and formed, together with Patriot political clubs, the core of the Patriot movement. From 1785 on, the Patriots managed to gain power in a number of Dutch cities, where they replaced the old system of co-option of regenten with a system of democratically elected representatives. This enabled them to replace the representatives of these cities in the States of several provinces, gaining Patriot majorities in the States of Holland, Groningen and Utrecht, and frequently also in the States General. This helped to emasculate the stadtholder's power as he was deprived of his command over a large part of the Dutch States Army. A low-key civil war ensued that resulted in a military stalemate, until in September–October 1787 the Patriots were defeated by a Prussian army and many were forced into exile.



The term Patriot (from Greek πατριώτης, "fellow country(wo)man") had previously been used in the 17th century by anti-Orangists, but when French troops invaded the Republic in 1747, "Patriots" demanded the return of the Orange stadtholderate, which ended the Second Stadtholderless Period (1702–1747). From 1756 onward, however, Dutch States Party regenten once again began styling themselves "Patriots". The Orangist party did try to reappropriate the term, but it was forced on the defensive, which became apparent when it renamed one of its weekly magazines to De Ouderwetse Nederlandsche Patriot ("The Old-Fashioned Dutch Patriot"). Patriotism and anti-Orangism had become synonymous.[1]

The Patriots can be divided into two separate groups: aristocrats and democrats. The aristocratic Patriots (also called oudpatriotten or "Old Patriots"), initially the strongest, can be viewed as oppositional regenten, who either sought to enter the factions in power, or tried to realise the so-called "Loevesteinian" ideal of a republic without Orange; they came from the existing Dutch States Party. The democratic Patriots emerged later, and consisted mainly of non-regent members of the bourgeoisie, who strove to democratise the Republic.[2]

Finally, the term Patriottentijd for the historical era is a historiographical invention of 19th-century Dutch historians, comparable to the terms "First Stadtholderless Period", "Second Stadtholderless Period", and "Fransche Tijd (French Era)" (for the era of the Batavian Republic, the Kingdom of Holland and the French First Empire, 1795–1813). Herman Theodoor Colenbrander for instance, used the term as the title of one of his main works: De patriottentijd: hoofdzakelijk naar buitenlandsche bescheiden (The Hague, 1897).[Note 1] The term was often used in a pejorative fashion, but lately has acquired a more positive connotation.[3]

Perceived decline of the Dutch Republic

After the halcyon days of the Dutch Golden Age of the first two-thirds of the 17th century, the Dutch economy entered a period of stagnation and relative decline. The absolute size of Dutch GNP remained constant, but the economy was overtaken by that of other European countries in the course of the 18th century. Besides, in a number of economic sectors, such as the fisheries and most industries that had sprung up in the early 17th century, an absolute decline occurred. The country's deindustrialization resulted in de-urbanization as artisans that had worked in the disappearing industries had to move to areas where work was still to be found. The shrinking industrial base was also concentrating in particular areas, to the detriment of other areas where certain industries (shipbuilding, textiles) had formerly been prominent. Remarkably for an era of rapid population growth in other European countries, the size of the Dutch population remained constant during the 18th century at around 1.9 million people, which (in view of the constant absolute size of the economy) resulted in a constant per capita income. But this was somewhat misleading as economic inequality markedly increased during the 18th century: the economy became dominated by a small group of very rich rentiers, and the economy shifted to what we would now call a service economy, in which the commercial sector (always strong in the Netherlands) and the banking sector dominated. These shifts had a devastating effect for the people who experienced downward social mobility and ended up in the lower strata of Dutch society. But even those that were not affected by such downward mobility, and remained in the upper and middle classes, were affected by this perceived economic decline.[4]

The economic decline worked through in the political sphere as after the Peace of Utrecht of 1713 the government of the Dutch Republic felt constrained to enter upon a policy of austerity as a consequence of the dire state of the Dutch public finances. Both the mercenary Dutch States Army and the Dutch navy suffered a large shrinkage in the following period, and consequently the Republic had to give up the pretense of being a European great power, in the military sense, with the diplomatic consequences that entailed. It became clear that the Republic had become a pawn in European power politics, depending on the good will of other countries such as France, Prussia and Great Britain. This decline in international diplomatic standing also contributed to the malaise that resulted from the perceived decline.[5]

Growing disaffection with the political system

William V, c. 1768–1769.

The disaffection with the perceived state of the economy and diplomatic decline was paired with a growing disaffection with the political system of the Dutch Republic among middle-class Dutchmen. The Dutch "constitution"[Note 2] defined the Dutch Republic as a confederation of sovereign provinces with a republican character.[Note 3] Formally, power was supposed to flow upward, from the local governments (governments of select cities that possessed City Rights, and the aristocracy in rural areas) toward the provincial States, and eventually the States-General. Those local governments, however, though ostensibly representing "The People" according to the prevailing ideology, had in fact involved into oligarchies dominated by a few families that in the cities at least were not formally part of the nobility, but were considered "patrician" in the classical sense. The members of the regenten class co-opted each other in the city vroedschap, which elected the city magistrates and sent delegates to the regional and national States. This situation had come about gradually, as in medieval times corporate institutions, like the guilds and schutterijen had sometimes had at least nominating powers to the vroedschappen, bestowing a certain amount of political power on members of the middle class (though calling this "democracy" would be an exaggeration).[6]

The concentration of power in a more and more closed oligarchy frustrated the middle class, that saw its opportunities for political and social advancement blocked, also because the political patronage in regard to all kinds of petty offices was concentrated in the hands of the oligarchs, who favored their own political allies. Though offices were often venal and for sale, this fact was ironically less resented than the fact that those offices were not available on the same footing to everyone.[7] Opening up the political system to the middle class had therefore been an objective of political reformers like the so-called Doelisten[Note 4] who in 1747 helped elevate the Frisian stadtholder William IV to stadtholder in all seven provinces, on a hereditary basis, with greatly expanded powers, in the hope that he would use those powers to promote the political influence of the would-be "democrats." That hope proved vain, also because of his untimely death in 1751, after which he was succeeded by his infant son William V, who was three years of age at the time. Power devolved upon regents, first the dowager Princess of Orange, and after her death in 1759, de facto Duke Louis Ernest of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who saw even less merit in "democratic" experiments. Duke Louis would retain a virtual guardianship in accordance with the so-called Acte van Consulentschap even after the young Prince had come of age. Meanwhile, the greatly expanded powers of the stadtholder consisted primarily in his right of appointment, or at least approval, of magistrates on the local and provincial level, which were enshrined in the so-called regeringsreglementen (Government Regulations) adopted by most provinces in 1747. These powers allowed him to overrule the elections by the local vroedschappen if the results did not comport with his wishes, and so bestowed great powers of political patronage on the local level on him (and the regents who ruled in place of the under-age William V before 1766). The end result was that the "States party" regenten that had ruled the country during the Second Stadtholderless Period were replaced by Orangist party men, who were ideologically opposed to popular influence, closing the door to "democratic" experiments. Though the "democrats" had been in the Orangist camp in 1747, they therefore soon came into an alliance of convenience with the disenfranchised "States party" regenten.[8]

The American imbroglio

The American Declaration of Independence did not elicit enthusiasm from everyone in the Dutch Republic, once it became known there in August 1776. The stadtholder wrote to the griffier of the States-General, Hendrik Fagel, that it was only "... the parody of the proclamation issued by our forefathers against king Philip II".[Note 5] But others were less scornful. Dutch merchants, especially in the Amsterdam Chamber of the moribund WIC, had long chafed against the restrictions the British Navigation Acts imposed on direct trade with the American colonies in revolt. The American Revolution opened new perspectives to unfettered trade, though for the moment primarily on the smuggling route via the WIC colony of Sint Eustatius. That entrepôt soon became an important export port for the supply of the American rebels with Dutch arms.[9] The Amsterdam regenten were particularly interested in opening formal trade negotiations with the Continental Congress; secret diplomacy was soon embarked upon by the pensionaries of a number of mercantile cities, like Engelbert François van Berckel (Amsterdam) and Cornelis de Gijselaar (Dordrecht), behind the back of the stadtholder and the States-General. The French ambassador to the Republic, Vauguyon, arranged contacts with the American ambassador to the French court, Benjamin Franklin, in 1778, which in time led to the sending out of John Adams as American emissary to the Republic. In 1778, there also were secret negotiations between the Amsterdam banker Jean de Neufville and the American agent in Aachen, William Lee. The two concluded a secret agreement on a treaty of amity and commerce between the two Republics, the draft of which was discovered by the British when they intercepted ambassador-to-the-Netherlands-to-be Henry Laurens at sea. They used this as a casus belli for declaring the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in December 1780 (together with the actions from Dutch territory by the American privateer John Paul Jones, and the planned Dutch accession to the First League of Armed Neutrality).[10]

The war went disastrously for the Dutch, despite the fact that the Dutch fleet had been enlarged appreciably in the preceding years.[11] but it was scarcely used by the Dutch, with the stadtholder, as Admiral-General, in supreme command. At the start of the war, a number of Dutch warships were surprised by ships of the Royal Navy, who according to the Dutch, sneaked up under a false flag, and when they had approached the unsuspecting Dutchmen (who were not yet aware of the start of the war), ran up their true colors and opened fire. The Dutch ships then struck their colors after firing a single broadside in reply "to satisfy honor." In this way individual ships, and even a complete squadron, were lost.[Note 6] The British blockaded the Dutch coast without much response from the Dutch fleet. There was one big battle between a Dutch squadron under rear-admiral Johan Zoutman and a British one under vice-admiral Sir Hyde Parker, which ended inconclusively, but on the whole the Dutch fleet remained in port, due to a state of "unreadiness," according to the Dutch commanders.[12] This lack of activity caused great dissatisfaction among Dutch shippers who wanted convoy protection against the British, and also among the population at large, who felt humiliated by what many saw as "cowardice." The stadtholder was generally blamed.[13] After a brief wave of euphoria due to Zoutman's heroics (which were duly exploited in the official propaganda[14]), the navy again earned the disapproval of public opinion because of its inactivity. This only increased after the States-General in 1782 agreed with France on a naval alliance or concert that led to a planned joint action against Great Britain. To that end a Dutch fleet of ten ships of the line would in 1783 be sent to the French port of Brest to join the French fleet there. However, a direct order to set sail was disobeyed by the Dutch naval top with again the excuse of "unreadiness," but some officers, like vice-admiral Lodewijk van Bylandt, the intended leader of the expedition, let it be known that they did not want to cooperate with the French.[15] This caused a scandal, known as the Brest Affair in which Pieter Paulus, the fiscal (prosecutor) of the Admiralty of Rotterdam was to lead an inquest, but this never resulted in a conviction. But the damage to the reputation of the Dutch navy and the stadtholder as its commander-in-chief in Dutch public opinion was appreciable, and this undermined the regime.[16]

The stadtholder was not the only one reminded by the American Declaration of Independence of its Dutch equivalent of 1581. Many others saw an analogy between the American Revolution and the Dutch Revolt, and this helped engender much sympathy for the American cause in Dutch public opinion. When John Adams arrived in the Netherlands from Paris in 1780, in search of Dutch loans for the financing of the American struggle, he came armed with a long list of Dutch contacts. At first, however, it was an uphill struggle to interest the Dutch elite.[17] Adams set to work to influence public opinion with the help of a number of those Dutch contacts which he enumerates in a letter to United States Secretary of Foreign Affairs Robert Livingstone of 4 September 1782.[18] He mentions the Amsterdam lawyer Hendrik Calkoen, who was very interested in the American cause, and who posed thirty questions on the matter that Adams answered in a number of letters, that were later bundled and published as an influential pamphlet. Calkoen was keen to again emphasize the analogy between the Dutch and American struggles for independence.[19] He also mentions the Luzac family that published the Gazette de Leyde, an influential newspaper, whose publisher Jean Luzac supported the American cause by publicising the American constitutional debate.[Note 7] The Gazette was the first European newspaper to carry a translation of the Constitution of Massachusetts, principally authored by Adams, on 3 October 1780.[20] In that context Adams also mentions the journalist Antoine Marie Cerisier and his periodical le Politique hollandais.[21] Another propagandist for the American cause, who drew inferences for the Dutch political situation, was the Overijssel maverick nobleman Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, who had the Declaration of Independence, and other American constitutional documents, translated into Dutch.

By these propagandistic activities the American and Dutch causes became intertwined in the public's mind as a model of "republican fraternity".[22] Adams himself harped on this theme in the "Memorial" he presented to the States-General to obtain acceptance of his credentials as ambassador on 19 April 1781:

The immediate audience of the "Memorial" may have been sceptical, but elsewhere the document made a great impression.[24]