The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806

(Oxford History of Early Modern Europe)

by Jonathan Israel

Jonathan Israel and his book on The Dutch Republic are for intellectuals what Shakespeare and King Lear are for English Literature aficionados: the core reading.

Israel's The Dutch Republic explains where modernity came from. Modernity came from Holland. Holland gave us its democracy and the key components of modern commerce. Holland's urbanity created our modern world. Holland was the source of modernity in science, technology, the arts, intellectual thought and urban life. Our modern world has a single direct ancestor in Amsterdam circa 1640.

Ten years before Martin Luther was born, the Protestant Reformation began with Dutch thinkers who wrote about direct individual connection to God -- Geert Groote, Wessel Gansfort and Thomas a Kempis wrote major religious books that were read widely in Europe. Kempis was one of Luther's teachers.

Holland was electing local government officials from the beginning of history. The Angles and Saxons sailed from Holland to England in the first few centuries AD. Holland along with Denmark, Norway and Sweden had a deep tradition of elections and elective assemblies. There was also a tradition of having a noble figurehead to provide the diplomatic relations with the rest of Europe and with the Church. In 1572 a popular uprising that began in Holland spread to the rest of the Netherlands, giving all political power to the General Assembly of the country. The General Assembly governed the whole country as a Republic without a noble figurehead as the leader, for several decades.

Holland has retained that essential self-governing character for the 425 years since. Within the Assembly there has long been a party that favors having a leader from the noble class. After the first 150 years, the noble-favoring party won and since then Holland has had a Constitutional Monarchy. Nobles have held figurehead and military leadership positions off and on again until today. The elected General Assembly (called the States General) has remained in direct control.

The history of England that I learned, and that most people learned, seems to ignore the fact that Holland conquered England and gave England its current form of government. The Glorious Revolution that Englishmen refer to began in October1688 when the Dutch, for reasons related to the alliance of France and England, took pre-emptive action and invaded England. The Dutch won.

The Dutch crossed the channel with 21,000 troops (plus artillery and horses) on 453 ships and landed in Devon, southern England. This was the largest naval invasion for 250 years, until World War II. In two months, the Dutch army fought and marched from Devon to London, while the English King and nobles fled the country.

The Dutch installed the Dutch Prince (who led the invading army) and his wife as King and Queen of England and reinstated Parliament. That Parliament has governed England in a constitutional monarchy ever since. The new King and Queen are known to us, today, as William and Mary; the era is known as the Glorious Revolution referring to creation of the new parliamentary government.

Holland had been the most powerful nation in commerce and had the greatest navy on the seas for the eighty years prior to invading and defeating England. William and Mary brought to England three of the five innovations that had made Holland great, and thenceforth made England great.

William and Mary installed the Dutch tax system and that allowed England to establish a much larger navy and army than ever before. Larger than its Continental competitors. The Dutch tax system paid professional tax collectors salaries; every other government at the time had tax collectors who worked for a percentage of the taxes they collected (inherently corrupting). The newfound stability of tax revenue in England allowed England to create a reliable bond market. Holland had created the first bond market and had the lowest borrowing rates in the world. On the basis of the new Dutch tax collection system, William and Mary created a strong central Bank of England, issued bonds and commenced a period of low interest rate borrowing for the government.

The third Dutch innovation that William and Mary brought to England was official religious tolerance - a vital necessity in building a powerful nation at a time when religious wars were destroying nearly every European society.

Two Dutch innovations that made their way to England directly, without William and Mary were: (1) the modern corporation (first chartered in 1621 in Holland) with the associated stock market, and (2) a middle class democracy based on meritocracy. Nobles were not very important in Holland, especially in the urban center of Amsterdam. Meritocracy reigned and made commerce successful (and vice versa). Meritocracy migrated, on its own, to London and thrived among the merchants and financiers in commerce.

The Dutch never had much interest in controlling England. They were quite happy to have William and Mary out of their hair and did little to create close ties with England, or to dominate in any way, after winning the war. The Dutch preferred having their separate democracy. One hundred years later, consistent with this spirit, the Dutch were the main suppliers of guns and gunpowder to the American Revolutionary Army, fighting for independence from England. England invaded Holland in retaliation, and Holland lost.

Israel's The Dutch Republic doesn't ignore the other elements of modernity. The commercial success that the Dutch democracy created, with the help of religious tolerance and meritocracy, supported Holland as the center of European university life and Holland was the center of European publishing (with translations between all major languages) throughout the 1600's.

The wealth and intellectual vitality in turn generated great art. The names Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals and Vermeer are just a few of the Dutch painters from this period.

Rene Descartes, the father of the Cartesian Enlightenment -- based on deductive science -- did his research and published in Holland. The father of the Radical Enlightenment -- saying the world must be understood empirically -- was a Dutch intellectual leader: Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza was also a master lens maker and as a consequence he was part of the Dutch contribution to modern science. Spinoza's friends and colleagues included Christian Huygens, who used lenses to help discover the wave theory of light and author the vital equations for light refraction. It was another Spinoza friend, Anthony von Leeuwenhoek, who, using lenses in microscopes, discovered the circulation of red blood cells, bacteria and the structure of sperm. Von Leeuwenhoek also created a great botanical library, one of many in Holland, which later brought the father of modern biology, Linnaeus, to study and publish in Holland.

By the 1700's Holland became less and less important as other nations with much larger populations copied some of the commercial, education and technological innovations of the Dutch. Other nations also began erecting domestic tariff barriers to protect their incipient home industries and reduced the trade opportunities for Holland. The contributions of Holland to the world passed on.

Today's democratic societies owe nearly everything to Holland; so do science, technology, intellectual life and the world of meritocratic commerce that are thriving more than ever in tolerant urban centers around the globe.