Dutch-American history: how the Netherlands played a pivotal role in America’s Independence

The Dutch relate to their history like all of us do to our own: we highlight our accomplishments and hide our embarrassments. 

But Dutch history has many horrible, fascinating, and illuminating lessons for you — including the Netherlands’ influence on the creation of the United States of America. So let’s start with the story of the Dutch and the American Revolution, shall we?

Dutch-American history: what Rutte forgot to tell Obama in 2014

While Dutch-American relations have developed since then, Obama’s 2014 visit to the Netherlands is a good place to begin our story of the Dutch and the American Revolution.

Press conference of President Obama and the Dutch Prime Minister, Rutte, in March 2014 in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum (for the Nuclear Summit).

They stood in front of the colossal Nightwatch painting of Rembrandt — the best example of the Dutch Golden Age. However, Obama was also shown two documents that “played an important role in the age-old friendship between our two countries.”

By showing these two particular documents only, Rutte negated the tragic failures of the last years of the Dutch Republic. Failures, however, helped to create the United States of America we know today.

Involvement of the Dutch in American independence

So what did Rutte forget to tell Obama? A lot. For example, he didn’t mention that a Dutch governor recognised the United States for the first time — without consent from the government in The Hague. Is that the reason Rutte met Obama in Amsterdam?

In 1776 on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, the cannons of Fort Oranje gave the ‘the first salute’ to the American rebels. This salute was no coincidence. As early as 1774, Dutch merchants provided staggering amounts of gunpowder to the American war effort. St. Eustatius was the place where supply met demand.

dutch-american-relations-postage-stamp-first-salute-to-the-flag-of-the-U.S.A
“First salute to the flag of the USA.” Image: US Embassy The Hague/Flickr

This did not happen because Dutch merchants were particularly sympathetic to American ideals of democracy and taxation with representation. They were a highly oligarchical bunch — totally at ease with privileges that even then were considered ‘so early modern’.

Business first

The Americans needed gunpowder badly, and the Dutch (particularly Amsterdammers) dived into every lucrative market they could find. Profits were what these merchants needed in 1776. Business, like the Dutch economy at large, had been in relative decline for decades.

The Americans gradually realised that the Amsterdam merchants and bankers were acting opposite of their government. At this point, the Dutch Republic was allied with Britain, America’s arch-enemy, for more than a hundred years.

Still, the Americans, critically short on cash, sent John Adams across the Atlantic Ocean. He brought his two sons, who he sent to study in Leiden.

READ MORE | The pilgrims in Leiden: Where were the pilgrims before they sailed to America?

In 1778, he visited Amsterdam, still the world’s financial centre at the time, to obtain enormous loans from Amsterdam bankers, who would remain responsible for financing the American national debt well up until the 1790s.

Adams observed the political situation in the Dutch Republic, and what it could teach him. His tone was sympathetic to Dutch culture but mostly negative.

Above all, the country he describes in his correspondence was a Republic that had lost its way through years of corruption and party strife.

READ MORE | That time the Dutch ate their prime minister

A failed political system

When America was founded, the Dutch Republic had become a dysfunctional state. The provinces could not bridge their different interests.

Before, Holland’s richest province of the Republic was able to negotiate effective policy. Now, mercantile Holland stood totally opposite to the government in The Hague, which represented the more landward provinces.

Consequently, the Dutch Republic barely had a common foreign or defensive policy â€” nor a budget to back it up. It was unable to protect its still enormous (colonial) empire â€” it simply did not have an army or navy to do so.

This powder keg of political partisanship and inertia exploded when Britain chose to declare war on the Dutch Republic in 1780; the merchants would not stop trading with France and the United States.

Britain destroyed the Dutch merchant fleet and took possession of swathes of Dutch colonial territory.

The anger over this defeat triggered a revolution in the Dutch Republic in 1781. A broad section of the Dutch population sought political reform but they couldn’t pull through.

Unable to control the increasingly violent situation, William of Orange and his clique invited Prussia’s well-drilled soldiers to squash resistance after years of political upheaval in 1787.

Now, why is that important?

In the weeks that Prussian troops routed Dutch revolutionaries, the Founding Fathers of America descended on Philadelphia to write their constitution to reform their loosely tied confederation of States into a United States (more than 10 years after they declared independence).

During intense debates, several key American Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Thomas Paine, were aware of the developments in the Dutch Republic.

Primarily, the questions that faced the Founding Fathers were some that still rhymes with those dominating American politics today: what were to be the powers of the American federal government?

The fate of the Dutch Republic clouded these debates, providing lessons on how a Republic should face internal political strife. After the Prussian invasion, Madison wrote one of the famous Federalist Papers. In No. 20, he stated:

The union of Utrecht […] reposes an authority in the States-General, seemingly sufficient to secure harmony, but the jealousy in each province renders the practice very different from the theory.

Dutch-American relations in the present

Ironically, Rutte’s press conference with Obama took place a few months after an unprecedented shutdown of the United States government.

It was the bitter evidence that Obama had been unable to bridge the partisan divide he’d sought to tackle. It was evidence of how the United States of America had reached a political deadlock similar to one that the Dutch Republic experienced some 230 years before.

Of course, Rutte did not tell Obama this.

But then again: why didn’t he? Extreme partisanship pushing political institutions to their limits is inevitable in the rise and fall of great powers. Obama’s presidential predecessors knew this by studying that country that had, through providing the American rebels with gunpowder and vital loans, dug its own grave. 

The politics of the Dutch Republic inspired them to write a ‘rational’ constitution that could overcome the ‘spirit of party in the future. Indeed, perhaps that constitution prevented total institutional inertia in the United States today — the silver lining of history that Rutte forgot to tell Obama about.

Any details we might have missed in this crash course in history? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: Rijksoverheid/Wikimedia Commons/CC1.0

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2016, and was fully updated in July 2022 for your reading pleasure.

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What do you think?

  1. Nice, the story of the downfall of the Dutch Republic in 1787 sure seems quite similar to what’s EU today: just a great market for merchants, with parties unable to cooperate neither on social nor political levels.

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