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

Basically, the Dutch relate to their history like all of us do to our own (on our Facebook feeds): we highlight our accomplishments and hide our embarrassments. 

But Dutch history has much more horrible, fascinating and illuminating lessons in store for you. Let’s start with the story of the Dutch and the American Revolution.

First, have a peek at this clip. It shows the press conference of the then 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 supreme example of the glorious 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, that helped to create the United-States of America we know today.

Dutch-American history: involvement of the Dutch for American independence

So what did Rutte forget to tell Obama? A lot, obviously. The story of the Dutch Republic during the American Revolution is a long, complex and fascinating read I would like to recommend to everyone. But some omissions are more equal than others.

For example, Rutte forgot to mention that the United States was recognized for the first time by a Dutch governor  – 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  – owned by the Dutch West-India Company – gave the ‘the first salute’ to the American rebels, flying their not-yet-starred-and-spangled-flag. 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.

“First salute to the flag of the U.S.A.” Image: US Embassy The Hague/Flickr

Now, 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 terribly early modern.

The Americans needed gunpowder badly, and the Dutch, particularly Amsterdammers, dived into every lucrative market they could find, careless of the wider geopolitical forces they unleashed. 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 realized that the Amsterdam merchants and bankers, as the governor of St. Eustatius, were acting totally opposite from what their government in the Hague expected. At this point, the Dutch Republic was allied to Britain – America’s arch-enemy – for more than a hundred years.

Still, the Americans, critically short on cash, sent John Adams (he would become the second American president in 1794) across the Atlantic Ocean. He brought his two sons, who he sent to study in Leiden.

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

Adams was actively perceiving the political situation in the Dutch Republic and what it could teach him about constructing the country he wanted his children to live in. His tone is sympathetic to Dutch culture but mostly negative, and towards the end, bitter. Above all, the country he describes in his correspondence was a Republic that had lost its way through years of corruption and party-strife.

Dutch-American history: To the Americans, the Dutch Republic was primarily an example of a failed political system

Adams was totally bewildered by Dutch politics.  He was not entirely wrong: a great historian wrote on Dutch politics of the time that “its complexities baffle brief description.” Complex, because the Dutch Republic was a confederation of sovereign provinces, which only made collective decisions after notoriously slow-moving, back-and-forth decision making processes.

These decisions were usually confined to foreign policy and collective defence matters. These privileges and common goals were written down in the  1579 Union of Utrecht, which had grown in a sort of ‘constitution’ of the Republic in the process of two hundred years. But this document gave no specific directions to solve the total institutional deadlock. No wonder Rutte did not show this particular document to Obama.

For at during the time America was founded (the 1770s), the Dutch Republic had become a dysfunctional state. The provinces could not bridge their different interests.  Before, the richest province of the Republic, Holland, was able to negotiate effective policy. Now, mercantile Holland stood totally opposite of the government in the Hague, which represented the more landward provinces.

Consequently, the Dutch Republic barely had a common foreign or defensive policy – nor a budget to back it up.  Thus, it was unable to protect its still enormous (colonial) empire – 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 completely destroyed the Dutch merchant fleet and took possession of swathes of Dutch colonial territory, forever degrading the country into a second- or third rate power.

The anger over this humiliating defeat triggered a sort of mini-revolution in the Dutch Republic in 1781, called the ‘Patriot Era.’ A broad section of the Dutch population sought political reform, but, tragically, we’re unable to 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 in order to reform their loosely tied confederation of States into a United States (more than 10 years after their declaration of independence). During intense debates, several key American founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Thomas Paine were intimately aware of the developments in the Dutch Republic.

Primarily, the questions that faced the Founding Fathers were those that rhyme with those that dominate 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 in how a Republic should face internal political strife. Just 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.

Indeed, the bottom line is this: by 1787 the Dutch Republic had established itself as the perfect example of what not to become: a loose confederal construction that could not bridge the ‘spirit of party’, unable to produce a policy to defend common interests.  Madison reflected on the failed ‘Patriot Revolt’ in January 1788 (No. 37), when he wrote that he hoped that a United States Constitution could provide a political system that enjoys

“in a very singular degree, an exemption from the pestilential influence of party animosities the disease most incident to deliberative bodies, and most apt to contaminate their proceedings.”

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 that he had 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 did he not? 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 it was that constitution which has 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? Let us know in the comments!

Feature Image: Rijksoverheid/Wikimedia Commons

6 COMMENTS

  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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