In fact, this legendary Dutch tolerance precedes the emergence of capitalism, which can be dated back to around 1580, and is even older than Calvinism. A well-known early representative of Dutch tolerance is Erasmus of Rotterdam. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this great scholar alleged that a good Christian should not be doctrinaire but should allow himself to be inspired by the evangelical virtue of love of one’s neighbor. One had to have respect for the beliefs of others.
Nothing was less characteristic of Holland than to force someone to change his opinion. That applied in a small way when it came to the freedom of conscience of the individual – the Inquisition was detested – and in a big way when the self-government of the regions was encroached upon. It is not a good idea to typify a particular group of people, yet we can say with certainty that ‘the’ Hollander had a deep need of freedom, and defined this as autonomy of the towns and freedom of conscience.
The fact that there was tolerance and freedom of conscience in Holland did not mean that everyone’s opinion was listened to. Within the Calvinist congregations there was certainly a form of democracy, but political consultations in towns, regions and the Republic became more and more monopolized by an elite group of prosperous entrepreneurs: the regenten (regents).
Just as in the Middle Ages, a town in the seventeenth century was run by an executive council of four mayors, and jurisprudence was in the hands of a committee of sheriff and aldermen. However, with the increase in size of the towns, the magistrates’ tasks grew more demanding and only someone who was very, rich could afford to take enough time off to govern a town adequately for a full year. Because of this, a group of wealthy, professional administrators or regents emerged, who had a full-time career in what today would be called government administration. Because they had experience, these regents were appointed again and again. It was these prominent men who set forth policy in the towns and, in doing so, also dictated policy in the regions and in the States-General. This elite group of about two thousand men dominated all Dutch consultation bodies.
Although the Dutch nowadays associate the word ‘regent’ with paternalism, these were highly-qualified administrators, who, despite being rich and powerful, did not lose the common touch, as Sir William Temple had observed. Nor was it a closed group, as there was always room for newcomers. It goes without saying that someone who had recently settled in a town did not have a ghost of a chance of ever holding office in the high magistracy, but he did get the opportunity to sit on the board of trustees of less important institutions such as the poor house. The proud faces in the painting ‘The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild‘ by Rembrandt van Rijn, show that such second-level administrators were more than satisfied with the functions allotted to them. Even sons of immigrants, if they showed enough financial acumen and appeared to live respectably, had a chance of becoming mayor.
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