In the eighteenth century the prosperity of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands stagnated. The problems had begun earlier. William III had made the interests of the Republic subservient to those of the anti-French coalition and the economy in Holland had suffered accordingly. Later, the Netherlands had lost serveral foreign markets to England as a consequence of the succession of innovations there. Furthermore, the eighteenth century saw the introduction of the potato as staple food for the general population – a cheaper and more nourishing foodstuff than the grain from the Baltic-Sea regions.
The Hollanders could not respond adequately to the crises because the regent class had closed its ranks to new people with new ideas. In fact, a hereditary administrative class had come into being. The population initially hoped that the Prince of Orange could offer a counterbalance, but the stadtholders, Princes William IV and William V, although well-disposed, were weak.
The skepticism about a type of public administration which, in fact, was still based on medieval principles, grew steadily in the eighteenth century and was influenced by the thinking of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Whereas in the past it was thought that the common man was short-sighted and stupid and had to be governed with an iron fist, the philosophers now contended that, with education and some courage, the common man would be able to think for himself. The philosophers of the Enlightenment speculated about democratic republics, but were realistic enough to know that it would be a long time before man would be able to engage in self-government.
Dutch social critics – mainly referred to as the Patriots – came together in an association in which they discussed how they could best galvanize the Netherlanders into pushing ahead in the race of nations. The names of these societies speak for themselves: Society for Public Welfare, for example. Such societies also existed in other countries, but there they were usually set up by the ruler, whereas, in Holland, they were supported by the middle classes. The fact that the initiative for these societies came from the people themselves shows clearly that the self-organization necessary for a consensus culture was present.
The Patriots were the first to see themselves as Netherlanders and considered agreements for collaboration between the seven separate provinces to be outdated. In their circle, national consciousness grew and they used an older foundation myth to back it up: were not all the inhabitants of the seven provinces of the Netherlands descended from the ancient Batavians and was not their revolt against the Romans a dress rehearsal for the revolt against the Spanish? Could the Dutch take matters in their own hands again?
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