Thorbecke, who wrote the liberal constitution of 1848.

Thorbecke, who wrote the “extremely liberal” constitution of 1848. The statue is in Amsterdam.

What strikes one, is just how peacefully this all proceeded. Whereas in Paris, during the revolution, the blossoming of freedom, equality, and brotherhood was only realized by guillotining anyone to whom there was attached even a whiff of suspicion, in the Batavian Republic, not one revolutionary was given the death penalty. Not even Napoleon could erase the eight-century-old tradition of freedom of conscience in Netherland.

Nevertheless, the second half of the French era had posed a serious threat to the consensus culture, as the familiar and natural points of contact had disappeared. Despite this, it turned out that the culture of consultation was still very much alive after the liberation: the solution – a constitutional parliamentary monarchy – was even a triumph of this culture, as a way had been found to reconcile what had appeared to be almost irreconcilable.

When compromises are reached, the most difficult choices are usually postponed. In this case the question not dealt with was: who was the principal authority, the king or parliament? This depended on the character of the ruler. William I reigned as an enlightened despot. His son William II, however, was less autocratic and when revolution threatened in 1848, he was able ‘to switch from being extremely conservative to extremely liberal in one night’ (to quote William himself), and to endorse a constitutional change in which the role of the monarch was made secondary to that of the Cabinet.

At that time, the electorate comprised about five percent of the population. This was gradually extended and on the eve of the World War I, about a third of the adult population was allowed to vote. Universal suffrage for men as had existed in the Batavian period was only re-introduced in 1917. Two years later the female part of the population was given the right to be represented in the States-General. In this light, then Dutch democracy dates only from 1919.

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