Unity is a remarkable attribute for a country to possess; it induces stability, pride and prosperity. However the Dutch Republic has always been under scrutiny due to the fragility of its existence. Evidence for the divisions within the Republic are recurrent throughout the period, apparently "It was vital to know whether a Dutchman was an Amsterdammer or a Leidanaar or a Haarlemmer. "1 It is clear from this that the separate provinces retained their separate identities, was a type of unity possible in this manner?
And if so, was it this factor of detached unity alone, which prevented the Republic from maintaining any sort of unification? It is important to discover why the inhabitants of the republic never felt secure despite a largely prosperous and influential position within Europe, and furthermore, what factors affected the inability for, ultimately the Netherlands, but essentially the republic to unite and remain together. Established in 1579 and collapsing in 1795, the Dutch republic existed over two centuries within the Netherlands.
Understanding the formation of the Republic is imperative in order to comprehend how unity or disunity occurred throughout its existence. The Union of Utrecht in 1579 was the starting point for the Republic, where the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, overijssel, Friesland and Groningen formed and alliance to oppose the Spanish rule. By 1555 the low countries were part of the Habsburg Empire and from 1566, when the iconoclastic revolt occurred, parts of the region were regularly dedicated to fighting the subjugation.
This unification was not as Simon Schama suggested in his study The embarrassment of riches a result of a unique national identity, but instead a union of necessity in order to combat a common enemy. Marjolein C. 't Hart cites the "... cultural fragmentation... " as reason enough to dispel Schama's theory. The Union of Utrecht was involved mostly the Northern provinces, whilst the Southern provinces chose instead to sign the Union of Atrecht, supporting Spanish rule.
When the division between North and South is combined with the fact that at Utrecht no declaration of independence was made and neither was a congress formed to set up institutions to implement policies, it is clear that the Republic did not make it easy for prosperity via unity. However if the Republic could have instilled solidarity between the provinces, it would have been an even greater force in Europe that it proved to be. With trade booming and cities such as The Hague, Amsterdam and Antwerp being hugely successful in their function, potential existed for eminence.
Nevertheless socially, politically and geographically these centres were divided. They all felt a strong sense of individuality and the many differing histories were not conducive to one united state. The height of the so-called 'Dutch Revolt' probably came in 1585 when Dutch ships were banned from Spanish ports yet the angst towards the Spanish could be seen as early as 1566 during the iconoclastic revolt. The revolt is often put forward as proof of unity within the Dutch republic, because a nation was working towards a common goal: ousting the Spanish.
Unfortunately, the odium of the disgruntled Dutch fostered an aversion towards centralisation. Phillip II of Spain had attempted to centralise the Netherlands via harsh methods of Catholicism and taxation, therefore although those opposing him shared the common aim of deposing the Spanish rule, they did not share a desire for alternative centralisation. Instead the belief of many of those within the Dutch republic was that of "We who are naturally merchants must have low taxes, peace and trade as well as protection... "2.
An explanation can be provided here for the short lived unity of the Dutch republic, in the sense that the provinces needed to join to defeat the Spanish rule and the threat from England and France, yet they had no motive for remaining linked after the job was done. Their goal was never unification but in order to defend their own province, and hence livelihoods, they needed to unite. The trade centre of the time, Amsterdam was certainly not overjoyed about the state of affairs, with one political pamphlet emerging there in 1683 displaying resentment at having to carry the burden for itself and other provinces.
Other Dutch cities and provinces consent to a recruitment of thousands of men to fight the French. But who, other than the wealthy citizens of Amsterdam, much like a rich milk cow, is to furnish the money? " The rivalry between provinces had always been present, and in on sense served to strengthen the Republic's unity through disunity. For in the first half of the seventeenth century, so many of the cities and provinces were financially strong that if any one of the centres were to collapse, the Republic as a whole would not collapse simultaneously.
The fact that the provinces were competitive in their 'mother trade' (grain) as well as the other trades meant they were inadvertently helping keep the Republic afloat. "Much of the Dutch history can be seen as a tension between cosmopolitan and local interests"3. The Dutch, although one of the most rapidly urbanising places in the world, did not see itself as united. The foremost concern of any individual in the republic in these times was himself and his province. Each Province elected a Stadhouder, who in previous days was the governor of the king.
In the times of the Republic, the Stadhouder was often elected for a number of provinces and hence became the highest figure within the Republic. The family of Orange dominated this position with William I of Orange being the first to hold this position of perceived power. It is true however, that the Stadhouder had only limited power based on a number of Factors. Primarily any desire for a monarchical type position depended from individual to individual, additionally there was no system in place to implement decisions that might have come out of the Hague, the meeting place of the provinces' representatives.
Effectively influence of merchants, popular opinion, war and factions were to dictate the future of the Netherlands. No Stadhouder ever held absolute power or indeed had the means to impose it, the Republic did not unite in this way. The Netherlands held such a hegemonic position in the early seventeenth century within Europe because of their immense trading influence. The Republic formed the core of all the major thriving centres inside of the Netherlands at this time, and was, as trade turned more to the sea and further from land, strategically and financially well placed to exploit trading options.
To the Atlantic was fishing, to the Baltic grain, timber and iron and to Africa and the East Indies there lay trade in slaves, spices and luxury goods. This early success was to be the Achilles heel of the Republic as it incensed both the English and French that their domination was being challenged. "The East India Company has grown larger and causes the Dutch much anxiety. This trade competition was the real cause of the war which broke out in the 1650's between England and the Dutch Republic.
It also caused another war between the Dutch and the King of England in the 1660's. 4 Instead of unity, the conflicts with other nations served only to induce disparity. Provinces were not interested in protecting other provinces, where an established nation might have united, the Dutch Republic as a whole struggled in finance and motivation to get involved with wars, as discussed above. National debt in Guilders rose from 30,000,000 to 148,000,000 between the years of 1688 and 1713. The once powerful Dutch trading slipped due to the wars, often as a result of losing ships to the English.
By 1705 the Dutch Republic seemed to be in a demoralised state which in contrast to the potential it showed during its early years, appeared to be moving further and further away from any kind of expedient unity. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was officially Calvinist although it contained many differing strains of religion. Religion must not be forgotten when considering the mechanics of unity within the Dutch Republic, religion, as with everywhere else in Europe at this time, was of great importance.
Many still believed that religious affiliation was inextricably linked with political affiliation and indeed in many cases it was. It is a difficult task to decipher just how much of the Dutch Revolt was in response to the religious impact Philip II was attempting to have in the Republic, or in response to the retraction of the Dutch's freedom. In references to the events of 1566 in the Republic, it is suggested that opposition to Philip II's religious policy was "supported by a very broad spectrum: there were convinced Protestants and genuine Catholics as well.
Among the latter, there were noblemen and city fathers who acted out of political opportunity. "5 The Southern provinces in their willingness to initially accept Spanish rule, demonstrated that the Netherlands were never too pious in their mindset. Whilst the Northern provinces, who relied more on trade for their livelihood, used occurrences such as the iconoclastic revolt as a symbolic protest against Spanish rule, not an ideological one. A true Republic is commonly perceived as a government that is stable, modern and democratic.
However until 1650 the Dutch republic was effectively an oligarchy, with the house of Orange dominating affairs. The independence of the 'United Provinces' was recognised in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which suggests that even if the Republic was not fully united internally, the image it was giving off to the rest of the world implied there was established unification. The factions within the Republic tend to propound somewhat of a different situation, upon Prince William II's death in 1650 opponents of the house of Orange were roused to reassert the rights of the provinces.
Jan de Witt, the political leader of the estates of Holland, was chosen to succeed him and went on to lead the Dutch republic for the next twenty years. In order to prevent the house of Orange regaining authority, de Witt by the Eternal Edict (1667) abolished the office of Stadholder in Holland and ensured the exclusion of the house of Orange from state affairs. This coup performed by the Orange detractors explains a lot about the state of unification in the republic.
The situation of opposition to the established regime is not that dissimilar to that of the French Third Republic in the nineteenth century, in as much as constant changes and lack of centralisation led to a distinct lack of unity. Furthermore, a Dutch Republic government report from 1671 serves to underline the extent of the disunity. "Toward the end of 1671, the mutual distrust among the Dutch provinces hindered deliberations on how to oppose the violent attacks of Louis XIV".
Situations such as this were frequent in the Dutch Republic and tend to suggest a lack of cohesion at political level of the Republic. The Dutch republic seems to somewhat break the mould where the formation of early modern states are concerned. High taxes and frequent warfare are often seen as common initiators of the development of a state existing under one powerful ruler. 't Hart infers that "the example of the Dutch Republic wipes out this casual regularity"6 and indeed it does. This non-absolutist state that developed could have both increased or decreased the unity of the Republic.
If the provinces were to find common ground and goals, then an ideal situation might have developed, and unity possibly assured. And if in fact the area remained separated and linked only by a signed 'Union' and the occasional coming together for war, prosperity may have remained a distant dream. What the Dutch Republic actually managed to do, was find some middle ground during the seventeenth century. The provinces retained their own identity and separate goals, yet provided a support structure in case any one were to collapse.
They endured many years of wars, without collapse and amazingly without unification, different provinces fulfilled different requirements, for example Amsterdam provided funds, and through the one common aim: defence of their provinces, and there for the republic, they managed to prosper during adverse times. The unity of the Dutch Republic was not short lived it simply never existed. Unity in the sense of identity, nationalism and government were very hard to find in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Resilience and desires for success and peace were ever present and resulted in over two centuries of the regime.