Painting: Pieter Frits

They Really Knew How to Do Populist Revolts in 1672

Holland was prospering under a globalist technocrat. Then things went downhill.

Johan de Witt, the boy wonder who effectively ran the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands from 1653 to 1672, was an early believer in inbox zero. In his office in the westernmost corner of the Binnenhof, the complex of buildings in The Hague that is still the nerve center of the Dutch government,

Johan worked until his desk was empty: the official letters that he had read aloud during the meeting, the envelopes from relatives, friends and other contacts, his list of decisions taken and his notes from the last meeting. He didn’t go home until everything had been dealt with.

As soon as a note was finished, he scattered sand over the lines to dry the ink, and he hung it on a wall-mounted wire -- many of Johan’s surviving letters have holes in them. This hanging stack, called a lias, also had the advantage that everything was arranged nicely together and finished work wasn’t in the way. When Johan was finished, the clerks could go to work copying everything according to his strict instructions.

That’s my translation of a passage from Dutch journalist-turned-historian Luc Panhuysen’s 2005 double biography of De Witt and his older brother and right-hand-man, Cornelis. The book is titled “De ware vrijheid,” which means “the true freedom,” Johan de Witt’s term for the two decades during which he managed his country on behalf of its merchant class, and the noble House of Orange had no say.

The brilliant, hard-working, hyper-organized Johan used that freedom to build what in modern parlance we might call a meritocratic technocracy, bent on globalization and economic growth. For a while, it was spectacularly successful. It didn’t end well, though! The brothers were killed not far from the Binnenhof in August 1672 and cut to pieces by an angry mob, with body parts finding their way to buyers as far away as England.

QuickTake Q&A: Can a Populist Become Dutch Prime Minister?

In these days of populist revolts against globalizing technocratic elites, the De Witts’ story seemed like it might be worth revisiting. That, and it provided a great excuse to walk around The Hague on Tuesday with the erudite and engaging Panhuysen, who has gone on to write books about the “disaster year” of 1672 and the long-running conflict, beginning the same year, between Dutch prince (and eventual English king) William III and French King Louis XIV.

“What Johan and Cornelis de Witt had to deal with was that they were regular civilian boys  who at the same time had to govern and exude authority,” Panhuysen said. Political opponents could say: “God sent us the House of Orange to break us free from the Spanish. Who are these De Witt brothers?”

The De Witt boys weren’t self-made men -- their father was a successful wood merchant who bought his way into government -- but Johan in particular did rise to the top largely on merit. He was a brilliant mathematician, a translator and elaborator of the geometry of Rene Descartes. A government report that he wrote on annuity pricing is now seen as one of the founding documents of both actuarial science and financial economics.

In 1650, at age 25, Johan was chosen as raadpensionaris -- a sort of city manager -- of his hometown of Dordrecht, the oldest city in Holland, which was by far the richest and most powerful of the seven Dutch provinces. In 1653, representatives of Holland’s other cities asked him to become the province’s raadpensionaris, sometimes translated as grand pensionary. After taking 10 days to think it over, he accepted.

Since the revolt against Spain led by nobleman William of Orange, which led to Dutch independence in 1581, the Netherlands had been ruled by an uneasy collaboration between the House of Orange and the States General, the parliament of the merchant elite. That fact that the Netherlands was constantly at war, and William’s sons Maurice and Frederick Henry were both brilliant military leaders, helped hold things together for decades. But after the signing of the Peace of Muenster in 1648 ended hostilities with Spain, internal tensions grew, and in 1650 Frederick Henry’s son, William II, seized power in a coup d’etat.

After only a few months in power, though, William II died of smallpox. His only child, William III, was born soon afterwards. So when De Witt took over as grand pensionary of Holland three years later, he didn’t really have a prince of Orange to worry about. As a result he became something akin to a modern prime minister, not just of Holland but -- thanks to Holland’s strength and his own skills and work ethic -- of the entire Dutch Republic. One of his key sources of power, as Panhuysen tells it, was his command of information. He sent out regular reports on goings on in The Hague to officials in other Dutch cities, and expected similar info in return.

De Witt’s big policy priorities were paying off the war debts that the Netherlands had incurred since independence, and making the world safe for Dutch merchants. That meant big investments in the Navy, with Cornelis managing the military buildup and sometimes sailing into battle, but neglect of the army, the base of the House of Orange’s strength.

The Dutch won a few naval victories, and the economy prospered. The rich merchants benefited most (as did Johan de Witt, who grew ever wealthier through well-timed investments in government debt), but Panhuysen reports that the real incomes of Dutch workers rose 20 percent from 1650 to 1680 as well.

For the crowned heads of Europe, the success of this king-less upstart nation finally became too much to take. In 1672 the French, the English and an assortment of German princes all attacked; hence the name “disaster year.”

Meanwhile, William III had grown up -- he turned 21 in November 1671 -- and many in the Netherlands looked to him as a potential savior. Johan de Witt was extremely slow in handing military power over to the prince, and Cornelis was (falsely) accused of plotting to kill him.

The judges didn’t find Cornelis guilty, but on Aug. 20 they nonetheless banned him from Holland for life. When Johan went to Gevangenpoort prison to fetch him, a mob surrounded the brothers and forced them into a cell. After a few hours, the guards dragged them out of the Gevangenpoort, shot them repeatedly, then hung them upside down, at which point the snipping of body parts could begin.

There’s a gruesome painting of the two, post-snipping, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A few rooms away is one of the museum’s most famous works, Jan Asselijn’s “The Threatened Swan,” which is said to be an allegory symbolizing Johan de Witt fighting for his nation (it was painted early in his time in office).


Photographer: Justin Fox

In The Hague, meanwhile, you can do a De Witt brothers walking tour in just a few minutes. Heading west from the corner of the Binnenhof where Johan had his office, you first encounter a herring stand  on the spot of a failed assassination attempt of Johan earlier in 1672 and then, across the street, the Gevangenpoort, now a museum with, among other possessions, a 1665 collection of Moliere’s comedies that was probably the last thing Cornelis read in jail. Outside, just to the north, is a big statue of Johan, erected in 1918 near the spot where he and Cornelis were killed. A few doors up the street, at Kneuterdijk 6, is Johan’s gigantic brick house, which is now used for official receptions. And back across the Hofvijver pond to the east is the Historical Museum of The Hague, where Jacob’s tongue and Cornelis’s finger are on display. Such a fun family outing!

Is it at all relevant to modern politics? Well, at least a little. The public’s resentment of the De Witt brothers lives on in today’s dislike of professional elites, and its embrace of William III bears some parallels to the enthusiasm for populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ own Geert Wilders.

One thing about William III, though: He actually delivered, leading a successful campaign to push back the invaders. We’ll see if any of today’s technocrat-bashing populists can manage that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.