Joan Derk van der Capellen

by Judith Kraamwinkel

Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol’s pamphlet Aan het Volk van Nederland (To the People of the Netherlands) was the first time someone addressed the Dutch people as one. Therefore, this pamphlet is not only interesting as a source on the age of revolutions, but also on Dutch identity. This post will explore the way in which Van der Capellen’s pamphlet set out to strengthen Dutch national identity. First, it will take a look at Dutch history, and why Van der Capellen’s choice to address the Dutch people as one was so important. Secondly, it will look at the two most important ways in which the pamphlet strengthens Dutch national identity, namely by giving the Dutch a collective history, and by defining them against foreigners.

To understand the significance of Van der Capellen’s decision to address the people of the Netherlands as one, it is important to understand how the history and political organisation of the Dutch Republic encouraged a strong provincial sense of identity, but not a national one. Most scholars agree that the unity of the Dutch provinces originates in the Unie van Utrecht (1579), which is commonly regarded as the first constitution of the Netherlands. Van der Capellen refers to the Unie several times in his pamphlet, and seems to indeed regard this as a constitution, and its clauses as laws.[1] This engagement with the Unie is part of Van der Capellen’s wider argument too return to the Medieval privileges the Dutch cities had. These privileges gave the cities a large amount of autonomy, and the remaining power was in the hands of the Provincial Estates. This shows that, previous to the Dutch Revolt (1568), the Netherlands was hardly regarded as one country, more as a collection of several, practically independent provinces. When this changed and the provinces became the Dutch Republic, officially the only policy that was controlled by the national Estates General was that of defence. However, Van der Capellen claims that, with the expansion of the power of the House of Orange, the old privileges have been ignored and the cities and provinces are losing their power. Van der Capellen says: “Privileges and freedoms limits and restricts the power of our Orange monarchs. This is why they seek to destroy those as much as they can. And that is why they hate and prosecute the patriots, who dare to defend the privileges and freedoms of the country, while they overload those who are the ones characterless enough to, against oath and duties, lend a hand in the execution of their plans, with favours and advantages.”[2] As Pepijn Brandon explains, this struggle between rulers’ wish for centralization and the citizens who tried to defend the autonomy of their localities was central to most revolutions that occurred during this period, since the 18th century saw an increased pressure on these old privileges.[3] It is interesting that Van der Capellen wishes to increase provincial autonomy, and yet sets out to strengthen Dutch national identity. His concern with restoring Medieval privileges leads W.F. Wertheim to question whether or not Van der Capellen’s ideas were revolutionary, since his starting point was always the Unie van Utrecht, a document that was over two hundred years old by the time Van der Capellen wrote his pamphlet.[4] Van der Capellen never questions the Unie, but instead “aims his sharp criticism towards the many ways in which the consecutive Stadtholders have broken the constitution”.[5] The pamphlet itself largely consists of an extensive history of the Stadholders’ mistakes. At the end of the document, however, Van der Capellen does not call for an armed revolution, but instead argues in favour of using democracy in order to reform the country. He says: “Come together peacefully, and elect from your midst a few good, virtuous, pious men’ elect good patriots, whom you can trust. Send these as your representatives to those places, where the Estates of your various provinces assemble.” This shows he believes reforms have to start in the Provincial Estates, even though he addresses the pamphlet to the whole nation. We will now move on to the different ways in which Van der Capellen tries to strengthen Dutch national identity.

His first strategy is by giving the people of the Netherlands a collective past. This start at the very beginning of the pamphlet, when he calls upon the image of the Batavians, a Dutch tribe famous for their uprising against the Roman Empire in 69 A.D.. Van der Capellen shows them to have a democratic style of ruling, in order to argue that democracy was the natural ruling style of the Dutch. He says: “They [the Batavians] did not let themselves be ruled by people who had elected themselves or who were elected by another – to his approval; who as a consequence did not depend on them, did not have to account to them, and over whom they, if they did not govern correctly, had no power; no, they had control themselves. They decided over most important business of their country in their general meetings, where the entire people came together armed, and every Batavian had an equal voice.”[6] Not only is this an indirect criticism on the Stadtholders, who, Van der Capellen argues, wish to take away democracy and turn the Netherlands into a kingdom, the image of the Batavians also invokes the image of Dutch people standing up to oppressors. In the first century, these oppressors were the Romans, but to Van der Capellen and his contemporaries, they were embodied by the House of Orange. This way of attacking the Stadtholder is repeated when van der Capellen equates him with another oppressor the Dutch rebelled against, namely Philip II of Spain, who was lord of the Netherlands when the Dutch Revolt began. For example, Van der Capellen compares Philip II’s branding of William I of Orange as a traitor with his own denunciation as a conspirator by several of the Provincial Estates.[7] Dutch history of fighting against tyranny is thus used as a way to inspire people to rebel against the Stadtholder. Van der Capellen also uses the same language to describe the Dutch Revolt as he does to describe the contemporary struggle against the expanding power of the Prince of Orange. For example, the freedoms and privileges he claims the Stadtholder wishes to take away, also feature heavily in his description of why the Dutch Revolt began. He writes: “In this way did the big ones [Philip II and his nobles] begin to take freedom away from our ancestors, already did they, in that time, give the King of Spain blood to protect their freedom.”[8] Thus, Van der Capellen strengthens Dutch national identity by giving the citizens a collective past.

The second way in which Van der Capellen endeavours to provide the Dutch people with a stronger national identity, is by contrasting the Dutch against foreigners. Creating one’s own identity by opposing oneself against certain ‘others’ is a strategy for creating social cohesion that has been used by many peoples throughout history, and Van der Capellen is no exception. He blames the disappearance of the democratic lifestyle of the Batavians on foreigners, namely the Franks: “Around the year 277 AD, the Franks (a people originally from Germany, that later settled in that big, fertile country that is still named France, after them), conquered these and the neighbouring countries, and let a type of governors rule them, then named dukes and earls.”[9] This creates the idea that the Dutch can return to democracy, their ‘natural’ style of ruling, once they have gotten rid of their foreign oppressors, namely, the House of Orange. Van der Capellen heavily emphasizes that William I of Orange was a German, and that his actions were only legitimized since he was supported by two counts from Holland.[10] He also criticizes the Stadtholders for using foreigners as soldiers, instead of Dutch people. For example, he accuses William IV of filling “our army with strangers, especially Germans, with the excuse of providing modern exercises and discipline.”[11] The Stadtholders are also heavily criticized for their eagerness to marry into other royal families, especially the English one, and Van der Capellen asks the Dutch people: “Especially don’t accept unwholesome marriage connections between the Stadtholders and the House of England!”[12] This specific denunciation of marriages with the English royal family brings me to the fact that Van der Capellen is not only generally xenophobic, but also specifically anti-English. He describes the English as a people “whose national character has proven for more than two centuries to consist of disloyalty, pride, cruelty, and envy.”[13] He also warns against making peace with “the disloyalty British […] before they have been sufficiently humiliated, and have denounced all dominion over the free seas.”[14] This mention of the power over the seas hints at one of the reasons why Van der Capellen was so intent on branding the English as enemies of the Netherlands specifically; this pamphlet, written in 1783, was heavily influenced by the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780 – 1784), a war largely fought at sea that resulted in British victory, an outcome that was becoming increasingly clear at the time this pamphlet was written. The cause of the war was Dutch trade with the United States during its War of Independence against Great Britain.[15] In his pamphlet, Van der Capellen advocates the forming of a formal alliance with the United States and France, to replace the current treaty of amity, for example when he says: “How soon we would have a fleet at sea and an alliance with France and America, and take revenge on our enemies [i.e. Britain].”[16] He regarded the United States and later France as sister republics, and wished to form an alliance to resist the hated monarchy of Britain, whereas the Stadtholders were more inclined to form an alliance with the English, despite the Anglo-Dutch War. Thus, Van der Capellen not only employs xenophobia to define Dutch identity against foreigners, he also uses it to further denounce the House of Orange.

In conclusion, this pamphlet is not only remarkable due to its influence on the Patriotic movement during the Batavian Revolution, but also since it was the first time the people of the Netherlands were addressed as one, and the text itself is catered towards strengthening Dutch national identity. The Dutch Republic was a loosely organised collection of provinces, but the 18th century saw an increasing push towards centralization. Van der Capellen blames this on the Stadtholders, and sets out to strengthen both Dutch national identity and opposition to William V of Orange. The first way in which he does this is by giving the Netherlands a collective history, by mentioning the Batavians and the Dutch Revolt against Philip II, whom he equates with the Stadtholder. Secondly, he defines the Dutch against foreigners, especially the English, and emphasizes that the Stadtholders are foreigners themselves.

[1] Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, Aan het Volk van Nederland: Het Democratisch Manifest, ed. By A.H. Wertheim-Gijse Weenink and W.F. Wertheim (Weesp: Heureka, 1981), p. 82

[2] Ibid, p. 101

[3] Pepijn Brandon and Karwan Fatah-Black, ‘The Supreme Power of the People: Local Autonomy and Radical Democracy in the Batavian Revolution (1795 – 1798)’, Atlantic Studies 13:3, 370 – 388, p. 371

[4] A.H. Wertheim-Gijse Weenink and W.F. Wertheim, ‘Introductie’, in: Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, Aan het Volk van Nederland: Het Democratisch Manifest, ed. By A.H. Wertheim-Gijse Weenink and W.F. Wertheim (Weesp: Heureka, 1981), p. 32

[5] Ibid, p. 32

[6] Van der Capellen, Aan het Volk van Nederland, p. 64

[7] Ibid, p. 140

[8] Ibid, p. 72

[9] Ibid, p. 64 – 65

[10] Ibid, p. 68

[11] Ibid, p. 105

[12] Ibid, p. 93

[13] Ibid, p. 92

[14] Ibid, p. 93

[15] R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760 – 1800 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 245

[16] Van der Capellen, Aan het Volk van Nederland, p. 83

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