home | history

The Dutch "Golden Age"

In Europe in the mid-1600s, close to 95 percent of the population was involved in agriculture. In the Netherlands it was different. The Dutch were benefitting from a successful agriculture. Agriculture benefited from the demand for its products in the towns, and the towns benefited from the cheap food made available in the countryside. With little land available, a Dutch person with money to invest was more inclined than other Europeans to invest in commerce rather than into land ownership. Dutch ocean-going voyages for commercial gain were financed by investors joining partnerships. Someone could buy a share of a partnership and if he decided he wanted out of the partnership he could sell his share at whatever price anyone was willing to pay. Spain and Portugal had been the previous masters of the oceans, but the Dutch had developed primacy there.

And banking had grown. During the war with Spain, bankers had shifted from Antwerp (Belgium) in the Spanish Netherland to Amsterdam, and in the mid-1600s the city of Amsterdam, with a population of more than 100,000, became the financial center of the Western nations, replacing what had been Italy's lead in banking.

Lending to businessmen was increasing. As Joyce Appleby points out, the Dutch "offered interest rates less than half those available elsewhere." She adds that "...the Dutch developed credit arrangements for every circumstance and customer." Spanish monarchs were among those who had begun borrowing from Dutch banks. (Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution, p 42.)

There were problems, of course. In 1637 there had been the first stock market crash, the result of a speculation bubble in the tulip trade. That crisis was to be attributed to "the madness of crowds" (Charles Mackay in the 1800s). And it has been described as having had no critical influence on the prosperity of the Dutch Republic, the world's leading economic and financial power in the 17th century.

The Dutch were influenced merchants who had become more powerful politically than the landed aristocrats. With many middle-class families having risen from rags to riches the merchant class believed more than had aristocrats that common people could rise above their circumstances through their own efforts. The merchant class put a greater importance on education than had the aristocracy.

Dutch merchants believed that the state should allow commerce to function freely. They believed more in individual freedom, and this spilled over into a belief in the separation of state and church.

The greater freedom included young and unmarried women able to come and go unaccompanied or unchaperoned, and in public women engaged in conversation almost as freely as men. Freedom was antithetical to authoritarianism, and wives were less subservient to their husbands than wives elsewhere. Among the Dutch, wife beating was treated as a crime.

Diplomats, scholars, merchants, tourists, soldiers and seamen from more conservative lands were impressed by the orderliness and cleanliness of Dutch cities. They noticed the limited character of ecclesiastical power, the subordination of the military to civilian authority and achievements in art. This was the era of Rembrandt, who began to paint in 1631.

There were local citizen organizations, headed by elected officials, that patrolled and guarded their section of town, preventing crime. A woman expected her scream to be answered. In the United Netherlands street lamps were common – not to be installed in the cities of Berlin or Cologne until 1682. In the United Netherlands, students were less rowdy than was the custom at German universities. Prostitution took place behind a veneer of respectability in places where people appeared to be listening to music and not mindful of what was happening upstairs.

Some from outside the United Netherlands looked with disdain upon the Dutch for being devoted to money-making. And it was said that among the Dutch "the hen crows and the cock merely cackles," with wives said to spend their time gossiping while husbands tended the children.

To some outside the Netherlands, the liberty that the Dutch accorded Jews, women, and servants seemed aberrant or excessive. Foreign aristocrats saw a lack of proper social hierarchy among the Dutch. They were dismayed by ordinary people talking casually with "gentlemen," and they complained of servant girls dressing and behaving in a way that made it difficult to tell which was the servant and which the mistress. Conservatives complained that in the Netherlands the noble, the soldier or even a husband was not given the honor or status that was his due.

Politically, the Dutch Netherlands was a republic, but there was a monarch, namely William II, Prince of Orange (1647-50), followed by his son William III. Their political power was officially as elected stadtholders (heads of state) — not at all divinely chosen. And the Dutch Netherlands was oligarchical rather than democratic. Men of wealth were deemed most able to guarantee the prosperity of a city. To keep the peace was in their personal interest, and because they were already rich, one could hope that they would not plunder the city coffers. In their History of Western Civilization, Steven Hause and William Maltby write:

...the existence of a well-defined group of prominent citizens facilitated communication, dampened local rivalries, and helped to ensure a measure of continuity in what might otherwise have been a fragmented and overly decentralized system.

There were tensions between local elites and the Prince of Orange. In 1650 William II quarreled with the powerful of Amsterdam who wanted to reduce the army and save money. William used the authority he could muster to imprison eight members of the "States of Holland" in the castle of Loevestein, and he sent his cousin with an army of 10,000 men to seize Amsterdam by force. Bad weather foiled the campaign, but Amsterdam gave in.

Generally, however, there was an internal order and cooperation that served the Dutch nation economically. Hause and Malby write:

At times [there was] religious antagonism between extreme Calvinists, who tended to be Orangists supported by the artisan class, and the more relaxed Arminians [Protestant reformers], who rejected predestination and were supported by the great merchants... but, compared to other countries, both sides remained committed to religious toleration. Jewish settlement was actively encouraged and Catholics were generally protected from harassment.

Economic success and tolerance in the United Netherlands attracted Jews, scientists, scholars, artists and French Protestants, the Huguenots. It was in the United Netherlands that the Catholic scientist Galileo was able to publish his work on mechanics. Earlier the Calvinists had suppressed Lutheranism and Catholicism, but Calvinists eased up on their hostility to Catholics, and Catholics made a bigger showing, increasing in numbered from roughly 14,000 in 1635 to 30,000 in 1656.

CONTINUE READING: Europeans to the Atlantic Coast of North America

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.