From the late 16th to the late 18th century, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, measured by libertarian standards, had perhaps the best government in Europe. Although today we can easily find much to criticize about the Dutch Republic, it remains a crucial early experiment in toleration, limited government, and commercial capitalism.
The results were stunning: Even contemporaries noted the Dutch Republic’s astonishing wealth and military power. “The United Provinces are the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbors,” wrote Englishman Sir William Temple in 1673. The tiny state was then engaged in an all-out defensive war against both France and Britain, a war that the Dutch won, thus maintaining their territorial integrity. Despite its small size, the Dutch Republic was renowned for its military discipline and prowess. The skill of its navy was second to none, and the Dutch Republic repeatedly defended its home territory against several of the great powers of Europe.
Off the battlefield, the Dutch saw even greater accomplishments: The nation’s cosmopolitanism, local autonomy, and sharply limited central state helped to create a commercial and cultural superpower. The enormous wealth that Dutch traders brought back with them proved to be more enduring than the prosperity produced by the precious metals of Spanish and Portuguese colonial ventures. Fabrics, spices, timber, and other consumer goods not only enriched individual traders, but also supplied raw materials for Dutch industry.
Dutch shipping, banking, commerce, and credit raised living standards for the rich and the poor alike and for the first time created that characteristically modern social phenomenon, a middle class. This middle class enjoyed unprecedented access to commercial goods, including spices, silk, porcelain, and other imported items formerly the reserve of the upper nobility. All in all, Dutch townsmen enjoyed the highest collective standard of living of any similarly situated group in Europe.
With these favorable conditions came cultural and scientific achievements. In only a few decades, this tiny country produced Baruch Spinoza, Hugo Grotius, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Vermeer, Christiaan Huygens, and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. The first modern bank, the first stock market, and the first multinational corporation were among the notable achievements of what has since been called the Golden Age of the Netherlands. Contemporaries were astonished at the paved streets, the clocks in ordinary homes, and the now-iconic windmills, which drove the country’s manufacturing sector and also powered the elaborate network of drainage channels that kept much of the country above water.
The Dutch Republic was noted for its intellectual tolerance. It welcomed exiled thinkers René Descartes and Pierre Bayle, as well as Jews who fled religious persecution in Spain, Huguenots fleeing France, and dissenters leaving England. Dutch presses were famous throughout Europe for printing material that fell afoul of censorship laws elsewhere; indeed, in contemporary France, the “Dutch” book trade was virtually synonymous with subversive and forbidden literature. Much of it was merely pornographic, but some we now recognize as among the greatest literary works of the period.
The early modern Dutch experiments in religious tolerance and decentralized government were not undertaken deliberately or in any systematic fashion. They evolved piecemeal from many different sources, and, as such, they reflected the fragmentary and particular nature of Dutch society. Yet even in its haphazard and frequently imperfect state, Dutch social tolerance inspired political philosophers and propagandists such as John Locke and Voltaire, both of whom praised the confluence of religious tolerance, social peace, and wealth. Locke in particular had firsthand experience of Dutch society, and he composed his “Letter Concerning Toleration” while living in exile in the Netherlands.
Local autonomy and traditions were deeply ingrained in the Dutch political consciousness, and during the life of the Republic, no effort at stamping them out was ever quite successful. In the 15th century, the Dutch provinces, which then belonged to the dukes of Burgundy, fought an independent war against the Hanseatic League, and in 1477, their States General received the privilege of convening whenever it chose. Although short-lived, this “Grand Privilège” also set limits on the rulers’ abilities to levy taxes and raise armies. This decree became, in historian Jonathan Israel’s words, a key “political myth of how things should be.” It established the precedent that no single person should hold too much power over the provinces, and for centuries, the Dutch fought to maintain this tradition.
Meanwhile, in confessional matters, the Dutch Reformation owed more to the tolerant, urbane humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam than it did to the intolerant Luther and Calvin. The weakness of centralized authority in both State and Church also meant that the Dutch Reformed Church was incapable of making attendance compulsory; this limitation no doubt fueled religious diversity even further. William the Silent (1533–1584), the great leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, is thought to have earned his sobriquet through his refusal to indulge in religious controversy. Instead, William kept his religious views private and constantly advocated tolerance for all major faiths in the nascent Republic. During his lifetime, William met with little success in implementing religious toleration and ultimately was assassinated by a Catholic zealot. Yet his vision of a religiously tolerant society slowly gained ground in the subsequent decades, as trade, intellectual ferment, and religious experimentation fed a virtuous circle of increased acceptance of minority views.
The Dutch Republic was not, of course, undilutedly good. Indeed, a present-day libertarian might be tempted to find more faults than merits to the so-called Dutch Golden Age. The commercial empire, for example, depended to a considerable extent on military conquest and exploitation. Trading opportunities were in many instances state monopolies. The renowned toleration was fragile and often excluded significant, entirely peaceful sects. Libertarians value the Dutch Republic as a historical phenomenon not because it represented any sort of perfection, but above all because it demonstrated to several generations of intellectuals the practicality of allowing citizens greater liberties than were customarily accorded them, which in turn contributed to producing what we now know as classical liberalism.
Hsia, Ronnie Po-Chia, and H. F. K. Van Nierop, eds. Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Israel, Jonathan. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Van Gelderin, Martin. The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt, 1555-1590. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Originally published .