1902 Encyclopedia > John De Witt (Johan de Witt)

John De Witt
(Johan de Witt)
Dutch statesman

JOHN DE WITT, (1625-1672), an illustrious Dutch statesman, was born at Dort in 1625. He was carefully educated, and early displayed remarkable talents. A work entitled Elementa Linearum Curvarum, published in 1650, is attributed to him. His father was a member of the States General of Holland and West Friesland, and well known as a bitter opponent of the house of Orange, which had gradually acquired almost regal functions. William II., prince of Orange, died in 1650; and as his son, afterwards William III. of England, was an infant, the Republican party easily won predominance. De Witt was made pensionary of Dort, and in that position so distinguished himself by his eloquence, firmness, and sagacity, that in 1652, although only twenty-seven years of age, he became grand pensionary of Holland. He held this position for about twenty years, during which he controlled the policy of the United Provinces. He inherited his father's intense jealousy of the Orange family, and steadily laboured to prevent it from ever again rising to power. When he became grand pensionary the United Provinces were at war with England. He had always disapproved of this conflict, and in 1654 succeeded in bringing about peace, conceding to Cromwell his demands with respect to the honours due to the English flag. The treaty included a secret article providing that no member of the house of Orange should in future be elected stadtholder or grand admiral. De Witt was afterwards accused of having suggested this condition to Cromwell; but the latter was also opposed to the claims of a family which was nearly allied to the Stuarts.

After the restoration of Charles II., who had been exposed to many affronts during his residence in Holland, De Witt cultivated the friendship of France; and in 1661 a treaty was concluded by which that country and the United Provinces granted to each other freedom of commerce in their respective ports,—the Dutch guarantee-ing to the French the possession of Dunkirk, and the French guaranteeing to the Dutch the right of fishing off the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. The latter provi-sion caused much irritation in England; and it was increased by the incessant quarrels of English and Dutch merchants on the Guinea Coast, each desiring to have a monopoly in the trade of slaves and gold dust. War was declared in 1665 ; and in a battle off Lowestoft the Dutch fleet was defeated, the remnant taking shelter in the Texel. Antwerp was the only port at which it could be refitted, and the most experienced pilots decided that it was impossible the vessels could be removed thither. De Witt himself, however, with splendid courage, undertook the task, and not only accomplished it, but in a very short time had the fleet once more ready for action. After two more battles, in which the Dutch well sustained their fame for skill and bravery, De Witt entered upon negotiations which resulted in the Peace of Breda in 1667.

Meanwhile, by dint of severe labour, he introduced order into the financial system of the country ; and in 1667 the chief object of his life seemed to be attained, for owing to his efforts a Perpetual Edict was passed proclaiming the office of stadtholder for ever abolished. At this time, however, a great danger threatened the Republic. In 1667 Louis XIV. invaded the Spanish Netherlands; and it was clear that if the war ended in the annexation of that country to France it would be difficult to maintain the independence of the United Provinces. De Witt made secret but rapid preparations for resistance, and appealed to England to support Holland in curbing French ambition. Notwithstanding the prejudices of Charles II., Sir William Temple was sent to propose an alliance between England, Holland, and Sweden. De Witt entered so heartily into this scheme that in the spring of 1668 the Triple Alliance was concluded. Louis XIV. saw that for the time his pians were foiled, and with as good a grace as possible signed the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. At heart, however, he bitterly resented the course which the States General, guided by De Witt, had taken, and slowly prepared for revenge. By artful diplomacy England and Sweden were detached from the alliance, and several German princes were persuaded to promise that they would join France in an attack on Holland in order to restore certain towns which, it was pretended, properly belonged to the empire.

While Louis was maturing his plans the power of De Witt was being steadily undermined. The Calvinist clergy, who had always been his enemies, excited their congregations against him and his party ; and, as the Prince of Orange approached manhood, the people recalled the obliga; tions of the country to his ancestors, and freely expressed doubts whether his rule would not be preferable to that of nobles and wealthy burgesses. The state of public feeling rendered it impossible for De Witt to make ready for the approaching peril. When, therefore, France, England, and the German allies of France proclaimed war against the United Provinces in 1672, and it was found that no effectual resistance could be offered to their attack, popular indignation turned against the grand pensionary. The Prince of Orange was appointed captain and admiral general ; and De Witt could only secure that a council of eight deputies of the States General should be associated with the military and naval commanders, one to go with De Buyter, the other seven with Prince William. This plan added to the confusion, and in a few months after the declaration of war a large part of the country was overrun, and the French were within five leagues of Amsterdam. To save themselves the humiliation of surrender, the towns of Holland and Brabant broke the dykes and laid the sur-rounding land under water.

The Orange party so profited by these disasters that the Perpetual Edict was revoked, and Prince William assumed the office of stadtholder. De Witt's policy was thus finally defeated, and he himself became an object of general and intense hatred. All sorts of monstrous charges were brought against him, and believed ; and his brother Cornelius was falsely accused of conspiring against the life of the stadtholder. Brought to the Hague, Cornelius was there, on July 24, 1072, tortured and condemned to per-petual banishment. In the same town De Witt was assaulted by a band of assassins, who left him lying on the ground under the impression that he was dead. Sum-moned by a pretended message from Cornelius, De Witt went-to visit him in prison, when a mob assembled and murdered the brothers amid circumstances of revolting cruelty.

De Witt is one of the greatest figures of Dutch history. His action in connection with the Triple Alliance proves that he thoroughly understood the central tendencies of European politics ; and, whether he is to be praised or blamed for his life-long opposition to the house of Orange, there can be no doubt as to the greatness and purity of his motives. As an administrator he displayed extraordinary energy and resource ; and personally he was a man of steady, upright character, loyal and fearless. His Memoirs were published at the Hague in 1667 ; and in 1725, at Amsterdam, appeared Lettres et Négociations entre Jean De Witt et les Plénipotentiaires des Provinces Unies aux Cours de France, &c, depuis l'an 1652 jusqu'à 1669." A Life of the two brothers, by Madame Zoutelande, was published at Utrecht in 1709. (j. si.)

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