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The Intellectual Origins of the Batavian Revolution Review


By the mid 18th century the Dutch Republic was clearly in a period of stagnation or decline. Once one of Europe's great powers, it was increasingly irrelevant in the calculations of the other major nations, with an army and navy that had shrunk to ineffectiveness due to internal political bickering, commerce and trade that only held steady in a period of massive growth, and increasing internal political tensions which cast doubts on the United Provinces' haloed reputation. This led to multiple schools of thought on how to deal with this, most notably divided into the Orangist, ie. pro-Stadholder (in effect monarchist) school, and the other one being the Patriots, or anti-monarchist, school, themselves divided into alternatively oligarchical or democratic factions. The Ideological Origins of the Batavian Revolution: History and Politics in the Dutch Republic 1747-1800 by I. Leonard Leeb covers the key arguments and debates of the period.

One of the most crucial aspects is that for both sides, usage of history was of fundamental importance. Both had widely differing interpretations about the Dutch constitution, its origins, and key moments in Dutch history. For example, William the Silent and whether it was intended for the Republic to be led by a strong leader like himself if it had not been for his assassination in 1584 which led to the effective power vacuum and the fragmented nature of the Republic's government was one point raised, illustrating differing interpretations on both sides. History was elevated to increasing importance in the Republic, such as the focus on the Batavians from Roman times and the "Batavian Liberties," and a key element given the debate over whether power belonged with the people, oligarchical regents of the cities, or the provinces, was a historical argument over the constitution of the Netherlands in the middle ages and where power was vested, with counts or with the cities.

Over the course of the 18th century, it's easy to detect a steady increase in Enlightenment thought in the Dutch Republic, with ideas of equality and natural rights, in part imported by France. By the 1780s there were thus pamphlet wars which references all sorts of French concepts and had taken a very different form from the traditional Dutch discussions of "true liberty." These almost ahistorical arguments are far removed from the discussions which filled the first part of the century, and makes for an intriguing comparison of how the lines of intellectual debate had changed.

There is a host of detail like this throughout the book, covering an extremely wide number of Dutch thinkers and writers. But it is for the casual reader extremely difficult to process, since it feels like a scattered and disparate collection of individuals which are hard to follow. The book would have been much more understandable if it was structured along, say, different idea threads (such as federalism vs centralism, natural rights, corporate power, guilds, etc.) and these were followed in how they evolved over time with comparison between different groups. Instead its chronological framing dealing with a poorly differentiated mess of the Patriots and Orangist factions, with their own subdivisions, makes it very hard to follow precise developments. The book probably is useful for a completion of a vigorous course of study about the Dutch Republic, but it is extraordinarily dry and hard to process for anyone not well acquainted with it.

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