1813-2013: Two centuries of the Dutch kingdom

The acceptation of temporarily power by the Triumvirate

The acceptance of temporary power by the Triumvirate, November 21, 1813 – detail of a painting by J.W. Pieneman, circa 1828; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Often it is possible to find yourself a fitting subject in legal history to study, to reflect on or to write about. The wide variety of legal histories to be found and told factually guarantees a never-ending stream of stories. Sometimes your choice of subjects can be guided by larger events. In a society which values the commemoration of important people, events and subjects you can find almost every day something worth noticing, and the various Today in History initiative readily provide this. However, a parade of centennials, bicentennials and even tercentenaries can become tedious. This year has had its fair share of them. It is really because I promised to do so earlier this year that you can read here about the bicentennial of the Dutch monarchy. Only in 1813 the Oranje-Nassau family rose again after the French Revolution to play a significant role in Dutch society. After centuries of holding the stadhouderschap, literally the lieutenancy, i.e. for the Spanish king, the Oranje-Nassau’s became the Dutch royal family. In fact the formation of a new Kingdom of the Netherlands was in many respects surprising. It was probably more a matter of global policy by the victorious powers after the fall of Napoleon than the outcome of an autonomous Dutch political process. Until now public attention for the 1813 bicentennial is at the best lukewarm. However, the attention for the role of the Dutch royal family might tip the balance.

As a child I read a book by Albertine Steenhoff-Smulders, Een kind van 1813 [“A child of 1813”] (Haarlem 1926), and I still have a dim memory of being introduced in a most wonderful and immediate way into the life and surroundings of a child living in a Dutch town impoverished by the French occupation of the Northern Netherlands. Whatever the historical merits of this book, it gave me a first very inviting look on history. By 1813 Dutch people could indeed ask themselves rather anxiously what would become of them and of their country. The Dutch Republic had crumbled after a long descent from world power in the seventeenth century to a couple of provinces ruthlessly incorporated into the Napoleonic empire. The Batavian Republic of 1795 had been followed in 1806 by an ill-fated Kingdom Holland under Louis-Napoleon, a brother of Napoleon himself. In 1810 the emperor gained control himself in this part of Europe, too, In this revolutionary period the Dutch old régime had irrevocably been replaced by new laws and institutions. The legal and juridical changes from 1810 to 1813 are the subject of the volume Het Franse Nederland: de inlijving 1810-1813 [“The French Netherlands: the incorporation 1810-1813”], A.M.J.A. Berkvens, J. Hallebeek and A.J.B. Sirks (eds.) (Hilversum 2012), a special issue of the journal Pro Memorie published by the Foundation for Dutch Legal History.

The Oranje-Nassau family had been conspicuously absent from Dutch politics since 1795. One of the few memorable things was the bravery of the later king William II during the battle of Waterloo. After the downfall of Napoleon in 1813 the political situation of the Northern Netherlands might have taken any turn. The country had been arbitrarily divided into départements. Some politicians realized that it would be easy for the coalition against France to end any chance for the Netherlands to exist independently. Getting the Oranje-Nassau family back was one of their primary goals. The prince of Oranje was convinced to come back to the Netherlands and to accept the role of a king. On November 30, 1813 he landed at Scheveningen, the harbor of The Hague. The turmoil of events in 1813 is craftily summoned in the book by Wilfried Uitterhoeve, 1813 – Haagse bluf. De korte chaos van de vrijwording [“1813 – Swanks of The Hague. The brief chaos of the liberation”] (Nijmegen 2013). Any effort for a national focus would help convincing the powers in Europe not to make a new German province out of this region. Eventually in particular United Kingdom saw the importance of creating a country around the important Rhine and Meuse estuary. The Congress of Vienna did in a way predictable things.

Persons and powers

In the stream of publications concerning 1813 a number of biographies stand out. The politician responsible for drafting a new constitution, creating a temporary government and convincing the future king Willem I to accept his new task as a monarch, Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, is the subject of Diederick Slijkerman, Wonderjaren. Gijsbert Karel van Hoogendorp, wegbereider van Nederland [“Wonderyears. Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, pioneer of the Netherlands”] (Amsterdam 2013). Three consecutive monarchs, too, have been studied in great detail in new biographies which appeared this month, Koning Willem I 1772-1843 by Jeroen Koch, Koning Willem II 1792-1849 by Jeroen van Zanten, and Koning Willem III 1817-1890 by Dik van der Meulen (Amsterdam 2013). The publication of monographs on these kings was long overdue. It is a happy coincidence to have also a new parliamentary history of my country, De eerste honderdvijftig jaar. Parlementaire geschiedenis van Nederland, 1796-1946 [“The first 150 years. Parliamentary history of the Netherlands, 1796-1946”] (Amsterdam 2013) written by J.Th.J. van den Berg and J.J. Vis. The series of constitutions and plans for constitutions since 1795 makes very much clear how the constitution of 1813 was not a creation ex nihilo. The texts of Dutch constitutions since 1795 can be conveniently found online at the website De Nederlandse Grondwet.

Guidance to new publications and events concerning 1813 is much helped by two special websites. The first one is the official commemoration website 200 jaar Koninkrijk. This website focuses on the importance of Dutch institutions and the Dutch nation nowadays, and on the commemorative events, lectures and exhibitions, including even a full-scale repetition of the royal arrival at Scheveningen, but it gives also a succinct overview of historical developments between 1813 and 1815. The second website is a fine portal created by the Huygens Institute and the Institute for Dutch History, Een koninkrijk in wording, Een toegang tot de jaren 1813-1815 [“The genesis of a kingdom. A portal to the years 1813-1815”]. You will find here essays on developments since 1795, bibliographies, online articles and books, access to original sources, and a nice array of images.

In Dutch school history books the burning of custom-houses in Amsterdam on November 15 and 16, 1813, had been traditionally mentioned as the start of the revolt against the French occupation. Nowadays the return of the future king two weeks later is more often seen as a turning point. However, on November 30, 1813 around two thousand people were killed during a battle between the French and Prussian army at Arnhem (see Arnhem 1813. Bezetting en bestorming [“Arnhem 1813. Occupation and assault”], Onno Boonstra et alii (eds.) (Hilversum 2013). At a distance of two hundred years it is much easier to gain insight into major developments invisible to contemporary people. Taxation was indeed one of the most hated elements of the continental system imposed here as in other parts of the French empire. One of the major legal changes, the French Code civil that unified private law, was not abolished after 1813, but kept its force until 1838 when a reworking of this code of law was accepted.

The beginning of a new kingdom is a good starting point for the study of Dutch nationalism. A typical example of this new nationalism is the painting by Pieneman I added to this post. The acceptance of the Oranje-Nassau family as monarchs by a country with a long republican tradition is more surprising than one would assume in view of today’s popularity of the Dutch royal family. In no way was the road to general acceptance and a role as a central element of the Dutch nation straightforward. This particular bicentennial invites you to look again at a much longer period in which Dutch and Belgian people slowly said farewell to the Ancien Regime and found themselves back many years later in a world changed forever, even if restorative powers seemed to triumph everywhere in Europe until 1848.


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