Radical Republicans and Early-Modern Democrats: Notes on Palmer’s “Dutch Case”

This post is a part of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.

By Dirk Alkemade 

R.R. Palmer singled out the Dutch Republic in his The Age of Democratic Revolution as one of the primary democratic hotbeds in continental Europe before the French Revolution. Whereas Dutch historians were generally reluctant to pay much attention to the late-eighteenth-century political events, Palmer did not hesitate to consider them a part of the revolutionary wave that marked the rise of democracy. [1]

It is clear to anyone who reads one of the many pamphlets of the time, that the political vocabulary of the Dutch Patriot Movement (c. 1780-1787) was steeped in enlightened political thought. The works of French philosophes and Scottish enlightenment thinkers were endlessly discussed. Above all, the American Revolution was watched with great interest from across the Atlantic. Not only did many Dutchmen sympathize with the revolt against the British – the nemesis of the Dutch Republic – the American fight against despotic rule reminded the Dutch of their own revolt against the Spanish king (1568-1648), the foundational moment of the Republic.

At the same time, however, the Dutch could look back on a tradition of active civic republicanism. Urban militias existed in most towns and cities, the press was relatively free, and petitioning was common practice. Dutch citizens were generally aware of their political rights and apt in asserting them. Moreover, the patriots seemed to be certain that the solutions for current problems could be found by delving into the Dutch past and by studying the “old constitutions.” They argued that the country had once been a free republic indeed, but throughout the centuries the ancient laws had been corrupted. [2]

Due to the Patriots’ concern with ancient laws, some historians have argued that the Patriots never really outgrew the political structure and the republican culture of the ancien régime. These historians argue that only after the Batavian Revolution of 1795, the Dutch revolutionaries were able to truly commit to a democratic republic. [3] However, a closer look at two works by the radical patriot Pieter Vreede will show that some of the “less radical” appeals had more to do with political context, than with ideological moderation.

Portrait of Pieter Vreede (c. 1796), etching by Reinier Vinkeles. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Pieter Vreede (1750-1837) was a textile merchant of Mennonite descent who lived in Leiden, a particular breeding ground for political activism. Vreede soon became a leading figure in the Patriot movement in Holland. In the newly erected parliament of the Batavian Republic, he stood out as a vocal advocate for radical reform. Vreede belonged to the small group that eventually staged the 1798 coup. This cleared the way for a radical democratic constitution that declared equal rights for almost all adult male citizens. Due to both the rigor of his views, and the vigor of his deeds, Vreede can perhaps best be seen as a Dutch Thomas Paine.

As early as 1783, Vreede put forward his democratic views, albeit anonymously, in a fictional encounter between Vryhart (Freeheart) and Waermond (Truthspeaker). This dialogue was perhaps the most clearly formulated plea for representative democracy in its time. In it, Vreede lets Waermond explain to Vryhart that the liberty they enjoyed, was in fact no liberty at all. Although there was no despotic king ruling the Dutch (although stadholder William V did resemble one), this did not constitute true liberty. Waermond argued that only a democratic representative government would do:

Liberty only exists (…) if it – the whole nation – makes its own laws and arrangements, regarding its happiness and safety. It could do this head for head, or if the size of the state makes this impossible through representatives, who they choose themselves, who they supply with instructions, and who will be held accountable for their behaviour. Without these arrangements, the people aren’t free [4]

In the same year, Vreede was also active in the establishment of a civic militia. These small armies sprang up throughout the Republic and consisted of concerned citizens who enacted their right to carry arms and present their grievances to the government. Although they claimed they simply made use of their ancient rights, it was clear to everyone this was something completely new.

The Leiden Patriots soon erected another political body as well. In 1786, the Patriots in Leiden had organized themselves in their own representative body that filed petitions to the City Council on behalf of the citizenry. [5] Vreede now wrote a treatise that seems like a typical example of the Patriot preoccupation with “ancient constitutions.” In his Treatise on the Council of Forty (1787), Vreede delves into the historical foundations of the City Council, which, he argues, was established to give the citizens (burghers) of Leiden a political body to outbalance the power of the sovereign ruler. In theory, the sovereignty was returned to the people when the Spanish King was abandoned, but this did not seem the case in practice. Instead, the council had become an instrument for factional politics of a few families. Vreede boldly states that the old privilege “could help determine an appropriate measure of popular influence (volksinvloed) on the council’s representative character.” [6] By revaluating the original documents, he argued that the City Council, much like the newly established representative body, should be opened up to the Leiden citizens.

When Vreede formulated his more radical ideas on democratic government, he sought to incite and inspire his readers with new perceptions of true liberty. Much like Tom Paine, Vreede’s argument was based on a philosophy that combined enlightened thought with an appeal to common sense. In the second text, it is clear that Vreede used historical arguments to legitimize the newly established representative body. The historical treatise was in fact written with the clear intention to be implemented within the existing political framework, and it therefore had to be legitimized as such. Admittedly, this democratic republicanism was a hybrid of sorts, but it was clearly something new.

Dirk Alkemade (University Leiden) is working on a dissertation on the political life and thought of Pieter Vreede (1750-1837), and democratic thought in the Dutch Revolutionary Era (c. 1770-1800). Tweet at him @dirk_alkemade.

Title image: Patriot Militia exercising outside Leiden with a crowd of spectators in the front, c. 1787, artist unknown. Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken.

Further reading:

Klein, S.R.E.. Patriots Republikanisme. Politieke Cultuur in Nederland (1766-1787). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995.

Oddens, J., M. Rutjes and E. Jacobs, eds. The Political Culture of the Sister Republics. 1794-1806. France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Velema, WR.E.. Republicans. Essays on Eighteenth-Century Dutch Political Thought. Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers, 2007.

Velema, W.R.E.. “Against Democracy. Dutch Eighteenth-Century Critics of Ancient and Modern Popular Government”. In Ancient Models in the Early Modern Republican Imagination, edited by W. Velema, & A. Weststeijn, 189-213. Leiden/Boston: Brill 2018.


[1] R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution [ed. David Armitage] (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014 ), pp. 14, 243-256. See also the paper by W.R.E. Velema, Much in Little Revisited: The Dutch Revolution of 1795 and the History of Republicanism (University of Amsterdam 2012).

[2] The most comprehensive revisionist account can be found in S.R.E. Klein, Patriots Republikanisme. Politieke Cultuur in Nederland 1766-1787 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995), passim.

[3] M. Prak, “Citizen Radicalism and Democracy in the Dutch Republic. The Patriot Movement of the 1780s,” Theory and Society 20, No. 1 (1992): 93-95.

[4] [Pieter Vreede], Waermond en Vryhart. Gesprek over de Vryheid der Nederlandren, en den aert der waere Vryheid (Leiden 1783), 7-8, translation by the author. For a discussion of this treatise see also W.R.E. Velema, Republicans. Essays on Eighteenth-Century Dutch Political Thought (Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers, 2007), 151-154.

[5] E.H. de Jong, Weldenkende Burgers en Oranjeliefhebbers. Patriotten en Prinsgezinden in Leiden 1775-1795 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2014), 232-253.

[6] Pieter Vreede, Verhandeling over het Collegie van de Veertigen der Stad Leyden (Leiden: C. Heyligert and L. Herdingh, 1787).

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