Johan de Witt

The Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (1625-1672), as councilor pensionary of Holland from 1653 to 1672, led the Dutch Republic after the end of its war of independence.

Aman of keen intelligence, displayed notably in his contributions to mathematics and actuarial science, Johan or Jan de Witt used his post as chief minister of the States of Holland to prevent or limit the restoration of the powers of the Prince of Orange. The era of his government is known in Dutch history as the first stadholderless period because no stadholder (governor) was named in Holland and four other Dutch provinces from the death of William II in 1650 until the election of William III in 1672.

De Witt was born at Dordrecht on Sept. 24, 1625, into a family of prosperous merchants and lawyers. With his older brother Cornelius, he studied law at Leiden (1641-1644), and he also studied mathematics with great enthusiasm. The brothers visited Sweden in 1644 as part of a diplomatic mission led by their father, and then they went on a tour of France and England (1645-1647), taking their law degrees at Angers in 1645. Upon their return, Johan practiced law at The Hague until 1650.

When his father, a deputy to the States of Holland, was arrested during the coup d'etat of William II on July 30, 1650, Johan obtained his release, with the loss of his father's offices but not his honor. This coup totally estranged the De Witt family from the house of Orange, to which it had been closely bound since the struggle between Maurice of Nassau and Johan van Oldenbarnevelt 3 decades before. When William II died in November, leaving only a posthumous son, William III, to claim his offices of stadholder and captain general, Johan and his father were among the leaders in creating a fully republican regime, in which no one was appointed to these quasi-monarchical positions. The name "True Freedom" was given to this regime by its advocates.

Leader of Holland

De Witt was named pensionary (chief legal and political officer) of Dordrecht in December 1650, and as such he was its principal deputy to the States of Holland. He became councilor pensionary in 1653. As such, he was in practice, although not in law, the political leader of Holland, director of foreign and fiscal policies for the United Provinces, and leader of a party committed to "True Freedom." His republican principles were put to the test when Oliver Cromwell demanded the perpetual exclusion of the Prince of Orange from the stadholdership and captaincy general as the price of peace in the first of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652-1654). De Witt persuaded the States of Holland to accept this admittedly distasteful interference, from which Cromwell could not be swerved, because the war was irredeemably lost. The Act of Seclusion (May 4, 1654) caused a tremendous furor among the still strongly Orangeist preachers and populace and in the other provinces; but De Witt defended Holland's sovereign right to act in his Deduction, published in the name of the States of Holland.

De Witt used the years of peace to strengthen Dutch finances and encourage trade and shipping. After the outbreak of the First Northern War in 1658, the pressure of Amsterdam overwhelmed his preference for neutrality, and the Dutch Republic took the side of Denmark, rescuing it from conquest by Sweden. Meanwhile, De Witt watched as the English called Charles II to the throne. Only too aware that the restored king was William III's uncle, he tried to win the King to a policy of friendship, proposing during Charles's stay in The Hague, enroute home, that the young prince become a "Child of State," educated by the States of Holland with the promise of office upon coming of age. This compromise failed when William's mother, Mary Stuart, died in 1660, leaving Charles by testament as his sole guardian.

Sharp commercial rivalries between the English and the Dutch increased until the second of the Anglo-Dutch Wars began in 1664 in West Africa and in 1665 in Europe. By now De Witt had the Dutch navy ready for war. He pursued a policy of vigorous naval offensive, culminating in the triumphant campaign of June 1667 that compelled the English to make peace in the Treaty of Breda in July.

Soon afterward, Holland adopted an Eternal Edict, which abolished the stadholdership but assured eventual military office to the prince. On Jan. 23, 1668, De Witt completed negotiation of an alliance with England (called the Triple Alliance following Sweden's entry in March) to halt French advances in the Spanish Netherlands in the War of Devolution.

De Witt attempted without success to retain an alliance with France made in 1662. Louis XIV persuaded England and Sweden to betray their alliance with Holland, and England joined him in an invasion of the Republic (the Third Anglo-Dutch War, 1672-1674, or the "Dutch War" of France, 1672-1678) which began in April. De Witt had not given the Dutch land forces the same attention as the navy, and he had delayed as long as possible the election of William III as captain general. When the French invaders plunged into the heart of the United Provinces in June, De Witt was held responsible, denounced as a traitor, and badly wounded in an assassination attempt on June 21. Upon recovery he resigned as councilor pensionary on August 4. He and his brother were massacred by an Orangeist mob in The Hague on August 20.

De Witt's mathematical work, praised by Christiaan Huygens and Sir Isaac Newton, was a study of conic sections appended to a Latin translation of René Descartes's Geometry (1661). De Witt's study of the relative values of life annuities and redeemable bonds, given to the States of Holland in 1671, was one of the earliest actuarial works, although not concerned with insurance as such.

Further Reading on Johan de Witt

The best study of De Witt is in Dutch. In English, James Geddes, History of the Administration of John De Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland (1879), is very detailed but goes only to 1654. Germain Antonin Lefe'vre-Pontalis, John De Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland; or, Twenty Years of a Parliamentary Republic (2 vols., 1885), is comprehensive, based on long research, but suffers from an anachronistic interpretation. De Witt figures prominently in the excellent history by Pieter Geyl, Orange and Stuart, 1641-1672 (trans. 1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Rowen, Herbert Harvey, John de Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, 1625-1672, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Rowen, Herbert Harvey, John de Witt, statesman of the "true freedom", Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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