The United Provinces of the Northern Netherlands gained independence from Spain before the death of Philip II, though formal recognition of that independence came only in 1648. The Dutch state was an aristocratic merchant society, the first significant middle-class state in Europe with virtually no landed aristocracy. Despite its small size, it was a great power, colonizing in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, trading everywhere, and supporting an active and efficient navy.
Dutch ships played a predominant role in the international carrying trade; in the mid-seventeenth century the Dutch probably operated between half and three quarters of the world’s merchant vessels. The Dutch also controlled the very lucrative North Sea herring fisheries. Their East India Company, founded in 1602, assembled and exploited a commercial empire.
It paid large regular dividends and was a pioneer instance of the joint-stock company, sponsored by the state and pooling the resources of many businessmen who could not have risked such a formidable undertaking on an individual basis. The Bank of Amsterdam, founded in 1609, was also a model, minting its own florins and so innovative in its services to depositors that it made Amsterdam the financial capital of Europe.
The Dutch instituted life insurance and perfected the actuarial calculations on which it is based. Specialized industries flourished in particular cities and towns: diamond cutting, printing, and bookbinding at Amsterdam; shipbuilding at Zaandam; gin distilling at Schiedam; ceramics at Delft; woolens and Leiden; and linens at Haarlem. The Dutch were in the forefront of European agricultural progress; they created new farm plots called polders by diking and draining lands formerly under the sea, and they experimented with new techniques of scientific farming and with new crops. Among the latter were tulips, imported from the Ottoman Empire; the growing of tulip bulbs in the fields around Haarlem set off a wild financial speculation—the Tulipomania of the 1630s.
In government, the Dutch republic was no model of efficiency, for the United Provinces were united in name only. The seven provinces sent delegates to the Estates General, which functioned like a diplomatic congress rather than a central legislature. Each province did have a chief executive, the stadhodler. Most of the provinces chose as stadholder the incumbent prince of the house of Orange, which made him a symbol of national unity.
Twice in the seventeenth century, however, the preponderance of the Orange stadholder was challenged by the ranking local official of the most important province, the grand pensionary of Holland. In the first quarter of the century the grand pensionary, Jan van Olden Barneveldt (1547-1619), dominated Dutch politics until he was executed because of his support for Arminian doctrines of free will against Calvinist predestination. the grand pensionary Jan De Witt (1625-1672) ran the republic until he was lynched by a mob when the soldiers of Louis XIV overran an ill-prepared Holland in the 1670s.
The liberal Calvinists in Holland felt that religious fanaticism retarded the growth of commerce and of the state. Though there was a marked decline of tolerance by the end of the seventeenth century, the United Provinces generally remained relatively benign toward the Dutch Catholic minority. In particular Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), a Westphalian who was a chief magistrate in the United Provinces from 1604, set forth clear arguments for permitting relatively free selection of religious worship.
He would not tolerate atheists, but he extended his arguments to embrace Jews. Althusius’s thoughts on religious freedom were advanced by Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutch Jew, who began with the premise that personal liberty was the foundation of civil peace, obedience, and stability in the state, and that on matters of religion all persons must have absolute freedom of conscience. Under the influence of such theorists on the relationship of church and state, Amsterdam in particular became a haven for religious dissenters.
In the Netherlands, the beneficiaries of religious toleration were the large Catholic minority, Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Lithuania, and various Protestant dissidents escaping from Calvinist orthodoxy elsewhere on the Continent: Lutherans, Anabaptists, and in time even Arminians. As the southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium) became rigorously Catholic, Calvinist refugees from the south also added to the vigor and commercial growth of the north.
The style of Dutch civilization in this great age was solid, reasonable, sober, but far from colorless. This little nation, through intelligence, hard work, hard trading, and adventurous exploration, won a high place in the world. But by 1700 the great days of the Dutch republic were ending, as it was eclipsed by its larger and more powerful neighbors. Though at times competitors with the English, Dutch fate was inked to Tudor policy, and the interchange between the countries—in trade, in technology, in manpower, even in artists—was close.
Spanish Habsburgs as well as the Austrians. After the Dutch revolt, the Spaniards wanted to stabilize a line of communications between their Belgian and Italian lands traversing the Rhine valley and the Alps. The Dutch and the French both wanted to thwart Spanish plans for securing this overland route.