Witt, Johan and Cornelis de (Johan 1625–1672; Cornelis 1623–1672)

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WITT, JOHAN AND CORNELIS DE (Johan 16251672; Cornelis 16231672)

WITT, JOHAN AND CORNELIS DE (Johan 16251672; Cornelis 16231672), Dutch statesmen and patriots. The de Witt brothers, leading statesmen of the Dutch Republic and opponents of the House of Orange from 1653 to 1672, were born in Dordrecht, a city in the south of the province of Holland, where their father, Jacob de Witt, had already served several times as alderman and burgomaster. Together Johan and Cornelis went to the Latin School and studied law at the University of Leiden. They completed their education with a grand tour through France and England. About this time it was evident that Johan possessed extraordinary mental powers, notably in the field of mathematics. In the course of his busy life he would find time to publish a pioneering work on geometry, The Elements of Curved Lines (1659), and his masterpiece, The Worth of Life Annuities Compared to Redemption Bonds (1671), which is regarded today by historians of insurance as the foundation of modern actuarial science.

The brothers started their careers in a turbulent time when international developments and national events created unprecedented opportunities. First there was the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the wars the Dutch had fought for eighty years (15681648) against the Spanish oppressor. The treaty was an official recognition of the Dutch territory as the United Provinces. The treaty also brought peace, and it was precisely this peace that caused havoc. The princes of Orange had led the army against the Spanish, and the cities had provided the funds, but now the peace broke up their confluence of interests. The merchants wanted to reduce the army budget and use their money for investments in trade and for the reduction of their enormous debts, but the young prince of Orange, William II (16261650), could not accept the prospect of being stripped of this glamorous part of the family heritage.

The second development took place across the English Channel, where Oliver Cromwell had put an end to the kingship of Charles I, William II's father-in-law. When Charles was beheaded in 1649, William wanted to bring the Stuarts back to power, which meant starting a new war. This was anathema to the regents of Holland, the wealthy non-noble patricians of the cities. The conflict between the prince of Orange and the cities of Holland therefore escalated rapidly. In 1650 William incarcerated several leading regents, one of whom was Jacob de Witt, and tried in vain to conquer Amsterdam. William died of smallpox that same year, and a collective aversion to monarchical power surfaced among the regents. This mood was not tempered by the birth of William III eight days after the death of his father. Holland and the six other provinces decided that the Dutch Republic could do without a singular authority, that the state would be governed by the city aristocracies, and proudly called this "True Freedom" (de Ware Vrijheid). Along with it came a tolerant attitude toward various religious groups and a keen eye for the connection between peace and prosperity. Of this set of values Johan de Witt became the eloquent spokesman.

Johan and Cornelis went separate ways, but both achieved powerful positions. Cornelis became a foremost member of the administration of his hometown of Dordrecht and married the daughter of an important aristocrat from Rotterdam. With the help of his brother, he became chief justice of a large area. Johan's star rose higher. On 30 July 1653, at the age of 28, he was appointed raadpensionaris or grand pensionary of Holland, chairman of the assembly of the States of Holland. Because this province was by far the wealthiest and most powerful of the Dutch Republic, it dominated the assembly of the States-General, so Johan became in fact the political leader of the nation. In 1655 he married Wendela Bicker, whose father was the most influential regent of Amsterdam and had been the leader of the resistance against William II.

Before Johan started his term as grand pensionary, the First Anglo-Dutch War (16521654) broke out. Johan managed to strengthen the navy and to conclude the war as quickly as possible, but he paid a high price for the peace: the Act of Seclusion (1654), a secret concession to Cromwell, which stated that no prince of Orange was to be stadtholder or captain-general. When the other six provinces learned about it, a storm of indignation came down on Johan's head. Much of the hatred that was later directed at him originated from this act. During the twenty years of his rule, Johan tried to curtail the power of William III. But the older the prince became, the more difficult it was to contain support for him. The gap between the proponents of the "true freedom" and the supporters of the prince, many of whom saw him as a kind of messiah, became unsurmountable.

The Restoration (1660) in England brought Charles II, William's brother-in-law, to power. Charles grew into a dedicated enemy of the Dutch Republic and of Johan personally, whose domestic position he tried to undermine by persuading the Orangist party that the grand pensionary had denied William his family rights. When the Second Anglo-Dutch War (16651667) broke out, Johan sailed several times with the fleet to encourage the commanders to take offensive action. In the summer of 1667 Cornelis de Witt executed a bold plan devised by Johan: with a flotilla he raided the Chatham Dockyards and not only destroyed the biggest ships, but also towed home the Royal Charles. After this humiliation, Charles was forced to sign the peace, the Treaty of Breda.

Meanwhile, Louis XIV of France was usurping large parts of the Spanish Netherlands in the War of Devolution; this was the territory that Johan wanted to keep as a buffer against mighty France. On 23 January 1668 he concluded the Triple Alliance with England and Sweden, and the war ended with the Treaty of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in May 1668. But two years later Louis and Charles entered into the secret Treaty of Dover, by which the latter promised the former to assist in a full-scale attack on the Dutch Republic.

For more than a year Johan did not recognize the bad omens. He was too much of a rationalist and counted completely on the balance of power, believing that both France and England would be at a disadvantage when the other got hold of the United Provinces. He was incapable of understanding that the French and English kings would work together in destroying the Dutch Republic, because he thought it would be fatal to their own interests. He also did not grasp the fact that kings could start wars out of injured pride. When the assault came in June 1672, it was too late. Louis XIV invaded Holland and began the third of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The Dutch defeated the English and French navies, but the immense French army crushed its opponent in a matter of weeks. Panic raged through the republic and a hunt for scapegoats ensued. Popular feeling suddenly turned in favor of William III, and he was made stadtholder by popular acclaim. Hatred against the De Witt brothers resulted in an attempt on Johan's life and the detention of Cornelis, who was accused of planning to assassinate William III. On 20 August Johan, who was visiting his brother in prison, and Cornelis were lynched by the people of The Hague; in the frenzy the bodies were mutilated, bowels were eaten, and fingers and tongues collected as souvenirs. Among scholars it is still a matter of dispute whether Prince William III was behind the bloodbath.

See also Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars ; Devolution, War of (16671668) ; Dutch Republic ; Louis XIV (France) ; Netherlands, Southern ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) ; William and Mary .


Geddes, James. History of the Administration of John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland. Vol. I (only vol. published). New York, 1880.

Geyl, Pieter. Orange and Stuart 16411672. Translated from the Dutch by A. Pomerans. London, 1969.

Levèvre-Pontalis, Germain Antonin. John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland, or Twenty Years of a Parliamentary Republic. Translated from the French by S. E. and E. Stephenson. 2 vols. London, 1885.

Rowen, Herbert H. John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland 16251672. Princeton, 1978.

Luc Panhuysen

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Witt, Johan and Cornelis de (Johan 1625–1672; Cornelis 1623–1672)

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