Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
In his standard book on the history of the Dutch press, written in 1943, historian Maarten Schneider remarked that the Batavian Republic features a reversal in theory and practice. Before the revolution, in the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, the press had been constricted by law, but in practice it had been free to do largely as it pleased. In the Batavian Republic, this situation became reversed. The grandiloquent Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1795 and its constitutional counterpart of 1798 both ensured freedom of thoughts, ideas, speech, and consequently of the press – but only theoretically, because the press was now subjected to a far tighter rein than before the revolution, Schneider stated.
Schneider's ideas have been contradicted by G. D. Homan, whose influential article in 1976 showed that any curtailment of the freedom of the press is to be sought in 1802, after the new constitution had been installed and the democratic period of the Batavian Republic had ended. Before that, ‘few attempts were made to curtail freedom of the press even in time of stress and turmoil’. By this turmoil he meant the events of 1798, the year in which a coup d’état led to political purges, the founding of the first – quite radical – constitution after a manipulated plebiscite, and following that an unconstitutional decision to not have new parliamentary elections, which in turn incited a second coup d’état. According to Homan, there was talk about the curbing of the ‘licentiousness’ of the press, but this did not lead to more stringent policy, let alone any repression of the press in reality.
Homan's revision of Schneider's observations has been amended by both A. H. Huussen Jr. in 1987 and Wyger R. E. Velema in 1997. Both scholars agreed that the political turmoil of 1798 was the turning point in the history of the freedom of the press during the Batavian Republic. Huussen claims it marked ‘a dramatic departure from the policy followed in the previous three years’. Velema agreed with Huussen but interpreted 1798 as the culmination of a process that had taken root as early as 1795 rather than a watershed.