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Historians of the early modern Dutch Republic have repeatedly argued that Reinhart Koselleck's notion of a conceptual Sattelzeit, running from roughly 1750 to roughly 1850, is of very little use to them. One has to admit that they seem to have a point. For it is undeniable that such a unique Sattelzeit is absent in the Dutch case. When we look at the development, or – as some would prefer – the ‘modernization’ of political concepts in the period of the Dutch Republic, it soon becomes clear that several periods of rapid conceptual change may be discerned, all of them of considerable importance. One such period was the second half of the sixteenth century, which saw a prolonged struggle of the Dutch against their Spanish overlords, in the course of which the rebels developed a sophisticated political vocabulary focused on the right of resistance to unjust authority, on political liberty, and on the liberty of conscience. Of at least equal importance in terms of the development of Dutch political language and thought was the third quarter of the seventeenth century, the so-called First Stadholderless Era. Although historians disagree about the exact nature of the changes in political discourse that took place during these years, they tend to agree that this era saw the formulation of refined forms of principled republicanism. Indeed, in a series of recent publications, the British historian Jonathan Israel has tirelessly argued that the Dutch invented modern ‘democratic republicanism’ during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. It is therefore evident that Dutch political concepts did not go through a single and unified process of ‘modernization’ during Koselleck's Sattelzeit.
Despite all this, it also remains true that the decades around 1800 in the Netherlands were of crucial importance for the development of the meaning of the two closely linked concepts I shall be discussing in this chapter: ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’. The extraordinary importance of the changes in the meaning of the concept of democracy in the Dutch Republic during the last two decades of the eighteenth century has been pointed out many times, not only by Dutch historians, but also by such eminent international students of the birth of modern democracy as Robert Palmer and John Dunn.
Historical scholarship has not been very generous in its treatment of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch republicanism. Whereas it is hard to keep track of the continuous stream of studies devoted to early modern Italian or English republicanism, publications on the political thought of the Dutch Republic have remained few and far between. Indeed, although the situation has somewhat improved in recent years, it may still be stated without exaggeration that large areas of early modern Dutch political thought remain entirely unexplored. There are, leaving aside the remarkable fact that the history of political thought has never been a prominent field of study in Dutch academia, at least two reasons for this rather unsatisfactory state of affairs.
First of all, there is the deep-seated conviction that the Dutch have always been a thoroughly practical, pragmatic, and commonsensical people, not much inclined to theory. Thus, in a recent overview of early modern Dutch republicanism, Herbert Rowen once again ends with the time-worn cliché that Dutch political theory did not match Dutch political practice. ‘Can it be’, his concluding rhetorical question goes, ‘that those who possess liberty – as the Dutch did in these two centuries more than any other people in Europe – are not driven to philosophize about it?’ (Rowen 1994: 340). Quite an amazing verdict, one cannot help thinking, on a culture that produced not only Grotius and Spinoza, but also an astonishingly rich political pamphlet literature – see for instance Knuttel 1889–1920.
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