- The Dutch Republic as a Town
Although French history during the ancien régime conveys the image of a vast and empty countryside, Dutch history of the time evokes an image of a crowded and geographically restricted city. Practically all contemporaries considered this limited scale a great advantage. In the 1785 Constitutional Restoration, the manual containing the blueprints for a new political future designed by Dutch revolutionaries, great value is attached to this small-scale and orderly character of Dutch urban society: “because (thus) all Citizens know and esteem each other; because their Sovereign Principals are able to perceive the evil coming to pass and the good needing to be done in their own proper persons; and because their commands are carried out under their very eyes.” 1 The concept of Holland as a town is not just another metaphor. Around 1800, when the country was past the peak of its early modern urbanization, 37% of its inhabitants still lived in moderate-sized towns. In the province of Holland, the most populous of the Dutch Republic, this reached 60%. France could not compare, with only 12%, and even England was not close.
Using the urban community as a distinguishing characteristic, the history of the Netherlands, beginning with the revolt against Spain in the late sixteenth century, can be divided into two parts. The first period from 1580–1800 was the zenith of the early modern town, reaching the limits of possibility in the Dutch Republic and declining in its later years. This also was the period of the urban domination of the state which made the Dutch Republic so unique in Europe. In the second period from 1800 onward, the state effectively subordinated the urban community, and towns experienced new growth through industrialization and mechanized transportation. During this time cities increased in areas of the Netherlands where they had been rare. Finally, this is the period in which Dutch towns no longer were the pioneers of European urban development but followed renewals abroad from a proper distance.
The city, however, was not only formative to the early modern period of Dutch history, it also created a few constants that have likewise colored the ensuing period. This is nicely illustrated by the relationship between the urban and rural communities. Before 1800 the Dutch Republic, too, had its fair share of countryside but, unlike anywhere else, this was almost without exception densely populated. Urban culture was all-pervasive and had become the standard. [End Page 345] To see wild and unspoiled nature the citizens of the Republic had to travel far. In the Dutch Republic the integration of town and countryside into a regional economy, followed by the conjunction of these regional unities into an international urban network, began about 1600. Without this key position in the international urban network, and without the integrating function of the urban community in the regional and provincial economies, the agricultural and industrial specialization that still earns Holland its special position in the global market could never have taken place. From 1600 on, Dutch towns were highly developed, well lit, and relatively safe with excellent connections to the outside world. Between 1600 and 1800 the trekschuit (towing barge) was the highway of the ancien régime. From Amsterdam or Rotterdam every Dutch town could be reached comfortably within hours, several times a day. That same barge, by the way, nicely exemplifies how these modern aspects of Dutch urban society, which for a number of centuries had functioned extraordinary well, became a stumbling block to technical progress in the nineteenth century. 2
The Republic has commonly been called a confederacy of city-states. This commonplace doesn’t truly come into relief until we realize that as many as 57 of the approximately one hundred towns with more than 2,500 inhabitants were directly involved in national decision-making through the sovereign assembly of the provincial estates. Additionally, a complex system of political participation on the local level gave the burghers ample opportunities to influence the residents’ daily lives. Thus, Dutch town magistrates were schooled in the politics of contention and learned to seek compromises acceptable to an ever changing majority. Because of the...