THE province of Overyssel in the little country of the Netherlands was a good place to begin life in 1752. The country was not free of troubles, as later events would prove, but the inhabitants had great opportunity to shape their own lives. In most of Europe, in most of the world, men were tied to a bit of the earth (like Gulliver) by the ropes of ignorance, superstition, tyranny, class control, and malnutrition. The Dutch had loosened or cut these bonds in the century and a half before the birth of Francis Adrian Van der Kemp. He, like most of his countrymen, needed little more than opportunity; with it they earned necessities and added a good measure of comforts.
Overyssel was a farming land on the Issel River and the Zuider Zee. The major town of Kampen had been a prominent and prosperous seaport in the days of the old Hanseatic League. Now dependent on the regional economy, it retained and treasured historic memories. Several old gates spoke of a time before national states were formed, when powerful walls protected the town and its citizens. The Groote Kerk, a handsomely decorated Gothic church, was begun back in the fourteenth century. It now stood as one of the finest religious monuments in the Netherlands, a reminder of religious persecution in the past and tolerance in the present—the tolerance of a people who welcomed Huguenots, Portuguese Jews and Separatist Pilgrims, who allowed Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites, and Catholics to live in religious peace. In the center of the town stood the raadhuis or city hall, built in the fourteenth century and reconstructed in the sixteenth. In passing, young Van der Kemp could look up at the stone figures of Brotherly Love, Moderation, Fidelity and Justice. He could see the iron cage once used for holding criminals in public view. The raadhuis bell tower, housing the great bell which rang out warnings to the public in olden days, rose in grandeur above the surrounding buildings. The impressive structure inspired confidence in local government and local justice, in government for the people if not always by the people.
Kampen lacked only a good university. In the latter half of the eighteenth century this deficiency could be minimized by sending promising youths to Groningen, Leyden, or Utrecht, where three of the best universities of Europe were located. Groningen was the nearest of the three, and there young Van der Kemp would go.
The Kampen townsmen had a reputation for droll stupidity. They delighted in the tale of the Kampen city fathers and the town bell. When a Spanish army approached the city the officials hurriedly took the bell from the old tower and loaded it into a boat. Out in the Zuider Zee they heaved the bell overboard with great relief. However, a townsman in the boat who admitted his inability to understand all the actions of city officials, asked how they would find the bell again. The indignant burgomaster thus challenged said firmly, “We’ll mark the place where we heaved it overboard” as he quickly cut a notch in the boat’s gunwale. Again, they reported the council had decided to double tax collections by doubling the number of gates where tariffs were collected.
In Kampen, with its historical traditions balanced by everyday humor, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp was born on May 4, 1752.1 His mother was Anna Catharina Leydekker. His father was John, a captain in the military service. They were proud of their ancestry—the Bax, the Van Drongelens and Van der Kemps on the one side, the Leydekkers, De Huyberts and De Witts on the other. From his parents Francis learned to respect his grandparents and great-grandparents and to treasure the inspiration gained from study of the past. The material inheritance of the Van der Kemps was apparently modest. On one occasion John abandoned a tract of land as not being worth the amount of the taxes.2
John was educated to be a merchant, but in the eighteenth century Dutch commerce had declined and the profession failed to hold his interest. He became a soldier, an honored and promising vocation in this time of naval decay. He and Anna Catharina Leydekker were married in 1747. John was stationed at Kampen when Francis was born, later moving to Zutphen, to Zwolle and to Bois-le-Duc.
John and Catharina hoped that Francis would be a scholar. As do many mothers, Catharina watched for a sign and found it. When the baby fretted and cried in the old Dutch cradle, placing a little book in his hands appeased him most often. How could any mother doubt this prophecy of scholarship?
The baby grew into a healthy boy with the knack of attracting the good will and affection of all around him, young and old, at school or at play. His early schooling included French to prepare him for Latin School. Francis began his classical training at the age of nine or ten when the family moved to Zutphen. Fifty or sixty years later in his autobiography for his son, Van der Kemp wrote: “My progress was rather slow, without any brilliant proficiency; yet when, the 14th of January, 1763, I left the first for the second class, I was rewarded with Nieupoort de Ritibus Romanorum.”
Zutphen, not far from Kampen, was farther inland on the Issel River in the province of Gelderland. Here the lowlands gave way to rolling hills, with many wheat fields and fine stands of fir trees. Here the cruel tyrant, Duke Alva, had severely punished many Dutch citizens during the revolt against the Spanish rule. Hundreds had been put to death. Two centuries later stories of these Dutch patriots instilled a spirit of freedom and hatred of foreign domination in Van der Kemp and his young classmates.
The family’s next residence was in Zwolle, the capital city of Overyssel, also only a few miles from Kampen. Like its neighboring town, Zwolle had its Groote Kerk, a fine Gothic structure with excellent interior carving. Built several centuries earlier, it had been taken over by Protestants during the Reformation and was now used by the Dutch Reformed organization. The Sassenpoort, an old gate with four splendid towers, was another inspiring landmark of the city. At Zwolle Thomas a Kempis lived, wrote, and later was buried. Here the growing boy, Francis, continued his education. His progress was slower than his parents expected. He passed step by step to the fourth class, later reporting in his autobiography that he was “never higher than third place.” His parents began to doubt the capacity of their son for a scholarly profession. When Francis had reached the fourth class, his parents turned for advice to their next door neighbor, a wise and respected clergyman who knew the boy and understood scholarship. He must have broken the parents’ hearts and shaken a little of their faith by expressing his doubt that Francis could ever succeed as a man of letters and suggesting the choice of a different profession.
John and Catharina were reluctant to believe their son’s scholastic ability was only mediocre, but hesitated to discount the opinion of their counselor. Though Francis probably had a voice in the decision, independence for children was a rare practice in 1764. By compromise, they decided Francis should become a military cadet, but that he would continue his study of Latin and Greek.
At this time the Duke of Brunswick was the chief adviser to young William V, the stadholder. The duke, Ludwig Ernest von Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, had entered the Dutch military service in 1750, having served as a field marshal in the Austrian army during the War of the Austrian Succession. He knew the armies of Europe well, having fought for or against some of the best. Now he wanted to strengthen and modernize Dutch military and naval forces, but was unable to overcome resistance to change. In this army young Van der Kemp became a cadet, first in the infantry regiment of Holtein Gottorp and later in John Van der Kemp’s regiment.
What a Dutch boy learned in the army can only be guessed. In the company of other boys and men he surely learned cooperation and nationalism. He learned enough to assume the leadership of a small force in defense of a Dutch town some twenty years later. He learned enough to be intelligently critical, more than forty years later, of the competence of leaders in the War of 1812 at Sackett’s Harbor, New York State. And he was proud to see his second son become a soldier for the United States.
While a cadet at Bois-le-Duc, Francis won prizes for accomplishment in the study of Greek and Latin literature in 1768 and 1769. He had private lessons in the study of Greek and Hebrew, the latter because of his father’s serious hope to guide the boy into the ministry. Though he had some regret that his son was not to follow in his military footsteps, John had soon realized Francis had little liking for a military career and conceded that a scholarly contemplative life would be “more congenial” to his son’s character.
However, the boy’s decision to leave the army was unexpected. Years later in his autobiography Van der Kemp described the turn of his life in these words:
An encampment, which was ordered in 1769, would have been a serious and expensive obstruction to my studies, and useless if I quitted the military career; but my father peremptorily declined to intercede in my favor, to obtain an exemption; he could not brook a refusal, and would not ask it of the Prince of Hesse, but left it willingly to me to act as I deemed proper. I paid then a visit to his Highness, solicited the boon, and on his abrupt repulse instantly requested my dismission from the service, which I obtained. Scarcely had I returned under the paternal roof, than, in answer to the questions of my Father on the result, I threw my military accoutrements on the floor, and told him I had obtained my dismission.
No comment is made as to the father’s reaction. Francis renewed his studies with vigor, and was admitted to the Univerity of Groningen in August, 1770.
The universities of the Netherlands offered the best in higher education. There were other good institutions of learning, chiefly in the provincial capitals, but not so prominent or attractive. The big Dutch universities were an unusual mixture of medieval and modern, with less state and religious control than in most European universities. They had no dormitories, but provided only the halls of learning and expected the students to look after their own material necessities. Students from near and far chose lodgings by recommendations of friends and relatives or burghers’ signs indicating rooms to let. Meals could be eaten in one’s room, at the table with the landlord, or at an inn. Students were not required to wear uniforms as at many European universities, and professors wore their colorful robes only on special occasions. Responsibility for success rested primarily on the students although professors often took personal interest in boys who attracted their attention.
The many foreign students in Holland gave an international atmosphere to the schools, perhaps more to Utrecht and Leyden than to Groningen. The journal of a young Englishman, James Boswell, recorded his academic life at Utrecht:
I have got a neat house of my own and an excellent servant. I get up every morning at seven. I read Ovid till nine, then I breakfast. From ten to eleven I read Tacitus. From eleven to twelve I am shaved and dressed every day. From twelve to one I hear a lecture upon Civil Law. From one to three I walk and dine. From three to four my French master is with me. The rest of the day is spent in reading different books and in writing. This day I began to set about recovering my Greek. I have taken Cebes’s Table and shall next read Xenophon, and so advance to greater difficulties.3
Coffee, then as now, was a welcome interlude between Greek and notes “of law and history.” Wine and beer were reserved for complete relaxation in social gatherings at the close of the academic day or on weekends. Boswell spent, on one occasion, a gay evening with Dutch students. They were “all keen on meat and drink; then marching like schoolboys with Kapitein and frightening the street.”4 Van der Kemp must have enjoyed some of the same activities, as he later looked upon wine as a necessity for health and good living. One of his lighter writings, “Dutch Conviviality,” described a discussion group in one of the homes at Oldenbarneveld, New York. It was similar to a discussion in a student room or inn at Groningen. At the close of the evening they drank toasts to the Fatherland and to the five V’s—Vrijheid, Vreede, Vriendschap, Vrouwen and Vrolijkkeid (liberty, peace, friendship, women, gaiety) and sang a song before departing. One guest stayed for a mantel pypje and a glasje of de val reep (a pipe of tobacco with one’s coat on and a drink for the road).5 At the university, perhaps before, Van der Kemp learned to play cards, backgammon and chess.
Students often spent the night and early morning hours on discussion and study rather than sleep. Francis Van der Kemp, determined to rise “above mediocrity,” entered into academic work with enthusiasm. He seldom slept more than five hours, frequently only two or three, and sometimes not at all. He attended lectures in Latin, Greek and oriental languages. He studied philosophy, “viz. Metaphysicks, Natural History, Cosmology.” He studied English and German through private instruction and delved into chemical experimentation. Knowledge increased, but his health failed. On the advice of friendly Professor Petrus Camper, Francis gave up chemistry, increased his sleep, and studied “at a standing position,” a frequently prescribed measure for good health. He also gratefully accepted Professor Camper’s gift of glasses for nearsightedness. The boy recovered.
In the course of his academic strivings, Van der Kemp acquired the true scholar’s love of books. He wanted his own copies to refer to and annotate as he pleased. One can still see marginal notes in his books in the Barneveld and Harvard libraries. He purchased, often beyond his means, good books recommended by professors and friends and started at this time the library which was to be a source of inspiration, joy and comfort throughout his life.
Francis thrived on learning and was a good student. However, during his second year his father died. This tragedy was a blow for the sensitive student away from home. In time he acquired a consoling religion, but when he lost his father his religion was inadequate. Pity for his sorrowing mother at home was added to his loss of a “tender Father and affectionate friend.” Uncle Adraen, a clergyman, and Aunt Anthonia assumed his expenses at Groningen.
This loss accentuated young Francis’ interest in religion. The young man added to his studies courses in ecclesiastical history, botany, and “Ecclesiastical Laws and the Laws of Nature,” the latter under the respected and famous Professor Frederic Adolph van der Marck.
In a sketch of this “master” written in 1812 to John Adams, Van der Kemp recalled,
He did resemble my Honoured friend at Quincy in many respects—in mind—in stature—in an ardent love of truth and Liberty—in hatred against Despotism—Civil or religious; tho a man of eminent talents, he was amiable in society—pleasing to his friends—
Van der Marck was a successful lawyer in Arnhem before teaching at Groningen. He was popular with the students, attracting youths from every province to his crowded lectures. Seventeen prominent lawyers and judges came regularly to hear the master.6 Van der Kemp was irresistibly drawn to this teacher during the years he was most doubtful about the religion he had learned as a boy. The thinking of popular deists such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and D’Alembert, seemed valid to the young man, especially their criticisms which applied to the orthodox, dogmatic clergy of Groningen. His study of history supported his growing doubts. Professor Van der Marck was soon to inspire open rebellion in his young admirer.