VAN DER KEMP was twenty-five years old when he became the pastor of the Leyden church in 1777. For the ten years that he served his congregation, his life was a continual, feverish drive for service. He served his God and his fellow men with enthusiasm, eager to identify and carry out his civic responsibilities along with his professional duties.
All the time which I now could spare, I devoted to becoming thoroughly acquainted not only with the history and antiquities, but principally with the laws and constitution of my country. My bosom glowed with the sacred fire of patriotism, and it seemed to me the period was fast approaching, if not already there, in which these sacred rights—long lost or neglected or made doubtful—for which the blood of our ancestors had been shed with such a profusion, might be recovered.
Van der Kemp had been a child of the Enlightenment. Now he was to become a man of the Age of Revolution.
Already the American Revolution was being fought and Dutch interests were involved. Would the Netherlands support the English as the stadholder and his party wished, or would it try to advance Dutch trade and lend money to the Americans in a policy of pulling away from the old ties with England? Most Dutchmen took a position consistent with their support of, or opposition to, the stadholder’s policies. Van der Kemp, one of those who opposed, had an emotional as well as an intellectual interest in the American struggle. He had become a liberal through his experiences and his learning. He was determined to live his liberalism.
The stadholder’s position was hereditary, but only with the approval of the people by election. Though he was not a king, many of his supporters treated him like one and called him “the Prince.” The Estates General, the Dutch national congress, had evolved into a legislative body still representing the provinces but dominated by commercial interests. Most of the aristocracy, other than the stadholder, were prominent people who had become wealthy through commercial undertakings. For a century they had kept the stadholder in a limited executive position, with the ultimate decision-making in the Estates General. However, control wavered according to the national and international situation and according to the problem at hand.
Each province of the Dutch union had a parliamentary body with party lines drawn in similar fashion. Belief in states’ rights was generally prevalent and the provincial leaders considered their territories to be sovereign, acting outside the union on some occasions. The stadholder was looked upon by the liberals as a convenience that could be dispensed with at will. The conservatives in the provinces were apt to support the stadholder as the dependable head of the Dutch nation in opposition to the lesser folk who appeared to be striving for power. In the provincial legislatures questions of policy might be decided with little concern for international consequences, perhaps even in an isolationist spirit. The local governments in the towns and cities were important chiefly in local affairs, but the larger cities sent representatives to the Estates General.
Only members of the Dutch Reformed Church could serve in governmental positions and as officers in the army. The established church could thereby wield a strong power in national and local politics. The church also exercised great influence upon and some control over the universities and education in general. However, dissenters from the Dutch Church had freedom of worship and were not prevented from gaining a livelihood in commerce, agriculture, or other pursuits outside of civil service. These dissenters were frequently leaders of thought and were respected if not honored.
In the over-all development of European ideas during the Enlightenment the Dutch did not contribute significantly but they did participate and were greatly influenced by popular literature. Some of the more important writings were banned by various provinces, complete freedom of the press being considered undesirable. However, the publishing business was active. Many books, pamphlets and periodicals flowed from the presses, mostly in Dutch or French. Thus most of the literature that preceded the Age of Revolution was available in the Netherlands. Van der Kemp was one of those who read avidly and tried to apply enlightened ideas to the Dutch nation.
Two important people of character and merit aided the young minister in his quest for political righteousness. Johan Derk Van der Capellen and Peter Paulus became his friends and political tutors. Baron Van der Capellen of Pol was a member of the provincial legislature of Overyssel, Van der Kemp’s home province. He was only eleven years older than his new friend and had made his way into Dutch politics just a few years before. He first gained prominence in 1775 by speaking in the provincial legislature against sending a brigade of Scottish mercenaries to help England subdue her American colonies. The occasion called for vigorous counteraction, as the well-trained brigade was already in service in the Netherlands, apparently available and ready to leave for America.
Van der Capellen was not content with blocking the measure only in Overyssel, but spoke outside the legislative hall against the proposal. This action was seized upon by the stadholder’s partisans as contrary to the established precedent of secrecy of discussion. He was expelled from the legislature.
In the considerable period of time before his reinstatement, Van der Capellen continued to be active. The courageous baron was engaged in a prolonged campaign to abolish the corvées in his province. He opposed this remnant of the feudal age whereby small farmers had to give two days of service per year to the province.
Robert Jaspar Van der Capellen of Marsch, a cousin, was also a leading Patriot and later became a close friend of Van der Kemp.
In 1776 the established order was further alarmed by Van der Capellen of Pol’s publication of his Dutch translation of Richard Price’s Essay on Civil Liberty. By this time Paulus had become a close friend to both Van der Kemp and Van der Capellen. At about the same time that the baron’s translation appeared, Paulus wrote and published an Essay on the Usefulness of the Stadholderate, as it Ought to Have Been, a criticism of the current operation of the Dutch government. He followed this by other essays attacking the stadholder’s lack of adherence to the Union of Utrecht, the constitutional arrangement established in 1579 by which the provinces were bound together. Van der Kemp, inspired by the work of his compatriots, was determined to assist in righting the wrongs of his political world.
After careful consultations with his friends, Van der Kemp published in the form of five letters his Observations on the Union of Utrecht, first anonymously but later reprinted under his name. In these letters he commented on issues such as military jurisdiction, army quotas, and the settlement of disputes within the union. These Observations, along with the writings of Paulus, were a first step toward public action. It was necessary at the outset to impress upon the Dutch populace the point that the system of the union and the stadholderate should and could be reevaluated and examined for weaknesses. If patriotic citizens could be convinced they had a right and obligation to criticize their government, serious faults might be corrected. Van der Kemp continued the examination by a great research task of finding and collecting as many documents as possible bearing on the Dutch government—from archives, from libraries, from private papers. In regard to the research, he wrote:
I perceived the forged chains which were to be riveted on the necks of my countrymen, and deemed it a feasible thing to break these. I perceived their insensibility and indolence, and would rouse them to vigorous unrelenting action; I glowed with indignation when I became convinced that in the fetters prepared for the Americans, the slavery of my own country was a chief ingredient.
Encouraged by other incensed citizens such as Peter Vreede, Cornelis de Gyselaer and John Luzac as well as Van der Capellen and Paulus, Van der Kemp not only preached reform in his church but wrote about it for the “larger parish.”
In a continuation of the efforts begun by Van der Capellen to abolish the corvées, Van der Kemp wrote a series of essays with documentary support. He felt the work levies were retained only to keep the people in subjection. He published his attack anonymously, for the official party was already alarmed. A reward was offered for either the printer or author, but the officials were out of tune with the times. Not only did they fail to locate the culprit, but they received petitions from every section of the province for discontinuance of corvée slavery. The provincial government yielded to the pressure and abolished the work days.
A follow-up of this victory was the publication of papers objecting to the expulsion of Van der Capellen of Pol from his seat in the legislature of Overyssel. Van der Kemp’s research and editing in Capellen Regent persuaded the people but not the authorities. It was not until 1782 that Van der Capellen was restored to his legislative seat.
In the meantime the liberals—Patriots, as they soon called themselves—became more interested in the American Revolution. Already the Gazette de Leyde, edited by John and Etienne Luzac and boasting an international circulation, had been reporting the news from America as well as that from Europe. Now the editors began to advocate Dutch support of the American Congress. The British request for the Scottish brigade had caused contention and the problems facing Dutch commerce, particularly privateers, drew attention to the American war. In September, 1779, John Paul Jones, arriving victoriously in the Zuider Zee with his prize, the Serapis, was honored with ballads and toasts in Amsterdam, the Hague, and many towns and cities.1 Jones’ triumphal visit increased reader interest in Van der Kemp’s Collection of State Papers on Unlimited Convoys, which supported the popular view of convoying that would aid Dutch commerce and at the same time aid the American cause. In the war the stadholder was favorable to England in spite of the privateers preying on Dutch merchantmen and warships stopping the Dutch for search. The unlimited convoy would furnish the protection of the Dutch navy for a great many more ships, but would be contrary to the stadholder’s wishes.
Early in 1780 John Adams came to the Netherlands to win support for his country. He called upon friendly noblemen, merchants, and other influential people for loans and recognition of the United States. Since the stadholder’s supporters were largely pro-British, Adams came to be associated more and more with the Patriots. However, his duty was to gain favor from all. At Leyden, where his sons, John Quincy and Thomas, were at the university, Adams composed a pamphlet on the resources and prospects of his country which gained wide circulation in Dutch translations. It was a good beginning.
The worthiness of Adams’ cause impressed Patriot Van der Capellen. The baron loaned to the Americans a goodly portion of an inheritance he had just received.
And it was Van der Capellen who brought John Adams and Francis Van der Kemp together. As Van der Kemp put it, “… My confidential friend inspired me with an irresistible desire to see and know that man, on whom he bestowed with profusion his enthusiastic encomiums, …”2 In writing to Adams in October 1780, Van der Capellen asserted that his good friend Van der Kemp could be of great help to the American cause inasmuch as he had a great deal of learning, intense loyalty, and fearlessness not ordinarily found in a Mennonite preacher.3 On February 24, 1781, Adams met Van der Kemp at Leyden and in April invited him to a meeting.
Mr. Adam’s Compliments to Mr Van der Kemp and asks the favour of his Company this Evening at the golden Lyon, to spend the Evening and Sup with a chosen few of honest Americans.4
In later years Van der Kemp recalled with pleasure the meetings with Adams and various Dutch Patriots at the Golden Lyon and elsewhere. Adams, too, wrote of these meetings, giving the following particulars:
Capellen was frequently puzzled with the Reports fabricated by the Anglomanes, representing the affairs of America to be in a desperate situation. I recollect some instances, when he seemed to be in a state of despondency. Upon these occasions I made very light of his fears, contradicted the facts he had heard and denied the inferences he drew; which sometimes brought on spirited argument between us, but never any coolness. Time always justified me and confuted him, and he was always ready to acknowledge when he was convinced.5
Van der Kemp was strongly impressed with Adams’ arguments, being more than confirmed in his already favorable opinion of American political leaders. His interest turned from Dutch documents to American papers. He published a Collection of Tracts Relative to the United States of North America, including letters of Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut and Governor William Livingston of New Jersey in defense and explanation of the American system, along with a sermon of Dr. Myles Cooper, formerly president of King’s College (Columbia University). Van der Kemp’s preface described the new nation and compared it to the Dutch union. The collection was dedicated to the American republic and published under the pseudonym of Junius Brutus.
On June 5, 1781, Van der Kemp informed Adams of his work as follows:
The letter of Governor Trumbull is at the printer’s. I have finished the translation of the Articles of Confederation of the United States in 1778 and also the sermon of Dr. Cooper and the article of the heads of enquiry with the answer to it printed at Boston, all as one piece relative to the letter of the Governor. One of my friends is translating the other pieces and speeches relative to the Constitution of Massachusetts Bay, and after my return to Leyden I shall give all these papers to the public with a preface, which I shall write in the free air of Appeltern.6
John Luzac, the friend who was aiding in the translation had been in communication with Adams about American affairs for more than a year.7 When Van der Kemp presented a copy to the New-York Historical Society in 1818 through De Witt Clinton, he wrote, “I defended the American cause with my pen and purse, when no distant thought beat in my breast of visiting this country, when it required some courage to take its side against a powerful Court-Party.”8
In November of 1781 he wrote to Adams in imperfect English congratulating him on “the complete victory of your arms in the Chesapeake-bay and the Burgoynishing of that mighty Lord [Cornwallis] with his many thousand slaves.” He believed that the corrupt British ministry would now learn that despotism “must be vanquished by the soldiers of Liberty.” He thanked God for the success in America and wished his own countrymen would awake from their lethargy and “oppose the measures of a profligate court with vigour and rather die gallantly in the battle than to bow their knee for a man.” Yet he feared both barons Van der Capellen might be persecuted for their activities and that he himself might be in jeopardy for his recent publications.9 He hoped the American republic, an ideal to Dutch reformers, would be an example for stirring up all people deprived of their rights.10
Overworked by his vigorous preaching of political reform, his frequent meetings with other Patriots, and his extensive research and writing, Van der Kemp became sick in the winter of 1779–80. He narrated the interlude of suffering and threat of death with great feeling.
On Friday evening when returning from my literary club earlier than usual, a violent headache compelling me to retreat, I went to bed, passed a restless night, awoke with increased pain, which compelled me to go again to bed in the afternoon, giving orders to my servant to awake me at three in the morning, as my sermon was yet unfinished. I executed my task above my expectation, preached with an increasing headache from instant to instant, laid down as soon as I reached home, and was on Monday morning so much exhausted that writing three lines to my friend P. Vreede, they were illegible. My strength gradually diminished and I was reduced that day to a state of stupid lethargy; all my faculties were benumbed; pain had left me; time seemed not to exist. My physician was perplexed, and apprehensive that the vital powers were so far absorbed that I must ere long sink under it. What was remarkable, the moment I shut my eyes I had a MS. leaf, then on the press, in my hand, read it till I arrived at an erasure, and then I awoke; this sensation continued a fortnight. My physician had ordered me the use of Peruvian bark [quinine, used for fevers], and recommended the country air. I was carried to the seacoast, and received at my former residence [Huyzen] with kindness, mingled with deep distress at my situation. Not one but despaired of my recovery. I took every hour a teaspoonful of bark in powder, made to a palatable conserve by syrup of roses. Within a fort-night after my arrival I began to revive, and moved through the room; my appetite returned; with this I joined sea bathing, increased my bodily exercise with my renewed devouring appetite, lessened gradually the use of the bark, and continued my exercises, amusing myself in the society of my surrounding friends, without so much as looking at a book, and within six weeks I returned in the full bloom of youth and muscular strength to Leyden, so that every one was astonished in witnessing this surprising recovery. Thus was my usefulness restored.
These six weeks probably comprise one of the longest periods of time in Van der Kemp’s adult life spent “without so much as looking at a book.”
Instead of moderating his strenuous program of research, writing and preaching, Van der Kemp, with the sacred fire of youth and patriotism, increased it. Before his illness he had outlined a series of documents illustrating the encroachments of military courts on the rights of Dutch citizens. He now embarked upon the necessary research with vigor. He collected documents and records from obscure places, and searched out copies of papers which had been maliciously destroyed. Editing and arranging the vast amount of material was a monumental project.
He first interrupted this work to strike off a “cutting philippic,” A Laurel Wreath for a Few Nobles, an attack on a segment of the Court party. Though Van der Kemp considered it of little value, the short essay reached more readers than the eleven-volume collection of documents on which he worked for several years.
Now Van der Kemp, with the support of his friends, faced a critical court action involving freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of citizens to criticize the government. On January 1, 1780, Van der Kemp published a lyric poem written by Peter Vreede in praise of the active Friesland opposition to the Court party.
When John Adams came to the Netherlands seeking recognition, Friesland was the first province to act favorably in its legislature, sending a petition to the Estates General for recognition. The provinces of Zeeland and Overyssel soon followed. This Frisian Act had been foreshadowed by a lesser act of opposition to the stadholder in behalf of unlimited convoys, and the poem praised the Frisian democratic spirit. The printer was arrested and immediately asked Van der Kemp to accept full responsibility. Van der Kemp felt obliged not only to protect the printer but, being single, was willing to take the blame to protect Vreede, married and father of two children. The accused man was summoned to appear on April 10, 1780, for criminal process. The Patriots were alarmed. Was Van der Kemp being prosecuted because of his other writings, especially the State Papers by Junius Brutus? They urged him to flee the country, arranged a place in Brussels, and secured the protection of the French government for his safety. Even Van der Capellen thought Van der Kemp would be a useless sacrifice if he stood trial. Only John Luzac, a lawyer as well as editor, saw the possibilities of a great victory against tyranny, a strike against unjust prosecution. He and Van der Kemp had a long discussion.11 Luzac not only agreed to defend Van der Kemp but secured the assistance of the eminent lawyer Van Zelderen who was an Orangist but had the courage and independence to stand for justice. Although Van der Kemp and Luzac differed at this time over political theory, they respected and supported each other with zeal.12 Van der Kemp stayed.
The first hearing of the prominent clergyman from Leyden was held on May 1 before the High Academic Tribunal, composed of the rector of the University of Leyden, four professors, four burgomasters and two échevins or magistrates of the city. Procedure required withdrawal of the defendant’s lawyers while the prosecutor questioned the defendant before the tribunal behind closed doors. Standing before the court from one o’clock in the afternoon until ten o’clock that night Van der Kemp faced 94 major questions, “some very intricate and ambiguously expressed.” His ardent study of the law stood him in good stead. He answered fearlessly many of the leading questions. He declined to answer those he knew he was entitled by law to refuse. He was spirited in his answers regarding religious issues brought into the case, and was told secretly that various members of the tribunal sided with him in this matter against the prosecutor. He was released that night on solemn promise to reappear when summoned. After several postponements had been granted to the prosecutor, he appealed to the Committee of State for permission to prosecute Van der Kemp as author of the Junius Brutus writings. This was referred back to the Academic Tribunal, as was an appeal to the provincial legislature for more time. Two outstanding law professors now prepared a remonstrance, accepted by the tribunal and sent on to the legislature. Nothing happened. The tribunal in forceful language demanded that the case be completed and justice rendered. The tribunal suspected that by avoiding a decision, the prosecution intended to leave Van der Kemp permanently damaged through their strong accusations. The tribunal was against this injustice and advised Van der Kemp to appeal in person directly to the legislature at the Hague. He did so, “claiming loudly for justice, either by absolution or condemnation.” Additional insistent requests from the tribunal brought orders to the prosecutor from the legislature to terminate the trial. A new prosecutor was in office and appeared with a declaration that he had no grounds for continuing. Van der Kemp was acquitted on January 28, 1782.
The nature of this lengthy court action would have ruined the career of a lesser man. Though it had disturbed many of his parishioners, Van der Kemp was rightfully proud of the victory. Peter Vreede paid the full expenses.
Victory for freedom of the press was heralded by Van der Kemp’s publication of a full account of the court procedures together with Vreede’s ode. To please his congregation he also published a volume of sermons, but his more timid parishioners were unable to rejoice long. Their pastor soon wrote a forceful sermon, A Delineation of the Conduct of Israel and Rehoboam “as a mirror for the Prince and the Nation.”
And Jereboam and all the congregation of Israel came, and spoke unto Rehoboam, saying: Thy father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee…. And the king answered the people roughly, and forsook the old men’s counsel that they gave him; and spoke to them after the counsel of the young men, saying, My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions…. Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem. So Israel rebelled against the house of David….
The fiery sermon, a threat to the stadholder and the House of Orange, soon became famous. Van der Kemp was requested to deliver it three times, and it was twice published.
The 109th Psalm, invoking God’s wrath upon the enemy who “persecuted the poor and needy” was used as a favorite hymn. Samuel’s account of the ills that befell Israel under evil kings furnished texts for sermons delivered with great ardor.13 Van der Kemp criticized not only the prince, but demanded right action from all in authority. He held up revolutionary America as a beacon for the Netherlands. On February 27, 1782, shortly after his acquittal, he delivered an oration in which he declared his hope.
In America the sun has risen brightly, a promise to us if we will it. America alone can make our commerce and shipping revive. America alone can make our factories blossom again and restore Leyden to its former luster. America can lift us up, if we dare look up. It is a land of justice, we are a land of sin. America can teach us to reverse the degeneration of the national character, check the corruption of morals, stop bribery, smother the beginnings of tyranny, and dying freedom restore to health. America has been ordained to heal the wounds of the Netherlands people, if we will follow her footsteps, if we will rise up and build anew.14
The Leyden congregation had an agitator for a minister, but they respected his ideals and his sincerity. They did not reject him.