THE revolution in the English colonies in America had broadened into an international war. France allied herself with the revolutionists in 1778 and Spain followed in 1779. France’s entry into the war affected the Netherlands because of French influence on the anti-English party, the Patriots. In spite of British interference, Dutch trade with the colonies continued to flourish, mostly through the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies. Hoping to stop this trade and the growing friendliness between the nations, Great Britain declared war on the Netherlands in December, 1780.

Amsterdam had led the way in the expansion of the lucrative trade with America, going so far as to make a secret treaty with the United States in 1778. Cordial feelings toward America prevailed in this city led by the Regents (the commercial nobility), who were in loose alliance with the Patriots. When Great Britain declared war, the stadholder and the Orange Party accused the commercial group of stirring up an unnecessary war with the “friendly” British.

Two famous pamphlets, published in 1781, solidified the political division. R. M. van Goens wrote A Political Remonstrance Against the True System of Amsterdam in which he exposed the “evil” acts of the commercial interests since 1581, particularly Amsterdam’s secret agreement with the American colonies.1 Van der Kemp was visiting his friend Van der Capellen at Appeltern when the latter wrote a powerful counter to Van Goens, with Van der Kemp’s hearty approval, entitled An Address to the Netherlands People. Van der Kemp said, “Seldom had use been made of bolder language; the alleged facts were stubborn, and truth appeared in all its awful solemnity.” The pamphlet pointed out schemes of the Orange followers over the past two hundred years designed to put a hereditary yoke on the Dutch. The princes of the House of Orange were described as tyrants, with the present William pictured as courting and conspiring with England against Amsterdam, building up the army and neglecting the navy, and seeking trouble with France. The Duke of Brunswick, in charge of military affairs, was absolved of guilt. The pamphlet called for change, charging that encroachments had been made on the rights of the people by the princes and their followers for two centuries. Van der Capellen proclaimed that the Dutch people owned the Netherlands in the same way that shareholders own a commercial enterprise. He claimed the officials were only employees and should be controlled through elections, as in America. The prince was denounced for filling the town councils, the provincial legislatures and the Estates General with sycophants.2 The essay exhorted the Dutch to action:

Assemble in your towns and villages. Meet peaceably, and elect from among yourselves a moderate number of courageous, virtuous and pious men; choose good Patriots that you can trust. Send these as your deputies to the places of assembly of your several provincial estates, and order them in the name and by the authority of this nation, to make an inquiry, by and with the estates of the other provinces, into the reasons for the extraordinary inertia with which the arming of the country against a formidable and active enemy is being handled. Order them also … to choose a council for His Highness …

Provide for the freedom of the press, the one support of your national liberty….

Arm yourselves, elect those who must command you … and in all things proceed like the people of America, with modesty and composure.3

This revolutionary writing advocated force only if necessary, following the typical Dutch philosophy of seeking freedom by lawful means, with no desire for the violence soon to come in the French Revolution. Nevertheless, it clearly called for open defiance. Van der Kemp had been considered a dangerous foe to the established government for merely publishing an ode of criticism, so both he and Van der Capellen were fully aware that the author of this rebellious pamphlet would be even more severely prosecuted.

Van der Kemp arranged for the booklet’s secret printing, then its secret distribution in both cities and countryside on the night of September 25–26, 1781. He chose his conspirators well, as neither author nor distributors became known. Several provinces offered rewards for information leading to the author or printer. Banishment and heavy fines were threatened if anyone should print, publish or distribute the pamphlet in the future.4 But suppression of the work was impossible. It was widely read in the Netherlands, soon appeared beyond its borders, and within a month was translated into English.

After the English declared war against the Dutch, the Patriots’ sympathy for the American revolutionists increased. However, documents and articles about American ideals and principles seldom appealed to members of the mercantile aristocracy, even if they were opposed to the stadholder. In his correspondence with Van der Kemp, John Adams asked in June of 1781 “What say the People of the Country? It is among the Yeomenry of every country that we are to expect to find the Supporters of Liberty.”5 In another letter of November, Adams further advised his friend, the Dutch preacher-agitator:

[I]t is necessary for Some Individuals in critical Seasons to run great Risques Submit to great Sacrifice and endure severe Sufferings. National Characters are not formed nor great publick Blessings, especially that greatest of all Liberty but by the Patience and Steadiness of Individuals. A Man must be possessed of Benevolence to his fellow Men, stronger than any of his Passions, stronger than death, before he is qualified to Stem the Torrent of Venality, and Servility, which opposes the Introduction of Liberty in some Countries and which tends to expell it from others.

Adams indicated a desire to see Van der Kemp at Amsterdam where he could express in person his respect for “so able and intrepid an Advocate for Liberty.”6

From time to time Van der Kemp worked on his Magazine of Authentic Documents on the Military Jurisdiction and by the end of 1781 four volumes were finished. The editor’s contention, and that of his friends, was that military men should be tried in regular courts for both military and civil actions except where the Estates General called for a military trial.7 The subject had been taken up by various provincial legislatures, the Orangists not opposing. Van der Kemp made his volumes available to all these bodies. They were appreciatively received by most, rejected by some.8 The popularity of the cause grew until all provinces annulled the jurisdiction of the High Military Court. Soon thereafter the national legislature and the stadholder gave their approval. Four more volumes were published in the course of the arguments and a final three after the decision as “warnings to posterity, how usurpation, slowly creeping forward, at length takes hold with a thousand roots, not to be eradicated without a great struggle.”

How Van der Kemp found time to do other things is difficult to understand. In the summer of 1781 he attempted to arrange passage as chaplain on Commodore Alexander Gillon’s American ship for a clergyman friend.9 Some time later Commodore Gillon invited Van der Kemp to dine on board his ship, the South Carolina.10

On May 20, 1782, Van der Kemp married Reinira Engelbartha Johanna Vos, a descendant of the Beekman family, some of whom had emigrated to America and become prominent on the lower Hudson. Van der Kemp probably met her through John Luzac, a close friend of the Vos family for many years. However, the family was not of the Patriot persuasion. Engelbartha’s father had been a burgomaster of Nymegen and her brother was a partisan for the stadholder. Her mother reluctantly consented to the marriage but in time developed a great affection for her son-in-law.

If one judged by a letter Van der Kemp wrote in April, one might humorously think he was contracting marriage in the way he might contract a small business matter. In one sentence he offered his services to Adams to influence the Regents of Leyden for a treaty of commerce. In the next he said he was going to Nymegen on Monday to complete arrangements for his marriage and expected to be in Friesland in June—these details so that Adams would know where to reach him.11 The fact of the matter seems to be that he separated his private life and his public life. At this time he was not a close enough friend to Adams to discuss his private life. Such closeness developed slowly.

They were married when Engelbartha was thirty-six and Francis was thirty. Each had waited long enough for a good match and this was it. Their first son, John Jacob, was born on April 22, 1783, their daughter, Cuneira Engelbartha, on February 17, 1785. The third and last child, Peter Anthony, was born in America in 1789.12

With a wife and family to share his life, Van der Kemp’s personal fortune was much to his liking. But the prospects for the future of his country were far less promising, and he continued his political activity. The Patriots, meeting first in secret, came together openly in Amsterdam beginning in April, 1783. Other meetings followed in August and October and came to be looked upon as the “party assemblies of the democrats over the whole republic.” Van der Kemp and Peter Vreede were among the most outspoken and demonstrative Patriots at the assemblies.

The Patriot cause of reform in government, including the curtailment of the stadholder’s power, was not as strong as the Patriots desired. France apparently expected the Patriots to succeed with little assistance, while England was beginning to support and urge action of the House of Orange against them. Prussia also indicated strong support of the stadholder and his Prussian wife. The Regents were having doubts about their tentative collaboration with the Patriots because they merely wanted to curb the stadholder, not raise up democracy.

Through all the maneuverings, one province could hardly depend on another, and the rural people throughout the Netherlands stood firm for their Prince. Every action seemed a crisis.

A central office was set up at the Hague to preserve unity. The national militia, almost entirely under the control of the Orangists, did not always respect the rights of the common man. Therefore, the organization of new military companies was urged. This Free Corps proposed to share the duties of preventing violence, external or internal, a function long thought of as belonging only to the established government.13 The Patriots felt that through the Free Corps they could participate more fully in government, bear a greater responsibility, and help to promote the cause of liberty. In Leyden the corps to which Van der Kemp belonged was called the Society of Manual Exercise for Freedom and Fatherland.14 The new militia was open to all, regardless of religion, and Van der Kemp with his cadet training was a valuable corpsman. The companies multiplied with rapidity and by the end of 1783 had secured provincial unity, in another year national unity. At Utrecht the Free Corps, led by Philip Jurian Ondaatje, a university student, proposed that the stadholder’s power to name members of the provincial legislature be abolished. Another proposal called for the election of representatives to sit with the Utrecht Provincial Council to discuss taxation and appointments. The first proposal failed to win approval, but the second met with success. Twelve companies in the city chose two representatives each. The council accepted these consultants but hesitated when a further request was made for popular election of burgomasters.15 With its effective leadership, Utrecht became the center for national Free Corps activity, with its successes and failures of great interest to Dutch citizens. With the shaky alliance between Regents and Democrats about to break up, and the House of Orange ever more determined not to give up any of its powers, internal trouble was inevitable.

In Leyden the Free Corps under the leadership of Van der Kemp asked for consideration and a redress of grievances. The requests were refused and Van der Kemp resigned as being of no further value. Shortly he left Leyden to go to Wyk where he gave all his energies to writing and to political and military organization.

During this time, Van der Kemp produced unsigned articles for the Amsterdam Political Courier, the principal organ of the rebels, edited by Jan Christiann Hespe. Van der Kemp also wrote for the Post of the Lower Rhine and The French Observer. In 1785 editor Hespe was prosecuted and imprisoned for his printing. Van der Kemp wrote an article in his behalf. A prominent citizen answered and a series of arguments and rebuttals followed. The trial became another national issue, with public opinion favoring the oppressed editor. Hespe’s acquittal was a significant victory for freedom of the press. Hespe and Van der Kemp, perhaps others, “wrote then with greater ease and more liberty than ever before.” Further writings included sequels to his Van der Capellen defense, History of the Admission of Johan Derk, Baron van der Capellen of Pol, into the Equestrian Order of Overyssel; and Defence of Colonel Alexander Baron van der Capellen (formerly chamberlain to the stadholder). In collaboration with Peter Vreede, “the friend of my bosom,” and P. van Schelle, he produced biting and witty sketches of prominent Orange partisans, Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, in answer to unfriendly sketches of Patriot leaders. He “was day by day deeper entangled in the political labyrinth, till at length it became utterly impossible to extricate” himself. Once he tried in earnest to withdraw but could not.

The French and British governments were supporting the two parties with funds by 1785. Van der Kemp “hated the British influence then so predominant at the Court, but could not bear that of France.” He warned his Patriot friends against the soft pledges of France and predicted a betrayal. They did not listen. He and Luzac were too well acquainted with the history of the French Court and nation to be duped and betrayed by French promises. The two Patriots admired, yet hated the British for their domineering spirit and their support of the stadholder. With a British alliance the Dutch had been subject to the tyranny of the House of Orange. Without the alliance France was needed.16 Van der Kemp joined openly the Democratic party of Utrecht but hoped somehow “to save the whole by a timely reconciliation of all the dissenting parts.” He wanted good government with real liberty. In 1814 he wrote:

You know that under the ancient form of Republican government—I speak of the times before 1787—it was only a shadow of Liberty which was enjoyed by the mass of the Nation. The Magistracy of the voting cities might be called free, but besides these few distinguished families, besides the safety of property and persons, all the remaining parts had no more share in their government as an American or Asiatic could have claimed in it. Also the ancient forms, marks, &c were abolished. … I was not afraid of a constitutional king but would not bear the countroul of an unlimited arbitrary master.17

On another occasion he had written that the Dutch

had contented themselves with a shadow—the name of Liberty—while they had it in their power to consolidate all the blessings to their posterity, had they dared to make a sacrifice of their prejudices, limited the executive powers [but] with increased splendour in the House of Orange, and allowed the people at large an equal representation. This with an armed well-disciplined militia and a sufficient navy might have construed their Republick till this day….18

He zealously attempted to organize this needed “armed well disciplined militia” even though he suspected it was too late. He had misgivings about the possibilities of establishing a democratic form of government in the Netherlands at this time. In a letter to Adams on December 11, 1785, he asked for letters of recommendation to America, saying he would leave as soon as he could persuade his wife. He would not, he could not with safety, linger beyond the time when all hope of re-establishing liberty was gone.19

In the meantime, Van der Kemp joined Philip Jurian Ondaatje and Peter Vreede in attempts to unify the Free Corps. Otto Derck Gordon and Adam G. Mappa soon joined the effort, the latter with his great military knowledge and skill taking charge of a small Patriot army. Van der Kemp himself was unanimously elected captain of the Wyk Corps, Pro Pace et Bello, on August 1, 1785.20 His critic, Nicolas Calkoen, said that in Wyk “Nothing was done, or all was done, Van der Kemp unico consule.”

In 1786 the Free Corps gained control of the provinces of Holland, Groningen and Overyssel. Holland Province deprived William V of his offices of Stadholder and Captain General. In a meeting at Leyden the Corps resolved, “Freedom is an inalienable right belonging to all citizens of the Netherlands confederation.” They further declared, “This liberty would be a deceptive shadow if representatives were to be independent of those whom they represent; and their appointment by the people, by a firmly settled plan, is the most appropriate way to prevent this independence.” In 1786 Utrecht abolished the old council and got a new one by election.21 Van der Kemp described this series of events as “a revolution constitutionally begun and finished without a shadow of disorder, without injuring any individual’s property, without spilling one single drop of blood.”

The National Assembly of the Free Corps at Utrecht sent Van der Kemp to the meeting of Patriot Regents at Amsterdam. A joint declaration was agreed upon and published calling for a true republican form of government with a subordinate stadholder and opposing any government by one man or by one family.22

In October and again in December of 1786 Van der Kemp wrote to Adams for letters of recommendation and for advice regarding settlement in America. He asked for some detailed information about living in the new country, particularly New York and New Hampshire. For four years he had wanted to come to America. Now he hoped to embark in May or June of 1787. He wrote that public affairs had taken a bad turn. The aristocracy and their blind followers were rejoicing. A number of people of eminence and promise, convinced that the stadholder’s powers were weakened, now connived to further their own causes. The Regents party of the province of Holland were appeasing the stadholder in other provinces while trying to maintain the independence of their own province. Utrecht and Wyk were uncertain, grievances were unredressed, and potential enemies were all around. Van der Kemp feared that secret compacts were being made, one perhaps by Amsterdam, whereby William V would regain his power over his “slave.”23

The prophet of doom was neither heeded nor honored. Unable to convince his friends of the inevitable dissolution of the Patriot party, Van der Kemp nevertheless chose to work with them to the last. He expressed in letters to Adams his hopelessness for the Patriot cause in 1785 and 1786. Success of the French diplomat La Vauguyon in securing guns and money for the Patriots was more than offset by English support of the Orange aristocracy. The French were not ready to threaten England with force. The Austrians had been discouraged from warring against the Dutch but Prussia was a danger to the Dutch rebels because the wife of William V was the daughter of the Prussian king. And formidable support for the stadholder remained among the Regents and was increasing among the peasantry and aristocracy.

In September of 1786 in Gelderland a force sent by the stadholder overawed a force of the Free Corps. Lack of leadership resulted in confusion, then panic and flight in spite of the Free Corps’ watchwords, “Dead or free.” The historian Blok gave the cynical summary, “Thousands of tears were shed, not a drop of blood.”24 In the province of Holland the Patriots took vigorous action but had little reliable force in their Free Corps. The Patriot Regents met in Utrecht in October and the assembly of the Free Corps met there in November. They anticipated civil war. Utrecht Province vainly expected aid from its neighbor Holland where a number of regular army units were operating under Patriot orders, and the actions of the stadholder’s forces became stronger in 1787. On May 26 the Prince issued a declaration forbidding compromise. In early June the British minister to the Netherlands, Sir James Harris, demanded more energetic action against Utrecht. Some of the army regiments under the control of Patriots in Holland Province went over to the Orange and had to be replaced by inadequate Free Corps. The wife of the stadholder, Princess Wilhelmina, now endeavored to go from their seat at Nymwegen to the Hague to arouse the Estates General for the princes.25 She was stopped and forced to turn back by provincial troops, but aroused public sympathy because of the troops’ high-handed methods. Furthermore, the ire of the king of Prussia was roused at this insult to his daughter. With these discouraging episodes, it was little wonder that Van der Kemp prophesied doom for the Patriot cause.

However, the Free Corps captain did his best at Wyk. When military action threatened in the Province of Utrecht Van der Kemp was sent as a delegate to a compromise conference. A truce was agreed upon. The Patriots promised not to break the dikes in exchange for an assurance that the stadholder’s troops would not “commit any hostilities” for the duration of the truce. The truce was dishonorably broken three days after the conference when Van der Kemp’s forces were surrounded at Wyk by an aristocratic segment of the provincial militia numbering some 1500 men, with six pieces of artillery and two mortars. Van der Kemp commanded less than a hundred men in his Free Corps, with Adrian de Nys as commander of the village. The officer of the opposing force declared formally that he came by order of the prince to garrison the city and nothing more. He promised solemnly neither persons nor property would be molested if there was no resistance. The magistrates of Wyk repeatedly asked that the force be admitted to avoid sacrifice of women and children. But this military action was a betrayal of the recent conference truce agreement. Van der Kemp wrote:

I tried in vain to raise their spirits; in vain I called duty and honour to my aid; they vociferated louder and more and more; the confusion increased; nothing was heard but “Open the gates”; so that even my friend de Nys, the first in command, would have given way. I then took boldly the lead, and told the Magistrates that they were in office and should be obeyed, but only on written orders duly signed by their Secretary; and that if they hesitated one moment longer to give my friend that pledge that they commanded the surrender, I should without any further delay, command to fire…. My friend received their orders and while he made the preparations to open the gates, I led the whole of our armed force, in number about ninety men, through the gate which was not occupied; …

Thus on the fourth of July the surrender was agreed upon and was carried out on the fifth. Van der Kemp and De Nys changed to civilian clothing and awaited to see if there would be further action by the force which had promised they would suffer no reprisals following their unresisting surrender. They were arrested the next day.

They were first held in informal custody, but two days later were taken to Amersfoort, stronghold of the prince. Here Van der Kemp was kept under close guard in a public building, though not behind bars. His mail was examined and he was not permitted to see members of his family. The people of the vicinity of Amersfoort saw him as a spectacle either when he was allowed to exercise or by entering the building where he was confined. The old partisans of the stadholder treated him “with great courtesy, the mob with insolence, and they who had become renegades of the Patriot party with a rancorous malice.”

After the province of Utrecht was taken over by the Prussians for the stadholder, Van der Kemp and De Nys were moved to a building in the city of Utrecht, and again were put under heavy guard. However, various officials had conferences with them and, when the Patriot cause was no more, other Patriots visited Van der Kemp. At this time, they arranged for the painting of his portrait, the one good picture which remains. Van der Kemp was free enough to have books in prison and he probably played chess or whist.

Van der Kemp was held prisoner until December, under no clear accusation. However, the confinement was obviously because of his writings, his preaching, and his organization work among the Patriots and in the Free Corps. His country had fallen “in the flames” and the “most honest people had been the victims.” When the Prussian army came, the Free Corps everywhere disbanded and tens of thousands of Patriots fled, with the majority seeking refuge in Belgium.

From Amsterdam in 1788 John Adams summarized the situation for Abigail:

The rich complain, at present in Holland that the poor are set over them in the Regencies and the Old Families that they are set aside by new ones. Discontent rankles deep in some places, and among some sorts of men: but the Common People appear to be much pleased.

The Patriots in this country were little read in History less in Government: knew little of the human heart and still less of the World. They have therefore been the Dupes of Foreign Politicks, and their own undigested systems.

Changes may happen and disorders may break out, tho at present there is no apparent Probability of either.26

Van der Kemp had fallen an early victim to counter-revolution and the aristocracy steadily became stronger and his imprisonment continued.

Recognizing Van der Kemp’s considerable influence on his countrymen, a faction of the stadholder’s supporters endeavored to win him over to their cause. In the Netherlands there had long been a middle group critical of and often antagonistic to the House of Orange—“A sort of Whiggery in which the people had no concern.”27 In times past this group was the only opposition but now found themselves between democracy and aristocracy. The Dutch called this loyal opposition group Loevestein. When Van der Kemp was released it was rumored that he intended to support the Loevestein group. During his imprisonment pressure had been applied to his wife to persuade Van der Kemp to accept a respectable compromise position. In addition, Van Loon, a prominent civilian Orangist, had visited the prisoner and promised to make arrangements for Van der Kemp’s further service to his country in an honorable capacity with those who had been his opponents. Van der Kemp could not compromise his strong stand against a tyranny which usurped the liberty of his people. He resolved to go to a new land. The treachery of those in power and the desertion of those to whom he looked for support had made the cause of freedom hopeless. The bitterness of being unable to serve and help save the cause of freedom in his native land was revealed when he said some fifteen years later, “I swore when I was sacrificed in Holland that I never if my life was preserved again would step forward [for a hopeless cause] never without any exception …”28 He had been sacrificed to “the shadow of Liberty” and he never forgot. Throughout his life he continued to warn the people how easily their liberties could be lost and how hard they were to regain.

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