Groningen seminar

Early (Dutch) liberalism, transformations of republicanism in a constitutional context
Thursday, November 24, 2016

‘From the beginning, nineteenth-century European liberalism was defined by its contradictions. There were contradictions within liberal attitudes to the past, among liberal ideas about present-day tactics, and even in liberal projects for the future. This is why it has been so hard to define liberalism’, Alan S. Kahan, Liberalism in nineteenth-century Europe (2003). Likewise, Dutch groupings that can claim the designation liberal in the first half of the nineteenth century show many varieties and contradictions. This seminar aims to achieve further interpretation of Dutch liberalism by trying to define whether this early liberalism shows typically Dutch characteristics and insofar it fits into more general European patterns.

'Indigenous' liberalism

Traditionally, the rising of Dutch liberalism was depicted as resulting from the actions of the doctrinaire liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, who was primarily inspired by German and French examples. Niek van Sas, who investigated that around 1830 the so-called financial opposition was already criticizing the autocratic reign of King William I, corrected this view. In this representation of continuities in Dutch political attitudes, Thorbecke emerged as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’, who soon dominated more ‘native’ Dutch liberal tendencies as a result of his accomplishments. In his PhD-thesis, Jeroen van Zanten has made clear that as early as in the 1820s, a large ‘native’ variety of politicization and progressive development of liberal ideas was taking shape. [Schielijk, Winzucht, Zwaarhoofd en Bedaard. Politieke discussie en oppositievorming 1813-1840 (2004)].

European Liberal varieties

By disposing of the image of a more ideological, late nineteenth-century liberalism serving as a model, more space is created for liberal variations, even including individuals and groupings that were generally considered conservative. For example, in his study of political moderation, Aurelian Craiutu has shown that in the French context the so-called Monarchiens formulated a preference for countervailing powers that could guarantee the freedom of citizens. In the Dutch context, this is more or less similar to the way in which Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp incorporated classes and the urban elites in the constitution in an attempt to reconcile the monarchical central state with republican liberties. Boundaries between so-called aristocratic liberalism and conservatism are hard to draw. [Kahan, Aristocratic liberalism (1992); Craiutu, Moderation in French political thought (2012); De Dijn, French political thought (2008)].

A Dutch Sonderweg?

The question is to what extent early Dutch liberalism differs from tendencies in the neighboring countries. In many ways, the unitary state as led by King Willem of Orange after 1815, was a continuation of the unitary state of the Batavian-French period. But how did traditional oligarchic elites adapt their positions, how did they translate their traditional Republican preferences (with its emphasis on civil liberty and self-government) into the new context?

What strikes as remarkable in early nineteenth-century Dutch political discourse is, for example, the absence of references to the French Revolution and the Batavian-French period. In recent years, the picture of the first Dutch constitution of 1798 has been severely adjusted. New studies have found that there was indeed a true Dutch Batavian movement. From around 1800, however, the Batavian episode was referred to as ‘French’ in a predominantly negative sense - regarded as a 'French' derailment caused by the ‘un-Dutch’ despotism of the revolutionary vanguard. Opposed to the ‘French’ influence, some sort of national political attitude developed with a focus on Dutch liberties and a preference for self-government. Here old republican notions can be recognized. Wyger Velema has highlighted the continuity of republicanism, not only in the patriot movement, but also in the Batavian period. Did these tendencies continue after 1813? The unitary state was indeed confirmed in 1813, many civil servants of the Batavian-French periode stayed in office [Matthijs Lok, Windvanen : Napoleontische bestuurders in de Nederlandse en Franse restauratie (1813-1820) Amsterdam 2009], but in Dutch liberal thinking relatively little attention was paid to the phenomenon of the state. Did contemporaries actually acknowledge a Dutch road to political modernity that fell back on Republican values?

It was not until the 1840s that Dutch liberalism gained its strength as a serious political (opposition) movement by proposing full ministerial responsibility and direct parliamentary elections. It is noticeable that Thorbecke and Dirk Donker Curtius, the leaders of this movement, hardly took any ideas from Dutch liberal thinking that had been manifested in the Restauration period. It is therefore hardly surprising that no political cooperation with more traditional liberals was established in or after 1848. Thorbecke's more systematic doctrinal (German / French) liberalism was often marked as un-Dutch, Donker Curtius’s ideas as radical / French. In the late nineteenth century, prominent liberals increasingly sought alliance with Anglo-Saxon liberalism. Still, a strong undercurrent continuity of pragmatic, hardly ideologically motivated forms of liberalism remained, identifying itself with ‘the Dutch tradition of freedom'- at a comfortable distance from the state. Even now, this influence is recognizable in the contemporary liberal party VVD.

The Dutch case

This seminar will examine various forms and manifestations of early Dutch liberalism - to compensate the virtual absence of the Dutch case in the international literature on this subject. Speakers will try to specify whether or to what extent Dutch liberal tendencies are in line with or are comparable to the development of political liberalism in other European post-revolutionary constitutional states.


  • 10.30 Ontvangst (thee, koffie)
  • 11.00 Opening dagvoorzitter Prof. dr. Dirk Jan Wolffram
  • 11.15 – 11.45 Dr. Annelien de Dijn: Freedom, Democracy and Liberalism in the Early Nineteenth Century: A Historical Analysis
  • 11.45 – 12.15 Dr. Mathijs Lok: Authoritarian liberalism during the Dutch Restoration
  • 12.30 – 13.30 Lunch (op eigen kosten)
  • 13.30 – 14.00 Dr. Jeroen van Zanten: Donker Curtius - pragmatic and activist liberalism as a crowbar in the years 1830-1850.
  • 14.00 – 14.30 Dr. Jan Drentje: Thorbecke’s doctrinair reform as a medicine against oligarchic Dutch liberalism
  • 14.30 – 15.00 Prof. Dr. Niek van Sas: J.M. de Kempenaer. An almost forgotten early liberal.
  • 15.00 – 15.30 Thee
  • 15.30 – 16.30 Afsluitende Kossmannlezing door Prof. dr. Aurelian Craiutu: Liberalism and the struggle for political moderation in post-revolutionary Europe
  • 16.30 Discussie en borrel

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