The Assassination Of The Brothers John And Cornelius De Witt (1672)

Never, perhaps, was the old saying, “Republics are ungrateful,” more strikingly verified than in the case of the two brothers De Witt, who, after having rendered many great services to the Dutch Republic, were foully murdered by an infuriated mob in the streets of the Hague, August 20, 1672.

John and Cornelius de Witt were the sons of a distinguished citizen of the city of Dordrecht, who had represented that city in the general assemblies of Holland and Friesland and was known as an eloquent and incorruptible defender of popular rights. He had placed himself at the head of the anti-Orange party because he considered the ambition and power of the princes of Orange a standing danger to the Republic. Grown up under the direction of such a father, the two sons had naturally imbibed his strong democratic principles, and their undoubted patriotism was strongly tinged with hostility to the house of Orange. The two De Witts have often been compared to the Gracchi, and, like those illustrious Romans, they worked and died for their democratic principles. Both were highly talented and, while quite young, rose to the highest honors and dignities among their countrymen,—Cornelius, the elder of the two, by his eminent legal ability and his skill as a military and naval director and commissary, and John, by his eminence as an administrator and statesman. It is difficult to decide which of the two was intellectually the superior. A medal struck in their honor bore the inscription, “Hic armis maximus, ille toga.” It should not be inferred, however, from this inscription, that Cornelius, to whom the word “armis” applied, was at any time commander-in-chief of the Dutch army and navy, since he held only the office of government inspector of the navy, in which capacity he greatly distinguished himself.

John was, at the age of twenty-five, elected pensionary of the city of Dordrecht, and two years later, in 1652, Grand Pensionary of Holland, one of the highest offices in the United Provinces. His political influence was very great, and he used it to the best of his ability against the house of Orange. William the Second, Prince of Orange, had died on the second of October, 1650, leaving only a widow and a posthumous son as his heirs. On these circumstances, so unfavorable to the illustrious house which had played for so many years a conspicuous part in the history of the Netherlands, John de Witt built his hopes of dealing a deathblow to its political pretensions and of abolishing forever the office of stadtholder. It was, however, no easy task to accomplish this object. The province of Zealand was full of friends and partisans of the late stadtholder, who vigorously opposed any attempt in the direction contemplated by De Witt; and the other provinces, either from loyalty to the house of Orange, or from a secret jealousy of the supremacy of the states of Holland, which always wanted to control the policy of the Republic, either openly rejected the plans of De Witt or modified and attenuated them as exaggerated.

At the moment when John de Witt took the reins of government, the states were at war with England, and the war had taken a very unfavorable turn for them. The Dutch admirals had suffered several terrible defeats. Tromp, one of their most celebrated naval heroes, had been killed in battle, and an English fleet was cruising along the coast of Holland, blockading its ports, and paralyzing its commerce. But De Witt repaired these disasters with such rapidity, and restored to the Dutch navy such a formidable strength by his administrative genius, that Cromwell was willing to enter into negotiations for peace, which he had haughtily rejected before. A treaty of peace, submitted by the Grand Pensionary of Holland and signed at Westminster on the fifteenth of April, 1654, reëstablished virtually the conditions which had existed between the two nations before the war. However, the Dutch Republic was compelled to recognize the superiority of the English flag in the channel, and bound itself to give the Stuart dynasty no support, and that no Prince of Orange should be elected again either Stadtholder or Captain-General. This last section of the treaty was signed, at first by the province of Holland only, and was kept secret for a long time. In getting this provision of exclusion of the house of Orange passed (which, by the way, was as welcome to De Witt as to Cromwell) by the other provinces also, the Grand Pensionary practised a good deal of duplicity, and laid himself open to serious charges of official deception which later on contributed to his downfall.

In the meantime another complication had arisen and taxed the statesmanship of the Dutch government and the patriotism of the Netherlanders to the utmost. In France Louis the Fourteenth had taken the reins of government into his own hands, and manifested an ambition for conquest which endangered the security of all his neighbors. Although the wife of Louis, at the time of her marriage, had solemnly renounced all her rights of succession to the Spanish throne and any Spanish provinces, the King nevertheless after the death of his wife’s father, Philip the Fourth, claimed the Spanish Netherlands as justly belonging to his wife, and defended this claim not so much by argument as by an invasion and armed occupation of the disputed territory. No state was more deeply interested in the outcome of this dispute than the Netherlands. With growing fear they beheld the rapid progress which the armies of the French King under the command of great generals were making, and they thought that their own independence might suffer from the immediate neighborhood of so powerful and aggressive a monarch. With great skill the Dutch government secretly formed an alliance with Sweden and England by which these three powers agreed that the Spanish Netherlands should remain under Spanish dominion and that Louis the Fourteenth should be prevented from annexing them to the French monarchy. This Triple Alliance was too powerful to be defied by the French King, and he made peace with Spain, evacuating Franche-Comté, which he had already conquered, but retaining possession of a number of important cities in the Netherlands,—such as Charleroi, Douai, Lille, Tournay and Oudenarde, which by the genius of Vauban were converted into almost impregnable fortresses. Dutch statesmanship was the obstacle which had placed itself in the King’s way and frustrated his ambitious designs. Personal irritation and offended vanity were added to his chagrin at the failure of his plans.

A boastful medal was struck in the Netherlands commemorating the diplomatic victory which their government had achieved over the power of France. On this medal a Dutch statesman was represented as Joshua bidding the sun (the symbol of Louis the Fourteenth) to stand still. For this arrogance the Republic was to be punished, and with matchless skill and cunning the French government went to work to prepare for its overthrow. The general political situation of Europe was highly favorable to the consummation of the French designs. The Emperor of Germany, a weak and pusillanimous sovereign, had his hands full in the eastern provinces of the Empire, in which the Turks had advanced victorious up to the very gates of Vienna; he was therefore powerless to oppose French aggression in the Netherlands. Moreover special negotiations had been opened with some of the sovereign princes of northern Germany by which the French monarch secured the right to march his armies through their territory on their way to the United Netherlands without touching Spanish territory. With equal success the French diplomats dissolved the Triple Alliance, and made both Sweden and England, former allies of the Dutch Republic, subservient to the French monarch. Sweden received an annual subsidy of 600,000 dollars from the French treasury, and England a subsidy of 350,000 pounds sterling and also the promise of the province of Zealand as its share of the dismemberment of the United Netherlands. Princess Henrietta of France, wife of the Duke of Orleans and sister of Charles the Second of England, was sent by the wily French King to England to negotiate this infamous treaty. She succeeded in accomplishing her object mainly through the influence which one of the ladies of her suite, Mademoiselle de Querouet, gained over the mind of the English King, who made her his mistress and bestowed on her the title of Duchess of Portsmouth.

Having thus fortified himself on all sides and deprived the United Netherlands of the possibility of taking the field against him with any chance of success, Louis declared war upon them. The result could not be doubtful. Moreover the domestic discord and the active struggle between the political factions added much to the gravity of the situation, and partly paralyzed the efforts of the government to arouse the provinces to a full comprehension of the danger. John de Witt was the chief executive of the government, and upon him rested largely the responsibility of the situation. The Orangist party turned its main attacks against him, and spared neither criticism nor calumny to undermine his standing and authority. It charged him directly with having, either through incompetency or something worse, neglected to place the country in a suitable state of defence, and then having provoked a war with a powerful enemy. These charges against De Witt were largely unjust, and were preferred only to punish him for his opposition to reinstating the house of Orange in the stadtholdership and in the chief command of all the military forces of the Republic.

John de Witt had made two radical errors in his estimate of the political situation. He knew that Louis the Fourteenth felt irritated at the Dutch Republic’s action in preventing his acquisition of the Spanish Netherlands; but he did not know that the French King would resent that action, and make gigantic preparations for crushing the Dutch Republic. Never before had such tremendous efforts been made by a great nation to destroy a weak neighbor. The war was to be short and decisive, and the insolent “traders”—that was the name the haughty French King gave to the citizens of the Netherlands—were to be punished radically. The second error which De Witt committed was his underestimation of the venality and corruption existing in the government circles of his former allies, England and Sweden. He learned at an early day that French diplomacy had induced them to recede from the Triple Alliance; but he did not realize at the time that French gold and French promises had persuaded these two powers to make common cause with him for the dismemberment of the Republic, and to furnish troops for that purpose. When finally the full reality of the King’s revengeful plan was revealed to him, he not only aroused the people of the Netherlands to a realization of the terrible danger which threatened them, but he also, with his usual energy, went to work to find assistance against the overwhelming odds among the other European powers, and his experienced statesmanship served him well in bringing into play all the different motives, both personal and political, by which he could hope to influence their decisions.

Unfortunately the allies he could enlist in his cause were too weak to constitute an adequate counterpoise to the enormous power of his opponent. In stating the general political situation of Europe preceding the attack of Louis the Fourteenth on the Dutch Republic, we have already mentioned the causes which prevented the other powers from active interference in behalf of the Netherlands. The aggressive Turk, also influenced by French money, kept the Emperor of Germany busy in his eastern provinces, and left him little time to care for other things than his own protection. Moreover Louis the Fourteenth had, by munificent presents and liberal payments, won the secret support of the Emperor’s prime minister, Lobkowitz, who did all in his power to overcome his master’s fears concerning the intentions of the French King, and frustrated the efforts of the King’s enemies to draw him over to their side. De Witt had to contend with these difficulties in securing little more than the moral support of the Emperor; but when the rapid progress of the French arms had revealed to him the danger which threatened the Empire, he consented reluctantly and hesitatingly to a sort of active intervention for the protection of the German territory.

One ally of the Dutch Republic should not be forgotten here—Frederick William, the great Elector of Brandenburg, whose political genius enabled him to see the disastrous consequences which the growing power of the King of France would have not only for the German Empire, but also for his own possessions on the Rhine. He, therefore, concluded an alliance with the Dutch Republic, promising an army of twenty thousand men in defence of German soil against the aggression of the French King, and used besides his influence over the German Emperor in persuading him to join the alliance. The Elector of Brandenburg was for one reason a particularly valuable ally, because his army was needed to keep in check the Swedes, who were to take the field in northern Germany as soon as the German Emperor would show a disposition to coöperate with the Dutch Republic. The decisive victory of Fehrbellin, in which the great Elector routed a Swedish army much superior in numbers to his own, showed how gloriously he performed his part of the programme.

It was at this time that the Prince of Orange, although only twenty years old, appeared to the Dutch people as a savior from these threatened calamities. The young Prince, after the death of his mother, in 1661, passed under the guardianship of John de Witt, who had him instructed in political science and in the study of modern languages. It would seem that, with the foresight of genius, he foresaw the prominent part which Prince William would sooner or later play in the history of the Republic, and that, in spite of his personal antipathy to the house of Orange, he was patriotic enough to educate him well for his coming career. The precarious condition of his health, which seemed to disqualify the Prince for the hardships and exposures of military life, had no influence whatever on his ambition to equal the great achievements of his ancestors. An opportunity for reaching the goal of his ambition was given him when the States-General, in obedience to the urgent demand of the people, appointed him Captain-General of the Republic. Although the powers of the new commander-in-chief were limited by several provisions, yet the Republican party, under the leadership of De Witt, demanded more and better guarantees for curbing the ambition of the Prince. It demanded and obtained from the States-General an order that the Captain-General should be obliged to swear to maintain the Perpetual Edict suppressing the stadtholdership and prohibiting its reëstablishment. John de Witt also strongly opposed the life-appointment of the Prince of Orange until he should have completed his twenty-second year, while the Orangists and the Prince himself made his life-appointment a condition for his acceptance. A compromise was finally reached, and Prince William of Orange, known in history as William the Third, was solemnly inaugurated in his new office of commander-in-chief. On him was imposed the difficult task to oppose the armies of Louis the Fourteenth, commanded by Condé, Turenne, Luxembourg and Vauban. Entire harmony and good-will seemed to exist between the Grand Pensionary and the Prince after the latter’s appointment to the command of the army. They corresponded in a very cordial tone, and De Witt showed the greatest eagerness to satisfy the wishes of the Prince for the thorough defence of the country. It is not our purpose to mention in detail the indefatigable exertions of John de Witt to place the country in a suitable state of defence. But these exertions and the measures they resulted in were not sufficient to avert the calamities of the war and to prevent a conquest which everybody had foreseen. The Netherlanders had enjoyed peace for twenty-four years, and this long rest had unaccustomed the country to war. The constant quarrels between the different parties had weakened the unity of the Republic, and when the time for united and patriotic action came, the nation was but ill prepared for it.

On the sixth of April, 1672, France issued a declaration of war which had been long expected. Louis the Fourteenth celebrated beforehand the conquest he was about to undertake, although some of his most experienced generals, Condé for instance, did not share his confidence. However, the rapidity with which the French, after having crossed the Yssel, took cities and fortresses almost without firing a gun, seemed fully to justify Louis the Fourteenth in his anticipation of an easy and brilliant victory. One short month had sufficed to place at the mercy of the French monarch the flourishing and prosperous Republic, which four years before had interrupted him in his march of victory. No man suffered more both as a patriot and as a public official, from the disastrous turn in public affairs than John de Witt. He had done all that a sagacious statesman and a noble-minded patriot could do to prevent, and failing in this attempt, sought to repair the disasters which overwhelmed the Republic. But the ungrateful people failed to stand by him and reward his exertions for the public welfare. And not only the honor of having saved the independence of his country in this unequal conflict was denied to him, but his life itself was lost, as a sacrifice to popular hatred and fanaticism.

Under these exasperating circumstances—each new day bringing information of a new calamity, of the surrender of a fortress, of the capitulation of a garrison, of the precipitate retreat of the army—it was not only natural, it was a matter of duty and patriotism for John de Witt, the head of the government, to enter into negotiations with the conqueror in order to check his rapid advance and get from him better terms of peace than might be expected after he had captured the last bulwarks of Dutch independence. It was by no means De Witt’s plan to open negotiations for the surrender of Dutch independence; but he hoped that the French King would consent to suspend hostilities during the progress of the negotiations, and that this intermission would give the Republic time to strengthen its bulwarks. In case of an unfavorable result, he would resume armed resistance with greater chances of success than before. John de Witt had frequently, during the months preceding the outbreak of the war, insisted on making adequate preparations to meet an attack of the French King, whose restless ambition for military glory and territorial expansion was well known. He had also pointed out (if all other means should fail) the necessity of again, as in the war with Spain, resorting to those means of defence which nature had placed in the possession of the Dutch, by opening the sluices and cutting the dykes, in order to let the sea overflow the bottom lands of the country, and thus protecting Holland, and above all Amsterdam, from foreign occupation. This last measure of defence, terrible and destructive as it was necessarily, was really the anchor of hope upon which the minds of Dutch patriots rested their expectations of final triumph.

The Dutch navy was in excellent condition. It was still mistress of the seas, and it had lately, under the able command of De Ruyter one of the greatest naval heroes that ever lived, won two great victories over the fleets of France and England, which secured the Republic against the landing of foreign troops from the sea side. The Republic had spared no efforts to keep the navy in splendid condition, and more than any other man Cornelius de Witt had contributed to its efficiency. He was an intimate friend of Admiral de Ruyter, and during the naval battle of Solbay, although seriously ill, he sat by his side, as the official delegate of the States-General, assisting him with his counsels, and by his very presence inspiring sailors and commanders with patriotic devotion. The greatness of his services to the Republic had been formally recognized after that battle by a unanimous vote of thanks of the States-General.

It would seem almost a matter of impossibility that with such a record of patriotism, integrity and devotion to the public welfare, the voice of calumny should have been successfully raised against the two illustrious brothers; but it was done nevertheless by the Orange party, which did not forgive their opposition to the elevation of Prince William. The young Prince had, during the short campaign, won no martial laurels by victories in battles or by the capture of fortresses; but he had shown eminent qualities which promised glorious results if an opportunity were given for unfolding them. He was wise and circumspect beyond his years, self-collected and cool amid the most pressing dangers, inexhaustible in resources, and while thoroughly loyal to the Republic, yet proud of his ancestors and the preëminent part they had played in the history of their country.

As soon as the report became public that the Grand Pensionary had taken steps for negotiations with the French King, the Orange party denounced them as acts of treason, and loudly demanded that Prince William should be placed in supreme authority. It also asserted that the failure of the campaign so far was due to the restrictions foolishly and criminally imposed on the Prince, who might have saved the Republic if he had been permitted to follow the inspirations of his own genius and had not been fettered by instructions from men that had been his life-long enemies and who preferred the rule of a foreign monarch to the stadtholdership of a Prince of Orange. In this manner the public mind was filled with hatred toward the De Witts, while gradually the young Prince of Orange became the idol of the nation. Recollections of the glorious achievements of his forefathers, of their perseverance and patience, of their intrepidity and resoluteness, and of their final triumphs in situations as perilous as theirs, were awakened in the hearts of the burghers, and made them inclined to a restoration of the stadtholdership in behalf of the Prince. It was to be expected that sooner or later public excitement, aggravated from hour to hour by the unfavorable reports from the seat of war, would manifest itself in a violent explosion and fall with destructive force upon the very heads which were most entitled to public gratitude and veneration.

Two attempts on the lives of the two brothers in the summer of 1672—an attack on John de Witt which came very near killing him and prostrated him for weeks on a sick bed, and the other on Cornelius, who escaped from it almost unhurt—were the first serious manifestations of the public ill-will. It was only too evident that the Orange party was at the bottom of these outbursts of hostility, and that Prince William himself was not a stranger to the intrigues. On the second of July, 1672, the Prince of Orange was elected Stadtholder of Holland and Zealand for life. These were the only two provinces not occupied by the French armies, and the Prince’s election was therefore equivalent to his appointment as Stadtholder of the Republic. In effect it placed the De Witts at his mercy.

In vain the Grand Pensionary handed in his resignation on the fourth of August. The Orange party was not satisfied with permitting him to retire from the public service; it formed a sinister conspiracy which engulfed the two illustrious men in ruin and death. A worthless scoundrel, a certain Tichelaar who on several occasions had been accused of felonies, openly charged Cornelius de Witt with having tried to bribe him to assassinate the Prince Stadtholder,—a proposition which he had indignantly rejected in spite of the tempting rewards offered to him. Incredible as it may appear, the accusation, contradicted both by the noble character of Cornelius de Witt and by the bad reputation of the informer, was eagerly acted upon by the authorities of Holland. Cornelius was arrested and imprisoned at the Hague, where for four days he was subjected to the infamy of the torture. It was hoped that in his agony he would make a confession of guilt which, true or not, would justify his partisan judges in passing a sentence of death on him. But Cornelius remained firm in his disdainful denial of the odious accusation, and the repetition of the torture on four different days did not change his testimony. Under these circumstances his base judges, instruments of the Stadtholder and his party, did not dare to pronounce the death sentence against him; but they found him guilty nevertheless, deprived him of all his public dignities, and exiled him for life from the territory of the Republic.

It may appear strange that the Orange party persecuted Cornelius de Witt, who was the brother of the Grand Pensionary, with such venomous hatred; but an occurrence which had shortly preceded his arrest will explain the ill-will of the leaders of the Orange party. Like the other cities of Holland, the city of Dordrecht had, by a vote of its Common Council, revoked the Perpetual Edict. Cornelius de Witt had but a few weeks before returned from the battle of Solbay, where he had so greatly distinguished himself, and was confined to his bed by serious illness. Being one of the highest city officials, his signature was required on the act of revocation, and the Orange leaders demanded that the document should be forthwith presented to him. City officials, followed by an excited and hostile mob, took it to his residence and requested him to sign it. He refused. In vain his family, his friends, and his servants implored him to affix his signature, telling him that a mob of thousands of excited people surrounded the house and threatened to demolish it and kill the inhabitants if his name should not appear on the paper. Finally the supplications and tears of his wife and children, imploring him not to sacrifice their lives by his obstinacy, induced him to affix his signature, but he added the two initials V. C. to it; and when the officials asked him what those two letters meant, he answered, “They stand for the words ‘Vi coactus’” (yielding to violence). This declaration caused an outburst of indignation in the crowd, and but for the speedy erasure of the obnoxious initials by his wife, and the energetic efforts of his friends to protect him, Cornelius de Witt would very likely on that day have paid for his boldness with his life. It was ascertained that Tichelaar, who shortly afterwards accused him of having planned the assassination of the Prince of Orange, had been one of the mob surrounding the house and vociferously demanding the punishment of the rebellious magistrate. The infamous charge of Tichelaar against the great patriot had unquestionably sprung from the scene at Cornelius de Witt’s residence. The Orange leaders saw that it would not be safe for them or their master to let republicans like the two De Witts remain among them, and their death was resolved upon.

The twentieth of August, 1672, was the fatal day which was to seal the doom of the two illustrious brothers. Cornelius, crushed by the sentence of perpetual banishment pronounced against him, remained in his cell at the Buitenhof, the terrible prison of the Hague. On the morning of that day John de Witt was called to the Buitenhof, where his brother wished to see him. Although warned by his friends not to go, the brave ex-Pensionary did not hesitate to comply with the summons. It was a false message. Reaching the prison, he found himself entrapped and at the mercy of the mob, which had assembled before the prison howling and shouting, “Hurrah for Orange! Death to the traitors!” It was but a short time after his arrival, and after a hurried and pathetic interview with his brother, that the rabble, instigated by the calumnies of the Orange men, burst open the doors of the prison, and with axes and sledge-hammers and clubs forced their way up to the cell where Cornelius was imprisoned. At the sight of the two brothers the fury of the mob knew no bounds. Like tigers they jumped upon them, threw them down, clubbed and slew them amid cries of beastly exultation. “There goes the Perpetual Edict!” one of the butchers is said to have exclaimed as a powerful blow with the butt-end of his musket prostrated John de Witt senseless at his feet. Another murderer came up, and noticing symptoms of returning consciousness in the countenance of the Pensionary, he fired his pistol at him, blowing out his brains. Cornelius was killed by a tremendous blow with an iron bar which fractured his skull; he died instantly. But death alone did not satisfy the slayers. With unheard-of brutality they kicked, beat and abused, in every possible manner, the lifeless bodies, and finally, after having stripped off their clothes, dragged the mangled and disfigured remains from the jail to a gibbet which had been erected by volunteer executioners, and hung them by the feet. The popular frenzy went so far that the murderers cut and tore the flesh in pieces from the bodies of “the great traitors, John and Cornelius de Witt,” and sold them in the streets of the city for a few cents each.

Thus suffered and died, on the twentieth of August, 1672, two of the purest and most high-minded patriots that any nation has produced,—murdered by their own people, whom they had served faithfully and successfully for many years. Their death is a dark blot on the annals of the Dutch Republic: and it is an indelible stain on the otherwise great and fair name of William the Third of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and afterwards King of England. History has forgotten many crimes, but it will not forget the assassination of the brothers De Witt.


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