“An Extremity of Nominal Democracy”
Barbara Tuchman was one of my two favorite historians, (the other is still alive). She published The First Salute in 1988, then died of a stroke early the next year, so the book was to have been her last salute. I have three well-underlined volumes on my bookshelf, and this last volume is about the American Revolution’s impact on Europe, principally the Dutch and the French, but ultimately, the world.
France we know about, the Netherlands not so much. The book’s title is based on the entry of an American vessel, the Andrea Doria, into the harbor of the tiny Dutch trading outpost of St Eustatius in the Caribbean in November 1776, just a few months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Hoisting the American colors, the Andrea Doria fired a 13-gun salute and the coastal battery returned a 9-gun salute, thus acknowledging the new American revolutionaries as a member nation.
The First Salute.
A big deal, actually, for the English, who owned just about all the remaining islands in the Leeward Island chain, were infuriated, some of their governors and admirals writing long letters of protest making even some of my essays seem like a quick read. In one letter I counted 14-lines without a single period. (For harrumphs and bluster, no one beats the Brits.)
But tiny St Eustatius (only 21 sq kilometers) was an important port in those days, with today a population of less than 4000. In those days its only product was money in trade. And the Dutch had decided to trade arms to the Colonies in exchange for all the products we could send them, because of one thing; location, location, location. The island sits at the northernmost tip of the Leeward chain, so is first in line in the seagoing traffic moving south from the Colonies.
It was profit, and not philosophical simpatico, that caused the Dutch to risk the anger of the stronger English Navy.
When John Adams went to Amsterdam in 1780 to obtain a loan that would keep the Americans less in debt to France and Louis XVI (who also had mercenary reasons for taking our side against England, having a long term plan to annex the American colonies for itself) he wrote that he had entered “the capital of the reign of Mammon (the Biblical name for Money and Greed)”.
Mrs Tuchman developed a lengthy back-story and analysis of this relationship between the Americans and the Dutch, dating all the way back to the Dutch’s own similar revolutionary war with the Spanish Hapsburgs, the Eighty Years War, 1568-1648, which began under Charles V, then followed by Philip II, the same Most Catholic Majesty Philip who would later send an Armada against Elizabeth and England, to return that wayward isle back to the Roman fold.
As a side note, modern Americans will be interested to know that when a band of 400 Dutch nobles marched on the Regents palace demanding an end to the Inquisition in their country, (the Dutch were Protestant) the ruling Count called them “a bunch of beggars” which the people then took upon themselves as a mark of honor, calling themselves “Sea Beggars” much like the “Deplorables”. A slow seething revolt, finally, in 1581, even before Jamestown was settled in America, the 17 provinces of the Dutch signed an Act of Abjuration which used language remarkably similar to Jefferson’s Declaration in Philadelphia in 1776.
It stated that Philip II had violated the compact and duty of a ruler to deal justly with his subjects, giving them bad government instead of good, and that he had therefore forfeited the right of sovereignty, therefore claiming the inherent right of subjects to withdraw their allegiance and to depose the tyrannical sovereign.
Again, all this 195 years before Thomas Jefferson claimed the same natural right of man in Philadelphia….and 195 years before that tiny Dutch island in the Caribbean would be the first to acknowledge the American flag. (Too bad we can’t do a comic book version of this so we can pass it onto Colin Kaepernick.)
Finally in 1648 the Dutch got their freedom, and they became the greatest trading nation in the world, and for about a century, the home of the finest artists, and the most hospitable home for the world’s religious and scientific thinkers. Better than that, the Dutch had almost full-employment, their working classes either seamen, factory floor workers, or clerks, and the most notable system of alms-boxes scattered around the cities so that their fine Christian people could support those who could not support themselves. Sort of like Westchester County.
The Dutch succeeded at everything except governing themselves. By the time John Adams visited in 1781 their star as a major world political player was already waning, but it would be 1949, after WWII, when the Dutch East Indies became Indonesia, that they would give up their Mammon Empire.
The reason I have liked Barbara Tuchman so much, (Guns of August, Stillwell and China, and her history of the state of Church in 14th Century France, England and Italy) is that she asks the follow-up questions only the best of scholars ask. And she hadn’t the audacity to answer the questions, instead insinuating a viewpoint, so as to open a line of inquiry that continues to this day, for her description of the state of Dutch society was a blue print of what we are seeing today in America, a moribund political class that had seen all its energy dissipated over a couple of centuries just because it didn’t want to risk losing what it already had gained.
In short, without saying so directly Mrs Tuchman stated why, with almost all the similar ingredients that lay at America’s founding, the Dutch couldn’t pull the trigger and become a republic of citizens. Simply, Great Wealth and Vainglory, both ever-present in the human condition, preceded the establishment of the Dutch state. Instead of a Republic the Dutch became a Cartel, and all their politics were directed at preserving the privileges of their principal stockholders.
By the time of the American Revolution the Dutch were already receding as a Great Power, while still very much a banking power. The emirs of Qatar may want to study the natural causes of Dutch decline.
…the governing class, called the Regents, was exclusively patrician. They were the body and soul of Dutch government. They filled the offices of town councilors and deputies the provincial and national states. They held office that were nominally elective but no candidate could be considered for office unless from a substantial family or property, based on fortune and connections. Regents married into each others’ families, appointed each other to important offices of town government…. They kept outsiders out. As it became entrenched, the whole country was dominated by an oligarchy of upper middle class representing some 10,000 persons.
Complacent and conservative the Regents shared the point of view about the common folk, seeing them as “the little people”and were not shy at expressing it. Political voice was confined to this class.
The Dutch political system reached an “extremity of nominal democracy”, (hence that title).
Recognize any of this?
Even with full employment the political never ever recognized “the people” as anything other than production units for their accountants, allowing no input to how the government that managed their lives should be designed better, nor, even worse, without any sense of guilt about the oversight.
We are witnessing now how quickly the empathy and sense of worth of humanity can be dissolved and so easily be labeled and filed away into dozens of compartments to be dealt with as dispassionately as one would a file in a manila folder. My rule was always three generations, only I don’t know whether my generation is the last, my sons’ generation is the last, or my father’s generation was the last.
Thanks to Barbara Tuchman, by keeping the conversation alive among non-scholar average Joe’s like me, maybe we will see some insight among our political thinkers now that our noses are pressed firmly against the glass.
John Adams noted these things in the Dutch in 1780, but I doubt that had anything to do with the way America was formed in the Constitution. It was always clear the Founders wanted to avoid a wealthy patrician class preceding a nation being built by solid citizens with several generations to be able to pause reflect on the common shoulders they all stood on. It would be the Wilson era that historians (Charles Beard) would opine that the Founders were little more than Dutch-like cartelists. And of course, the Marxists picked up the same theme also in that period, but with somewhat different purposes.
They were wrong, but still today they have forged a kind of handshake alliance, Cartelists and Leftists, each with different final outcomes in mind, but much like the Dutch and French in 1781, who had different plans for a victorious American Colonies, only after waiting another 5-6 years, once the American Constitution was unveiled, not only did it undo their plans, but as the British Ambassador to the Hague in those intervening years wrote:
“…Indeed all authority came under attack when the English colonist in American succeeded in their rebellion”.
(Tuchman) “What the Ambassador was witnessing was the transfer of power stationed in a constitution and in representation of the people”
A Case of First Instance
We seem to have reached “an Extremity of Nominal Democracy”, per Barbara Tuchman, for no one seems to want to relate how significant and scary America was to the rest of the world.
I look for writers and pundits to remind us readers from time to time about the truth of the fact that America’s founding was a case of first instance, never before tried, and has stuck in the royal orders’ craw, by whatever name, ideology or flag they proceed under these day since that day.
Not a vain repetition, mind you, as we hear in so many church prayers, but a simple matter-of-fact connecting of the that final dot in the analysis of why every government in the world hates us, and almost every people-class loves us…at least in theory.
Only I almost never see or hear this. I find that more and more of those polemicists, among them far too many conservatives, claiming fealty to a Constitution that is more exclusively theirs than ever before.
This reality presents our nation and the people with yet another Case of First Instance, unlike anything America has seen since it found itself in a two-ocean war on December 8th, 1941. And like that war, with dire consequences should we lose.
We are confronted by a full frontal assault of perhaps 30% of the American people, bolstered by closer to 80% of its public institutions, to finally do what the royals of 1787 in Europe wish they could have done, and remove this ugly stain, and return to those halcyon days when the world was constantly at war with itself over simple things such as land and power.
And we are “defended”, well sort of, by an army of talkers, short on firepower, but who are more afraid that real power might return to the people they despise but for whom the Constitution was written. They represent the extremity of our nominal democracy, for are unsure they really want such a Constituional reach any longer.
Since these are all Americans, we can’t rightly call them invaders. They are all simply ingrates to the shoulders they stand on.
So, this is why we have elections, when there are real critical life-saving choices to make. We have one coming up on Tuesday.
Once again, the Founders saw far ahead, for they put a gun in every one of those Deplorables’ hands.
One final note, for you aspiring historians, with two Pulitzer Prizes in History, Barbara Tuchman never earned a graduate degree in History. She didn’t write for her class.
Oh, about the art, it’s from a Dutch Master, Adraen Brouwer, of Antwerp, 1600s, “Unangenehme Vaterpflichten- Unpleasant Father Duties”. I found it fitting