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Dutch Capitalism and Liberalism against Tradition


Amsterdam's town hall and market place, by Gerrit Adriaensz (1638-98)

The Dutch survived the Thirty Years' War still benefiting from their relatively new commercial agriculture and rise in commerce. Elsewhere in Europe close to 95 percent of the population was involved in agriculture, while in the Netherlands townspeople were more numerous than rural folk. In the Netherlands, agriculture benefited from the demand for its products in the towns, and the towns benefited from the cheap food made available in the countryside. Farmers were specializing in what they grew for the market. Success in agriculture helped the rise in commerce, and success in commerce helped agriculture.

The United Netherlands was without much in natural resources, but it had a successful fishing industry, with fishing ships that processed their catch at sea, making the fish ready for export as soon as the ships returned to port.

The merchants of the United Netherlands had made themselves middlemen, transporting the goods of other countries on their cargo ships. Spain and Portugal had been the previous masters of the oceans, but now the Dutch were developing primacy there.

Dutch ocean-going voyages for commercial gain were financed by investors joining partnerships. Someone could buy a share of a partnership and if he decided he wanted out of the partnership he could sell his share at whatever price anyone was willing to pay.

With little land available, a Dutch person with money to invest was more inclined than other Europeans to invest in commerce than to buy a large estate.

Merchants (an economic class known by that French word "bourgeoisie") had become more powerful politically than the landed aristocracy. They governed in what they saw as the interest of commerce. Living principally by trade, they established free trade at home. Gone were the toll collecting by robber barons.




Dutch merchants believed that the state should assure order and allow commerce to function freely.  The notion of freedom spilled over into a belief in separation of state and church, and in the United Netherlands this diminished the political power of Calvinism.

With many middle-class families having risen from rags to riches, the merchant class believed that common people could rise above their circumstances through their own efforts. They attributed a greater importance to education than had the aristocracy.

Dutch capitalism was developing. Banking had grown. Bankers had shifted to Amsterdam from Antwerp during the war against Spanish-Habsburg rule. In the mid-1600s the city of Amsterdam, with a population of more than 100,000, became the financial center of the Western nations, replacing what had been Italy's lead in banking. Lending to businessmen was increasing. As Joyce Appleby points out, the Dutch "offered interest rates less than half those available elsewhere." She adds that "...the Dutch developed credit arrangements for every circumstance and customer." Spanish monarchs were among those who had begun borrowing from Dutch banks. note24

Among the Dutch, shipbuilding flourished. Appleby writes that "Dutch merchants branched out to everything that the world's population wanted to sell or buy. They built a fleet that was larger than all the boats plying the waters under the flags of Portugal, Spain, England, France, and Austria combined." Appleby adds that "the Dutch were not just traders; they were also accomplished craftsmen." note25

As the Dutch nation was emerging as an economic power, it was emerging also as a home of freedom. Tolerance was practical and conducive to a well functioning economy. It was the beginning of what has been described as another golden age. In the United Netherlands, people felt freer than did a lot of people elsewhere. Immigrants came – Jews, scientists, scholars, artists and French Huguenots attracted by the economic success and by the tolerance. There was scattered and muted hostility toward Jews, but Jews in the United Netherlands enjoyed an acceptance unique in Europe. It was in the United Netherlands that the Catholic scientist Galileo was able to publish his work on mechanics. Earlier, Lutheranism and Catholicism had been suppressed and was perceived to be a threat to social stability, but tolerance had increased, allowing for the growth of Catholicism, Catholics increasing in numbered from roughly 14,000 in 1635 to 30,000 in 1656.

In the United Netherlands, young and unmarried women were free to come and go unaccompanied or unchaperoned, and in public they engaged in conversation almost as freely as men. Wives were less subservient to their husbands than wives elsewhere. Wife beating was treated as a crime. Local citizen organizations, headed by elected officials, patrolled and guarded their section of town, preventing crime. A woman expected her scream to be answered. In the United Netherlands street lamps were common – not to be installed in the cities of Berlin or Cologne until 1682. In the United Netherlands students were less rowdy than was the custom at German universities. Prostitution took place behind a veneer of respectability, in places where people appeared to be listening to music and not mindful of what was happening upstairs.

Diplomats, scholars, merchants, tourists, soldiers and seamen from more conservative lands were impressed by the orderliness and cleanliness of Dutch cities. They noticed the limited character of ecclesiastical power, the subordination of the military to civilian authority and the achievements in art. This was the era of Rembrandt, who began to paint in 1631.

Some from outside the United Netherlands looked with disdain upon the Dutch for being devoted to money making. It was said that among the Dutch "the hen crows and the cock merely cackles," and wives were said to spend their time gossiping while husbands tended the children. To some conservatives the liberty accorded to Jews, women and servants seemed aberrant or excessive. Foreign aristocrats saw a lack of proper social hierarchy among the Dutch. They were dismayed by ordinary people talking casually with "gentlemen," and they complained of servant girls dressing and behaving in a way that made it difficult to tell which was the servant and which the mistress. Conservatives complained that in the United Netherlands the noble, soldier or even husband was not given the honor or status that was his due.


The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby, 2010.

The Dutch Republic and Civilization in the 17th century, by Charles Wilson, 1968.

The Embarrassment of Riches : an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama.

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