A. D. 1713-1795
DURING a period of thirty years following the treaty of Utrecht, the republic enjoyed the unaccustomed blessing of profound peace. While the discontents of the Austrian Netherlands on the subject of the treaty of the Barrier were in debate, the quadruple alliance was formed between Holland, England, France and the emperor, for reciprocal aid against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It was in virtue of this treaty that the pre-tender to the English throne received orders to remove from France; and the states-general about the same time arrested the Swedish ambassador, Baron Gortz, whose intrigues excited some suspicion. The death of Louis XIV. had once more changed the political system of Europe; and the commencement of the eighteenth century was fertile in negotiations and alliances in which we have at present but little direct interest. The rights of the republic were in all instances respected; and Holland did not cease to be considered as a power of the first distinction and consequence. The establishment of an East India Company at Ostend, by the emperor Charles VI., in 1722, was the principal cause of disquiet to the United Provinces, and the most likely to lead to a rupture. But, by the treaty of Hanover in 1726, the rights of Holland resulting from the treaty of Munster were guaranteed; and in consequence the emperor abolished the company of his creation, by the treaty of Seville in 1729, and that of Vienna in 1731.
The peace which now reigned in Europe allowed the United Provinces to direct their whole efforts toward the reform of those internal abuses resulting from feudality and fanaticism. Confiscations were reversed, and property secured throughout the republic. It received into its protection the persecuted sectarians of France, Germany, and Hungary; and the tolerant wisdom which it exercised in these measures gives the best assurance of its justice and prudence in one of a contrary nature, forming a solitary exception to them. This was the expulsion of the Jesuits, whose dangerous and destructive doctrines had been long a warrant for this salutary example to the Protestant states of Europe.
In the year 1732 the United Provinces were threatened with imminent peril, which accident alone prevented from becoming fatal to their very existence. It was perceived that the dikes, which had for ages preserved the coasts, were in many places crumbling to ruin, in spite of the enormous expenditure of money and labor devoted to their preservation. By chance it was discovered that the beams, piles and other timber works employed in the construction of the dikes were eaten through in all parts by a species of sea-worm hitherto unknown. The terror of the people was, as may be supposed, extreme. Every possible resource was applied which could remedy the evil; a hard frost providentially set in and destroyed the formidable reptiles; and the country was thus saved from a danger tenfold greater than that involved in a dozen wars.
The peace of Europe was once more disturbed in 1733. Poland, Germany, France, and Spain, were all embarked in the new war. Holland and England stood. aloof ; and another family alliance of great consequence drew still closer than ever the bonds of union between them. The young Prince of Orange, who in 1728 had been elected stadtholder of Groningen and Guelders, in addition to that of Friesland which had been enjoyed by his father, had in the year 1734 married the princess Anne, daughter of George II. of England; and by thus adding to the consideration of the House of Nassau, had opened a field for the recovery of all its old distinctions.
The death of the emperor Charles VI., in October, 1740, left his daughter, the archduchess Maria Theresa, heiress of his throne and possessions. Young, beautiful, and endowed with qualities of the highest order, she was surrounded with enemies whose envy and ambition would have despoiled her of her splendid rights. Frederick of Prussia, surnamed the Great, in honor of his abilities rather than his sense of justice, the electors of Bavaria and Saxony, and the kings of Spain and Sardinia, all pressed forward to the spoliation of an inheritance which seemed a fair play for all comers. But Maria Theresa, first joining her husband, Duke Francis of Lorraine, in her sovereignty, but without prejudice to it, under the title of co-regent, took an attitude truly heroic. When everything seemed to threaten the dismemberment of her states, she threw herself upon the generous fidelity of her Hungarian subjects with a dignified resolution that has few examples. There was imperial grandeur even in her appeal to their compassion. The results were electrical; and the whole tide of fortune was rapidly turned.
England and Holland were the first to come to the aid of the young and interesting empress. George II., at the head of his army, gained the victory of Dettingen, in support of her quarrel, in 1743; the states-general having contributed twenty thousand men and a large subsidy to her aid. Louis XV. resolved to throw his whole influence into the scale against these generous efforts in the princess’s favor; and he invaded the Austrian Netherlands in the following year. Marshal Saxe commanded under him, and at first carried everything before him. Holland, having furnished twenty thousand troops and six ships of war to George II. on the invasion of the young pretender, was little in a state to oppose any formidable resistance to the enemy that threatened her own frontiers. The republic, wholly attached for so long a period to pursuits of peace and commerce, had no longer good generals nor effective armies; nor could it even put a fleet of any importance to sea. Yet with all these disadvantages it would not yield to the threats nor the demands of France; resolved to risk a new war rather than succumb to an enemy it had once so completely humbled and given the law to.
Conferences were opened at Breda, but interrupted al-most as soon as commenced. Hostilities were renewed. The memorable battle of Fontenoy was offered and gloriously fought by the allies; accepted and splendidly won by the French. Never did the English and Dutch troops act more nobly in concert than on this remarkable occasion. The valor of the French was not less conspicuous; and the success of the day was in a great measure decided by the Irish battalions, sent, by the lamentable politics of those and much later days, to swell the ranks and gain the battles of England’s enemies. Marshal Saxe followed up his advantage the following year, taking Brussels and many other towns. Almost the whole of the Austrian Netherlands being now in the power of Louis XV., and the United Provinces again exposed to invasion and threatened with danger, they had once more recourse to the old expedient of the elevation of the House of Orange, which in times of imminent peril seemed to present a never-failing palladium. Zealand was the first to give the impulsion; the other provinces soon followed the example; and William IV. was proclaimed stadtholder and captain-general, amid the almost unanimous rejoicings of all. These dignities were soon after declared hereditary both in the male and female line of succession of the House of Orange Nassau.
The year 1748 saw the termination of the brilliant campaigns of Louis XV. during this bloody war of eight years’ continuance. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, definitively signed on the 18th of October, put an end to hostilities; Maria Theresa was established in her rights and power; and Europe saw a fair balance of the nations, which gave promise of security and peace. But the United Provinces, when scarcely recovering from struggles which had so checked their prosperity, were employed in new and universal grief and anxiety by the death of their young stadtholder, which happened at The Hague, October 13, 1751. He had long been kept out of the government, though by no means deficient in the talents suited to his station. His son, William AT., aged but three years and a half, succeeded him, under the guardianship of his mother, Anne of England, daughter of George II., a princess represented to be of a proud and ambitious temper, who immediately assumed a high tone of authority in the state.
The war of seven years, which agitated the north of Europe, and deluged its plains with blood, was almost the only one in which the republic was able to preserve a strict neutrality throughout. But this happy state of tranquillity was not, as on former occasions, attended by that prodigious increase of commerce, and that accumulation of wealth, which had so often astonished the world. Differing with England on the policy which led the latter to weaken and humiliate France, jealousies sprung up between the two countries, and Dutch commerce became the object of the most vexatious and injurious efforts on the part of England. Remonstrance was vain; resistance impossible; and the decline of the republic hurried rapidly on. The Hanseatic towns, the American colonies, the northern states of Europe, and France itself, all entered into the rivalry with Holland, in which, however, England carried off the most important prizes. Several private and petty encounters took place between the vessels of England and Holland, in con-sequence of the pretensions of the former to the right of search; and had the republic possessed the ability of former periods, and the talents of a Tromp or a De Ruyter, a new war would no doubt have been the result. But it was forced to submit; and a degrading but irritating tranquillity was the consequence for several years; the national feelings receiving a salve for home-decline by some extension of colonial settlements in the East, in which the island of Ceylon was included.
In the midst of this inglorious state of things, and the domestic abundance which was the only compensation for the gradual loss of national influence, the installation of William V., in 1766; his marriage with the princess of Prussia, niece of Frederick the Great, in 1768 ; and the birth of two sons, the eldest on the 24th of August, 1772; successively took place. Magnificent fetes celebrated these events; the satisfied citizens little imagining, amid their indolent rejoicings, the dismal futurity of revolution and distress which was silently but rapidly preparing for their country.
Maria Theresa, reduced to widowhood by the death of her husband, whom she had elevated to the imperial dignity by the title of Francis I., continued for a while to rule singly her vast possessions; and had profited so little by the sufferings of her own early reign that she joined in the iniquitous dismemberment of Poland, which h left an indelible stain on her memory, and on that of Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia. In her own dominions she was adored; and her name is to this day cherished in Belgium among the dearest recollections of the people.
The impulsion given to the political mind of Europe by the revolution in North America was soon felt in the Netherlands. The wish for reform was not merely confirmed to the people. A memorable instance was offered by Joseph II., son and successor of Maria Theresa, that sovereigns were not only susceptible of rational notions of change, but that the infection of radical extravagance could penetrate even to the imperial crown. Disgusted by the despotism exercised by the clergy of Belgium, Joseph commenced his reign by measures that at once roused a desperate spirit of hostility in the priesthood, and soon spread among the bigoted mass of the people, who were wholly subservient to their will. Miscalculating his own power, and undervaluing that of the priests, the emperor issued decrees and edicts with a sweeping violence that shocked every prejudice and roused every passion perilous to the country. Toleration to the Protestants, emancipation of the clergy from the papal yoke, reformation in the system of theological instruction, were among the wholesale measures of the emperor’s enthusiasm, so imprudently attempted and so virulently opposed.
But ere the deep-sown seeds of bigotry ripened to revolt, or produced the fruit of active resistance in Belgium, Holland had to endure the mortification of another war with England. The republic resolved on a futile imitation of the northern powers, who had adopted the difficult and anomalous system of an armed neutrality, for the prevention of English domination on the seas. The right of search, so proudly established by this power, was not likely to be wrenched from it by manifestoes or remonstrances; and Holland was not capable of a more effectual warfare. In the year 1781, St. Eustache, Surinam, Essequibo, and Demerara, were taken by British valor; and in the following year several of the Dutch colonies in the East, well fortified but ill defended, also fell into the hands of England. Almost the whole of those colonies, the remnants of prodigious power acquired by such incalculable instances of enterprise and courage, were one by one assailed and taken. But this did not suffice for the satisfaction of English objects in the prosecution of the war. It was also resolved to deprive Holland of the Baltic trade. A squadron of seven vessels, commanded by Sir Hyde Parker, was encountered on the Dogher Bank by a squadron of Dutch ships of the same force under Admiral Zoutman. An action of four hours was maintained with all the ancient courage which made so many of the memorable sea-fights between Tromp, De Ruyter, Blake, and Monk drawn battles. A storm separated the combatants, and saved the honor of each; for bath had suffered alike, and victory had belonged to neither. The peace of 1784 terminated this short, but, to Holland, fatal war; the two latter years of which had been, in the petty warfare of privateering, most disastrous to the commerce of the republic. Negapatam, on the coast of Coromandel, and the free navigation of the Indian seas, were ceded to England, who occupied the other various colonies taken during the war.
Opinion was now rapidly opening out to that spirit of intense inquiry which arose in France, and threatened to sweep before it not only all that was corrupt, but everything that tended to corruption. It is in the very essence of all kinds of power to have that tendency, and, if not checked by salutary means, to reach that end. But the reformers of the last century, new in the desperate practice of revolutions, seeing its necessity, but ignorant of its nature, neither did nor could place bounds to the careering whirlwind that they raised. The well-meaning but intemperate changes essayed by Joseph II. in Belgium had a considerable share in the development of free principles, although they at first seemed only to excite the resistance of bigotry and strengthen the growth of superstition. Holland was always alive to those feelings of resistance to established authority which characterize republican opinions; and the general discontent at the result of the war with England gave a good excuse to the pretended patriot-ism which only wanted change, while it professed reform The stadtholder saw clearly the storm which was gathering, and which menaced his power. Anxious for the present, and uncertain for the future, he listened to the suggestions of England, and resolved to secure and extend by foreign force the rights of which he risked the loss from domestic faction.
In the divisions which were now loudly proclaimed among the states in favor of or opposed to the House of Orange, the people, despising all new theories which they did not comprehend, took open part with the family so closely connected with every practical feeling of good which their country had yet known. The states of Holland soon proceeded to measures of violence. Resolved to limit the power of the stadtholder, they deprived him of the command of the garrison of The Hague, and of all the other troops of the province; and, shortly afterward, declared him removed from all his employments. The violent disputes and vehement discussions consequent upon this measure throughout the republic announced an inevitable commotion. The advance of a Prussian army toward the frontiers inflamed the passions of one party and strengthened the confidence of the other. An incident which now happened brought about the crisis even sooner than was expected. The Princess of Orange left her palace at Loo to repair to The Hague; and travelling with great simplicity and slightly attended, she was arrested and detained by a military post on the frontiers of the province of Holland. The neighboring magistrates of the town of Woesden refused her permission to continue her journey, and forced her to return to Loo under such surveillance as was usual with a prisoner of state. The stadtholder and the English ambassador loudly complained of this outrage. The complaint was answered by the immediate advance of the duke of Brunswick with twenty thousand Prussian soldiers. Some demonstrations of resistance were made by the astonished party whose outrageous conduct had provoked the measure; but in three weeks’ time the whole of the republic was in perfect obedience to the authority of the stadtholder, who resumed all his functions of chief magistrate, with the additional influence which was sure to result from a vain and unjustifiable attempt to reduce his former power. We regret to be beyond the reach of Mr. Ellis’s interesting but unpublished work, detailing the particulars of this revolution. The former persual of a copy of it only leaves a recollection of its admirable style and the leading facts, but not of the details with sufficient accuracy to justify more than a general reference to the work itself.
By this time the discontent and agitation in Belgium had attained a most formidable height. The attempted reformation in religion and judicial abuses persisted in by the emperor were represented, by a party whose existence was compromised by reform, as nothing less than sacrilege and tyranny, and blindly rejected by a people still totally unfitted for rational enlightenment in points of faith, or practices of civilization. Remonstrances and strong complaints were soon succeeded by tumultuous assemblages and open insurrection. A lawyer of Brussels, named Vander Noot, put himself at the head of the malcontents. The states-general of Brabant declared the new measures of the emperor to be in opposition to the constitution and privileges of the country. The other Belgian provinces soon followed this example. The prince Albert of Saxe-Tesehen, and the archduchess Maria Theresa, his wife, were at this period joint governors-general of the Austrian Netherlands. At the burst of rebellion they attempted to temporize; but this only strengthened the revolutionary party, while the emperor wholly disapproved their measures and recalled them to Vienna.
Count Murray was now named governor-general; and it was evident that the future fate of the provinces was to depend on the issue of civil war. Count Trautmansdorff, the imperial minister at Brussels, and General D’Alton, who commanded the Austrian troops, took a high tone, and evinced a peremptory resolution. The soldiery and the citizens soon came into contact on many points; and blood was spilled at Brussels, Mechlin, and Antwerp.
The provincial states were convoked, for the purpose of voting the usual subsidies. Brabant, after some opposition, consented; but the states of Hainault unanimously refused the vote. The emperor saw, or supposed, that the necessity for decisive measures was now inevitable. The refractory states were dissolved, and arrests and imprisonments were multiplied in all quarters. Vander Noot, who had escaped to England, soon returned to the Netherlands, and established a committee at Breda, which conferred on him the imposing title of agent plenipotentiary of the people of Brabant. He hoped, under this authority, to interest the English, Prussian, and Dutch governments in favor of his views; but his proposals were coldly received: Protestant states had little sympathy for a people whose resistance was excited, not by tyrannical efforts against freedom, but by broad measures of civil and religious reformation; the only fault of which was their attempted application to minds wholly incompetent to comprehend their value.
Left to themselves, the Belgians soon gave a display of that energetic valor which is natural to them, and which would be entitled to still greater admiration had it been evinced in a worthier cause. During the fermentation which led to a general rising in the provinces, on the impulse of fanatic zeal, the truly enlightened portion of the people conceived the project of raising, on the ruins of monkish superstition and aristocratical power, an edifice of constitutional freedom. Vonck, also an advocate of Brussels, took the lead in this splendid design; and he and his friends proved themselves to have reached the level of that true enlightenment which distinguished the close of the eighteenth century. But the Vonckists, as they were called, formed but a small minority compared with the besotted mass; and, overwhelmed by fanaticism on the one hand, and despotism on the other, they were unable to act effectually for the public good. Vander Mersch, a soldier of fortune, and a man of considerable talents, who had raised himself from the ranks to the command of a regiment, and had been formed in the school of the seven years’ war, was appointed to the command of the patriot forces. Joseph II. was declared to have forfeited his sovereignty in Brabant; and hostilities soon commenced by a regular advance of the insurgent army upon that province. Vander Mersch displayed consummate ability in this crisis, where so much depended upon the prudence of the military chief. He made no rash attempt, to which commanders are some-times induced by reliance upon the enthusiasm of a newly revolted people. He, however, took the earliest safe opportunity of coming to blows with the enemy; and, having cleverly induced the Austrians to follow him into the very streets of the town of Turnhout, he there entered on a bloody contest, and finally defeated the imperialists with considerable loss. He next manoeuvred with great ability, and succeeded in making his way into the province of Flanders, took Ghent by assault, and soon reduced Bruges, Ypres, and Ostend. At the news of these successes, the governors-general quitted Brussels in all haste. The states of Flanders assembled, in junction with those of Brabant. Both provinces were freed from the presence of the Austrian troops. Vander Noot and the committee of Breda made an entrance into Brussels with all the pomp of royalty; and in the early part of the following year (1790) a treaty of union was signed by the seven revolted provinces, now formed into a confederation under the name of the United Belgian States.
All the hopes arising from these brilliant events were soon, however, to be blighted by the scorching heats of faction. Joseph II., whose temperament appears to have been too sensitive to support the shock of disappointment in plans which sprung from the purest motives, saw, in addition to this successful insurrection against his power, his beloved sister, the queen of France, menaced with the horrors of an inevitable revolution. His over-sanguine expectations of successfully rivalling the glory of Frederick and Catherine, and the ill success of his war against the Turks, all tended to break down his enthusiastic spirit, which only wanted the elastic resistance of fortitude to have made him a great character. He for some time sunk into a profound melancholy; and expired on the 20th of January, 1791, accusing his Belgian subjects of having caused his premature death.
Leopold, the successor of his brother, displayed much sagacity and moderation in the measures which he adopted for the recovery of the revolted provinces ; but their internal disunion was the best ally of the new emperor. The violent party which now ruled at Brussels had ungratefully forgot-ten the eminent services of Vander Mersch, and accused him of treachery, merely from his attachment to the noble views and principles of the widely-increasing party of the Vonckists. Induced by the hope of reconciling the opposing parties, he left his army in Namur, and imprudently ventured into the power of General Schoenfeld, who commanded the troops of the states. Vander Mersch was instantly arrested and thrown into prison, where he lingered for months, until set free by the overthrow of the faction he had raised to power; but he did not recover his liberty to witness the realization of his hopes for that of his country. The states-general, in their triumph over all that was truly patriotic, occupied themselves solely in contemptible labors to establish the monkish absurdities which Joseph had suppressed. The overtures of the new emperor were rejected with scorn; and, as might be expected from this combination of bigotry and rashness, the imperial troops under General Bender marched quietly to the conquest of the whole country; town after town opening their gates, while Vander Noot and his partisans betook themselves to rapid and disgraceful flight. On the 10th of December, 1791, the ministers of the emperor concluded a convention with those of England, Russia, and Holland (which powers guaranteed its execution), by which Leopold granted an amnesty for all past offences, and confirmed to all his re-covered provinces their ancient constitution and privileges; and, thus returning under the domination of Austria, Belgium saw its best chance for successfully following the noble example of the United Provinces paralyzed by the short-sighted bigotry which deprived the national courage of all moral force.
Leopold enjoyed but a short time the fruits of his well-measured indulgence : he died, almost suddenly, March 1, 1792; and was succeeded by his son Francis IL, whose fate it was to see those provinces of Belgium, which had cost his ancestors so many struggles to maintain, wrested for-ever from the imperial power. Belgium presented at this period an aspect of paramount interest to the world; less owing to its intrinsic importance than to its becoming at once the point of contest between the contending powers, and the theatre of the terrible struggle between republican France and the monarchs she braved and battled with.
The whole combinations of European policy were staked on the question of the French possession of this country.
This war between France and Austria began its earliest operations on the very first days after the accession of Francis II. The victory of Jemappes, gained by Du-mouriez, was the first great event of the campaign. The Austrians were on all sides driven out. Dumouriez made his triumphal entry into Brussels on the 13th of November; and immediately after the occupation of this town the whole of Flanders, Brabant, and Hainault, with the other Belgian provinces, were subjected to France. Soon afterward several pretended deputies from the Belgian people hastened to Paris, and implored the convention to grant them a share of that liberty and equality which was to confer such in-estimable blessings on France. Various decrees were issued in consequence; and after the mockery of a public choice, hurried on in several of the towns by hired Jacobins and well-paid patriots, the incorporation of the Austrian Netherlands with the French republic was formally pronounced.
The next campaign destroyed this whole fabric of revolution. Dumouriez, beaten at Nerwinde by the prince of Saxe-Coburg, abandoned not only his last year’s conquest, but fled from his own army to pass the remainder of his life on a foreign soil, and leave his reputation a doubtful legacy to history. Belgium, once again in the possession of Austria, was placed under the government of the archduke Charles, the emperor’s brother, who was destined to a very brief continuance in this precarious authority.
During this and the succeeding year the war was continued with unbroken perseverance and a constant fluctuation in its results. In the various battles which were fought, and the sieges which took place, the English army was, as usual, in the foremost ranks, under the Duke of York, second son of George III. The Prince of Orange, at the head of the Dutch troops, proved his inheritance of the valor which seems inseparable from the name of Nassau. The archduke Charles laid the foundation of his subsequent high reputation. The emperor Francis himself fought valiantly at the head of his troops. But all the coalesced courage of these princes and their armies could not effectually stop the progress of the republican arms. The battle of Fleurus rendered the French completely masters of Belgium; and the representatives of the city of Brussels once more repaired to the national convention of France, to solicit the reincorporation of the two countries. This was not, however, finally pronounced till the 1st of October, 1795, by which time the violence of an arbitrary government had given the people a sample of what they were to expect. The Austrian Netherlands and the province of Liege were divided into nine departments, forming an integral part of the French republic; and this new state of things was consolidated by the preliminaries of peace, signed at Leoben in Styria, between the French general Bonaparte and the archduke Charles, and confirmed by the treaty of Campo-Formic, on the 17th of October, 1797.