THE regeneration of Holland was rapid and complete. Within four months, an army .of twenty-five thousand men was raised; and in the midst of financial, judicial, and commercial arrangements, the grand object of the constitution was calmly and seriously debated. A committee, consisting of fourteen persons of the first importance in the several provinces, furnished the result of three months’ labors in the plan of a political code, which was immediately printed and published for the consideration of the people at large. Twelve hundred names were next chosen from among the most respectable householders in the different towns and provinces, including persons of every religious persuasion, whether Jews or Christians. A special commission was then formed, who selected from this number six hundred names; and every housekeeper was called on to give his vote for or against their election. A large majority of the six hundred notables thus chosen met at Amsterdam on the 28th of March, 1814. The following day they assembled with an immense concourse of people in the great church, which was splendidly fitted up for the occasion; and then and there the prince, in an impressive speech, solemnly offered the constitution for acceptance or rejection. After a few hours’ deliberation, a discharge of artillery announced to the anxious population that the constitution had been accepted. The numbers present were four hundred and eighty-three, and the votes as follows : Ayes, four hundred and fifty-eight; Noes, twenty-five.
There were one hundred and seventeen members absent; several of these were kept away by unavoidable obstacles. The majority among them was considered as dissentients; but it was calculated that if the whole body of six hundred had voted, the adoption of the constitution would have been carried by a majority of five-sixths. The dissentients chiefly objected to the power of declaring war and concluding treaties of peace being vested in the sovereign. Some individuals urged that the Protestant interest was endangered by the admission of persons of every persuasion to all public offices; and the Catholics complained that the state did not sufficiently contribute to the support of their religious establishments.
Such objections as these were to be expected, from individual interest or sectarian prejudices. But they prove that the whole plan was fairly considered and solemnly adopted; that so far from being the dictation of a government, it was the freely chosen charter of the nation at large, offered and sworn to by the prince, whose authority was only exerted in restraining and modifying the overardent generosity and confidence of the people.
Only one day more elapsed before the new sovereign was solemnly inaugurated, and took the oath prescribed by the constitution : “I swear that first and above all things I will maintain the constitution of the United Netherlands, and that I will promote, to the utmost of my power, the independence of the state and the liberty and prosperity of its inhabitants.” In the eloquent simplicity of this pledge, the Dutch nation found an ample guarantee for their freedom and happiness. With their characteristic wisdom and moderation, they saw that the obligation it imposed embraced everything they could demand; and they joined in the opinion expressed by the sovereign in his inaugural address, that “no greater degree of liberty could be desired by rational subjects, nor any larger share of power by the sovereign, than that allotted to them respectively by the political code.”
While Holland thus resumed its place among free nations, and France was restored to the Bourbons by the abdication of Napoleon, the allied armies had taken possession of and occupied the remainder of the Low Countries, or those provinces distinguished by the name of Belgium (but then still forming departments of the French empire), and the provisional government was vested in Baron Vincent, the Austrian general. This choice seemed to indicate an intention of restoring Austria to her ancient domination over the country. Such was certainly the common opinion among those who had no means of penetrating the secrets of European policy at that important epoch. It was, in fact, quite conformable to the principle of statu quo ante bellum, adopted toward France. Baron Vincent himself seemed to have been impressed with the false notion; and there did not exist a doubt throughout Belgium of the re-establishment of the old institutions.
But the intentions of the allied powers were of a nature far different. The necessity of a consolidated state capable of offering a barrier to French aggression on the Flemish frontier was evident to the various powers who had so long suffered from its want. By England particularly, such a field was required for the operations of her armies; and it was also to the interest of that nation that Holland, whose welfare and prosperity are so closely connected with her own, should enjoy the blessings of national independence and civil liberty, guaranteed by internal strength as well as friendly alliances.
The treaty of Paris (30th May, 1814), was the first act which gave an open manifestation of this principle. It was stipulated by its sixth article, that “Holland, placed under the sovereignty of the House of Orange, should receive an increase of territory.” In this was explained the primitive notion of the creation of the kingdom of the Netherlands, based on the necessity of augmenting the power of a nation which was destined to turn the balance between France and Germany. The following month witnessed the execution of the treaty of London, which prescribed the precise nature of the projected increase.
It was wholly decided, without subjecting the question to the approbation of Belgium, that that country and Holland should form one United State; and the rules of government in the chief branches of its administration were completely fixed. The Prince of Orange and the plenipotentiaries of the great allied powers covenanted by this treaty : first, that the union of the two portions forming the kingdom of the Netherlands should be as perfect as possible, forming one state, governed in conformity with the fundamental law of Holland, which might be modified by common consent; secondly, that religious liberty, and the equal right of citizens of all persuasions to fill all the employments of the state, should be maintained; thirdly, that the Belgian provinces should be fairly represented in the assembly of the states-general, and that the sessions of the states in time of peace should be held alternately in Belgium and in Holland; fourthly and fifthly, that all the commercial privileges of the country should be common to the citizens at large; that the Dutch colonies should be considered as belonging equally to Belgium; and, finally, that the public debt of the two countries, and the expenses of its interest, should be borne in common.
We shall now briefly recapitulate some striking points in the materials which were thus meant to be amalgamated. Holland, wrenched from the Spanish yoke by the genius and courage of the early princes of Orange, had formed for two centuries an independent republic, to which the extension of maritime commerce had given immense wealth. The form of government was remarkable. It was composed of seven provinces, mutually independent of each other. These provinces possessed during the Middle Ages constitutions nearly similar to that of England : a sovereign with limited power; representatives of the nobles and commons, whose concurrence with the prince was necessary for the formation of laws; and, finally, the existence of municipal privileges, which each town preserved and extended by means of its proper force. This state of things had known but one alteration but that a mighty one the forfeiture of Philip II. at the latter end of the sixteenth century, and the total abolition of monarchical power.
The remaining forms of the government were hardly altered; so that the state was wholly regulated by its ancient usages; and, like some Gothic edifice, its beauty and solidity were perfectly original, and different from the general rules and modern theories of surrounding nations. The country loved its liberty such as it found it, and not in the fashion of any Utopian plan traced by some newfangled system of political philosophy. Inherently Protestant and commercial, the Dutch abhorred every yoke but that of their own laws, of which they were proud even in their abuse. They held in particular detestation all French customs, in remembrance of the wretchedness they had suffered from French tyranny; they had unbounded confidence in the House of Orange, from long experience of its hereditary virtues. The main strength of Holland was, in fact, in its recollections ; but these, perhaps, generated a germ of discontent, in leading it to expect a revival of all the influence it had lost, and was little likely to recover, in the total change of systems and the variations of trade. There nevertheless remained sufficient capital in the country, and the people were sufficiently enlightened, to give just and extensive hope for the future which now dawned on them. The obstacles offered by the Dutch character to the proposed union were chiefly to be found in the dogmatical opinions, consequent on the isolation of the country from all the principles that actuated other states, and particularly that with which it was now joined : while long-cherished sentiments of opposition to the Catholic religion was little likely to lead to feelings of accommodation and sympathy with its new fellow-citizens.
The inhabitants of Belgium, accustomed to foreign domination, were little shocked by the fact of the allied powers having disposed of their fate without consulting their wishes. But they were not so indifferent to the double discovery of finding themselves the subjects of a Dutch and a Protestant king. Without entering at large into any invidious discussion on the causes of the natural jealousy which they felt toward Holland, it may suffice to state that such did exist, and in no very moderate degree. The countries had hitherto had but little community of interests with each other; and they formed elements so utterly discordant as to afford but slight hope that they would speedily coalesce. The lower classes of the Belgian population were ignorant as well as superstitious (not that these two qualities are to be considered as inseparable) ; and if they were averse to the Dutch, they were perhaps not more favorably disposed to the French and Austrians. The majority of the nobles may be said to have leaned more, at this period, to the latter than to either of the other two peoples. But the great majority of the industrious and better informed portions of the middle orders felt differently from the other two, because they had found tangible and positive advantages in their subjection to France, which overpowered every sentiment of political degradation.
We thus see there was little sympathy between the members of the national family. The first glance at the geographical position of Holland and Belgium might lead to a belief that their interests were analogous. But we have traced the anomalies in government and religion in the two countries, which led to totally different pursuits and feelings. Holland had sacrificed manufactures to commerce. The introduction, duty free, of grain from the northern parts of Europe, though checking the progress of agriculture, had not prevented it to flourish marvellously, considering this obstacle to culture; and, faithful to their traditional notions, the Dutch saw the elements of well-being only in that liberty of importation which had made their harbors the marts and magazines of Europe. But the Belgian, to use the expressions of an acute and well-informed writer, “restricted in the thrall of a less liberal religion, is bounded in the narrow circle of his actual locality. Concentrated in his home, he does not look beyond the limits of his native land, which he regards exclusively. Incurious, and stationary in a happy existence, he has no interest in what passes beyond his own doors.”
Totally unaccustomed to the free principles of trade so cherished by the Dutch, the Belgians had found, under the protection of the French custom-house laws, an internal commerce and agricultural advantages which composed their peculiar prosperity. They found a consumption for the produce of their well-cultivated lands, at high prices, in the neighboring provinces of France. The webs woven by the Belgian peasantry, and generally all the manufactures of the country, met no rivalry from those of England, which were strictly prohibited; and being commonly superior to those of France, the sale was sure and the profit considerable.
Belgium was as naturally desirous of this state of things as Holland was indifferent to it; but it could only have been accomplished by the destruction of free trade, and the exclusive protection of internal manufactures. Under such discrepancies as we have thus traced in religion, character, and local interests, the two countries were made one; and on the new monarch devolved the hard and delicate task of reconciling each party in the ill-assorted match, and inspiring them with sentiments of mutual moderation.
Under the title of governor-general of the Netherlands for his intended elevation to the throne and the definitive junction of Holland and Belgium were still publicly un-known), the Prince of Orange repaired to his new state. He arrived at Brussels in the month of August, 1314, and his first effort was to gain the hearts and the confidence of the people, though he saw the nobles and the higher orders of the inferior classes (with the exception of the merchants) intriguing all around him for the re-establishment of the Austrian power. Petitions on this subject were printed and distributed; and the models of those anti-national documents may still be referred to in a work published at the time.
As soon as the moment came for promulgating the decision of the sovereign powers as to the actual extent of the new kingdom that is to say, in the month of February, 1815 the whole plan was made public; and a commission, consisting of twenty-seven members, Dutch and Belgian, was formed, to consider the modifications necessary in the fundamental law of Holland, in pursuance of the stipulation of the treaty of London. After due deliberation these modifications were formed, and the great political pact was completed for the final acceptance of the king and people.
As a document so important merits particular consideration, in reference to the formation of the new monarchy, we shall briefly condense the reasonings of the most impartial and well-informed classes in the country on the constitution now about to be framed. Every one agreed that some radical change in the whole form of government was necessary, and that its main improvement should be the strengthening of the executive power. That possessed by the former stadtholders of Holland was often found to be too much for the chief of a republic, too little for the head of a monarchy. The assembly of the states-general, as of old constructed, was defective in many points; in none so glaringly as in that condition which required unanimity in questions of peace or war, and in the provision, from which they had no power to swerve, that all the taxes should be uniform. Both these stipulations were, of sheer necessity, continually disregarded; so that the government could be carried on at all only by repeated violations of the constitution. In order to excuse measures dictated by this necessity, each stadtholder was perpetually obliged to form partisans, and he thus became the hereditary head of a faction. His legitimate power was trifling: but his influence was capable of fearful increase; for the principle which allowed him to infringe the constitution, even on occasions of public good, might be easily warped into a pretext for encroachments that had no bounds but his own will.
Besides, the preponderance of the deputies from the commercial towns in the states-general caused the others to become mere ciphers in times of peace; only capable of clogging the march of affairs, and of being, on occasions of civil dissensions, the mere tools of whatever party possessed the greatest tact in turning them to their purpose. Hence a wide field was open to corruption. Uncertainty embarrassed every operation of the government. The Hague became an arena for the conflicting intrigues of every court in Europe. Holland was dragged into almost every war; and thus, gradually weakened from its rank among independent nations, it at length fell an easy prey to the French invaders.
To prevent the recurrence of such evils as those, and to establish a kingdom on the solid basis of a monarchy, unequivocal in its essence yet restrained in its prerogative, the constitution we are now examining was established. According to the report of the commissioners who framed it, “It is founded on the manners and habits of the nation, on its public economy and its old institutions, with a disregard for the ephemeral constitutions of the age. It is not a mere abstraction, more or less ingenious, but a law adapted to the state of the country in the nineteenth century. It did not reconstruct what was worn out by time ; but it revived all that was worth preserving. In such a system of laws and institutions well adapted to each other, the members of the commission belonging to the Belgian provinces recognized the basis of their ancient charters, and the principles of their former liberty. They found no difficulty in adapting this law, so as to make it common to the two nations, united by ties which had been broken only for their own misfortune and that of Europe, and which it was once more the interest of Europe to render indissoluble.”
The news of the elevation of William I. to the throne was received in the Dutch provinces with great joy, in as far as it concerned him personally; but a joy considerably tempered by doubt and jealousy, as regarded their junction with a country sufficiently Iarge to counterbalance Holland, oppose interests to interests, and people to people. National pride and oversanguine expectations prevented a calm judgment on the existing state of Europe, and on the impossibility of Holland, in its ancient limits, maintaining the influence which it was hoped it would acquire.
In Belgium the formation of the new monarchy excited the most lively sensation. The clergy and the nobility were considerably agitated and not slightly alarmed; the latter fearing the resentment of the king for their avowed predilection in favor of Austria, and perceiving the destruction of every hope of aristocratical domination. The more elevated of the middle classes also saw an end to their exclusive occupation of magisterial and municipal employments. The manufacturers, great and small, saw the ruin of monopoly staring them in the face. The whole people took fright at the weight of the Dutch debt, which was considerably greater than that of Belgium. No one seemed to look beyond the present moment. The advantage of colonial possessions seemed remote and questionable to those who possessed no maritime commerce; and the pride of national independence was foreign to the feelings of those who had never yet tasted its blessings.
It was in this state of public feeling that intelligence was received in March, 1815, of the reappearance in France of the emperor Napoleon. At the head of three hundred men he had taken the resolution, without parallel even among the grandest of his own powerful conceptions, of invading a country containing thirty millions of people, girded by the protecting armies of coalesced Europe, and imbued, beyond all doubt, with an almost general objection to the former despot who now put his foot on its shores, with imperial pre-tensions only founded on the memory of his bygone glory.
His march to Paris was a miracle; and the vigor of his subsequent measures redeems the ambitious imbecility with which he had hurried on the catastrophe of his previous fall.
The flight of Louis XVIII. from Paris was the sure signal to the kingdom of the Netherlands, in which he took refuge, that it was about to become the scene of another contest for the life or death of despotism. Had the invasion of Belgium, which now took place, been led on by one of the Bourbon family, it is probable that the priesthood, the people, and even the nobility, would have given it not merely a negative support. But the name of Napoleon was a bugbear for every class; and the efforts of the king and government, which met with most enthusiastic support in the northern provinces, were seconded with zeal and courage by the rest of the kingdom.
The national force was soon in the field, under the command of the Prince of Orange, the king’s eldest son, and heir-apparent to the throne for which he now prepared to fight. His brother, Prince Frederick, commanded a division under him. The English army, under the duke of Wellington, occupied Brussels and the various cantonments in its neighborhood; and the Prussians, commanded by Prince Blucher, were in readiness to co-operate with their allies on the first movement of the invaders.
Napoleon, hurrying from Paris to strike some rapid and decisive blow, passed the Sambre on the 15th of June, at the head of the French army, one hundred and fifty thousand strong, driving the Prussians before him beyond Charleroi and back on the plain of Fleurus with some loss. On the 16th was fought the bloody battle of Ligny, in which the Prussians sustained a decided defeat; but they retreated in good order on the little river Lys, followed by Marshal Grouchy with thirty thousand men detached by Napoleon in their pursuit. On the same day the British advanced position at Quatre Bras, and the corps d’armée commanded by the Prince of Orange, were fiercely attacked by Marshal Ney; a battalion of Belgian infantry and a brigade of horse artillery having been engaged in a skirmish the preceding evening at Frasnes with the French advanced troops.
The affair of Quatre Bras was sustained with admirable firmness by the allied English and Netherland forces, against an enemy infinitely superior in number, and commanded by one of the best generals in France. The Prince of Orange, with only nine thousand men, maintained his position till three o’clock in the afternoon, despite the continual attacks of Marshal Ney, who commanded the left of the French army, consisting of forty-three thousand men. But the interest of this combat, and the details of the loss in killed and wounded, are so merged in the succeeding battle, which took place on the 18th, that they form in most minds a combination of exploits which the interval of a day can scarcely be considered to have separated.
The 17th was occupied by a retrograde movement of the allied army, directed by the duke of Wellington, for the purpose of taking its stand on the position he had previously fixed on for the pitched battle, the decisive nature of which his determined foresight had anticipated. Several affairs between the French and English cavalry took place during this movement; and it is pretty well established that the enemy, flushed with the victory over Blucher of the preceding day, were deceived by this short retreat of Wellington, and formed a very mistaken notion of its real object, or of the desperate reception destined for the morrow’s attack.
The battle of Waterloo has been over and over described and profoundly felt, until its records may be said to exist in the very hearts and memories of the nations. The fiery valor of the assault, and the unshakable firmness of the resistance, are perhaps without parallel in the annals of war. The immense stake depending on the result, the grandeur of Napoleon’s isolated efforts against the flower of the European forces, and the awful responsibility resting on the head of their great leader, give to this conflict a romantic sublimity, unshared by all the manoeuvring of science in a hundred commonplace combats of other wars. It forms an epoch in the history of battles. It is to the full as memorable, as an individual event, as it is for the consequences which followed it. It was fought by no rules, and gained by no tactics. It was a fair stand-up fight on level ground, where downright manly courage was alone to decide the issue. This derogates in nothing from the splendid talents and deep knowledge of the rival commanders. Their reputation for all the intricate qualities of generalship rests on the broad base of previous victories. This day was to be won by strength of nerve and steadiness of heart; and a moral grandeur is thrown over its result by the reflection that human skill had little to do where so much was left to Providence.
We abstain from entering on details of the battle. It is enough to state that throughout the day the troops of the Netherlands sustained the character for courage which so many centuries had established. Various opinions have gone forth as to the conduct of the Belgian troops on this memorable occasion. Isolated instances were possibly found, among a mass of several thousands, of that nervous weakness which neither the noblest incitements nor the finest examples can conquer. Old associations and feelings not effaced might have slackened the efforts of a few, directed against former comrades or personal friends whom the stern necessity of politics had placed in opposing ranks. Raw troops might here and there have shrunk from attacks the most desperate on record; but that the great principle of public duty, on grounds purely national, pervaded the army, is to be found in the official reports of its loss; two thousand and fifty-eight men killed and one thousand nine hundred and thirty-six wounded prove indelibly that the troops of the Netherlands had their full share in the honor of the day. The victory was cemented by the blood of the Prince of Orange, who stood the brunt of the fight with his gallant soldiers. His conduct was conformable to the character of his whole race, and to his own reputation during a long series of service with the British army in the Spanish peninsula. He stood bravely at the head of his troops during the murderous conflict; or, like Wellington, in whose school he was formed and whose example was beside him, rode from rank to rank and column to column, inspiring his men by the proofs of his untiring courage.
Several anecdotes are related of the prince’s conduct throughout the day. One is remarkable as affording an example of those pithy epigrams of the battlefield with which history abounds, accompanied by an act that speaks a fine knowledge of the soldier’s heart. On occasion of one peculiarly desperate charge, the prince, hurried on by his ardor, was actually in the midst of the French, and was in the greatest danger; when a Belgian battalion rushed for-ward, and, after a fierce struggle, repulsed the enemy and disengaged the prince. In the impulse of his admiration and gratitude, he tore from his breast one of those decorations gained by his own conduct on some preceding occasion, and flung it among the battalion, calling out, “Take it, take it, my lads ! you have all earned it!” This decoration was immediately grappled for, and tied to the regimental standard, amid loud shouts of “Long live the prince!” and vows to defend the trophy, in the very utterance of which many a brave fellow received the stroke of .death.
A short time afterward, and just half an hour before that terrible charge of the whole line, which decided the victory, the prince was struck by a musket-ball in the left shoulder. He was carried from the field, and conveyed that evening to Brussels, in the same cart with one of his wounded aides-de-camp, supported by another, and displaying throughout as much indifference to pain as he had previously shown contempt of danger.
The battle of Waterloo consolidated the kingdom of the Netherlands. The wound of the Prince of Orange was perhaps one of the most fortunate that was ever received by an individual, or sympathized in by a nation. To a warlike people, wavering in their allegiance, this evidence of the prince’s valor acted like a talisman against disaffection. The organization of the kingdom was immediately proceeded on. The commission, charged with the revision of the fundamental law, and the modification required by the increase of territory, presented its report on the 31st of July. The inauguration of the king took place at Brussels on the 21st of September, in presence of the states-general: and the ceremony received additional interest from the appearance of the sovereign supported by his two sons who had so valiantly fought for the rights he now swore to maintain; the heir to the crown yet bearing his wounded arm in a scarf, and showing in his countenance the marks of recent suffering.
The constitution was finally accepted by the nation, and the principles of the government were stipulated and fixed in one grand view that of the union, and, consequently, the force of the new state.
It has been asked by a profound and sagacious inquirer, or at least the question is put forth on undoubted authority in his name, “Why did England create for herself a difficulty, and what will be by and by a natural enemy, in uniting Holland and Belgium, in place of managing those two immense resources to her commerce by keeping them separate? For Holland, without manufactures, was the natural mart for those of England, while Belgium under an English prince had been the route for constantly inundating France and Germany.”
So asked Napoleon, and England may answer and justify her conduct so impugned, on principles consistent with the general wishes and the common good of Europe. The discussion of the question is foreign to our purpose, which is to trace the circumstances, not to argue on the policy, that led to the formation of the Netherlands as they now exist. But it appears that the different integral parts of the nation were amalgamated from deep-formed designs for their mutual benefit. Belgium was not given to Holland, as the already-cited article of the treaty of Paris might at first sight seem to imply; nor was Holland allotted to Belgium. But they were grafted together, with all the force of legislative wisdom; not that one might be dominant and the other op-pressed, but that both should bend to form an arch of common strength, able to resist the weight of such invasions as had perpetually perilled, and often crushed, their separate independence.