De Witt, John
DE WITT, JOHN (1625-1672), Dutch statesman, was born at Dort, on the 24th of September 1625. He was a member of one of the old burgher-regent families of his native town. His father, Jacob de Witt, was six times burgomaster of Dort, and for many years sat as a representative of the town in the states of Holland. He was a strenuous adherent of the republican or oligarchical states-right party in opposition to the princes of the house of Orange, who represented the federal principle and had the support of the masses of the people. John was educated at Leiden, and early displayed remarkable talents, more especially in mathematics and jurisprudence. In 1645 he and his elder brother Cornelius visited France, Italy, Switzerland and England, and on his return he took up his residence at the Hague, as an advocate. In 1650 he was appointed pensionary of Dort, an office which made him the leader and spokesman of the town's deputation in the state of Holland. In this same year the states of Holland found themselves engaged in a struggle for provincial supremacy, on the question of the disbanding of troops, with the youthful prince of Orange, William II. William, with the support of the states-general and the army, seized five of the leaders of the states-right party and imprisoned them in Loevestein castle; among these was Jacob de Witt. The sudden death of William, at the moment when he had crushed opposition, led to a reaction. He left only a posthumous child, afterwards William III. of Orange, and the principles advocated by Jacob de Witt triumphed, and the authority of the states of Holland became predominant in the republic.
At this time of constitutional crisis such were the eloquence, sagacity and business talents exhibited by the youthful pensionary of Dort that on the 23rd of July 1653 he was appointed to the office of grand pensionary (Raadpensionaris) of Holland at the age of twenty-eight. He was re-elected in 1658, 1663 and 1668, and held office until his death in 1672. During this period of nineteen years the general conduct of public affairs and administration, and especially of foreign affairs, such was the confidence inspired by his talents and industry, was largely placed in his hands. He found in 1653 his country brought to the brink of ruin through the war with England, which had been caused by the keen commercial rivalry of the two maritime states. The Dutch were unprepared, and suffered severely through the loss of their carrying trade, and De Witt resolved to bring about peace as soon as possible. The first demands of Cromwell were impossible, for they aimed at the absorption of the two republics into a single state, but at last in the autumn of 1654 peace was concluded, by which the Dutch made large concessions and agreed to the striking of the flag to English ships in the narrow seas. The treaty included a secret article, which the states-general refused to entertain, but which De Witt succeeded in inducing the states of Holland to accept, by which the provinces of Holland pledged themselves not to elect a stadtholder or a captain-general of the union. This Act of Seclusion, as it was called, was aimed at the young prince of Orange, whose close relationship to the Stuarts made him an object of suspicion to the Protector. De Witt was personally favourable to this exclusion of William III. from his ancestral dignities, but there is no truth in the suggestion that he prompted the action of Cromwell in this matter.
The policy of De Witt after the peace of 1654 was eminently successful. He restored the finances of the state, and extended its commercial supremacy in the East Indies. In 1658-59 he sustained Denmark against Sweden, and in 1662 concluded an advantageous peace with Portugal. The accession of Charles II. to the English throne led to the rescinding of the Act of Seclusion; nevertheless De Witt steadily refused to allow the prince of Orange to be appointed stadtholder or captain-general. This led to ill-will between the English and Dutch governments, and to a renewal of the old grievances about maritime and commercial rights, and war broke out in 1665. The zeal, industry and courage displayed by the grand pensionary during the course of this fiercely contested naval struggle could scarcely have been surpassed. He himself on more than one occasion went to sea with the fleet, and inspired all with whom he came in contact by the example he set of calmness in danger, energy in action and inflexible strength of will. It was due to his exertions as an organizer and a diplomatist quite as much as to the brilliant seamanship of Admiral de Ruyter, that the terms of the treaty of peace signed at Breda (July 31, 1667), on the principle of uti possidetis, were so honourable to the United Provinces. A still greater triumph of diplomatic skill was the conclusion of the Triple Alliance (January 17, 1668) between the Dutch Republic, England and Sweden, which checked the attempt of Louis XIV. to take possession of the Spanish Netherlands in the name of his wife, the infanta Maria Theresa. The check, however, was but temporary, and the French king only bided his time to take vengeance for the rebuff he had suffered. Meanwhile William III. was growing to manhood, and his numerous adherents throughout the country spared no efforts to undermine the authority of De Witt, and secure for the young prince of Orange the dignities and authority of his ancestors.
In 1672 Louis XIV. suddenly declared war, and invaded the United Provinces at the head of a splendid army. Practically no resistance was possible. The unanimous voice of the people called William III. to the head of affairs, and there were violent demonstrations against John de Witt. His brother Cornelius was (July 24) arrested on a charge of conspiring against the prince. On the 4th of August John de Witt resigned the post of grand pensionary that he had held so long and with such distinction. Cornelius was put to the torture, and on the 19th of August he was sentenced to deprivation of his offices and banishment. He was confined in the Gevangenpoort, and his brother came to visit him in the prison. A vast crowd on hearing this collected outside, and finally burst into the prison, seized the two brothers and literally tore them to pieces. Their mangled remains were hung up by the feet to a lamp-post. Thus perished, by the savage act of an infuriated mob, one of the greatest statesmen of his age.
John de Witt married Wendela Bicker, daughter of an influential burgomaster of Amsterdam, in 1655, by whom he had two sons and three daughters.
Bibliography. - J. Geddes, History of the Administration of John de Witt, (vol. i. only, London, 1879); A. Lefèvre-Pontalis, Jean de Witt, grand pensionnaire de Hollande (2 vols., Paris, 1884); P. Simons, Johan de Witt en zijn tijd (3 vols., Amsterdam, 1832-1842); W. C. Knottenbelt, Geschiedenis der Staatkunde van J. de Witt (Amsterdam, 1862); J. de Witt, Brieven ... gewisselt tusschen den Heer Johan de Witt ... ende de gevolgmaghtigden v. d. staedt d. Vereen. Nederlanden so in Vranckryck, Engelandt, Sweden, Denemarken, Poolen, enz. 1652-69 (6 vols., The Hague, 1723-1725); Brieven ... 1650-1657 (1658) eerste deel bewerkt den R. Fruin uitgegeven d., C. W. Kernkamp (Amsterdam, 1906).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)