The Dutch Revolt was an uprising that pitted the Protestant northern areas of the Netherlands against the Roman Catholic southern areas of this region in the 16th century. The 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke classified it with the “American rebellion” and the English Civil War as an “illustration of the regenerative forces of Protestantism” (Burke, Edmund Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America). Thus, Mr. Burke grouped the Dutch revolt historically with conflicts that are much more famous today. However Burke is usually considered a conservative. He usually supported the monarchy. He was also raised as a Catholic.
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His approval of the Dutch rebels thus seems like a contradiction. However, a closer examination of his ideas, and of the Dutch revolt itself, suggests that he saw the situation in Holland as an example of a positive removal of a government that did not deserve to be supported.
The situation had developed over several years. The Spanish king Phillip II took what he expected to be centralized control of the Netherlands in 1555. These were a grouping of states which had been more or less self-governing. At least, each had their own nobleman leading them. King Phillip tried to impose new taxes, which were resisted because these states had historically played a role in the levying of their own taxes. The nobles did not appreciate this reduction in their power and authority, and the limits on the “ancient liberties” of their towns and cities (Parker 24).
Phillip II also tried to reorganize the operations of the Roman Catholic Church in the states of the Low Countries. He also encouraged the Inquisition in rooting out supposed heresy. The Inquisition was administered by Dominican friars, and was originally established during the regime of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (Parker 15). This was resented because the Netherlands had adopted the Reformation ideas of Martin Luther early and enthusiastically.
These were considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. The people who were actually Protestant were in danger of being arrested, tried, and executed for supposed heresy by the Inquisition. However, many practicing Catholics did not like the way that the Inquisition interfered with their authority to decide who should be put on trial, and disrupted the peace. Constant arrests and inquisitions also probably interfered with business and trade (Parker).
By 1566, Protestants took up arms against the regime, and wrecked many Catholic churches in the process. Prince William of Orange wrote letters to both Protestant and Catholic towns supporting the movement. In these documents, he tied together the concept of traditional liberties, and the notion of business success (Deen, Onnekink and Reinders). These were both important values for the Dutch people (Parker).
Edmund Burke remembered these events and used them as examples in his writings. His writings suggest that he was supportive of monarchy. For example, he famously called the fighters in the French Revolution “Regicides”. This meant that he thought they were not heroes but just king-killers (Burke, Vol. 1, Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies). Why, then, did he write about the Dutch Revolt so positively, as noted above?
His writings suggest that he considered the Dutch revolt a largely religious conflict (Burke, Edmund Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America 121), although later scholarship reveals the complex economic and military issues involved, including the bankrupting of the Spanish government by the Dutch blockade of the salt trade (Laszlo 52). In Burke’s lifetime, Irish Catholics were discriminated against, including Burke himself (Rastatter). Thus, he was aware of the problems of religious intolerance. For this reason, he would probably have been in support of the rights of Protestants to pursue their own style of worship.
His words also suggest that he admired business success and anything that encouraged it. His use of the positive term “regenerative” suggests that he thought that revolt of the Dutch Protestants was a beneficial event for the values that he supported. He admired the American colonies for the amount of trade that they accomplished. He noted that “The trade with America alone is now within less than 500,000l of being equal to what this great commercial nation, England, carried on at the beginning of this century with the whole world!” (Burke, Selected Works of Edmund Burke). He did not want this success to be interfered with by government. As an example of how he thought, he asserted, for example, in a discussion of the American Revolution, that the American colonies should have had the privilege to tax themselves.
He stated that “My resolutions, therefore, mean to establish the equity and justice of a taxation of America by grant, and not by imposition; to mark the legal competency of the colony assemblies for the support of their government in peace” (Burke, The works of Edmund Burke, Volume 1 489). He believed that people should have the right to the results of their own labor, saying that man “has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour” (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 50)
His writings suggest that he was supportive of monarchy. He famously called the fighters in the French Revolution “Regicides”. This meant that he thought they were not heroes but just king-killers (Burke, Vol. 1, Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies). Why, then, did he write about the Dutch Revolt so positively, as noted above? Perhaps the reason is that he was also criticized monarchs guilty of “abuses accumulated in a length of time, as they must accumulate in every monarchy not under the constant inspection of a popular representative.” (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 104).
The Spanish monarchy was described by observers as “butchers” in their treatment of their possessions, including the Netherlands (Parker 18). King Phillip II continued this pattern of behavior, and thus Burke would have had much to deplore.
However, the Irish-born Edmund Burke is remembered as a conservative because he wanted to keep the established ways. He believed in “preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state” because, “in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.” (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 29). He thus would have been perhaps happier if the Dutch Protestants had not destroyed churches so energetically.
Thus, Burke, a complicated and thoughtful observer of the events in his lifetime and previously, would have had some things to respect and others that he would have preferred to be done differently. He would have supported religious tolerance, monarchical forbearance, and liberty of business, combined with what Preece calls “discriminatory interventionism” (Preece, The Political Economy of Edmund Burke). He would not probably have liked the destruction of churches because it was an overthrow of the old, and because it was disrespectful to religious buildings. He saw the Dutch revolt overall as a positive occurrence.
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Burke, Edmund. Edmund Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with America. Google E-Books, 1906. Web.
“Reflections on the Revolution in France.” 1790. Archive.org. Web.
“Selected Works of Edmund Burke.” 2015. Econlib.org. Web.
The works of Edmund Burke, Volume 1. Vol. 1. Google E-Book, 1886. Web.
“Vol. 1, Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies.” 2015. Econlib. Web.
Deen, Femke, David Onnekink and Michel Reinders. “Pamphlets and politics in the Dutch Republic.” 2010. ebook-manuals.net. Web.
Laszlo, Pierre. Salt: Grain of Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Web.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Dutch Revolt. London: Allen Lane, 1977. Print.
Preece, Rod. “The Political Economy of Edmund Burke.” Modern Age (1980): 266-273. Web.
Rastatter, Paul J. “A report on the life of Edmund Burke.” n.d. Web.