Jan de Witt visited his brother in his agony, and a mob, bursting into the jail, seized upon both brothers as traitors and murdered them with horrid brutality.
Continuing The Dutch Crisis 1672,
our selection from History of Holland and the Dutch, 900 – 1799 by C.M. Davies. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Dutch Crisis 1672.
Time: 1672 – 78
The internal condition of the United Provinces was at this time such as to incite the combined monarchs, no less than their own successes, to treat them with insolence and oppression. They beheld the inhabitants, instead of uniting with one generous sentiment of patriotism in a firm and strenuous defense of their fatherland, torn by dissensions, and turning against each other the rage which should have been directed against their enemies. The divisions in every province and town were daily becoming wider and more embittered. Though both parties had merited an equal share of blame for the present miscarriages, the people imputed them exclusively to the government of Jan de Witt and his adherents; who, they said, had betrayed and sold the country to France; and this accusation to which their late pusillanimous counsels gave but too strong a color of plausibility, the heads of the Orange party, though well aware of its untruth, diligently sustained and propagated. The ministers of the Church, always influential and always on the alert, made the pulpits resound with declamations against the treachery and incapacity of the present government as the cause of all the evils under which they groaned; and emphatically pointed to the elevation of the Prince of Orange to the dignities of his ancestors as the sole remedy now left them. To this measure De Witt and his brother were now regarded as the only obstacles; and, so perverted had the state of public feeling become that the most atrocious crimes began to be looked upon as meritorious actions, provided only they tended to the desired object of removing these obnoxious ministers.
On one occasion, Jan de Witt, having been employed at the Chamber of the States to a late hour of the night, was returning home attended by a single servant, according to his custom, when he was attacked by four assassins. He defended himself for a considerable time, till having received some severe wounds he fell, and his assailants decamped, leaving him for dead. One only, James van der Graaf, was arrested; the other three took refuge in the camp, where, though the States of Holland earnestly enjoined the Prince of Orange and the other generals to use diligent means for their discovery, they remained unmolested till the danger was passed. Van der Graaf was tried and condemned to death. The pensionary was strongly solicited by his friends to gratify the people by interceding for the pardon of the criminals; but he resolutely refused to adopt any such mode of gaining popularity. Impunity, he said, would but increase the number and boldness of such miscreants; nor would he attempt to appease the causeless hatred of the people against him by an act which he considered would tend to endanger the life of every member of the Government. The determination, however just, was imprudent. The criminal, an account of whose last moments was published by the minister who attended him, was regarded by the populace as a victim to the vengeance of Jan de Witt, and a martyr to the good of his country. On the same day a similar attempt was made on the life of his brother, Cornelius de Witt, at Dordrecht, by a like number of assassins, who endeavored to force their way into his house, but were prevented by the interference of a detachment of the burgher guard.
Cornelius had already, on his return from the fleet in consequence of impaired health, been greeted with the spectacle of his picture, which had given such umbrage to the King of England, cut into strips and stuck about the town, with the head hanging upon the gallows. These symptoms of tumult rapidly increased in violence. A mob assembling, with loud cries of “Oranje boven! de Witten onder!” (“Long live the Prince of Orange! down with the De Witts!”) surrounded the houses of the members of the council, whom they forced to send for the Prince, and to pass an act, repealing the “Perpetual Edict,” declaring him stadtholder, and releasing him from the oath he had taken not to accept that office while he was captain-general. Having been signed by all the other members of the council, this act was carried to the house of Cornelius de Witt, who was confined to his bed by sickness, the populace at the same time surrounding the house and threatening him with death in case of refusal. He long resisted, observing that he had too many balls falling around him lately to fear death, which he would rather suffer than sign that paper; but the prayers and tears of his wife and her threats, that if he delayed compliance she would throw herself and her children among the infuriated populace, in the end overcame his resolution. He added to his signature the letters V.C. (vi coactus), but the people, informed by a minister of their purport, obliged him to erase them.
Similar commotions broke out at Rotterdam, Haarlem, Leyden, Amsterdam, and in other towns, both of Holland and Zealand, where the populace constrained the magistrates by menace and violence to the repeal of the edict. Reluctant to have such a measure forced upon them by tumult and sedition, the States of Holland and Zealand now unanimously passed an act revoking the Perpetual Edict, and conferring on the Prince of Orange the dignity of stadtholder, captain, and admiral-general of these provinces.
Soon afterward Cornelius de Witt was thrown into prison and put to the torture on a false charge of planning the assassination of the Prince of Orange. Jan de Witt visited his brother in his agony, and a mob, bursting into the jail, seized upon both brothers as traitors and murdered them with horrid brutality.
From this time the authority of William became almost uncontrolled in the United Provinces. Most of the leaders of the Louvestein party, either convinced of the necessity of his elevation to power in the present emergency or unwilling to encounter the vexation of a fruitless opposition, acquiesced in the present state of things; many were afterward employed by him, and distinguished themselves by fidelity and zeal in his service. The constant cooperation and participation in his views also of the pensionary, Fagel, gave him an advantage which none of his predecessors had ever enjoyed; the influence of the pensionaries of Holland having hitherto been always opposed, and forming a counterpoise, to that of the stadtholder.
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