Johan de Witt
24-09-1625 – †20-08-1672

Johan de Witt (1625-1675), Grand Pensionary of Holland, by Studio of Adriaen HannemanJohan de Witt was born at Dordrecht, into a family of prosperous merchants and lawyers. De Witt was a member of one of the old burgher-regent families of his native town of Dordrecht (Dort). His father, Jacob, was six times burgomaster and for many years sat for 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.

Johan attended Beeckman’s school in Dordrecht, then in 1641 he entered the University of Leiden to study law together with his older brother Cornelius. At university he showed remarkable talents, especially in mathematics and law. His Elementa curvarum linearum (written before 1650, but published 1659-1661) was one of the first textbooks in analytic geometry. Further he wrote “The Worth of Life Annuities Compared to Redemption Bonds” which applied probability to questions of state finance. He later also applied his mathematical knowledge to the financial and budgetary problems of the republic.

In 1645 Johan and his elder brother Cornelius visited France, Italy, Switzerland and England, then on his return Johan lived at The Hague as an advocate. He received a doctorate in law from University of Angers in 1645. De Witt was an associate of van Schooten and lived for a while in his house. His most important work Elementa curvarum linearum (1659-61) was written before 1650, and was the first systematic development of the analytic geometry of the straight line and conic. It was published by van Schooten as part of his edition of Descartes’ Géometrie (1660). The word directrix is due to de Witt.

In 1650 de Witt was appointed the leader (Pensionary ) of Dordrecht’s deputation (in the government of Holland. In this year the States of Holland found themselves engaged in a struggle for provincial supremacy, on the question of the disbanding of troops. The youthful prince of Orange, William II, 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, his father. The sudden death of William II, at the moment when he had crushed opposition, led to a reaction. He left only a posthumous child, afterwards William III of Orange; the principles advocated by Jacob de Witt triumphed, and the authority of the States became predominant in the republic.

It was his father’s position that gave Johan his opportunity, but his own eloquence, wisdom, and business ability caused him to be appointed councilor pensionary (Raadpensionaris) of Holland on 23 July 1653, at the age of 28. He was reelected in 1658, 1663, and 1668 and held office until just before his death in 1672. He found in 1653 his Country brought to the brink of ruin through the war with England, and he resolved to bring about peace. He rejected Cromwell’s suggestion of the union of England and Holland, but in 1654 the Treaty of Westminster 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 induced the States of Holland to accept, by which the provinces of Holland pledged themselves not to elect a Stadtholder or a captain general. This “Act of Seclusion” was aimed at the young Prince of Orange, whose close relationship to the Stuarts made him an object of suspicion to Cromwell.
Statue of johan and Cornelis de Witt on the Visbrug, Dordrecht

The orthodox Calvinists ministers and regents of The Hague were against “The Act of Seclusion” and incited the people to revolt against the Republicans. Johan de Witt made a concession to the “Orangists” and called out (1668), that the young William III would be “Child of State” and Johan de Witt promised that William III would be educated in “State Business”. A little later (1669) however The States of Holland made a new Act, “The Eternal Edict” in which was stated that there never should be a Stadtholder of the Orange family again. But history should go in another way.

Johan de Witt became the most powerful man in the Republic. During his reign Holland was superior on the world seas with admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp and Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter. Johan de Witt was also an important opponent to the France king Lodewijk XIV. As leader of Holland, de Witt applied his mathematical knowledge to the financial and budgetary problems of the republic. He wrote The Worth of Life Annuities Compared to Redemption Bonds which applied probability to questions of state finance.

De Witt brought about peace with England in 1654 and after this he was extremely successful in bringing prosperity to Holland. The policy of de Witt after the peace of 1654 was eminently successful. He restored the finances of the Country and extended its commercial supremacy in the East Indies. In 1658-1659 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 old grievances about maritime and commercial rights, and war broke out in 1665.

The councilor pensionary himself went to sea with the fleet, and it was owing to his exertions as an organizer and a diplomat quite as much as to the brilliant seamanship of Admiral de Ruyter that the Treaty of Breda (July 31, 1667), maintaining the status quo, was so honorable to the United Provinces. In 1667 he promulgated his “Eternal Edict” for the republican administration of Holland. A still greater triumph of diplomatic skill was the conclusion of the Triple Alliance (Jan. 17, 1668) between the Dutch Republic, England, and Sweden, which checked the attempt of Louis XIV of France to take possession of the Spanish Netherlands in the name of his wife, the infant Maria Theresa.

In 1672 France invaded and there were demonstrations against de Witt. His brother Cornelius was arrested on July 24 and two weeks later on 4 August Johan de Witt resigned as political leader of Holland. Cornelius was put to the torture and on August 19 sentenced to deprivation of his offices and banishment. His brother came to visit him in the Gevangenpoort at The Hague. A vast crowd, hearing this, collected outside and finally burst in, seized the two brothers, and tore them to pieces, they were slaughtered as beasts. The inside of their bodies was eaten by dogs.. Thus perished one of the greatest statesmen of his age and of Dutch history.

It’s one of the sad chapters in Dutch history and the
year 1672 is still called “Rampjaar” (year of disaster).

Source: Wikipedia, onder de GNU Free Documentation License
Dordrecht, standbeeld van de gebroeders Johan en Cornelis de Witt op de Visbrug
Foto door Cicero, 10 juni 2005 (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons)