Johan de Witt

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Johan de Witt
Signature Johan de Witt.PNG
Statue of Johan de Witt at De Plaats in The Hague. His two fingers point to the place where he and his brother Cornelis were murdered in 1672.

Johan de Witt (also Jan de Wit ; born September 24, 1625 in Dordrecht , † August 20, 1672 in The Hague ) was the dominant Dutch statesman and one of the first non-monarchs at the head of a board pensioner of Holland for almost 20 years European superpower.

Origin and family, beginnings of his career

Johan de Witt came from the patrician family De Witt from the Dutch city of Dordrecht. His family had been in charge of their hometown for a long time, and De Witt's uncle Andries de Witt also held the post of council pensioner. Johan de Witt's father Jacob de Witt was a leading politician of the so-called state-minded party, which wanted to push back the influence of the Orange princes in the Dutch republic. Through the marriage of one of his uncles to Margaretha von Nassau, daughter of Anna Johanna von Nassau-Siegen , De Witt was a distant relative of the future Dutch governor Wilhelm III. of Orange-Nassau . De Witt attended the Beeckman School in Dordrecht and studied law at the University of Leiden from 1641 . He traveled through Europe (France, Italy, Switzerland, England) with his older brother Cornelis de Witt in 1645. He received his doctorate in law in Angers in 1645. From 1647 to 1650 he worked as a lawyer in The Hague.

Work on mathematics

Johan de Witt also dealt intensively with mathematics , mainly in his early days as a lawyer in The Hague, as he later found no time to do it. He was connected to Frans van Schooten and at that time lived temporarily in his house. In 1649 he finished a book on the then new analytical geometry of conic sections ( Elementa curvarum linearum ), but because of his political activities he did not get to prepare it for publication for a long time. It finally appeared in 1660 as an appendix to the edition of Geometry by René Descartes by Frans van Schooten. Jan de Witt criticized the classical treatment of conic sections ( Apollonios von Perge ) as too complicated and tried to present the theory without recourse to three-dimensional figures (cut surfaces of a cone).

Later he applied mathematics (probability theory) to questions of public finances and life insurance . Christiaan Huygens wrote in 1659 in a letter to John Wallis that - even if there was no lack of mathematical talent in his day - de Witt could have become one of the greatest mathematicians of his time if he had not devoted himself to politics.

With his treatise The Value of Annuities Compared to Bonds (around 1671) he was a pioneer in actuarial mathematics . At that time, part of the state financing in the Netherlands was carried out through bonds that were repaid as annuities. Jan de Witt applied the methods of probability calculation, as already used by Christiaan Huygens in his treatise on games of chance of 1657, with whom he was also in contact. He expressed himself in it in a relatively generally understandable way, in order to reach a larger audience (his letters to Johan Hudde , for example, were mathematically more precise), in a clear language and pragmatic. At first glance, his conclusion was paradoxical: he proposed an interest rate on life annuities of 7 percent compared to the usual interest rate on bonds of 4 percent and stated that this would be more advantageous for both sides (government and customer). The customer had a higher interest rate, the state had the advantage that the debt was extinguished with the death of the buyer. In his letters to Hudde he explained the basis of his calculation, which was based on a simplified evaluation of the mortality tables of the Netherlands (he came close to the concept of the exponential course of the mortality curve ).

Entry into politics

In 1650 de Witt already held one of the most important offices in his native Dordrecht, that of pensioner . As such, he also became a member of the States of Holland , the government of the richest and most powerful of the seven provinces that made up the Dutch republic. When the Dutch councilor Adriaan Pauw died in 1653, the states of Holland, under the intercession of his uncle Cornelis de Graeff , elected him as Pauw's successor. As a council pensioner, he acted from then on as head of government of Holland and, indirectly, of the entire Netherlands at the same time, as Holland dominated the other provinces.

Political goals

As the leader of the state-minded, de Witt pursued the interests of the Dutch wholesale merchants. He had his most important goals formulated in 1662 by his co-thinker Pieter de la Court in the book The Interest of Holland . They read:

  1. Peaceful foreign policy as every war weighed on the economy. De la Court went so far as to suggest that the lion in the Dutch coat of arms should be replaced by a cat.
  2. Greatest possible autonomy for Holland and distancing itself from the other six provinces, as these burdened rich Holland. De la Court suggested digging a huge trench to make the separation clear - but this was meant satirically.
  3. Permanent disempowerment of the Orange princes, since their ambitious dynastic ambitions ran counter to the sober interests of the merchants.

Domestic political support and public appearance

Overview of the main family relationships of the Amsterdam oligarchy around the families Boelens Loen , De Graeff , Bicker (van Swieten) , Witsen and Johan de Witt in the Golden Age .

In 1655 de Witt married Wendela Bicker from the most powerful Amsterdam patrician family Bicker . Thereby he secured the support of Amsterdam, by far the largest and richest city in Holland, and its leading politician Cornelis de Graeff for a long time. Gradually he filled many important posts with friends and relatives. Outwardly, however, he always presented himself as a modest official who walked the streets of The Hague without a bodyguard and with only one servant. According to the English ambassador Sir William Temple , he was outwardly "indistinguishable from the simplest citizen". He himself always stressed that he had "no decisive voice, no authority or power" in the Assembly of the States of Holland. But the French ambassador reported to Paris that power in the Netherlands lay with "Monsieur de Witt".

Acts of seclusion

When de Witt became a council pensioner in 1653, the Dutch Republic was at war with England. The superior English navy blocked the Dutch ports, causing a severe economic crisis. De Witt's primary goal was therefore a speedy peace agreement with England. The English lord protector Oliver Cromwell demanded as a condition that the Orange princes should be forever excluded from power in the Netherlands. Cromwell's motive was that the Orange supported his opponents, the Stuarts royal family . De Witt knew that the other six Dutch provinces would not agree to such a dictation. The Dutch leadership around De Witt, De Graeff, the army commander-in-chief Johann Wolfart van Brederode and the Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam urged the States General to stand behind the secret act of seclusion as a whole . As a result, de Witt drew the hatred of all followers of the Orange, who found themselves mainly in the common people. In these stormy times of the first period without governor , his trusted councilor Coenraad van Beuningen had been of great support to him.

Defender of Dutch commercial interests

After the peace treaty of Westminster in 1654, Dutch trade flourished again. In the following years, de Witt consistently pursued the commercial interests of his country. So in 1658/59 he sent large navies to the Baltic Sea to assist Denmark against Sweden and to secure a free passage for Dutch merchant ships through the Øresund.

Second sea war with England

After Cromwell's death (1658), monarchy was restored in England in 1660 and the Stuarts came back to power. As a result, relations between the two sea and trading powers deteriorated again, and five years later the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) broke out. De Witt reformed the Dutch naval forces by enforcing the construction of larger and heavier armed warships based on the English model. After an initial defeat in the naval battle at Lowestoft , he temporarily took command of the fleet himself. As a remedy for his seasickness, Christiaan Huygens , the inventor of the pendulum clock, developed a special hammock that did not rock. At the end of 1665 Michiel de Ruyter took command of the fleet at De Witt's instigation.

After the great plague and the great fire of London , England was bankrupt in 1667 and could no longer equip a new fleet. De Witt took advantage of this situation by having the Dutch fleet sail up the Medway , a tributary of the Thames, under the command of his brother Cornelis . At Chatham the Dutch destroyed a large part of the English warships anchored there (see raid in the Medway ). The thunder of cannons could be heard in London, causing panic there. England was then ready for peace negotiations, in which de Witt was involved. The peace between the two states was sealed in the Peace of Breda in 1667.

In 1667 De Witt issued the Eeuwig edict ( decree of the century) together with Gaspar Fagel , Gillis Valckenier and Andries de Graeff , which included the abolition of the governorship and thus the final overthrow of the House of Orange .

Conflict with the Sun King

Meanwhile, a new danger loomed: The French Sun King Louis XIV had started an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands - today's Belgium . The Assembly of States General, in which members of all Dutch provincial parliaments were represented, wanted at all costs to prevent France from occupying the Spanish Netherlands and thereby advancing directly to the border of the republic. De Witt therefore concluded an alliance with England and Sweden and threatened Louis XIV with military intervention in the event of a further advance. The Sun King then withdrew. However, he regarded it as an unforgivable affront that the “lawyer de Witt” had risen to become “Europe's referee”. He secretly prepared a war against the Dutch Republic and won England ( Treaty of Dover ), Cologne and Munster as allies.

Disintegration of the power base

De Witt had already passed the height of his power by then. In Amsterdam, the Bickers and De Graeffs , who were kind to him , had been ousted by their political enemy, Gillis Valckenier . Opposition to de Witt's seemingly endless regime also grew in other cities. In addition, he developed a credible opponent in the person of the now adult Prince Wilhelm III. of Orange .

The disaster year

In Rampjaar 1672, Louis XIV marched into the Netherlands with an army of 120,000 men. Since de Witt had neglected the army in favor of the fleet, the French advanced within a few days to the geographical heart of the Netherlands, Utrecht. The States General then had the dikes pierced and the locks opened, thereby submerging parts of the country. This stopped the advance of France and saved the republic, but large areas were devastated.


De Witt was generally blamed for this. He was murdered on June 21, 1672, which he barely survived. However, he was tied to the bed for a long time, which the followers of Wilhelm III. used to force a change of power. Under public pressure - the population was overwhelmingly behind Prince Wilhelm - the states of Holland appointed the 21-year-old governor, a position that had not been filled since 1650. De Witt then resigned as a council pensioner.

The corpses of the de Witt brothers. Painting by Jan de Baen


Shortly afterwards, his brother Cornelis was arrested because the dubious barber Willem Tichelaar accused him of preparing an assassination attempt on Wilhelm. Although there was no evidence against Cornelis and he denied everything under torture, a court sentenced him to life in banishment, apparently for fear of popular anger. When Johan wanted to pick up his brother on August 20, 1672 in the prison in The Hague, directly opposite the government buildings, an angry crowd gathered there. At first the brothers were protected by soldiers, but after a few hours the authorities withdrew them because the Hague was allegedly threatened by angry farmers (which was only a rumor). Johan and Cornelis de Witt were dragged outside and lynched by members of the Hague Rifle Company. Their bodies were hung naked on the scaffold and horribly mutilated, and many body parts were sold. To this day there is a finger and a tongue in the History Museum of The Hague. After his death, De Witt's cousin Pieter de Graeff took over the guardianship of the five half-orphans, including Johan II. De Witt .

De Witt's image in historiography

Up until the 20th century, Johan de Witt's assessment depended heavily on whether the historian in question was a supporter of the Orange House or not. Today there is no question that de Witt was a remarkably rational and also highly intelligent person who also founded actuarial mathematics. Contrary to what his opponents claimed, he was absolutely incorruptible, which was extraordinary for the time. Its financial policy was aimed at consolidation, its economic policy at promoting trade and industry. The Netherlands was a refuge for the persecuted under his government, even the pantheistic philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was able to publish his writings there anonymously, which was no longer possible after de Witt's death. In all of this, however, de Witt only represented the interests of the upper class, on whose support he was dependent. He was not interested in whether his policy was also approved by the majority of the population. This elitist "regent thinking" was his undoing in the end.

In literary terms, the murder of the de Witt brothers was processed by Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Black Tulip .

In the 2015 feature film Der Admiral - Kampf um Europa about Michiel de Ruyter , Johan, Wendela and Cornelis de Witt also appear.



  • Herbert H. Rowen: John de Witt - Statesman of the “True Freedom” . Cambridge University Press 1986. ISBN 0-521-52708-2
  • Jonathan I. Israel: The Dutch Republic - Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall - 1477-1806 . Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995. ISBN 978-0-19-820734-4
  • Luc Panhuysen: De Ware Vrijheid, De levens van Johan en Cornelis de Witt . Atlas 2005
  • Mirte Postma: Johan de Witt en Coenraad van Beunuingen - Correspondentie tijdens de Noordse oorlog (1655-1660) . Scriptio Verlag 2007
  • Christoph Driessen: History of the Netherlands - From sea power to trend country . Pustet, Regensburg 2009, ISBN 3791721739
  • N. Japikse: Johan de Witt , Amsterdam 1913, 2nd edition 1927
  • Albert W. Grootendorst, Jan Aarts, Miente Bakker, Reinie Erné (eds.): Jan de Witt's Elementa Curvarum Linearum, Liber Secundus , Springer 2010
  • A. Grootendorst: The conic sections according to Johan de Witt (Dutch), in: Summer course 1995, Conic sections and quadratic forms, Amsterdam 1995, pp. 15-55

Web links

Commons : Johan de Witt  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Herbert H. Rowen: John de Witt - Statesman of the "True Freedom" (1986), p. 47.
  2. ^ German translation of The worth of life annuities to redemption bonds . Rowen, John de Witt, Grand Pensionary of Holland 1625-1672, Princeton UP 1978, p. 418.
  3. Craig Turnbull: A history of British actuarial thought, Palgrave Macmillan 2017, pp. 9 ff, on John Graunt, Johan de Witt.
  4. ^ Herbert H. Rowen: John de Witt - Statesman of the "True Freedom" ; 1986
  5. Christoph Driessen : History of the Netherlands, From the sea power to the trend land , Regensburg 2009, p. 89.
  6. Ronald Prud'homme van Reine: Moordenaars van Jan de Witt - de zwartste bladzijde van de Gouden Eeuw , Amsterdam 2013.
  7. Tong en vinger gebroeders De Witt. Haags Historisch Museum, accessed on August 18, 2016 (Dutch).
  8. Christoph Driessen : History of the Netherlands: From the sea power to the trend land , Regensburg 2009, p. 89 f. and 128 ff.
  9. The Admiral - Battle for Europe (2015). In: ., Inc. , September 10, 2019, accessed September 10, 2019 .
predecessor Office successor
Johan de Merode Lord of Zuid- and Noord-Linschoten , Snelrewaard, Hekendorp and IJsselveere
Johan II de Witt
Adriaan Pauw Pensioner of Holland
Gaspar Fagel