Dutch and British Exceptionalism 
Dutch and British Exceptionalism
by Yale / John Merriman
Video Lecture 3 of 24
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Date Added: November 7, 2009

Lecture Description

Several reasons can be found to explain why Great Britain and the Netherlands did not follow the other major European powers of the seventeenth century in adopting absolutist rule. Chief among these were the presence of a relatively large middle class, with a vested interest in preserving independence from centralized authority, and national traditions of resistance dating from the English Civil War and the Dutch war for independence from Spain, respectively. In both countries anti-absolutism formed part of a sense of national identity, and was linked to popular anti-Catholicism. The officially Protestant Dutch, in particular, had a culture of decentralized mercantile activity far removed from the militarism and excess associated with the courts of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great.

Reading assignment:

Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, pp. 243-260 and 311-334


September 10, 2008

Professor John Merriman: We talked about different political outcomes. Over the long run, Great Britain remains a constitutional monarchy; even in the nineteenth century, when Victoria had great prestige, she did not have great power. The Netherlands also resisted absolutism, and the Dutch Republic remained the Dutch Republic; although, for reasons that we'll see later, the Dutch Republic ceases to be a great power in the eighteenth century. Given the very different route that Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and France went with a centralization of absolute rule, why did it work out so differently for England/Britain and the Netherlands?

Again, this is the second and last of these sort of holding pattern lectures. This parallels exactly what you are reading. Again, until we get our class set and all that, then there will be a very different kind of lecture starting next Monday. But let's just think out loud about what these places had in common, and what this tells you about social structure and political outcomes in early modern Europe. Of course, the consequences are enormous for other kinds of outcomes. Let me give you an example. Germany is not unified until 1871. Ironically, unification proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Château of Versailles, which we'll visit for a few seconds later on.

The fact that German unification was achieved by Prussia and that Prussia was dominated by nobles, who were called Junkers, you'll come to them later, and by an army which--the state basically was an appendage of the army--had rather enormous consequences for Europe in the late nineteenth and above all in the twentieth century. In the 1960s and 1970s people paid a lot more attention to social structure and class analysis. But when you look at the experience of Britain and the Dutch Republic, they do share things that, in a way, determine the kind of political economy that they would have. What are some of these things? I've written them on the board. Let's just start in that order and think aloud. Then what I'm going to do for the last twenty or twenty-five minutes is talk about the Dutch Republic. You can skip that part in the reading, which isn't very long, and illustrate with some paintings, for which you are not responsible, but just to make the points I want to make about the nature of the Dutch Republic, and in which you'll see ways in which it was very similar to England/Great Britain and very different in terms of France.

First of all, it's not a coincidence that in both England and in the Dutch Republic you had, along with the city-states of Northern Italy, you had the largest percentage of middle-class population that you could find in Europe. The middle class in Russia, which I'll talk about on Monday, was just absolutely miniscule. The middle class was extremely small in Prussia. Prussia did not include the Hanseatic League cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg and the others. You have in the Netherlands and in England an astonishingly large middle class. Moreover, in the case of England, there was tremendous fluidity between elites. The percentage of the population who was noble, who had noble titles, was extremely small. Privilege came from wealth and wealth stemmed from the land. Yet, because of the rapid and dramatic expansion of the English role in the global economy, you had lots of very wealthy landlords, property owners investing in commerce, whereas in Spain and in France, and Prussia in particular, it was seen to be sort of slumming for nobles to participate in commerce.

Marxist analysis has given us this all too rigid picture of the nobility sort of letting their nails grow long, "they are nobles because they do nothing." That was part of it. Certainly there were nobles in France who bought up vineyards around Bordeaux. There are nobles around Toulouse who have invested in commercial agriculture. But yet the fact remains that it's really in England that you have this tremendous fluidity within the elite, and that basically commercial money talks as much as propertied money talks. London, already by the late sixteenth century, one-sixth of all the people, I think this is E. A. Wrigley who pointed this out a long time ago--one-sixth of all the people in England went to London frequently, because London was absolutely gigantic as a city. The only cities in Europe that were comparable--and they were smaller--were Naples, an extraordinarily poor city, and Constantinople, Istanbul, and, of course, in Japan, Edo, which would become known as Tokyo.

The percentage of the English population that would have considered themselves to be middle class is extraordinarily large. The same is even more true in the Netherlands. There were, to be sure, nobles in the Netherlands. They tended to live in the eastern part in rural Netherlands and in the south. But their lives and interests were far, far away from that economic large machine, which was Amsterdam. Amsterdam is dominated by the middle classes. Now, the middle class want political rights. They want prerogatives. They want their privileges for themselves. It is fair to argue that non-titled people in England were at the forefront of the victorious role in the civil war that parliament played.

In the city-states of Venice, which was a major trading city already on the decline, and in Florence, and in Milan, and in Turin, and in places like that you find something very comparable, but Italy is not united until the 1860s. Northern Italy has a large percentage of the population who are middle class. But in talking about the political outcomes of states, that doesn't really fit into our analysis here. Part of that is that along with Northern Italy, the Netherlands and England/Great Britain have, by far, the most urbanized population in Europe. If you go into what now is Serbia, there basically was Belgrade, which was a small place. Poland had very lively, important cities, Warsaw and Krakow, and GdaÅ

Course Index

Course Description

This course offers a broad survey of modern European history, from the end of the Thirty Years' War to the aftermath of World War II. Along with the consideration of major events and figures such as the French Revolution and Napoleon, attention will be paid to the experience of ordinary people in times of upheaval and transition. The period will thus be viewed neither in terms of historical inevitability nor as a procession of great men, but rather through the lens of the complex interrelations between demographic change, political revolution, and cultural development. Textbook accounts will be accompanied by the study of exemplary works of art, literature, and cinema.

Course Structure:

This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Fall 2008.

About Professor John Merriman

John Merriman is Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University. Specializing in French and modern European history, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His publications include The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851, A History of Modern Europe Since the Renaissance, and Police Stories: Making the French State, 1815-1851. He is currently at work on Dynamite: Emile Henry, the Café Terminus, and the Origins of Modern Terrorism in Fin-de-Siecle Paris. In 2000, Professor Merriman was the recipient of the Yale University Byrnes-Sewall Teaching Prize.


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