CHAPTER XXIV. WILLIAM V. FIRST PERIOD, 1766-1780
Of all the stadholders of his line William V was the least distinguished. Neither in appearance, character nor manner was he fitted for the position which he had to fill. He had been most carefully educated, and was not wanting in ability, but he lacked energy and thoroughness, and was vacillating and undecided at moments when resolute action was called for. Like his contemporary Louis XVI, had he been born in a private station, he would have adorned it, but like that unhappy monarch he had none of the qualities of a leader of men in critical and difficult times. It was characteristic of him that he asked for confirmation from the Provincial Estates of the dignities and offices which were his by hereditary right. In every thing he relied upon the advice of the Duke of Brunswick, whose methods of government he implicitly followed. To such an extent was this the case that, soon after his accession to power, a secret Act was drawn up (May 3, 1766), known as the Act of Consultation, by which the duke bound himself to remain at the side of the stadholder and to assist him by word and deed in all affairs of State. During the earlier years therefore of William V's stadholderate he consulted Brunswick in every matter, and was thus encouraged to distrust his own judgment and to be fitful and desultory in his attention to affairs of State.
One of the first of Brunswick's cares was to provide for the prince a suitable wife. William II, William III and William IV had all married English princesses, but the feeling of hostility to England was strong in Holland, and it was not thought advisable for the young stadholder to seek for a wife in his mother's family. The choice of the duke was the Prussian Princess Wilhelmina. The new Princess of Orange was niece on the paternal side of Frederick the Great and on the maternal side of the Duke of Brunswick himself. The marriage took place at Berlin on October, 4 1767. The bride was but sixteen years of age, but her attractive manners and vivacious cleverness caused her to win the popular favour on her first entry into her adopted country.
The first eight years of William's stadholdership passed by quietly. There is little to record. Commerce prospered, but the Hollanders were no longer content with commerce and aimed rather at the rapid accumulation of wealth by successful financial transactions. Stock-dealing had become a national pursuit. Foreign powers came to Amsterdam for loans; and vast amounts of Dutch capital were invested in British and French funds and in the various German states. And yet all the time this rich and prosperous country was surrounded by powerful military and naval powers, and, having no strong natural frontiers, lay exposed defenceless to aggressive attack whether by sea or land. It was in vain that the stadholder, year by year, sent pressing memorials to the States-General urging them to strengthen the navy and the army and to put them on a war footing. The maritime provinces were eager for an increase of the navy, but the inland provinces refused to contribute their quota of the charges. Utrecht, Gelderland, Overyssel and Groningen on the other hand, liable as they were to suffer from military invasion, were ready to sanction a considerable addition to the land forces, but were thwarted by the opposition of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland. So nothing was done, and the Republic, torn by divided interests and with its ruling classes lapped in self-contented comfort and luxury, was a helpless prey that seemed to invite spoliation.
This was the state of things when the British North American colonies rose in revolt against the mother-country. The sympathies of France were from the first with the colonials; and a body of volunteers raised by Lafayette with the connivance of the French overnment crossed the Atlantic to give armed assistance to the rebels. Scarcely less warm was the feeling in the Netherlands. The motives which prompted it were partly sentimental, partly practical. There was a certain similarity between the struggle for independence on the part of the American colonists against a mighty state like Great Britain, and their own struggle with the world-power of Spain. There was also the hope that the rebellion would have the practical result of opening out to the Dutch merchants a lucrative trade with the Americans, one of whose chief grievances against the mother-country had been the severity of the restrictions forbidding all trading with foreign lands. At the same time the whole air was full of revolutionary ideas, which were unsettling men's minds. This was no less the case in the Netherlands than elsewhere; and the American revolt was regarded as a realisation and vindication in practical politics of the teaching of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, whose works were widely read, and of the Englishmen Hume, Priestley and Richard Price. Foremost among the propagandists of these ideas were Jan Dirk van der Capellen tot de Pol, a nobleman of Overyssel, and the three burgomasters of Amsterdam, Van Berckel, De Vrij Temminck and Hooft, all anti-Orange partisans and pro-French in sentiment. Amidst all these contending factions and opinions, the State remained virtually without a head, William V drifting along incapable of forming an independent decision, or of making a firm and resolute use of the great powers with which he was entrusted.