CHAPTER XXVI. THE ORANGE RESTORATION. DOWNFALL OF THE REPUBLIC, 1788-1795

One of the first steps taken, after the restoration of the stadholder's power had been firmly established, was the appointment of Laurens Pieter van de Spiegel to the post of council-pensionary of Holland in place of the trimmer Bleiswijk. It was quite contrary to usage that a Zeelander should hold this the most important post in the Estates of Holland, but the influence of the princess and of Harris secured his unanimous election on December 3, 1787. Van de Spiegel proved himself to be a statesman of high capacity, sound judgment and great moderation, not unworthy to be ranked among the more illustrious occupants of his great office. He saw plainly the hopeless deadlock and confusion of the machinery of government and its need of root-and-branch revision, but he was no more able to achieve it than his predecessors. The feebleness of the stadholder, the high-handedness of the princess, and the selfish clinging of the patrician-regents to their privileged monopoly of civic power were insuperable hindrances to any attempts to interfere with the existing state of things. Such was the inherent weakness of the Republic that it was an independent State in little more than name; its form of government was guaranteed by foreign powers on whom it had to rely for its defence against external foes.

Prussia by armed force, England by diplomatic support, had succeeded in restoring the hereditary stadholderate to a predominant position in the State. It was the first care of the triumvirate, Harris, Van de Spiegel and the princess, to secure what had been achieved by bringing about a defensive alliance between the Republic, Great Britain and Prussia. After what had taken place this was not a difficult task; and two separate treaties were signed between the States-General and the two protecting powers on the same day, April 15, 1788, each of the three states undertaking to furnish a definite quota of troops, ships or money, if called upon to do so. Both Prussia and England gave a strong guarantee for the upholding of the hereditary stadholderate. This was followed by the conclusion of an Anglo-Prussian alliance directed against France and Austria (August 13). The marriage of the hereditary prince with Frederika Louise Wilhelmina of Prussia added yet another to the many royal alliances of the House of Orange; but, though it raised the prestige of the stadholder's position, it only served to make that position more dependent on the support of the foreigner.

The council-pensionary, Van de Spiegel, did all that statesman could do in these difficult times to effect reforms and bring order out of chaos. It was fortunate for the Republic that the stadholder should have discerned the merits of this eminent servant of the state and entrusted to him so largely the direction of affairs. Internally the spirit of faction had, superficially at least, been crushed by Prussian military intervention, but externally there was serious cause for alarm. Van de Spiegel watched with growing disquietude the threatening aspect of things in France, preluding the great Revolution; and still more serious was the insurrection, which the reforming zeal of Joseph II had caused to break out in the Austrian Netherlands. Joseph's personal visit to his Belgian dominions had filled him with a burning desire to sweep away the various provincial privileges and customs and to replace them by administrative uniformity. Not less was his eagerness to free education from clerical influence. He stirred up thereby the fierce opposition of clericals and democrats alike, ending in armed revolt in Brabant and elsewhere. A desultory struggle went on during the years 1787, '88 and '89, ending in January, 1790, in a meeting of the States-General at Brussels and the formation of a federal republic under the name of "the United States of Belgium." All this was very perturbing to the Dutch government, who were most anxious lest an Austrian attempt at reconquest might lead to a European conflict close to their borders. The death of Joseph on February 24, 1790, caused the danger to disappear. His brother, Leopold II, at once offered to re-establish ancient privileges, and succeeded by tact and moderation in restoring Austrian rule under the old conditions. That this result was brought about without any intervention of foreign powers was in no small measure due to a conference at the Hague, in which Van de Spiegel conducted negotiations with the representatives of Prussia, England and Austria for a settlement of the Belgian question without disturbance of the peace.

The council-pensionary found the finances of the country in a state of great confusion. One of his first cares was a re-assessment of the provincial quotas, some of which were greatly in arrears and inadequate in amount, thus throwing a disproportionate burden upon Holland. It was a difficult task, but successfully carried out. The affairs of the East and West India Companies next demanded his serious attention. Both of them were practically bankrupt.