CHAPTER XXXII. WILLIAM II. REVISION OF THE CONSTITUTION.

1842-1849

The Dutch nation welcomed the final separation from Belgium with profound relief. The national charges had risen from 15 million florins in 1815 to 38 million florins in 1838. Taxation was oppressive, trade stagnant, and the financial position growing more and more intolerable. The long-tried loyalty of the people, who had entrusted their sovereign with such wide and autocratic powers, had cooled. The king's Belgian policy had obviously been a complete failure; and the rotten state of public finance was naturally in large part attributed to the sovereign, who had so long been practically his own finance minister. Loud cries began to be raised for a revision of the constitution on liberal lines. To the old king any such revision was repugnant; but, unable to resist the trend of public opinion, he gave his assent to a measure of constitutional reform in the spring of 1840. Its limited concessions satisfied no one. Its principal modifications of the Fundamental Law were: (1) the division of the province of Holland into two parts; (2) the reduction of the Civil List; (3) the necessary alteration of the number of deputies in the Second Chamber due to the separation from Belgium; (4) abolition of the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary budget; (5) a statement of the receipts and expenditure of the colonies to be laid before the States-General. Finally the principle of ministerial responsibility was granted most reluctantly, the king yielding only after the Chambers had declined to consider the estimates without this concession. But William had already made up his mind to abdicate, rather than reign under the new conditions. He knew that he was unpopular and out-of-touch with the times; and his unpopularity had been increased by his announced intention of marrying the Countess Henriette D'Oultremont, a Belgian and a Catholic. On October 7 he issued a proclamation by which he handed over the government to his son William Frederick, Prince of Orange. He then retired quietly to his private estates in Silesia. He died at Berlin in 1843.

William II was forty-eight years of age on his accession to the throne. He was a man of a character very different from that of his father. Amiable, accessible, easily influenced, liberal-handed even to extravagance, he was deservedly popular. He had shown himself in the Peninsula, at Quatre Bras and Waterloo and later in the Ten Days' Campaign, to be a capable and courageous soldier, but he possessed few of the qualities either of a statesman or a financier. He had married in 1816 Anna Paulovna, sister of the Tsar Alexander I, after his proposed marriage with the Princess Charlotte of England had been broken off.

He entered upon his reign in difficult times. There was a loud demand for a further sweeping revision of the constitution. Religious movements, which had been gathering force during the reign of William I, required careful handling. One minister after another had tried to grapple with the financial problem, but in vain. In 1840 the public debt amounted to 2200 million florins; and the burden of taxation, though it had become almost unendurable, failed to provide for the interest on the debt and the necessary expenses of administration. The State was in fact on the verge of bankruptcy. The appointment in 1842 of F.A. van Hall (formerly an Amsterdam advocate, who had held the post of minister of justice) to be finance minister opened out a means of salvation. The arrears to 1840 amounted to 35 million florins; the deficit for 1841-3 had to be covered, and means provided for the expenditure for 1843-4. Van Hall's proposals gave the people the choice between providing the necessary money by an extraordinary tax of one and a half per cent, on property and income, and raising a voluntary loan of 150 million florins at 3 per cent. After long debates the States-General accepted the proposal for the voluntary loan, but the amount was reduced to 126 millions. The success of the loan, though at first doubtful, was by March, 1844, complete. The Amsterdam Bourse gave its utmost support; and the royal family set a good example by a joint subscription of 11 million florins. By this means, and by the capitalisation of the annual Belgian payment of five million francs, Van Hall was able to clear off the four years' arrears and to convert the 5 and 4-1/2 per cent. scrip into 4 per cent. He was helped by the large annual payments, which now began to come in from the Dutch East Indies; and at length an equilibrium was established in the budget between receipts and expenditure.