William III succeeded to the throne at a moment of transition. He was thirty-two years of age, and his natural leanings were autocratic; but he accepted loyally the principle of ministerial responsibility, and throughout his long reign endeavoured honestly and impartially to fulfil his duties as a constitutional sovereign. There were at this time in Holland four political parties: (1) the old conservative party, which after 1849 gradually dwindled in numbers and soon ceased to be a power in the State; (2) the liberals, under the leadership of Thorbecke; (3) the anti-revolutionary or orthodox Protestant party, ably led by G. Groen van Prinsterer, better known perhaps as a distinguished historian, but at the same time a good debater and resourceful parliamentarian; (4) the Catholic party. The Catholics for the first time obtained in 1849 the full privileges of citizenship. They owed this to the liberals, and for some years they gave their support to that party, though differing from them fundamentally on many points. The anti-revolutionaries placed in the foreground the upholding of the Reformed (orthodox Calvinistic) faith in the State, and of religious teaching in the schools. In this last article of their political creed they were at one with the Catholics, and in its defence the two parties were destined to become allies.

The liberal majority in the newly elected States-General was considerable; and it was the general expectation that Thorbecke would become head of the government. The king however suspected the aims of the liberal leader, and personally disliked him. He therefore kept in office the Donker-Curtius-De Kempenaer cabinet; but, after a vain struggle against the hostile majority, it was compelled to resign, and Thorbecke was called upon to form a ministry.

Thorbecke was thus the first constitutional prime-minister of Holland. His answer to his opponents, who asked for his programme, was contained in words which he was speedily to justify: "Wait for our deeds." A law was passed which added 55,000 votes to the electorate; and by two other laws the provincial and communal assemblies were placed upon a popular representative basis. The system of finance was reformed by the gradual substitution of direct for indirect taxation. By the Navigation Laws all differential and transit dues upon shipping were reduced; tolls on through-cargoes on the rivers were abolished, and the tariff on raw materials lowered. It was a considerable step forward in the direction of free-trade. Various changes were made to lighten the incidence of taxation on the poorer classes. Among the public works carried to completion at this time (1852) was the empoldering of the Haarlem lake, which converted a large expanse of water into good pasture land.

It was not on political grounds that the Thorbecke ministry was to be wrecked, but by their action in matters which aroused religious passions and prejudices. The prime-minister wished to bring all charitable institutions and agencies under State supervision. Their number was more than 3500; and a large proportion of these were connected with and supported by religious bodies. It is needless to say the proposal aroused strong opposition. More serious was the introduction of a Catholic episcopate into Holland. By the Fundamental Law of 1848 complete freedom of worship and of organisation had been guaranteed to every form of religious belief. It was the wish of the Catholics that the system which had endured ever since the 16th century of a "Dutch mission" under the direction of an Italian prelate (generally the internuncio) should come to an end, and that they should have bishops of their own. The proposal was quite constitutional and, far from giving the papal curia more power in the Netherlands, it decreased it. A petition to Pius IX in 1847 met with little favour at Rome; but in 1851 another petition, much more widely signed, urged the Pope to seize the favourable opportunity for establishing a native hierarchy. Negotiations were accordingly opened by the papal see with the Dutch government, which ended (October, 1852) in a recognition of the right of the Catholic Church in Holland to have freedom of organisation. It was stipulated, however, that a previous communication should be made to the government of the papal intentions and plans, before they were carried out. The only communication that was made was not official, but confidential; and it merely stated that Utrecht was to be erected into an archbishopric with Haarlem, Breda, Hertogenbosch and Roeremonde, as suffragans. The ministry regarded the choice of such Protestant centres as Utrecht and Haarlem with resentment, but were faced with the fait accompli. This strong-handed action of the Roman authorities was made still more offensive by the issuing of a papal allocution, again without any consultation with the Dutch government, in which Pius IX described the establishment of the new hierarchy as a means of counteracting in the Netherlands the heresy of Calvin.