The death of Thorbecke was the signal for a growing cleavage between the old doctrinaire school of liberals, who adhered to the principles of 1848, and the advanced liberalism of many of the younger progressive type. To Gerrit de Vries was entrusted the duty of forming a ministry, and he had the assistance of the former first minister, F. van de Putte. His position was weakened by the opposition of the Catholic party, who became alienated from the liberals, partly on the religious education question, but more especially because their former allies refused to protest against the Italian occupation of Rome. The election of 1873 did not improve matters, for it left the divided liberals to face an opposition of equal strength, whenever the conservatives, anti-revolutionaries and Catholics acted together. This same year saw the first phase of the war with the piratical state of Achin. An expedition of 3600 men under General Koehler was sent out against the defiant sultan in April, 1873, but suffered disaster, the General himself dying of disease. A second stronger expedition under General van Swieten was then dispatched, which was successful; and the sultan was deposed in January, 1874. This involved heavy charges on the treasury; and the ministry, after suffering two reverses in the Second Chamber, resigned (June, 1874), being succeeded by a Heemskerk coalition ministry.

Heemskerk in his former premiership had shown himself to be a clever tactician, and for three years he managed to maintain himself in office against the combined opposition of the advanced liberals, the anti-revolutionaries and the Catholics. Groen van Prinsterer died in May, 1876; and with his death the hitherto aristocratic and exclusive party, which he had so long led, became transformed. Under its new leader, Abraham Kuyper, it became democratised, and, by combining its support of the religious principle in education with that of progressive reform, was able to exercise a far wider influence in the political sphere. Kuyper, for many years a Calvinist pastor, undertook in 1872 the editorship of the anti-revolutionary paper, De Standdard. In 1874 he was elected member for Gouda, but resigned in order to give his whole time to journalism in the interest of the political principles to which he now devoted his great abilities.

The Heemskerk ministry had the support of no party, but by the opportunist skill of its chief it continued in office for three years; no party was prepared to take its place, and "the government of the king must be carried on." The measures that were passed in this time were useful rather than important. An attempt to deal with primary instruction led to the downfall of the ministry. The elections of 1877 strengthened the liberals; and, an amendment to the speech from the throne being carried, Heemskerk resigned. His place was taken by Joannes Kappeyne, leader of the progressive liberals. A new department of State was now created, that of Waterways and Commerce, whose duties in a country like Holland, covered with a net-work of dykes and canals, was of great importance. A measure which denied State support to the "private" schools was bitterly resisted by the anti-revolutionaries and the Catholics, whose union in defence of religious education was from this time forward to become closer. The outlay in connection with the costly Achin war, which had broken out afresh, led to a considerable deficit in the budget. In consequence of this a proposal for the construction of some new canals was rejected by a majority of one. The financial difficulties, which had necessitated the imposing of unpopular taxes, had once more led to divisions in the liberal ranks; and Kappeyne, finding that the king would not support his proposals for a revision of the Fundamental Law, saw no course open to him but resignation.

In these circumstances the king decided to ask an anti-revolutionary, Count van Lynden van Sandenburg, to form a "Ministry of Affairs," composed of moderate men of various parties. Van Lynden had a difficult task, but with the strong support of the king his policy of conciliation carried him safely through four disquieting and anxious years. The revolt of the Boers in the Transvaal against British rule caused great excitement in Holland, and aroused much sympathy. Van Lynden was careful to avoid any steps which might give umbrage to England, and he was successful in his efforts. The Achin trouble was, however, still a cause of much embarrassment. Worst of all was the series of bereavements which at this time befell the House of Orange-Nassau. In 1877 Queen Sophie died, affectionately remembered for her interest in art and science, and her exemplary life. The king's brother, Henry, for thirty years Stadholder of Luxemburg, died childless early in 1879; and shortly afterwards in June the Prince of Orange, who had never married, passed away suddenly at Paris. The two sons of William III's uncle Frederick predeceased their father, whose death took place in 1881. Alexander, the younger son of the king, was sickly and feeble-minded; and with his decease in 1884, the male line of the House of Orange-Nassau became extinct. Foreseeing such a possibility in January, 1879, the already aged king took in second wedlock the youthful Princess Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont. Great was the joy of the Dutch people, when, on August 31, 1880, she gave birth to a princess, Wilhelmina, who became from this time forth the hope of a dynasty, whose history for three centuries had been bound up with that of the nation.