Johan de Witt, the boy wonder who effectively ran the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands from 1653-72, was an early believer in inbox zero. In his office in the westernmost corner of the Binnenhof, the complex of buildings in The Hague that is still the nerve centre of the Dutch government, “Johan worked until his desk was empty: the official letters that he had read aloud during the meeting, the envelopes from relatives, friends and other contacts, his list of decisions taken and his notes from the last meeting. He didn’t go home until everything had been dealt with.
“As soon as a note was finished, he scattered sand over the lines to dry the ink, and he hung it on a wall-mounted wire.... When Johan was finished, the clerks could go to work copying everything according to his strict instructions.”
That’s my translation of a passage from Dutch journalist-turned-historian Luc Panhuysen’s 2005 double biography of De Witt and his older brother and right-hand-man, Cornelis. The book is titled De Ware Vrijheid, which means “the true freedom”, Johan de Witt’s term for the two decades during which he managed his country on behalf of its merchant class, and the noble House of Orange had no say.
The brilliant, hard-working, hyper-organized Johan used that freedom to build what in modern parlance we might call a meritocratic technocracy, bent on globalization and economic growth. For a while, it was spectacularly successful. It didn’t end well, though! The brothers were killed not far from the Binnenhof in August 1672 and cut to pieces by an angry mob.
In these days of populist revolts against globalizing technocratic elites, the De Witts’ story seemed like it might be worth revisiting. The De Witt boys weren’t self-made men—their father was a successful wood merchant who bought his way into government—but Johan in particular did rise to the top largely on merit. He was a brilliant mathematician, a translator and an elaborator of the geometry of Rene Descartes. A government report that he wrote on annuity pricing is now seen as one of the founding documents of both actuarial science and financial economics.
In 1650, at age 25, Johan was chosen as raadpensionaris—a sort of city manager—of his hometown of Dordrecht, the oldest city in Holland, which was by far the richest and most powerful of the seven Dutch provinces. In 1653, representatives of Holland’s other cities asked him to become the province’s raadpensionaris, sometimes translated as grand pensionary. After taking 10 days to think it over, he accepted.
Since the revolt against Spain led by nobleman William of Orange, which led to Dutch independence in 1581, the Netherlands had been ruled by an uneasy collaboration between the House of Orange and the States General, the parliament of the merchant elite. The fact that the Netherlands was constantly at war, and William’s sons Maurice and Frederick Henry were both brilliant military leaders, helped hold things together for decades. But after the signing of the Peace of Muenster in 1648 ended hostilities with Spain, internal tensions grew, and, in 1650, Frederick Henry’s son, William II, seized power in a coup d’etat.
After only a few months in power, though, William II died of smallpox. His only child, William III, was born soon afterwards. So when De Witt took over as grand pensionary of Holland three years later, he didn’t really have a prince of Orange to worry about. As a result he became something akin to a modern prime minister, not just of Holland but of the entire Dutch Republic.
De Witt’s big policy priorities were paying off the war debts and making the world safe for Dutch merchants. That meant big investments in the navy, but neglect of the army, the base of the House of Orange’s strength. The Dutch won a few naval victories, and the economy prospered. The rich merchants benefited most, but Panhuysen reports that the real incomes of Dutch workers rose 20% from 1650 to 1680 as well.
For the crowned heads of Europe, the success of this king-less upstart nation finally became too much to take. In 1672, the French, the English and an assortment of German princes all attacked.
Meanwhile, William III had grown up—he turned 21 in November 1671—and many in the Netherlands looked to him as a potential saviour. Johan de Witt was extremely slow in handing military power over to the prince, and Cornelis was (falsely) accused of plotting to kill him.
The judges didn’t find Cornelis guilty, but on 20 August they nonetheless banned him from Holland for life. When Johan went to Gevangenpoort prison to fetch him, a mob surrounded the brothers and forced them into a cell. After a few hours, the guards dragged them out of the Gevangenpoort, shot them repeatedly, then hung them upside down, at which point the snipping of body parts could begin.
Is this at all relevant to modern politics? Well, at least a little. The public’s resentment of the De Witt brothers lives on in today’s dislike of professional elites, and its embrace of William III bears some parallels to the enthusiasm for populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ own Geert Wilders.
One thing about William III, though: He actually delivered, leading a successful campaign to push back the invaders. We’ll see if any of today’s technocrat-bashing populists can manage that.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist.