The Union, the United Provinces as a confederacy

The Union of Utrecht
Coat of Arms of the Staten Generaal
Arms of the Staten Generaal, originally
by Arch. History of the Arms

1 The treaty of Utrecht

The United provinces had been created by the conclusion of the treaty called the Union of Utrecht in 1579. By this treaty the sovereign states (provinces) involved transferred part of their sovereignty i.e. in defense, related taxation and foreign policy to a new entity called the Union1.

2 The United Provinces as a state

One can say that the existence of persons or institutions independently ruling over a certain territory and pretending to be a state are what makes a territory into a state. In the case of the United Provinces the state thus consisted of the institutions of the Union and its officials. In foreign affairs, defense and related taxation these ruled over the territories of the member states. Outside of its members' territories these institutions ruled in (theoretically) unlimited sovereignty over the territories the Union had conquered. These were the so called 'Generaliteitslanden' of which the most important were terrritories in Flanders, Brabant and Limbourg2.

3 The Members of the Union

In 1700 the members of the Union were the states of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Gelderland and Overijssel (Drenthe was a member without representation in the union).It would be wrong to think of the United Provinces as a confederacy of 7 equal partners. Theoretically it was, but in praxis the states of Holland were dominant in the union. This is no surprise considering Holland counted for about half the population and always paid more than half of the costs (army, navy, subsidies) of the union. This in turn meant that the policy of the states of Holland and its dignitaries had an importance of their own in foreign affairs.

4 Institutions of the United Provinces

4.1 The Staten Generaal

The United Provinces had its own 'parliament' called the 'Staten Generaal' in which representatives of the seven voting provinces met. The Staten Generaal met at the 'Binnenhof', with each province free to send as many representatives as they liked, but only having 2-6 seats, and one vote. It is important to note that these representatives were indeed representatives bound to the instruction they had been given by their provincial masters. On most things these representatives could decide directly, but sometime they had to consult their provincial Staten or a commission from these. (For changing the constitution itself the so-called 'Grand Assembly' consisting of the members of all provincial staten could be convened. This happened a few times but did not lead to substantial results.)

The Staten Generaal were the institute that handled foreign affairs, concluded international treaties and decided about war and peace. It also decided on the strength of the army and navy and controlled their actions by sending their 'Gedeputeerden te Velde'. Overseas the large trading companies derived their authority from the Staten Generaal. For its income it depended on levying taxes in the Generaliteitslanden and levying custom and convoi duties. These did not bring in enough to cover its expenses, and so its treasury had to be suppleted by consents upon which the members had to agree unanoumishly. This weakness in the constitution would later on prove ruinous for the United Provinces3. One of the most important dignitaries of the States General was the 'Griffier', see below for his responsibilities.

4.2 The Raad van State

The 'Raad van State' (Council of state / Conseil d'état) had a different role from what was previously envisioned. It had originally been planned as an executive and lawmaking government of the union, with the States-General meeting only occasionally to deliberate on taxes. Due to all kinds of reasons, especially the presence of English members in the Raad van State till 1627, this had not come to pass. By then the States General were in permanent session, and not willing to relinguish control. The Stadtholder and field-deputies of the States-General had gained control of defense.

The Raad van State became a kind of executive committee for certain tasks. These were finance and the military, with the exception of naval matters. There were 12 members: Holland had three members, Friesland, Groningen and Zeeland two, and Gelderland, Utrecht and Overijssel one. The presidency of the council rotated among these members. The Stadtholder was also a member. The most important official of the Raad van State was the Thesaurier Generaal. The Ontvanger Generaal of the Raad was a dignitary receiving taxes, the secretary of the Raad could also be important.

Primarily the Raad van State was responsible for the finances of the Union. Each year it proposed a budget to the Staten Generaal accompanied by a kind of State of the Union in which it described the state of affairs. After the consents of the members the Raad then saw to the money actually coming in. The imposition of taxes in the Generaliteitslanden and some other minor taxes was executed by the Raad itself.

In military affairs the council administrated the army, military supplies and the fortresses, the command lay elsewhere.

4.3 The Generaliteits Rekenkamer

The Generaliteitsrekenkamer managed the accounting of the union. It checked the accounts of the money received by and from the provinces, the admiralities, the ontvanger Generaal, in the Generaliteitslanden etc. Each province had two representatieves in this council.

5 The officials of the United Provinces

5.1 The Captain General and Admiral General

Just like the provinces the Union could appoint a Captain General and an Admiral General. These have always been ruling stadholders. Next to that they could appoint a stadholder over the Generaliteitslanden. The sum of all the powers the stadholder held in his provinces, his dignity as a prince, popular support and the military command generally gave him such power that he was often the most influential man on the level of the Union, this even though he did not have much formal authority in the union.

5.2 The 'Griffier' of the States General

The 'Griffier' was the first servant of the States General. The griffier was a kind of secretary or chancellor. What made him powerful was:

  • He composed the agenda of each meeting of the States General together with the pensionary and a 'president of the week'.
  • He reads the acts on which one is to deliberate.
  • He formulated the decisions of the States General.
  • He writes messages from the States General.
  • He is present at all the (secret) committee meetings and makes their reports and notes their decisions.
  • Regularly transmits messages to foreign diplomats.
  • Leads the chancellery.
  • Corresponds with the Dutch ambassadors (but see also the pensionary's responsibilities).

Even though it looks like these duties do not give a lot of power to the griffier one has to bear in mind that the Griffier was on his post for a very long time. This meant he was the man to know all, and the man to get acquainted to as ambassador of a foreign power. To foreigners the griffier is a minister, not an a-political civil servant. From 1690 till 1744 François Fagel was Griffier of the States General.

5.3 The Thesaurier Generaal of the Raad van State

The Thesaurier Generaal of the Raad van State can be considered the minister of Finance of the United Provinces. The Thesaurier Generaal was responsible for proper spending of the money that the Raad van State collected from the members of the union and from other sources. In 1699 Jacob Hop had been appointed as Thesaurier Generaal. The Ontvanger Generaal of the Raad was a dignitary overseeing this collection.

5.4 The Secretary of the Raad van State

The Secretary of the Raad van State was probably responsible for some general things like organizing meetings of this council etc., but he did not preside over meetings. In day to day affairs the secretary was the recipient of most of the correspondence from the army. He also corresponded a lot with the Field Deputies. In 1690 Simon van Slingelandt had become secretary of the Raad van State.

5.5 The Grand Pensionary of Holland

The Grand Pensionary of Holland was not an official of the union. However, by custom the Grand Pensionary of Holland was also the Holland representative in the Union. As a consequence he was always present in the meetings of the States General. See the Holland chapter for his function and influence on the Union. Grand Pensionary Anthonie Heinsius was the man directing the United Provinces during the Spanish Succession War.

6 Notes

1) In fact the United Provinces had been founded partly by treaties and partly by the events of the 80 years war. The above is a very simplified version, but also the version most contemporaries took for fact.
2) The Union can be compared to the European union which interferes in anything but defense, related taxation and foreign policy. This is why the UP were a state in international relations and the EU is not.
3) The abovementioned perception of the Union of Utrecht can also be considered as the model for the foundation of the United States of America. The United States of America did however perceive that a strong executive was needed in such a confederacy.