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Righteous Citizens: The Lynching of Johan and Cornelis DeWitt,The Hague, Collective Violens, and the Myth of Tolerance in the Dutch Golden Age, 1650-1672

  • Author(s): DeSanto, Ingrid Frederika
  • Advisor(s): Jacob, Margaret C
  • et al.


In The Hague, on August 20th, 1672, the Grand Pensionary of Holland, Johan DeWitt and his brother Cornelis DeWitt were publicly killed, their bodies mutilated and hanged by the populace of the city. This dissertation argues that this massacre remains such an unique event in Dutch history, that it needs thorough investigation. Historians have focused on short-term political causes for the eruption of violence on the brothers’ fatal day. This work contributes to the existing historiography by uncovering more long-term political and social undercurrents in Dutch society. In doing so, issues that may have been overlooked previously are taken into consideration as well. Research pertaining the exposure to and acceptance of violence in the public sphere shows that, between 1650 and 1672, the municipal court of The Hague decreased the use of violent public punishment. The idea that the populace was usurping the role of judge and executioner, as some theories suggest, is therefore unlikely. Exploration of actual day-to-day crime records reveals that violent crime was not dominant in The Hague. However, migration to The Hague increased significantly between 1650 and 1672. Without a permanent solution for the large influx of people, the magistrates resolved to ban all beggars from The Hague. There was no system in place to assure the expulsion of those “criminals.” This may have put a substantial group of homeless folks on the scene on August 20, 1672. Furthermore, the threat of a French invasion in the early months of 1672 had resulted in economic disarray in Holland, while reports on a failure to defend the East of the Republic from the French must have caused fear and anxiety among Dutch people. In combination, these long-term factors show that the image of the Dutch as tolerant of “others,” - during the prosperous seventeenth-century- may have only applied to people of a wealthier status. The threat of the French invasion of 1672 for a people that had experienced several wars in combination with the lack of governmental assistance for common people, probably set the events in motion that accumulated into the most famous massacre in Dutch history.

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