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Johan de Witt


Johan de Witt

Johan de Witt
Grand Pensionary of Holland
In office
Preceded by Adriaan Pauw
Succeeded by Gaspar Fagel
Personal details
Born (1625-09-24)24 September 1625
Dordrecht, Dutch Republic
Died 20 August 1672(1672-08-20) (aged 46)
The Hague, Dutch Republic
Political party States Faction
Religion Dutch Reformed
Wendela Bicker (1659), by Adriaen Hanneman
Statue of Johan and Cornelis de Witt in Dordrecht
Johan de Witt
Unveiling of statue of Johan de Witt on De Plaats in The Hague by Queen Wilhelmina, 12 June 1918
The bodies of the brothers De Witt, by Jan de Baen
The coat of arms used by the De Witt Family of Dordrecht. Image taken from the base of the statue of the De Witt brothers in Dordrecht above[1][2]

Johan de Witt or Jan de Witt, heer van Zuid- en Noord-Linschoten, Snelrewaard, Hekendorp and IJsselveere[3] (24 September 1625 – 20 August 1672) was a key figure in Dutch politics in the mid-17th century, when its flourishing sea trade in a period of globalization made the United Provinces a leading European power during the Dutch Golden Age. De Witt controlled the Netherlands political system from around 1650 until shortly before his death in 1672 working with various factions from nearly all the major cities, especially his hometown, Dordrecht, and the city of birth of his wife, Amsterdam. As a republican he opposed the House of Orange and, along with his brother Cornelis de Witt, was murdered by Orangists.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Private life 1.2
    • Career 1.3
      • As the first Statesman of the Dutch Republic 1.3.1
    • Death 1.4
    • Mathematician 1.5
  • Family and arms 2
  • Johan de Witt in popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • Ships 5
  • References 6
  • Literature 7
  • External links 8


Early life

Johan de Witt was a member of the old Dutch patrician family De Witt. His father was Jacob de Witt, an influential regent and burgher from the patrician class in the city of Dordrecht, which in the seventeenth century, was one of the most important cities of the dominating province of Holland. Johan and his older brother, Cornelis de Witt, grew up in a privileged social environment in terms of education, his father having as good acquaintances important scholars and scientists, such as Isaac Beeckman, Jacob Cats, Gerhard Vossius and Andreas Colvius. Johan and Cornelis both attended the Latin school in Dordrecht, which imbued both brothers with the values of the Roman Republic.

Private life

Johan de Witt married on 16 February 1655 Wendela Bicker (1635–1668), the daughter of Jan Bicker (1591–1653), an influential patrician from Amsterdam, and Agneta de Graeff van Polsbroek (1603–1656). Jan Bicker served as mayor of Amsterdam in 1653. De Witt became a relative to the strong republican-minded brothers Cornelis and Andries de Graeff, and to Andries Bicker. The couple had four children, three daughters and one son:[4]

  • Anna de Witt (1655–1725), married to Herman van den Honert
  • Agnes de Witt (1658–1688), married to Simon Teresteyn van Halewijn
  • Maria de Witt (1660–1689), married to Willem Hooft
  • Johan de Witt Jr. (1662–1701), heer van Zuid- en Noord-Linschoten, Snelrewaard and IJsselveere, married to Wilhelmina de Witt. He was secretary of the city of Dordrecht

After De Witt's death, his brother in law Pieter de Graeff became a guardian over his children.[5]


After having attended the Latin school in Dordrecht, he studied at the University of Leiden, where he excelled at mathematics and law. He received his doctorate from the University of Angers in 1645. He practiced law as an attorney in The Hague as an associate with the firm of Frans van Schooten. In 1650 (the year that stadtholder William II of Orange died) he was appointed leader of the deputation of Dordrecht to the States of Holland. In December of 1650, De Witt became the pensionary of Dordrecht.[6] Once during the year 1652 in the city of Flushing, Johan De Witt found himself faced with a mob of angry demonstrators of sailers and fishermen. An ugly situation was developing.[7] However, even at the young age of 27 years, it was Johan's cool headedness calmed the situation. Many people older than Johan began to see greatness in Johan dating from that experience.

In 1653, Johan De Witt's uncle, Cornelis De Graeff, made De Witt 'Grand Pensionary' of the States of Holland. Since Holland was the Republic's most powerful province, he was effectively the political leader of the United Provinces as a whole—especially during periods when no stadholder had been elected by the States of most Provinces. That is why the raadpensionaris of Holland was also referred to as the Grand Pensionary — in many way similar to a modern Prime Minister.

As the first Statesman of the Dutch Republic

Representing the province of Holland, Johan De Witt tended to identify with the economic interests of the shipping and trading interests in the United Provinces. These interests were largely concentrated in the province of Holland and to a lesser degree in the province of Zeeland.[8] In the religious conflict between the Calvinists and the more moderate members of the Dutch Reform Church which arose in 1618,[9] Holland tended to belong to the more tolerant Dutch Reform faction in the United Provinces. Not surprisingly, Johan de Witt also held views of toleration of religious beliefs.

Together with his uncle, Cornelis De Graeff, Johan De Witt brought about peace with England after the First Anglo-Dutch War with the Treaty of Westminster in May of 1654.[10] The peace treaty had a secret annex, the Act of Seclusion, forbidding the Dutch ever to appoint William II's posthumous son, the infant William, as stadholder. This annex had been attached on instigation of Cromwell, who felt that since William III was a grandson of the executed Charles I, it was not in the interests of his own republican regime to see William ever gain political power. On 25 September 1660 the States of Holland under the prime movers of De Witt, Cornelis De Graeff, his younger brother Andries de Graeff and Gillis Valckenier resolved to take charge of William's education to ensure he would acquire the skills to serve in a future—though undetermined—state function.[11] Influenced by the values of the Roman republic, De Witt did his utmost anyway to prevent any member of the House of Orange from gaining power, convincing many provinces to abolish the stadtholderate entirely. He bolstered his policy by publicly endorsing the theory of republicanism. He is supposed to have contributed personally to the Interest of Holland, a radical republican textbook published in 1662 by his supporter Pieter de la Court.[12]

De Witt's power base was the wealthy merchant class into which he was born. This class broadly coincided politically with the "States faction", stressing Protestant religious moderation and pragmatic foreign policy defending commercial interests. The "Orange faction", consisting of the middle class, preferred a strong leader from the Dutch Royal House of Orange as a counterweight against the rich upper-classes in economic and religious matters alike. Although leaders that did emerge from the House of Orange rarely were strict Calvinists themselves, they tended to identify with Calvinism,[13] which was popular among the middle classes in the United Provinces during this time. William II of Orange was a prime example of this tendency among the leaders of the House of Orange to support Calvinism. William II was elected Stadholder in 1647 and continued to serve until his death in November, 1650.[14] Eight days after his death, William II wife delivered a male heir--William III of Orange. Many citizens of the United Provinces urged the election of the infant William III as stadholder under a regency until he came of age. However, the Provinces, under the dominance of the province of Holland[15] did not fill the office of Stadholder. The United Provinces were to remain "stadholderless" until crucial year of 1672. During this stadholderless period Jacob De Witt reached the apex of his power in the United Provinces.

In the period following the Treaty of Westminster, the Republic grew in wealth and influence under De Witt's leadership. De Witt created a strong navy, appointing one of his political allies, Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam, as supreme commander of the confederate fleet.[16] Later De Witt became a personal friend of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War began in 1665, lasting until 1667 when it ended with the Treaty of Breda, in which De Witt negotiated very favorable agreements for the Republic after the partial destruction of the British fleet in the Raid on the Medway, initiated by De Witt himself and executed in 1666 by De Ruyter.

At about the time the Treaty of Breda was concluded, De Witt made another attempt at pacification of the quarrel between States Party and Orangists over the position of the Prince of Orange. He proposed to have William appointed captain-general of the Union on reaching the age of majority (23); on condition, however, that this office would be declared incompatible with that of stadtholder in all of the provinces. For good measure the stadtholderate was abolished in Holland itself. This Perpetual Edict (1667) was enacted by the States of Holland on August 5, 1667, and recognized by the States General on a four-to-three vote in January, 1668. This edict was added by Gaspar Fagel, then Pensionary of Haarlem, Gillis Valckenier and Free Imperial Knight Andries de Graeff, two prominent Amsterdam regents, which abolished the stadtholderate in Holland "for ever".


During 1672, which the Dutch refer to as the "year of disaster" or Cornelis in prison.

After the arrival of Johan de Witt, the city guard was sent away on a pretext to stop farmers who were supposedly engaged in pilfering. Without any protection against the assembled mob, the brothers were dragged out of the prison and killed next to a nearby scaffold. Immediately after their deaths, the bodies were mutilated and fingers, toes, and other parts of their bodies were cut off.[17] Other parts of their bodies were allegedly eaten by the mob (others allege they were taken elsewhere and cooked before being eaten).[18] The heart of Cornelis de Witt was exhibited for many years next to his brother's by one of the ringleaders, the silversmith Hendrik Verhoeff.[19]

Today some historians believe that his adversary and successor as leader of the government, stadtholder William III of Orange, was involved in the de Witt brothers' deaths.[20] At the very least he protected and rewarded their killers. The ringleaders were Johan Kievit, his brother-in-law Cornelius Tromp and Johan van Banchem.


Besides being a statesman, Johan de Witt also was an accomplished mathematician. In 1659 he wrote "Elementa Curvarum Linearum" as an appendix to Frans van Schooten's translation of René Descartes' La Géométrie. In this, De Witt derived the basic properties of quadratic forms, an important step in the field of linear algebra.

In 1671 his Waardije van Lyf-renten naer Proportie van Los-renten was published ('The Worth of Life Annuities Compared to Redemption Bonds'). This work combined the interests of the statesman and the mathematician. Ever since the Middle Ages, a Life Annuity was a way to "buy" someone a regular income from a reliable source. The state, for instance, could provide a widow with a regular income until her death, in exchange for a 'lump sum' up front. There were also Redemption Bonds that were more like a regular state loan. De Witt showed - by using probability mathematics - that for the same amount of money a bond of 4% would result in the same profit as a Life Annuity of 6% (1 in 17). But the 'Staten' at the time were paying over 7% (1 in 14). The publication about Life Annuities is seen as the first mathematical approach of chance and probability. After the violent deaths of the brothers the 'Staten' issued new Life Annuities in 1673 for the old rate of 1 in 14.

In 1671 De Witt conceived of a life annuity as a weighted average of annuities certain where the weights were mortality probabilities (that sum to one), thereby producing the expected value of the present value of a life annuity. Edmond Halley’s (of comet fame) representation of the life annuity dates to 1693, when he re-expressed a life annuity as the discounted value of each annual payment multiplied by the probability of surviving long enough to receive the payment and summed until there are no survivors. De Witt's approach was especially insightful and ahead of its time. In modern terminology, De Witt treats a life annuity as a random variable and its expected value is what we call the value of a life annuity. Also in modern terminology, De Witt's approach allows one to readily understand other properties of this random variable such as its standard deviation, skewness, kurtosis, or any other characteristic of interest.

Family and arms

For an article on the de Witt family, see here.

Johan de Witt in popular culture

The lynching of the De Witt brothers is depicted with a dramatic intensity in the first four chapters of The Black Tulip, a historical fiction novel written by Alexandre Dumas, père in 1850, and this event has implications for the whole plot line of the book.

In its time, Dumas's book helped make this tragedy known to a French readership (and a readership in other countries into whose languages the book was translated) who were otherwise ignorant of Dutch history.

The important role of Johan de Witt in Dutch politics and his murder was subject of the 2015 film Michiel de Ruyter.

See also


Currently one Dutch warship is named after Johan De Witt. Zr. Ms. Johan De Witt is an amphibious Landing Platform Dock vessel from the Rotterdam Class LPD.


  1. ^ Rietstap, Johannes Baptist (1861). Armorial général, contenant la description des armoiries des familles nobles et patriciennes de l'Europe: précédé d'un dictionnaire des termes du blason. G.B. van Goor. p. 1135. 
  2. ^ BUNEL, Arnaud. "Héraldique européenne, Provinces-Unies et Royaume des Pays-Bas, Stadhouders et Souverains des Pays-Bas". Retrieved 8 July 2011. 
  3. ^ Heren van HollandJohan de Witt at (Dutch)
  4. ^ Heren van HollandAnna de Witt at (Dutch)
  5. ^ Rowen, Herbert H. John de Witt, Statesman of the True Freedom (Camebridge University Press 1986, New edition 2002), page 220
  6. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995) p. 712.
  7. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477- 1806, p. 719.
  8. ^ Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806, p. 467.
  9. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806, pp. 450-477.
  10. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806, p. 722.
  11. ^ Troost, 43
  12. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic, Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806, pp. 759-760.
  13. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, greatness and Fall, 1477-1806, p. 600.
  14. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806, p. 702.
  15. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806, p. 733.
  16. ^ Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806, p. 721.
  17. ^ Page 91, BBC History Magazine November 2013
  18. ^ "Did a mob of angry Dutch kill and eat their prime minister?" from The Straight Dope
  19. ^ Kok, J. (1794) Vaderlandsch woordenboek; oorspronkelijk verzameld door Jacobus Kok. Deel 32, p. 352; Veeghens, D. (1884) Historische studien: Uitg. door J.D. Veegens. Eerste Deel, p. 48; the first name of Verhoeff was Hendrick according to Fruin, R. (1901) Robert Fruin's verspreide geschriften, p. 374, fn. 2
  20. ^ Een wijnkoper, een herbergier en diens slager doodden Johan de Witt in 1672


  • Herbert H. Rowen, John de Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, 1625-1672. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978, which is summarized in
  • Herbert H. Rowen, "John de Witt: Statesman of the "True Freedom"". Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Herbert H. Rowen, The princes of Orange: the stadholders in the Dutch Republic. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Herbert H. Rowen, The princes of Orange: the stadholders in the Dutch Republic. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Petrus Johannes Blok, "History of the people of the Netherlands". New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1898.
  • Pieter Geyl, "Orange and Stuart, 1641-1672". Scribner, 1970.
  • Jonathan I. Israel, "The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477–1806" Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-820734-4

External links

  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of History of Holland, by George Edmundson
  • .  
  • Friends of De Witt (Dutch)
Political offices
Preceded by
Adriaan Pauw
Grand Pensionary of Holland
Succeeded by
Gaspar Fagel
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