Petitions and the Duality of Structure: Lobbying in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Atlantic

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Joris van den Tol of Leiden University. Here he shows how networks of individuals involved in the Dutch Atlantic trade used petitions to lobby metropolitan institutions and perhaps contributed to the formation of a ‘public sphere’.

‘We all know that a monopoly is the most odious thing in the world and the most harmful practice of all’, wrote the directors of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) in January 1637.[1] This is an interesting standpoint for a group at that moment enjoying the exclusive trading rights to and from the Company’s colonies in the Atlantic. So, why did the Amsterdam chamber decide to advocate giving up the WIC monopoly in the Atlantic? Who or what influenced their decision? How did individuals lobby both the Company and the highest political levels for their own interest in regard to free trade, religious freedom, authority, military assistance, or other issues? Moreover, why did these interest groups decide to lobby – as opposed to fighting the Company in court for example?

The history of the Dutch in the Atlantic in the seventeenth century used to be a story of a Company chartered in 1621 that was institutionally weaker than its competitors or its East Indian counterpart (VOC) and thus deservedly fell behind, lost large parts of its colonial possessions, and went bankrupt in 1674.[2] However, more recent work has shown that the Dutch Atlantic was built on loosely organized personal networks rather than centralized metropolitan institutions.[3] These networks were self-organized, often pluri-religious, multi-ethnic, and cross-cultural, but more importantly had intersecting interests.[4] Moreover, they cooperated pro-actively to try to influence the structures, institutions, and policy that shaped their world.

There was a duality of structure between the individuals and the structure; the structures at the same time enabled and limited the actions of the agents, as well as being comprised of the actions from the agents. This process of structuration is what I call lobbying, and indicates a hermeneutic relationship between the agents and the institutions.[5] Lobbying removes the impetus for historical actions in the Dutch Atlantic from the Company or the ‘state’ and puts it in the hands of individuals and organized interests.

Lobbying by petition

Lobbying happened in two ways: direct, with the aim of convincing the political mandataries[6]; and outside, with the aim of pressuring the political mandataries through public opinion.[7] Direct lobbying can be studied through petitions, correspondence, presentations, journals and social capital.[8] Outside lobbying is studied through petition drives and pamphlets.[9] Petitions have been largely neglected in Dutch historiography – both in relation to the Atlantic and as a means of studying lobbying.[10] A study of the mechanisms of lobbying treats all of the different sources not just as repositories of historical facts, but analyses the function that these objects had for the individuals that created them.

Petitions can be studied in three ways: [1] for their opportunities to provide access to rulers; [2] for their rhetorical content; [3] for their influence on decision-making. Studies of petitions in the Low Countries predominantly center around the first approach and thus have a formalistic-legalistic approach to petitions.[11] The second approach, or discourse analysis, is absent in early modern studies of petitions in the Low Countries.[12] Lobbying fits with the third approach and studies petitions for their effect or functionality for contemporaries. Studying petitions by intersectional networks reveals that it was not necessary to be a privileged company to effectively influence decision-making. In fact, it challenges Sheilagh Ogilvie’s idea that privileged companies increased the share of the economic pie more effectively than other organizational forms.[13]

Joint petitions in which multiple individuals came together for an intersecting interest and all signed their name at the end of the petition show how well individuals could organize themselves. Petitions that travelled from place to place to collect signatures transcended provincial boundaries, jurisdictions, and interests. Colonial petitions where people went  ‘door to door’ and that were subsequently sent to the Republic or delivered in person shows how lobbying connected individuals and interests on both sides of the Atlantic.[14]

Lobbying was a way for individuals and organized interests to structure the world around them. They lobbied both for policy (political lobbying; free trade regulations for example) and for the ‘shape’ of the structures and institutions that influenced their world (soft lobbying; i.e. division of authority and the adjudication of power). They did so directly by convincing political mandataries and they engaged in outside lobbying by pressuring political mandataries through the public sphere.

David Zaret argues that a change in communicative practices, in particular printing petitions, allowed for the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ in England during the Civil War.[15] The primacy of print for the emergence of the public sphere has been challenged, yet the idea of petitions as a tool for influencing public opinion seems still credible.[16] Studies centering on the public sphere in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic focus to a large extent on pamphlets, although Femke Deen makes a strong case for the importance of manuscript letters for a public debate in sixteenth-century Amsterdam.[17] Even though petitions in the Dutch Republic did not reach tens of thousands of signatures – as they did in England during the civil war – I would argue that petitions with twenty or fifty signatures already indicate a public opinion.[18]

A travelling petition: Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, CC-BY: NL-HaNA 1.01.02 Staten Generaal inv.nr. 5762 Liassen WIC

A travelling petition: Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, CC-BY: NL-HaNA 1.01.02 Staten Generaal inv.nr. 5762 Liassen WIC

The use of many different colors and types of ink for signatures suggests that a petition was canvassed or travelled through the country. Moreover, by identifying individuals through their signatures and their position on the pages, it becomes possible to map out the route a petition had travelled. One petition, for example, travelled from the city of The Hague, to the province of Zealand, to the city of Dordrecht, to the city of Leiden, before returning to The Hague and being delivered to the States General.[19] Whereas this petition had sufficient space for all the signatures, another one shows less planning and completely covered the front of the petition in forty-nine signatures including the space where normally the apostille would be written. The signatories subsequently added nine more names on the other side – leaving the rest of the page completely blank.[20] These show a process of circulation and adaptation, influencing on strand of ‘public opinion’ as well as reflecting it.

Signatures in the margins: Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, CC-BY: NL-HaNA 3.01.04.01 Staten van Holland inv.nr. 5646 Rekesten aan de Staten van Holland WIC

Signatures in the margins: Nationaal Archief in The Hague, The Netherlands, CC-BY: NL-HaNA 3.01.04.01 Staten van Holland inv.nr. 5646 Rekesten aan de Staten van Holland WIC

In sum, petitions are an exceptionally rich source to study lobbying and the process of structuration that have been largely neglected in Dutch historiography. Not only their argumentative quality and its influence on the decision-making process were significant, but also their important role in public opinion warrants thorough study.


[1] ‘Wel wetende dat een Monopolium het odieuste dingh is van de werelt ende het schadelijckste bedrijff van alle staten’, NL-HaNA, 1.01.02 Staten Generaal, inv. nr. 5754 Liassen WIC, 30/01/1637 Reasons WIC directors Amsterdam.

[2] H. den Heijer, De geschiedenis van de WIC (Zutphen 2002).

[3] D. Armitage and M.J. Braddick (eds.), The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (2nd edition) (New York 2009); J. Postma and V. Enthoven (eds.), Riches from Atlantic Commerce: Dutch Transatlantic Trade and Shipping, 1585-1817 (Leiden/Boston 2003); C.J.  Koot, Empire at the periphery: British colonists, Anglo-Dutch trade, and the development of the British Atlantic, 1621-1713 (New York/London 2011); K.J. Fatah-Black, White Lies and Black Markets: Evading metropolitan authority in colonial Suriname, 1650-1800 (Leiden/Boston 2015); D. Maika, Commerce and Community: Manhattan merchants in the seventeenth century (PhD dissertation New York University 1995); J.D. Goodfriend (ed), Revisiting New Netherland: Perspectives on early Dutch America (Leiden/Boston 2005); C. Schnurmann, ‘Seventeenth-century Atlantic commerce and Nieuw Amsterdam/New York Merchants’ in: H. Wellenreuther (ed) Jacob Leisler’s Atlantic World in the Later Seventeenth Century: Essays on Religion, Militia, Trade, and Networks (Berlin 2009) 33–66.

[4] A.G. Olson, Making the empire work: London and American interest groups 1690-1790 (Cambridge/London 1992).

[5] A. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age (Cambridge 1991) 204; A. Giddens, The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration (Berkeley 1984) 19, 25-28.

[6] I am aware that word mandatary is perhaps outdated. I like to use it though as it implies the mandate the decision-makers had, and it avoids discussions on power. Other suggestions are of course welcome.

[7] K. Kollman, Outside Lobbying: Public opinion and interest group strategies (Princeton 1998).

[8] W. te Brake, Shaping history: ordinary people in European politics, 1500-1700 (Berkeley 1998); L. Heerma van Voss (ed), Petitions in social history (Cambridge 2001); H.F.K. van Nierop, ‘Private Interests, Public Policies: Petitions in the Dutch Republic’, in: A.K. Wheelock and A. Seeff (ed), The Public and Private in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age (London 2000) 33-39; H.F.K. van Nierop, ‘Popular Participation in Politics in the Dutch Republic’, in: P. Blickle (ed), Resistance, Representation and Community (Oxford 1997) 272-290.

[9] D. Zaret, ‘Petitions and the “invention” of public opinion in the English Revolution’, American Journal of Sociology 101.6 (1996) 1497-1555; C.E Harline, Pamphlets, printing and political culture in the Early Modern Dutch Republic (Dordrecht 1987).

[10] Petitions can be found in the ‘Liassen WIC’ of the States-General. These folders have only been used by Wim Klooster for his The Dutch Moment: War Trade and Settlement in the seventeenth-century Atlantic World (Ithaca 2016), and in the early twentieth century by the German historian Herman Wätjen in his Das Holländische Kolonialreich in Brasilien ein Kapittel aus der Kolonialgeschichte des 17. Jahrhunderts (The Hague 1921).

[11] Van Nierop, ‘Private Interests, Public Policies’, 33-39; Van Nierop, ‘Popular Participation’, 272-290; G. Vermeesch, ‘Professional Lobbying in Eighteenth-century Brussels: The Role of Agents in Petitioning the Central Government Institutions in the Habsburg Netherlands’, Journal of Early Modern History 16.2 (2012) 95-119; G. Vermeesch, ”Miserabele personen’ en hun toegang tot het stadsbestuur. Pro deo petities in achttiende-eeuws Antwerpen’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis 12.4 (2015) 1-28; J. Roelevink, ”’t Welck doende etcetera’, Lobby bij de Staten-Generaal in de vroege zeventiende eeuw’, Jaarboek Geschiedkundige Vereniging ‘Die Haghe’ (1990) 153-167;  S.J. Fockema Andreae, De Nederlandse Staat onder de Republiek (Amsterdam 1975).

[12] Well at least what is published. Though I think there is more from the English side.

[13] S. Ogilvie, Institutions and European Trade: Merchant guilds, 1000-1800 (Cambridge 2011) .

[14] A. van der Donck, Vertoogh van Nieu-Nederland: weghens de ghelegentheydt, vruchtbaerheydt, en soberen staet desselfs (‘s-Gravenhage 1650) 46.

[15] D. Zaret, ‘Petitions and the “invention” of public opinion in the English Revolution’, American Journal of Sociology 101.6 (1996) 1497-1555, 1501-1502.

[16] S. Pincus, ‘The state and civil society in early modern England: capitalism, causation and Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere’, in: P. Lake and S. Pincus (eds.), The politics of the public sphere in early modern England (Manchester 2007) 213-231, 227; P. Hammer, ‘The smiling crocodile: the earl of Essex and late Elizabethan ‘popularity”, in: P. Lake and S. Pincus (eds.), The politics of the public sphere in early modern England (Manchester 2007) 95-115,

[17] F. Deen, Publiek debat en propaganda in Amsterdam tijdens de Nederlandse Opstand: Amsterdam ‘Moorddam’ (1566-1578) (Amsterdam 2015) . J. Pollmann and A. Spicer (ed.), Public Opinion and Changing Identities in the Early Modern Netherlands: Essays in Honour of Alastair Duke (Leiden 2007) ; G. de Bruin, ‘Political Pamphleteering and Public Opinion on the Age of De Witt (1653-1672)’, in: F. Deen, D. Onnekink and M.H.P. Reinders (eds.), Pamphlets and Politics in the Dutch Republic (Leiden 2011) 63-96,

[18] A. Fletcher, The outbreak of the English civil war (London 1981) 191-197.

[19] NL-HaNA 1.01.02 Staten Generaal inv.nr. 5762 Liassen WIC, 29/07/1650, petition involving the trade to Guinea.

[20] NL-HaNA 3.01.04.01 Staten van Holland inv.nr. 5646 Rekesten aan de Staten van Holland, no date, Petition regarding a French trading Company.

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One thought on “Petitions and the Duality of Structure: Lobbying in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Atlantic

  1. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

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