Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Parts of the Sum. Dutch provincial identities 1747-1850

Between 1798 and 1813 successive regimes attempted to enforce a fundamental geographical and administrative redivision of the Netherlands. The provinces that had been sovereign states within the Republic of the United Netherlands for over two centuries were dissolved and replaced by ‘departments’, subordinate to the new national government.

Diederik Smit

These executive bodies were supposed to be no longer reminiscent of their powerful predecessors. Both their shapes and their names differed; they were fewer in number, larger in size, and bore neutral, non-historical names. After years of unavailing deliberations on the role of the Dutch province, this radical reform was the ultimate attempt to break with the republican past and to emphasise the transition from the old confederation to the modern centralised state.
The experiment with these new departments, however, was only short-lived. Following the independence from France in 1813, the former provinces were more or less restored. The new Kingdom of the Netherlands remained a unitary state, with the King as its sole sovereign, but the old provincial names, borders, and even specific regional offices were reintroduced, apparently without major problems.
The ease with which this restoration was effected, suggests that despite of all the reforms the old provinces had retained more of their significance than historians have acknowledged so far. It raises the question to what extent the political and societal role of the province had actually changed. How did the formal decrease in power affect their position and identity, and was this perhaps partly compensated for by new activities to maintain or foster provincial identities?
Surprisingly, so far Dutch historians have paid little attention to these questions. Partly due to their focus on the nation, the state and modernisation, there has been an almost complete lack of interest in what happened to the provinces in the period around 1800. Except for a few historical studies on regional government in the eighteenth and nineteenth century [e.g. Gabriels 1990; De Bruin 2003; De Nijs 2003; Kuiper 1998], the position of the Dutch province has predominantly been studied by legal experts and scholars in public administration [e.g. Van der Pot 1949; Van Dam 1996]. Furthermore, the international literature on provinces tends to consider provincialism and regional identity primarily as ‘modern’ phenomena, coinciding with the creation of the nation-state in the late nineteenth century [e.g. Applegate 1990; Martin 1998; Kühne 2000]. Although some historians have recently pointed out that there was a strong sense of regional awareness in the Early Modern period as well [e.g. Esser 2006], continuities in provincial identity between the eighteenth and nineteenth century have hardly been taken into account [cf. Storm 2003].
This project aims to investigate the extent to which provincial identity was built on earlier structures and traditions. By carefully analysing regional identities and provincial practices, it will ask which role the province played in everyday life, and how continuities at a regional level were able to persist in times of great political upheaval. Starting with the appointment of William IV as hereditary stadholder in 1747, and ending with the introduction of the national law on provinces in 1850 (i.e. de Provinciewet), the project covers a period of over a century, encompassing the late Republic as well as the French Period and the new Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The project consists of two interrelated parts, each with its own approach. The first part focuses on the daily practices at the regional level. As a case study, the developments in the province of Gelderland (i.e. the oldest, most prestigious of the Dutch provinces, and arguably a bit of a wayward one) will be discussed through an analysis of local archives and the correspondence between provincial administrators and the central government. The case of Gelderland allows us to establish to what extent the political emasculation of the provinces affected the role of regional institutions (i.e. the provincial deputies, courts of law, tax offices, school inspectors etc.), and how and with what success these institutions were co-opted to the realisation and implementation of national policy. How were they organised, what authority did they have, and in what way did they deal with national initiatives to harmonise the different regional practices?
The second part of the subproject addresses the issue of ‘provincial identities’. In what way were provincial organisations throughout the Netherlands involved in fostering regional identities, and how did their actions affect these identities over time? In order to answer these questions we will look both at the changing role of political institutions and of other stakeholders (e.g. in political and ritual rhetoric, memory practices and patronage), examining, for example, the acts of provincial representatives in the national parliament, the activities of regional historical societies, and contemporary regional studies on landscape, language and customs.

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