3.2.9: 1725 - 1830 - Censorship

Compared to the relative freedom which characterised the book trade in seventeenth-century Northern Netherlands, the reins were pulled tighter in the eighteenth century. Although the legislation imposed by the secular authorities in this specific field did not change drastically, from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, actual enforcement was stricter and not only applied to pornographic reading material or Spinozist or atheistic writings which had already been prohibited in the seventeenth century.

It is remarkable that in this particular period a more tolerant attitude towards all kinds of enlightened ideas surfaced in various European countries, but that these new ideas could less and less often be published freely in the Netherlands. Those in power were not really open to modern thinking themselves and, in addition, the Republic was gradually losing its powerful economic position within Europe forcing them to take the sensitivities of friendly foreign powers into consideration. More publications could be confronted with a prohibition because the ecclesiastical and secular authorities were co-operating better as was the fate of, among others, various works by Voltaire and Rousseau published in the 1760s by the Amsterdam publisher Marc-Michel Rey. Some books were even burned, such as Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique and dozens of other books by various authors. The plea against this repression by the publisher and author Elie Luzac of Leiden, who in 1747 had already published his Essai sur la liberté de produire ses sentimens and who had written various petitions against increasing censorship, has to be seen in this context. As late as 1773 did the States of Holland pass a resolution against books of an anti-Christian character.

After the restoration of the stadholdership in 1747, an increased co-operation between the provincial and urban authorities emerged which simplified enforcement of repressive legislation. Information from the printers' and booksellers' guild at The Hague shows that for the period 1767-1797 repressive censorship caused about ninety books, pamphlets and newspapers to be prohibited. On the other hand, sanctions against publishers and booksellers were in most cases very moderate, nor was systematic persecution throughout the territory of the Republic feasible. Nevertheless, although Dutch publishers and writers were confronted more and more often during the time of the patriots, from the 1780s, with prohibitions, the authorities were unable to prevent the sale and trading of printed matter outside their own urban jurisdiction. Defenders of the freedom of the press claimed therefore that censorship and persecution were the best forms of advertisement for the dissemination of a text as in the case of the forbidden pamphlet Aan het volk van Nederland (1781) by Van der Capellen which had attracted additional attention because of censorship. The inalienable rights and freedoms as defended by the Patriots were best summarised in Grondwettige herstelling van Nederlands staatswezen (1784-1786). After the defeat of the Patriots in 1787, the political propaganda came to a halt although nothing changed in the legislation.

The Batavian Revolution brought, from 1795, in principle freedom of the printed press even if not unrestricted as there was, in particular, no tolerance for those writing against the new constitution. In addition, the name of the author, printer and publisher had to be stated on the printed matter. In spite of protests from some conservatives and in spite of political changes, the freedom of the press was not really curtailed during the Batavian government and subsequent years. Only during the regime of Louis Napoleon (1806-1810) and the annexation by France (1810-1813) did real censorship exist and had authors and publishers to comply with strict rules. The freedom of the press was only codified in the constitution in 1815. It would, however, still take some decades before this freedom was actually put into practice. During the rule of King William I, little criticism was tolerated resulting in a lot of self-censorship.

author: J.A.H.G.M. Bots