"The Golden Calf of Toleration: Dutch Prosperity Argument and Seventeenth-Century Toleration Debates" - Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne Access content directly
Conference Papers Year : 2017

"The Golden Calf of Toleration: Dutch Prosperity Argument and Seventeenth-Century Toleration Debates"


Advocates of toleration and freedom of conscience during the long seventeenth century in Britain (and more specifically in England) sometimes used the exemplum of the spectacular rise to prosperity of the United-Provinces after 1570 to argue their case, and they did increasingly so after mid-century. In spite of the intense Anglo-Dutch trade rivalry which led to a series of naval wars, or precisely because of that, Dutch economic, political and religious options were at times extolled as the path to follow in British economic and political thought. The Dutch Golden Age was thus attributed in part to the relative internal peace and mutual forbearance, if not trust, the atmosphere of tolerance supposedly brought about, but also indirectly to the demographic growth and the attraction of persecuted foreign talents and investments that the–sometimes exaggerated–Dutch reputation for hospitality favoured. The geographical and religious proximity made the Netherlands a safe haven for many British religious dissenters, who in turn ensured the lesson of toleration was not lost on England, as in the case of Quaker leaders such as William Penn and Benjamin Furly, or the Unitarian merchant William Popple, the translator of Locke’s Epistolia de tolerantia. The argument was by no means confined to embattled or persecuted religious minorities and it attracted attention well beyond the boundaries of non-conformism. Sir William Temple’s often reprinted Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1673) not only claimed that “religion may do more good in other places, but it does less hurt here”, but that this “softened” spirit of religious freedom did much to appease the violent evils befalling most of the European monarchies of the time, and to create the conditions for “the vast growth of their trade and riches, and consequently the strength and greatness of their State”. Living together “like Citizens of the World”, the Dutch were left to live in peace, minding their own (successful) business. “The force of Commerce” could then unite those who had learnt to tolerate religious differences of opinion or custom, and reward them accordingly. Those claims did not go unanswered, and many staunch defenders of the Established Church of England–no friends of toleration–focused their attacks on them. Although in his Letter concerning Toleration John Locke carefully avoided using an argument with which he was familiar from his exile days in the Netherlands, his opponent Jonas Proast stated from the outset that “how much soever it may tend to the advancement of trade and commerce (which some seem to place above all considerations)”, toleration Dutch-style meant in the end measuring true religion by the yardstick of wealth, and of course one cannot serve both God and Mammon. The analysis of the seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch debates over the link between trade and toleration will shed light on the entanglement of economic and religious arguments in several strands constitutive of what came to be (much later) known as ‘liberalism’, and will repay close attention.
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hal-03981063 , version 1 (09-02-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-03981063 , version 1


Cyril Selzner. "The Golden Calf of Toleration: Dutch Prosperity Argument and Seventeenth-Century Toleration Debates". Conférencier invité, Vanderbilt University, Peter Lake, Paul H. Lim, Mar 2017, Nashville (Tenessee), United States. ⟨hal-03981063⟩


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