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The Merchant Republics: Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648-1790

Author(s):Lindemann, Mary
Reviewer(s):Ryckbosch, Wouter

Published by EH.Net (September 2015)

Mary Lindemann, The Merchant Republics: Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg, 1648-1790. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xv + 356 pp. $99 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-107-07443-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Wouter Ryckbosch, Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp.

Although few would deny the importance of Northern Germany or the Low Countries to the economic history of early modern Europe, we know relatively little about the self-perceptions that reigned in these places, the political ideas that circulated, or the political economies that governed them. Compared to the libraries that have been written on Florence, Paris or London, the list of works dealing with the politics and ideas of the North-West European cities is rather short. It is this gap that Mary Lindemann ( Professor of History at the University of Miami) aims to fill with The Merchant Republics. The book focuses on three major port cities in the long eighteenth century (roughly from 1648 to the 1790s): Antwerp, Amsterdam and Hamburg.

All three towns were — to rather varying degrees — important commercial centers during this period, as well as “republics.” In this book, a republic is understood as “a political entity governed by citizens who assumed the task of administration as part of the civic and political duties incumbent on them.” Moreover, according to Lindemann all three cities were specifically “merchant republics,” in the sense that they considered merchants and mercantile values as essential components of their republicanism. Starting out from this loose but nevertheless informative definition, Lindemann explores the similarities and differences (both of which are numerous) in the political economy of the three cities.

After a first chapter that presents a general introduction to the three cities under scrutiny, the second and third chapters examine the structures of government and the political ideas surrounding them. The political issues that dominated the agenda were very different in all three cities: Amsterdam was characterized by conflicts between the party of the stadhouder and the party of true freedom; Hamburg was marred by recurrent disagreements between the Bürgershaft and the Senate; and in Antwerp the opposition of the ruling elites to centralization from the monarchical rulers in Brussels/Madrid/Vienna proved the dominant theme. Nevertheless, Lindemann makes a convincing argument that in all three there existed a general self-perception of republicanism — which at the very least implied an opposition to monarchical political structures, even if that did not preclude these urban elites from demonstrating strong aristocratic and oligarchic tendencies, or from preaching civic virtue while being plagued by corruption.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 shift attention towards the mercantile aspect of these “merchant republics,” considering how the (upper crust of) these cities’ inhabitants perceived themselves and their values as opposed to aristocratic and monarchical societies. This includes a very illuminating segment on the problems presented by “impostors” and how these were perceived as antithetical to mercantile and republican values, as well as chapters on the problems posed to republican virtues by speculation and bankruptcy. To scholars interested in the history of economic thought these latter two chapters will be of most interest, as they lend themselves most easily to comparisons with the extensive literature on the republican tradition and the development of enlightenment mentalities on commerce, virtue and the common weal elsewhere.

Unlike much scholarly work on the republication tradition, political self-representation, or early modern economic thought, Lindemann does not limit herself to studying only the most well-known authors and publications of the time, but instead delves into a wonderfully rich variety of pamphlets, court cases, and political commentaries to substantiate her arguments. Admittedly, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Hamburg did not bring forth political commentators of the same renown as Machiavelli, Mandeville or Montesquieu (with the possible exception of Amsterdam’s Pieter de la Court), but the wide range of sources on which Lindemann draws her story is nevertheless impressive. To be sure, this can at times be overwhelming. The number of protagonists that crowds the pages, as well as the three different political structures with their specific terminologies in which they figured, does not always make for light reading.

The title of the book does not simply describe the common features of the three cities studied. It also advances a specific historical interpretation (p. 310). What The Merchant Republics, in all its nuance and complexity, argues is that in the commercial ports of north-western Europe a peculiar republicanism developed that was compatible with a highly commercial society (quite contrary to Pocock’s classical republicanism), and that celebrated trade and merchants for their republican virtues. As valuable and generally convincing as this interpretation is, it also raises many questions, some of which unfortunately remain unanswered in the book.

To begin with, the structure of the book presents plenty of comparison between three merchant republics — and thus highlights the large potential for variety within this concept — but the overarching argument actually seems to call for comparison between these merchant republics as a whole, and the political economies of other “republicanisms” throughout the classical, early modern and modern world. In the end, I could not help wondering how the political economy of these merchant republicans differed from that of Machiavelli and quattrocento Florence. And how does it compare to enlightenment economic thought across the channel, and Adam Smith in particular? Most of all, perhaps, the argument invites comparison with the French tradition of assessing the virtue in commerce, including Montesquieu and the concept of “le doux commerce.”

Despite the wide range of sources on which the book draws, most of the voices heard throughout belonged to the (mercantile) upper crust of these cities. This raises the question whether the self-image of a merchant republic was limited to the mercantile community alone, or whether it did indeed encompass the whole town. Although Lindemann pays plenty of attention to dissent and conflict within the ruling classes, there’s relatively little attention to conflict between the mercantile groups and those who had been only relatively recently excluded from political power (at least in Antwerp and, to a lesser extent, Amsterdam): the middling groups, and the craft guilds in particular. After all, in sixteenth-century Antwerp the Chambers of Rhetoric only embraced a more positive view of commerce after merchant-entrepreneurs had wrested political power from the craft guilds.  It is perhaps ironic that they did so with the support of their monarchical overlord, which makes one wonder if the “mercantile” and “republican” components of the book’s argument were everywhere and always as closely tied to one another as Lindemann suggests.

The applicability of the term “merchant republic” to this or that city and this or that timeframe can be endlessly debated, but Lindemann shows that as a conceptual framework for understanding politics, self-representation and economic thought in eighteenth-century North-Western Europe it has clear value. Moreover, as a historical interpretation it serves as a useful reminder that both “republicanism” and “mercantile mentalities” could take many forms in early modern Europe. However, first and foremost this volume is a rich and erudite account of political economy in three different stages of success and decline in merchant capitalism.

Wouter Ryckbosch is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp. He specializes in the histories of inequality and consumption in the early modern period, with a particular focus on the Low Countries in the eighteenth century.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century