Posts Tagged ‘Willem of Orange’

Bringing the President to the people

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

An enclosed yard in the vicinity of the Peekskill train station protects the historical spot where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a whistle-stop on February 19, 1861.

A statue represents Lincoln as he addressed the crowd that came to meet him that day, when he stopped in Peekskill, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.

Contemporary accounts of the event describe a very tall, neatly dressed and tired man as Lincoln stepped from the rear car onto the platform prepared to receive him.

He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.

More than 1,500 people greeted him, representing half of the town’s population. The welcoming address was delivered by Peekskill attorney William Nelson, who had invited the President-elect to stop in the Westchester town. Nelson had served in the House of Representatives and had become friends with the Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. They shared political views, in particular anti-slavery convictions.

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, Westchester

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, NY

In response to Nelson’s address, which mentioned the difficulties ahead for the President-elect, Lincoln gave a short speech, no longer than 140 words, and stated:

I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.

The train conductor concluded Lincoln’s brief statementt with a Time’s up! shout. And off the train moved with a bowing President-elect, hat in hand.

The whole event cannot have lasted more than 30 minutes, the time it took to refill the water tanks and load up on wood.

Stops had to be short: an abolitionist President was not welcome by the secessionists and a number of Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union. Assassination attempts were a distinct possibility and all necessary security measures had been taken. Lincoln is said to have had to sneak through Baltimore at night, while his wife who was following in a separate train was met there by an outright hostile crowd.

It was just over eleven years before the event that the Hudson River Railroad had arrived in Peekskill, in September 1849. By using this new mode of transportation while at the same time meeting his constituency, Lincoln inaugurated what for years has been a staple of any American electoral campaign. To honour a predecessor he admired, President-elect Obama followed in Lincoln’s track by taking a pre-inaugural whistle-stop train trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. in January 2009.

For centuries, trying to bring leaders closer to their constituency has been a concern. There was a time when once a year - if not once in a decade - elaborate ceremonies during which a country leader would make an appearance in full regalia would suffice to keep the people satisfied. His very presence attested to the physical reality of his existence, however distant the leader may have been from the crowds.

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, Rome

Formal processions, from Cleopatra’s slave-pulled floats to Queen Elizabeth’s annual progresses would ensure the people would get a glimpse of their sovereign, thereby contributing to ensure continued devotion to their ruler. There seemed to have been no fear for that leader’s security.

The tangibility of the ruler’s physical presence was reassuring and the security risk limited. On a more regular basis, minted coins bearing the leader’s head - such as the gold English sovereign, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII of England - would popularize the image of the sovereign, and help in asserting his power. Imposing, larger than life, representations of the leader, such as equestrian statues, would also be placed on cities main squares as a  reminder of the might of this leader. Marcus Aurelius, Louis XIV or Peter the Great’s equestrian statues are famous examples of these monumental images.

It is said that, during the famous flight to Varennes when Louis XVI of France tried to escape from Paris with his family, disguised as servants, he was recognized because his face appeared on money. Some stories mention the revolutionary banknotes, assignats, while others evoke gold coins.

The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have resorted to similar oversize representations of their leaders, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, to communist Russia and China. Equally important was the actual participation of the leader in elaborate ceremonies where he could be recognized as a small spot in the distance. Trust played an important part in these ceremonies as the leader’s presence was an essential element of the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Charles Chaplin has played with this in the movie The Dictator where a Jewish barber, a look alike of the totalitarian leader of the country, takes the dictator’s place and sends his own, and different, message of hope to a cheering crowd. The mesmerized crowd is no longer able to think and will cheer any speech, regardless of the message.

Beyond trying to limit the time during which a leader would be exposed, as was the case for Lincoln’s train trip, ensuring security of the leader in public appearances has become a major issue in a world now only too accustomed to political assassinations. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a number of world leaders falling victims of assassins as their views or programmes were controversial.

Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated, only four years following his Peekskill visit. In April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy, jumped into the state box at the Ford Theater and killed the President.

Other American historical leaders have perished victims of their political opponents. Two Kennedy brothers were assassinated in the 1960’s. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed first, and died in his third year in office, in November 1963, while being driven in an open car procession, in Dallas, Texas. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while running for President, in June 1968, as he took a short-cut through a hotel kitchen. Following his death, all US Presidential candidates have been assigned Secret Service protection.

A little bit earlier that year, in March 1968, Civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King was also assassinated. During a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his motel room.

Other famous 20th century leaders were assassinated by political opponents during public appearances. On 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist as he was walking to address a prayer meeting.

In an ever increasing escalation of violence, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in 2007. After she was shot, a suicide bomb detonated, killing Bhutto and an estimated 23 other people.

Before the 19th century, rarer have been historical assassinations that targeted country rulers. Two famous ones however took place during the religious wars at a time when the Reformation was dividing Europe.

Willem of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, a defender of religious freedom, perished a victim of a French Roman Catholic fanatic. Born a Lutheran, and educated as a Roman Catholic, in July 1584, Willem was assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in his Delft home, in the Prinsenhof.

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Gerard had gained access to the house under false pretense, and killed Willem with two bullets at close range.

A contemporary of Willem, Henry IV of France, the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism, had signed the Edict of Nantes that recognized freedom of religion in the kingdom of France, and the co-existence of two religions. The Edict brought an end to decades of religious wars. On May 14, 1610, he too was assassinated by French Roman Catholic fanatic Ravaillac as he was passing in his carriage through Rue de la Ferronerie.

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th were also marked by a number of political assassinations. Reformer Russian Czar Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot, on March 13, 1881, marking the end of civil liberties and the reform effort.

On September 10, 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was stabbed and killed by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a royal. Elisabeth was walking on the promenade next to Lake Geneva, and was about to board a steamship to Montreux.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, were shot dead as they were riding side by side in an open car. The double assassination led to World War I, one month later.

Of appeals and oranges,… and the birth of a nation

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

As in William of Orange.

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

At the time when the Low Countries were under Spanish rule, Willem, Prins Van Oranje (pronounce oran’-yeah) led the fight against the occupier, in the name of religious freedom.

Born in 1533 in Nassau, Willem was raised a Lutheran. When his cousin René de Châlon, Prince of Orange, left the eleven year old Willem all of his property - including the title Prince of Orange - the condition was that Willem receive a Roman Catholic education. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was to serve as regent until Willem was old enough to rule. At 22, Willem became commander of the Emperor’s armies. The same year, 1555, the Emperor abdicated and his son, Philip II of Spain came to power.

Increasingly, Protestants in the Netherlands were persecuted under the inquisition policy carried out by representatives of the Spanish crown, acting in the name of the devout Catholic king. The persecution led to growing opposition to Spanish rule.

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

A large group of noblemen formed the Confederacy of Noblemen and on 5 April 1565, appealed to Margaret of Austria - Philip’s natural half sister and governor to the Low Countries - for the end to the persecution of the Protestants by presenting a petition. In 1566, the Beeldenstorm - an iconoclastic movement - destroyed statues and representations of saints in churches and monasteries all over the Netherlands.

Margaret of Austria agreed to grant the wishes presented in the petition but was not allowed to make good on her promises and Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, was sent from Spain to repress the rebellion.

Having been brought up both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic, Willem was a strong believer in religious freedom. He soon became the leader of an armed resistance to the Spanish repression.

In 1568, war started and many battles - including naval encounters - were fought and won by both sides, until 1581, when on 22 July, through the Act of Abjuration, independence from the Spanish Crown was declared, and a new nation was born, built on the ideal of freedom of religion.

This allowed the Duke of Anjou, brother to King Henry III of France to become the new sovereign. He arrived in February 1582, but quickly became quite unpopular. Dissatisfied with the limited power he was given, he left the country in 1583, and Willem remained the stadtholder.

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

In 1580, King Philip II of Spain had declared Willem an outlaw and promised a reward of 25,000 to anyone who would kill Willem. Balthasar Gerard, a French Catholic, determined in 1581 he would try. He finally succeeded on 10 July 1584, killing Willem with two bullets shot at close range. The bullets impact can still be seen in Delft, in the Prinsenhof, the St. Agatha convent which had become the Prince’s residence since 1573.

Willem’s private life reflects the reality of 16th Century Europe where alliances were built across borders, and the choice of a religion could become a question of life and death. Born a Lutheran in then Germany, he inherited a title from a French relative, on the condition that he would convert to Catholicism.  In the fight against Spain Willem had tried to enroll the support of the French Huguenots to protect territories in the Low Countries, but the Saint Bartholomew massacre of 24 August 1572 resulted in most of the French Huguenot leaders being killed. 

Willem married four times. His first wife, the wealthy Dutch Anna van Egmond en Buren, gave him the title of Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren and three children. Three years after her death, Willem married the equally wealthy Anna of Saxony, which allowed him to increase his influence in the Saxony and Palatinate territories. After having five children with Willem, Anna started a liaison with her lawyer, Jan Rubens (later to become Peter Paul Rubens’ father), and gave him a daughter. Willem annulled the marriage claiming Anna was insane.

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

He then married the French aristocrat Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, grand-daughter to an illegitimate half-sister to French king Francis I. When she was only two week old, her mother placed her in a royal convent to be raised as a nun. When Charlotte reached 25, she escaped from the convent, converted to Calvinism, and took refuge in the Palatinate. Three years later, she was married to Willem to whom she gave six daughters.

A year after Charlotte’s death, Willem married for the last time in 1583 to Louise de Coligny. Louise was the daughter of the French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who along with Louise’s first husband had been killed during the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Following Willem’s death, Louise raised their son, Frederick Henry and Willem and Charlotte’s six daughters.

Willem, Prins van Oranje

Willem, Prins van Oranje


Henri IV of France, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism to become the king of France, and whose wedding celebration to the French king’s sister was the occasion that brought about the Saint Bartholomew massacre, suffered a fate similar to Willem. He too was killed by a Catholic fanatic, Ravaillac.   

In the midst of a 16th Century that was deeply affected by religious turmoil, Willem explained his conflict with Philip II to the Council of State as follows ”I can not approve that monarchs desire to rule over the conscience of their subjects and take away from them their freedom of belief and religion.”