Disclosure and publication of documents concerning Dutch constitutional committees, 1883-1983

English | Nederlands

“The welfare of the people is the highest rule of law”: King William 1 bestows the Constitution of 1815 upon the Dutch maiden. Medal commemorating the king's inauguration ceremony in Brussels on 21 September1815. Source: Officieel gedenkboek van de feestelijke ontvangst en inhuldiging van H.M. Koningin Wilhelmina binnen Amsterdam in1898 (Amsterdam 1898), 251.

The Dutch constitution is not only one of the most important sources of Dutch constitutional law, it also expresses the key principles on which the Netherlands are founded as a nation. The oldest written constitution, dating from 1798, was designed for the revolutionary Batavian Republic. In 1814, the year that saw the emergence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the first non-republican constitution took form.This constitution has been revised on a number of occasions during the last two hundred years, for instance in 1848, 1917 and 1983; sometimes with radical changes.Revising the constitution is a complex and labourious process,because of the many safeguards laid down in the constitution itself. For a government that wants to propose constitutional reforms it is standard practice to set up an advisory (state)committee, consisting of politicians and experts. These constitutional committees prepare the revision process and in their official reports put forward suggestions for constitutional changes. Usually, these reports are based on both principal as much as strongly politicized debates within the committees. The committees` secret minutes therefore reflect, in a structured way, general changes in constitutional, political and social thought on various themes and levels. The task assignment, membership and actual functioning of the committees, as well as the final outcome of their work provide insights into the political context of the revision process.

The goal of the Dutch Constitutional Committees Project is to disclose archival material associated with the activities of a number of constitutional committees between 1883 and 1983. Not only the archives of the committees are included, but also those series concerning the preliminary stages and the prospective legislative process that results from their advice, personal collections and records of other actors involved. Taken together, this documentation puts the constitutional revision process into a broader historical and contextual framework.

In previous editions published by the Institute forNetherlands History, the realisation of the constitution of 1814,and the revisions of 1815 and 1848, were documented (see:Origins of the constitution and The correspondence of J.R. Thorbecke). This project therefore begins with the constitutional committee under the chairmanship of J.Heemskerk (1883-1884) and ends with the implementation of a number of changes suggested by the committee that was chaired by J.M.L.Th. Cals and A.M. Donner (1983). In total, seventeen constitutional committees are studied. The results will illustrate how the constitutional debate was conducted 'behind the scenes' over the course of a century. This will provide sources of great value for historians, lawyers and all those interested in politics in practice. It enables the researcher to trace the evolution of ideas relating to different issues (such as private and state education, the right to vote, or the position of women) over the course of an extensive period of time.

The project consists of three components:

  • An online guide to the archives. The guide discloses archive material relating to the establishment and operation of the constitutional committees and the implementation of their proposals. The guide is not limited to the archives of the actual committees, but also includes those of the members, and ofa number of other actors from the political and social arena whowere closely involved, such as political parties and interest groups.
  • A digital access to a comprehensive series of core documents.These documents, in particular the minutes and reports of the committees, will be scanned and made accessible as images. As such they will provide a complete insight in the wide range of themes and debates conducted in all 17 committees.
  • A printed documentary edition. In this publication some ofthe several longstanding themes in the debate about the constitution will be documented in more detail through a selection of archival material.
Left: J. Heemskerk, Chair of the Constitutional Committee 1883-1885. Source: PDC. Right: A.M. Donner, five times member and Chair of the Constitutional Committees 1950-1971. Source: PDC
Left: J. Heemskerk, Chair of theConstitutional Committee 1883-1885. Source: PDC.
Right: A.M. Donner, five times member and Chair of theConstitutional Committees 1950-1971. Source: PDC.

The project is being carried out by the Huygens ING in cooperationwith the Radboud University Nijmegen. Alongside the three huygens ING components, a PhD study is being carried out on the politicalculture of constitutional committees in the period 1945 until1983.

The first two parts of the project can be found at Onderzoekgids Grondwetscommissies 1883-1983.

The project is partly funded by the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs.