Johan Rudolph Thorbecke
(1798-1872). Dutch liberal statesman. Drafted the 1848 revision of the Dutch Constitution that established the parliamentary system.
Johan Rudolph Thorbecke was born in 1798 in Zwolle to a poor family of German origin. He studied humanities in Leiden, after which he became a private lecturer in Germany. In 1825, he was appointed extraordinary professor of political science at the University of Ghent. After leaving that post in 1830 because of the Belgian Revolution, he became professor of diplomacy and modern history at the Faculty of Law of Leiden University.
In 1839, his Note on the Constitution was published, an article-by-article commentary on the Dutch Constitution as it had been introduced in 1815. A few years earlier, Thorbecke had already started giving lectures on the Constitution, interpreting it historically and comparing it with other constitutions. Until then, constitutional discussions used to be strongly based on natural law. By concentrating on the text of the Constitution, Thorbecke established the study of ‘positive’ (codified) constitutional law in the Netherlands. His ideas had a profound and long-lasting influence on Dutch constitutional scholarship.
In 1844, Thorbecke was elected to the House of Representatives, where he quickly became leader of the liberal opposition. With eight like-minded members he made a proposal for a liberal revision of the Constitution, but this proposal was rejected by the conservative majority. However, the European Revolutions of 1848 gave him another opportunity to realise his ideas. King William II, who saw his position threatened, appointed Thorbecke head of the committee for the revision of the Constitution. The revised Constitution that resulted, largely drawn up by Thorbecke himself, represents a peaceful revolution that laid the foundations for the Netherlands as a modern parliamentary democracy.
The revised Constitution abolished representation through the estates and introduced direct elections to the House of Representatives, the municipal councils and the Provincial Councils. Voters were those who paid a certain amount of tax. With the introduction of political ministerial responsibility, ministers were no longer answerable to the King but became answerable to the States General, meaning that ministers became politically responsible for all acts of government. The House of Representatives was given more powers, including the rights of inquiry and amendment. In addition, important rights were added to the Constitution, such as the right of association and assembly and the freedom of education.
From 1849 until his death in 1872, Thorbecke was Minister of the Interior in three cabinets. Because he presided over the Council of Ministers, he was in fact Prime Minister, although formally this position did not yet exist. His first cabinet, in particular, passed influential legislation, including the Elections Act. As Minister of the Interior, Thorbecke drafted the Provincial Act and the Municipalities Act. In doing so, he laid the foundations for the administrative organisation of the Netherlands as it still is today, divided into three ‘floors’: the State, the provinces and the municipalities. This structure is also known as ‘The House of Thorbecke’.
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