Johan de Witt (Dordrecht, Netherlands, 24 September 1625 – The Hague, Netherlands, 20 August 1672) was a key figure in Dutch politics at a time when the Republic of the United Provinces was one of the Great Powers in Europe, dominating trade routes and thus one of the wealthiest and mightiest nations in the world.
Johan de Witt was born as the son of Jacob de Witt, an influential burgher from the patrician class in the city of Dordrecht which, in the seventeenth century, was one of the most important cities of the dominating province of Holland. Johan and his older brother Cornelis de Witt grew up in a privileged environment in terms of education, his father having important scholars and scientists, such as Isaac Beeckman, Jacob Cats, Gerhard Vossius and Andreas Colvius as good acquaintances. Jacob de Witt greatly valued stoicism.
Johan and Cornelis both attended the latin school in Dordrecht, which impregnated both brothers even more with the values of the Roman Republic. As Johan proved to be a highly gifted student, he was rewarded by being allowed the role of Julius Caesar in a school play.
After having attended the Latin school in Dordrecht (this school still exists under the name of Johan de Witt-Gymnasium), he studied at the University of Leiden where he excelled at mathematics and law. He received his doctorate from the University of Angers in 1645. He practiced law as an attorney in The Hague as an associate with the firm of Frans van Schooten.
In 1650 he was appointed leader of the deputation of Dordrecht to the States of Holland, the year that stadtholder William II of Orange died. In 1653 De Witt became 'raadpensionaris', a sort of chairman, of the States of Holland. Holland being the most powerful province, he was effectively the political leader of the United Provinces as a whole. That is why the 'raadpensionaris' of Holland was also referred to as the Grand Pensionary.
Johan de Witt brought about peace with England after the First Anglo-Dutch War with the Treaty of Westminster in the year 1654. The peace treaty had a secret annex, the Act of Seclusion, forbidding the Dutch ever to appoint William II's toddler son as stadtholder. This annex had been attached on instigation of Cromwell, who felt that, William III being a grandson of the executed Charles I, it was not in the interests of his own republican regime to see William ever gaining political power. Influenced by the values of the Roman republic, De Witt did his utmost anyway to prevent any member of the House of Orange from gaining power, convincing many provinces to abolish the stadtholderate entirely. He bolstered his policy by publicly endorsing the theory of republicanism. He is known to have contributed personally to the Interest of Holland, a radical republican textbook published in 1662 by his supporter Pieter de la Court.
De Witt's power base was the wealthy merchant class of which he was born. This class broadly coincided politically with the "States faction", stressing Protestant religious moderation and pragmatic foreign policy defending commercial interests. The "Orange faction", consisting of the middle class, preferred a strong leader from the House of Orange as a counterweight against the rich upperclasses, in economic and religious matters alike, although leaders that did emerge from the House of Orange rarely were strict calvinists themselves. In the period following the Treaty of Westminster the Republic grew in wealth and influence under De Witt's leadership. De Witt created a strong navy, appointing one of his political cronies, Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam, as supreme commander of the confederate fleet. Later De Witt became a personal friend of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. The Second Anglo-Dutch War began in 1665, lasting until 1667 when it ended with the Treaty of Breda, in which De Witt negotiated very favorable agreements for the Republic after the partial destruction of the British fleet in the Raid on the Medway, initiated by De Witt himself and executed in 1666 by De Ruyter.
At about the time the Treaty of Breda was concluded De Witt made another attempt at pacification of the quarrel between States Party and Orangists over the position of the Prince of Orange. He proposed to have William appointed captain-general of the Union on reaching the age of majority (23), on condition, however, that this office would be declared incompatible with that of stadtholder in all of the provinces. For good measure the stadtholderate was abolished in Holland itself. This Perpetual Edict (1667) was enacted by the States of Holland on August 5, 1667, and recognized by the States-General on a four-to-three vote in January, 1668.
His pro-French policy however would prove to be his undoing. In the Dutch rampjaar (disaster year) of 1672, when France and England during the Franco-Dutch War (Third Anglo-Dutch War) attacked the Republic, the Orangists took power by force and expelled him. Recovering from an earlier attempt on his life in June, he was assassinated by a carefully organized lynch "mob" after visiting his brother Cornelis de Witt in prison. He was decoyed into this trap by a forged letter.
After the arrival of Johan de Witt the city guard was sent away to stop plundering farmers, the farmers were not found. Without any protection against the assembled mob the brothers were doomed. They were taken out of the prison and on their way to the scaffold killed. Immediately after their death the bodies were mutilated and fingers toes and other parts were cut off. The heart of Cornelis de Witt was exhibited for many years next to his brother's by one of the ringleaders, the silversmith Hendrik Verhoeff
Nowadays most historians assume that his adversary and successor as leader of the government stadtholder William III of Orange was involved. At the very least he protected and rewarded the killers.
In 1671 his "Waardije van Lyf-renten naer Proportie van Los-renten" was published ('The Worth of Life Annuities Compared to Redemption Bonds'). This work combined the interests of the statesman and the mathematician. Ever since the Middle Ages a Life Annuity was a way to "buy" someone a regular income from a reliable source. The state for instance could provide a widow with a regular income until her death, in exchange for a 'lump sum' up front. There were also Redemption Bonds that were more like a regular state loan. De Witt showed - by using probability mathematics - that for the same amount of money a bond of 4% would result in the same profit as a Life Annuity of 6% (1 in 17). But the 'Staten' at the time were paying over 7% (1 in 14).
The drop in income for the widows contributed no doubt to the "bad press" for the brothers De Witt. Significantly, after the violent deaths of the brothers the 'Staten' issued new Life Annuities in 1673 for the old rate of 1 in 14.
In 1671 De Witt conceived of a life annuity as a weighted average of annuities certain where the weights were mortality probabilities (that sum to one), thereby producing the expected value of the present value of a life annuity. Edmond Halley’s (of comet fame) representation of the life annuity dates to 1693 when he re-expressed a life annuity as the discounted value of each annual payment multiplied by the probability of surviving long enough to receive the payment and summed until there are no survivors. De Witt's approach was especially insightful and ahead of its time. In modern terminology, De Witt treats a life annuity as a random variable and its expected value is what we call the value of a life annuity. Also in modern terminology, De Witt's approach allows one to readily understand other properties of this random variable such as its standard deviation, skewness, kurtosis, or any other characteristic of interest.
The lynching of the De Witt brothers is depicted with a dramatic intensity in the first chapter of The Black Tulip, a historical fiction novel written by Alexandre Dumas, père in 1850, and this event has implications for the whole plot line of the book.
In its time, Dumas' book has helped make this tragedy known to a French readership (and a readership in other countries into whose languages the book was translated) otherwise ignorant of Dutch history.