Act of Abjuration

Plakkaat_van_VerlatingheThe Act of Abjuration, (as mentioned in the yesterdays post) however, presented a problem: the magistrates of the cities and rural areas, and the provincial states themselves, had sworn allegiance to King Philip of Spain. Oaths of allegiance were taken very seriously during this era. As long as the conflict with Philip could be glossed over these magistrates could pretend to remain loyal to the king, but if a new sovereign was recognized, they had to make a choice. The rebellious States-General decided on 14 June 1581 to officially declare the throne vacant, because of Philip’s behavior, hence the Dutch name for the Act of Abjuration: “Plakkaat van Verlatinghe”, which may be translated as “Placard of Desertion.” This referred not to desertion of Philip by his subjects, but rather, to a suggested desertion of the Dutch “flock” by their malevolent “shepherd,” Philip.

A committee of four members – Andries Hessels, secretary of the States of Brabant; Jacques Tayaert, pensionary of the city of Ghent; Jacob Valcke, pensionary of the city of Goes; and Pieter van Dieven pensionary of the city of Mechelen – was charged with drafting what was to become the Act of Abjuration. The Act prohibited the use of the name and seal of Philip in all legal matters, and of his name or arms in minting coins. It gave authority to the Councils of the provinces to henceforth issue the commissions of magistrates. The Act relieved all magistrates of their previous oaths of allegiance to Philip, and prescribed a new oath of allegiance to the States of the province in which they served, according to a form prescribed by the States-General. The actual draft seems to have been written by the audiencier of the States-General, Jan van Asseliers.

The Act was remarkable for its extensive Preamble, which took the form of an ideological justification, phrased as an indictment (a detailed list of grievances) of King Philip. This form, which is strikingly similar to that of the American Declaration of Independence, has given rise to speculations that Thomas Jefferson, when he was writing the latter, was at least partly inspired by the Act of Abjuration.

The Preamble was based on Vindiciae contra tyrannos by Philippe de Mornay, and other works of monarchomachs may have been sources of inspiration also. The rebels, in their appeal to public opinion, may have thought it more important to quote “authoritative” sources and refer to “ancient rights” they wished to defend. By deposing a ruler for having violated the Social Contract with his subjects, they were the first to apply these theoretical ideas.