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Johan de Witt was born on 24 September 1625 in Dordrecht, as the son of Jacob de Witt and Anna van den Corput and brother of Cornelis de Witt. Johan first attended the Latin school in Dordrecht, studied law in Leiden and obtained a doctorate in France. In 1647, he registered as a lawyer in The Hague, became pensionary of Dordrecht in 1650 and in 1653, grand pensionary of Holland. As grand pensionary, he was the top civil servant of the Holland region, chairman of the Holland Provincial Council and member of the Holland delegation in the States General, where he acted as spokesman. Johan de Witt was responsible for both the domestic and foreign policy and was hence one of the most influential. figures in the Republic for nearly twenty years. Johan married Wendela Bicker (1635-1668) and they went on to have eight children, three of which died young.

As grand pensionary, Johan de Witt wrote and received a substantial number of letters. His correspondence was therefore very versatile and included letters from important statesmen, foreign dignitaries, army commanders, scientists, relatives and numerous requests for a recommendation. The most letters by far were written in the period 1653-1672, whereas a smaller proportion stem from the period before 1653. After his death, his personal archive was transferred to the state and it is currently stored in the National Archive: inventory of Grand pensionary De Witt, 3.01.17.

Project description

Although Johan de Witt was one of the most famous characters in national history, relatively little research has been carried out about him. This is partly due to the fact that Johan’s correspondence could barely be accessed for a long period. The National Archive is currently finalising a new inventory and the collection will soon become fully available for research. Huygens ING has started a project based on the online publication of the six-part source edition by R. Fruin, N. Japikse and G.W. Kernkamp, Brieven aan en Brieven van Johan de Witt (1906-1919). This publication, which contains a selection of 3,038 letters, is being digitised and made openly accessible for metadata such as date, correspondent, place, etc. In collaboration with the National Archive and Early Modern Letters Online – EMLO – (a project of Cultures of Knowledge that forms part of Oxford University and Bodleian Library), Huygens ING tries to supplement this digital collection with letters from and to Johan de Witt that are not included in the printed edition. The work commenced in September 2016; the first version will be openly accessible online in 2019.


Ineke Huysman

Go to the project’s web page

Twitter: @johandewittNL