Constitutional committees 1883-1983

The research for this project focuses on different types of committees set up to revise the constitution. In the Netherlands, these so-called constitutional committees play an important role in changes to the constitution – the document setting out the main principles and rules of the Dutch polity. The discussions in the seventeen selected committees provide an insight in the (laborious) policy of revising the constitution, but also in how opinions about politics and society have changed.

Not only is the Dutch constitution one of the main sources of Dutch constitutional law, but it is also an expression of the fundamental principles on which the Netherlands is based as a nation. The oldest written constitution, dating from 1798, was designed for the revolutionary Batavian Republic. In 1814, the first non-republican constitution took form for the United Netherlands. Revising the constitution is a complex and laborious process, because of the many safeguards laid down in the constitution itself. The constitution has nevertheless been revised on a number of occasions during the last two hundred years, for instance in 1848, 1917 and 1983; sometimes with radical changes. For a government that wants to propose constitutional reforms it is standard practice to first set up advisory committees, consisting of politicians and experts. These committees prepare the revision process and put forward suggestions for constitutional changes in their reports.  The debate conducted in the constitutional committees reflects in a structured way, general changes in constitutional, political and social thinking on various levels.

The aim of the project is to make the archive material related to the activities of a number of constitutional committees between 1883 and 1983 accessible, including the preliminary stage and the legislative follow-up. The mandate and composition of the committees and the eventual outcome of the committees’ work provide insight in the political contact of the review process. The research will not be limited to the official archives; personal collections of various participants provide a broader context and historical framework.

Previous research into the Dutch constitution

The creation of the constitution in 1814, the review in 1815 and that of 1848 have already been documented in previous Huygens ING publications (see Ontstaan der grondwet (Origin of the constitution)and the correspondence of Thorbecke). This project therefore starts with the constitutional committee under the chairmanship of J. Heemskerk Azn. (1883-1884) and ends with the implementation of a number of changes proposed by the state committee chaired by J.L.M.Th. Cals and A.M. Donner (1983). The research will cover a total of  seventeen (state) committees. The outcome shows how the constitutional debate was conducted behind the scenes for a century and is substantially relevant to historians, legal experts and others interested in political practice. It enables the researcher to follow the deliberations on specific themes (such as education, the right to vote or the position of women) over a prolonged period.

The project comprises three parts:

The results of these first two parts can be found here: Onderzoeksgids Grondwetscommissies 1883-1983

Still relevant

Speaking about the constitution. 100 years of constitutional debates brings together the most beautiful fragments from 100 years of constitutional debate in five thematic chapters. It was compiled by Karin van Leeuwen, Marijke van Faassen and Marielle Scherer and covers the debates of the constitutional commissions on possible constitutional amendments from 1880-1980. Many of these debates are still relevant in the current era. That is why Kors Visscher presented excerpts from these meetings to Carla van Baalen, Pieter Derks, Ruud Koole, Ariejan Korteweg and Johan Remkes. These five prominent political commentators reflect on the fragments, the constitution and current politics in general. His blogs are alternated with blogs from the authors.

Read the blog here.

Research programme on Representation and Governance in the Netherlands

The project forms part of the programme Representation and Governance in the Netherlands, developed by Prof. Dr Ida Nijenhuis. The project is carried out by Huygens ING in collaboration with Radboud University Nijmegen. In 2013, this collaboration resulted in the doctoral thesis of Karin van Leeuwen, Uit het spoor van Thorbecke. Grondwetsherziening en staatsvernieuwing in Nederland, 1883-1983.

The project is supported by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and the Staatsman Thorbecke Foundation.