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An Embarrassment of Riches

It took a year-and-a-half of waiting in anterooms, of personal humiliations, of lobbying the government for official recognition, and of suffering through a bout of malaria. In the end John Adams got it done: he secured a loan with a consortium of Dutch financiers that saved the United States from complete financial collapse.

It's not in many history books but in the fall of 1782 John Adams went to the Netherlands and arranged a series of loans that kept the United States' ailing economy on life support until a new government went into effect. The first loan was for five million guilders, followed by loans in 1784, 1787, and 1788, that netted an additional nine million guilders, at five percent interest plus a brokerage commission, repayable over 15 years. It's safe to say Hamilton's financial wizardry of 1790-91 would not have been possible had Adams not secured these loans.

As important was the Netherlands--a country with virtually no natural resources--had the money at all. France, with its long growing seasons and fertile soil, was broke and couldn't feed its own people, while America's other alley, Spain, wasn't much better off. The Netherlands, however, had an "embarrassment of riches" (to quote the title of a recent book about seventeenth-century Netherlands).

How could this be? The Netherlands was hardly prime real estate. The first people to settle there were more or less pushed there, to what was mostly marshland hard by the North Sea. To survive, they built dikes to hold back the sea and built windmills to work as pumps to drain water and put dry land under their feet. They lifted land from the bottom of lakes and swamps to create areas called "polders" for agriculture and habitation. By directing the drained water into ditches, they made canals for transportation. Maintenance of the drainage system required constant attendance and renewal; the work was never stopped and was never finished. People such as thesr are not easily defeated. They fought a brutal war for independence against Spanish occupation that lasted 80 years (compared to the eight years the U.S. fought to oust the British).

The Dutch were very much like the Venetians, having created living space from the sea. Also like the Venetians, they became master ship builders who grew rich through trade. Most everything for which they were known was imported, including tulips (indigenous to Turkey), and Dutch chocolate (cocoa beans come from the equator), Dutch cigars (tobacco leaves come from the Americas), and felt hats (from North American beaver pelts). While much of the world scoured the globe for quick riches (gold and silver) the Dutch traded for raw materials from which they produced goods that they sold for huge profits. With all that money they became bankers to the world.

It was for this reason that Scottish philosopher Adam Smith could write in the "Wealth of Nations" (published in 1776) that a nation's wealth was not dependent on its natural resources--its oil reserves, its forests, its gold bullion--but on its Gross Domestic Product, or, put another way, on the enterprise of its people.

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