A Citizen of a Lost Republic…

“The Right Honourable Very Learned Mr. J.C. van Slee, Deventer.” Letter to van Slee from November 3rd, 1910. When, did you say, was the Republic of Letters dead?
“Mr. N. Sypestein, Servant of the Word of the Lord, at Doorn.” Letter to Sijpestijn from March 30th, 1714, just for comparison. On the outside, there has not been much change in the 200 years between the letters, except nationalization – mind the stamp.

The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot.[1]

Proverbs 10,7.

The first part of this biblical proverb served Jacob Cornelis van Slee already in 1880, early in his career, as the starting point for his sermon on the death of J. H. van Tussenbroek, his predecessor on the post of Predikant at Rump. Throughout the sermon, he made it very clear to the congregation that this meant that they had a duty towards the deceased: to honour his memory.  Because on such occasions, as he contained, you hear a faint inner voice, “and this surely is the voice of conscience, which we understand therein, and which lets us hear the solemn demand, ‘that the memory of the just shall be blessed.’”[2] That was what he wished for his predecessor who, as he said, had been nothing but worthy of such remembrance. And as his work in the next four decades shows, it was an impetus that propelled his historical interests. Throughout this writings, he tried to save some of those he deemed worthy men from oblivion.  

… and the Lost Citizens of the Republic

In his case, these all were men from what we today would most likely call the periphery of the Republic of Letters. At least I would. Slee’s interests where centered on what – again – we today would call medieval and early modern history (again, at least I do). He wrote on topics between the 13th and the 18th century. In doing so, he concentrated on church history and academic history. His articles for the ADB [link] and his only monograph, the History of Socinianism in the Netherlands [link], are prime examples for that. But more interesting now are the smaller publications he devoted to men of learning which he deemed to be unjustly forgotten.

Athenaeumsbibliotheek Deventer, A SLE W 2.

Be it Franciscus Martinius (1638–1653), of whom he said that: “From this I have learned to know Martinius as a practitioner and lover of letters who merits a better lot than that oblivion which he fell into over the course of time”;[3] be it Isaac Lavergne (†1702), preacher at the French Church and professor of theology at the Athenaeum Illustre of Deventer, whom he praised as “a worthy citizen, too good to be let in oblivion”;[4] be it Simon Tyssot de Patot (1655–c.1727), professor of Mathematics at the Athenaeum Illustre, whose merits he praised in every way: “His life, his situation, his family and friends, his lively spirit and good humour, his somewhat sceptical nature, his learning and his writings make him worthy in every respect to be recalled from that oblivion which he is in today.”[5] Other pieces of work he dedicated to the memory of Thomas a Kempis,[6] Martin Luther – in 1917 he organized an exhibition in honour of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation,[7] and left a metal commemoration plate from the same year among his papers[8] – and, in a little poem, that of his father.[9]He even tried to prepare for the proliferation of his own memory when he dedicated the notebooks he filled in writing his history of Socinianism to the Library of the Deventer Athenaeum, where he held the post of librarian since 1892.[10] Yet despite all his attempts to safe others from oblivion he not only failed in that but got forgotten himself. This may be considered tragic, if you like it pathetic, or just what was to be expected. For Slee was as much on the fringes of his-day academia as his subjects of research were. And although I have not found any direct hint to that, I guess it’s not very far-fetched to assume that his noble attempts were at least partly designed to preserve his name also.

Found: Nothing (which is a Finding)

So far, so good. But what about the questions which led me to inquire about Jacob Cornelis van Slee after all (see the last post), and rescue him from oblivion for the tiny little bit of time it takes you to read this post? As to that, I found exactly … nothing. No traces of his work for the ADB remain among his papers. And there is no trace also that he ever dealt with Johannes Braun. Although, and that is some kind of a clue, I found out that he read and used Heinrich Ludolf Benthems Holländischer Kirch- und Schulen-Staat (Frankfurt 1698) for his history of Socinianism. And that work is almost always referred to by 18th century pieces about Braun also as a valuable source about his life. So Slee could have known about Braun, and just did not care to work about him. Maybe he was not forgotten enough; maybe his heterodoxy just was of the wrong kind. For Braun as a close pupil of Coccejus was decidedly anti-Socinian, and while Slee frequently mentions Coccejus in his notes, perhaps his followers were just not that interesting to him. Or, perhaps, Braun’s reputedly quite problematic character repudiated Slee. For throughout his scholarly work Slee seems to have held fast to a conviction he already voiced in 1880 in the sermon on his predecessor:

„Those men of noble character and real magnanimity, they especially die not. This teaches the history of the world on each page, and the history of the world is, following the truthful word of a wise man, the rightful judgement of the world.”[11]

J.C. van Slee, Een gezegend aandenken 1880

(The “wise man” is Friedrich Schiller, by the way, who came up with this dictum – “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht” – in his poem “Resignation” in 1784/5, and who as a historian by profession should have known better.)

I am afraid that the world’s history is rather overtaxed by putting such a heavy claim on it. But it seems to be quite characteristic of Slee who in his whole scholarly appearance, habitus and work could well have been a man of the 18th century rather than one between the 19th and the 20th. For me, this once more prompts the question when the Republic of Letters really did end. Was Jacob Cornelis van Slee a living anachronism in his times, in constant prochronic search for a lost state (of mind), and his ambitions doomed to fail because of that? Or did the basic constraints and forms of life and work put on people from an academic metier linger on rather longer than we are used to think? Were the nationally styled scientific cultures of the 19th century not just haunted by the ghosts of the old republic?

PS: To those of you who want to have a closer look at J.C. van Slee now, most of his papers are digitalized at geheugenvannederland.nl. Have fun and do research!


[1] King James Bible, Proverbs 10, 7.

[2] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Een gezegend aandenken, het deel van den brave. Leerrrede over Spreuken X: 7a […] ter gelegenheid van het overlijden van den WelEerw. Zeer gel. Heer D. J. H. van Tussenbroek, Emer. Pred. van Rumpt, overladen 7. Mei 1880, uitgesproken door J. C. van Slee, Predikant te Rumpt, Tiel 1880, p. 5: „[…] en het is wel de stem des gewetens, die wij er in verstaan, – die ons den erstigen eisch doet hooren dat ‚de nagedachtnis des rechtvaardigen in zegening blijve‘.“

[3] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Franciscus Martinius, Predikant te Epe, 1638–1653, Deventer 1904 [flyleaf]: “Ik heb daruit […] Martinius leeren kennen als een beminnaar en een beoefenaar der letteren, die een beter lot had verdiend dan de vergetelheid, warin hij in den loop des tijds geraakt is.“

[4] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: „Een vergeten Deventersche professor“, in: Verslagen en mededeelingen van Overijsselsch regt en geschiedenis, 31, 1915, pp. 88–96; p. 96: „[…] een waardig burger, te goed om in vergetelheid te worden gelaten.“

[5] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Simon Tyssot de Patot, Hoogleeraar aan de illustre school te Deventer, in: Nieuw Theologisch Tijdschrift, 1916, pp. 26–53, p. 26: „Zijn leven, zijn omstandigheden, zijn familie en vrienden, zijn levendige geest en goed humeur, zijn ietwat sceptische natuur, zijn studie en zijn geschriften maken hem alleszins waard uit de vergetelheid teruggeroepen te worden, waarin hij zich heden ten dage bevindt.“  

[6] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Ter gedachtenis van Thomas a Kempis, in: Provinciale Overijsselsche en Zwolsche courant, no. 134, June 11th, 1919.

[7] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Luther-tentoonstelling ter gelegenheid van het vierde eeuwfeest der Kerkhervorming: op de Athenaeum-Bibliotheek te Deventer van 22 tot en met 25 October 1917 van 10-12 en 1-3 uur, Deventer 1917.

[8] Athenaeumsbibliotheek Deventer, A SLE W 2.

[9] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: “In memoriam patris mei“, December 25th, 1918: Athenaeumsbibliotheek Deventer, A SLE LL 24.

[10] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Excerpten ten dienste van mijn Geschiedenis der Socinianisme in Nederlands, Athenaeumsbibliotheek Deventer, A SLE O 2, title: “Na mijn overlijden naar de Athen. Bibl.“.

[11] Jacob Cornelis van Slee: Een gezegend aandenken, het deel van den brave. Leerrrede over Spreuken X: 7a […] ter gelegenheid van het overlijden van den WelEerw. Zeer gel. Heer D. J. H. van Tussenbroek, Emer. Pred. van Rumpt, overladen 7. Mei 1880, uitgesproken door J. C. van Slee, Predikant te Rumpt, Tiel 1880, p. 7: “De mannen van karakteradel en waarachtige zielegrootheid, zij inzonderheid sterven niet. Dat leert de geschiedenis der wereld op iedere bladzijde, en de wereldgeschiedenis is, naar het waarachtige woord van en wijs man, het rechtvaardige wereldgericht.“


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