Several letter-writers to (serious) Dutch newspapers have quoted Benjamin Franklin as having said: "Holland is not a nation but a shop". Why did Franklin say this (if he did)? Google finds the above-mentioned newspapers but little else.

Link to NRC (liberal-leaning quality newspaper) (paywalled) and my translation.

Original Dutch:

op het Binnenhof, speciaal bij de VVD, de EU er vooral te zijn om onze aardappelen wat makkelijker te kunnen verkopen, waarbij ‘vrijheid’ tot ‘vrijhandel’ wordt gereduceerd. „Holland”, zo vatte de grote Amerikaanse staatsman Benjamin Franklin al ruim twee eeuwen geleden ons vaderlandse pseudo-vrijheidsideaal kernachtig samen, „is not a nation, but a shop.”

My translation:

In the Binnenhof [seat of government] especially with the VVD [Liberal party, main government party] the EU exists primarily to sell our potatoes more easily, so that 'freedom' is reduced to 'free trade'. The great American statesman Benjamin Franklin summarized our fatherland's pseudo-freedom ideals concisely as "Holland is not a nation but a shop".

Other references seem similar.

  • 6
    Can you link to one or two? Though I suspect This quote from Abraham Lincoln may have relevance. It's common to put words in the mouths of famous quotable figures to make them seem more impressive and Franklin is certainly one of these figures.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 22:18
  • 3
    Also, sometimes quotes get transferred to more famous figures. John Adams was Ambassador to the Dutch Republic right around when Franklin was bouncing around Europe.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 22:25
  • 4
    It also sounds suspiciously like the "Nation of Shopkeepers" statement attributed to Napoleon about England.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 22:33
  • 1
    @GorttheRobot - Unlike Franklin, coming from Adams that would likely have been intended as a complement.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 21:46
  • @GorttheRobot I added a link and translation. Since this became an HNQ it swamps both Google and DuckDuckGo which I used before posting.
    – NL_Derek
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 22:19

1 Answer 1


From The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin (published 1888), clipped from a letter to Charles Dumas, dated 6 Aug, 1781:

Some writer, I forget who, says that Holland is no longer a nation but a great shop and I begin to think it has no other principles or sentiments but those of a shopkeeper You can judge of it better than I and I shall be happy to find myself mistaken.

So we can see Franklin used the line, but doesn't take credit for it himself.

Concerning Why...

Perhaps the why can be gleaned by reading around the relevant lines. The National archives has records of these letters you can read, and in the section previous to the quote (emphasis mine):

...since the fixing of Mr. Adams there, I do not attend so much to the affairs of your Country as before, expecting indeed but little from it to our Advantage: For tho’ it was formerly in the same Situation with us, and was glad of assistance from other Nations, it does not seem to feel for us, or to have the least Inclination to help us.

Remember this is the middle of the revolutionary war, and the U.S. is attempting to secure a loan from the Dutch banks. The explanation is a little more bluntly put in the Next letter, of 12 aug 1781. It begins with providing news of the war, but then the second paragraph seems to apologetic concerning the content of the previous letter:

In looking over my last to you, I apprehend I may have express’d myself perhaps a little too hardly of your Country: I foresee you will tell me that we have many Friends there, I once thought So too. But I was a little out of humour when I wrote, on understanding that no Loan could be obtained there for our Use, tho’ the Credit of this Kingdom was offered to be engaged for assuring the Payment, & so much is lent freely to our Enemies. You can best tell the Reason it will be well not to let my Letter be seen.

I am, ever, Dear Sir, Your faithful Friend, and humble Servant

B Franklin

So the Why was due to Franklins concerns over the inability to come to terms on securing a line of credit to finance the Revolutionary war.

  • 19
    You could complement on the why in the question, even though it is subjective; the reputation is that in Holland we care more about money than about anything else, which is why we welcomed (rich) Jewish or Protestant refugees from Spain and France (the so-called "tolerance" the Dutch like to pride themselves for), and even today the government stimulates museums not because of its inherent cultural value, but because "people who come to the city to visit museums will spend money in restaurants, therefore museums benefit the economy". Much has been written about this cultural attitude.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 9:03
  • 2
    While he doesn't take credit, he certainly seems to share the sentiment, even if prepared to toss the opinion upon recommendation of another more trusted (and more memorable!) source.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 9:49
  • 4
    It's extremely satisfying to see an answers with the actual source! Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 15:31
  • 1
    @gerrit If that's seen as a fault of your government, it seem strange, since it's essentially the same as any region whose economy is heavy on tourism.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 15:56
  • 11
    @gerrit I wouldn't necessarily attribute modern views to it -- Franklin was writing during the height of the Dutch East India Company, which had an outsized influence on Dutch foreign policy. Outside of the low countries, to a rough approximation your interaction with the Netherlands was entirely the Dutch East India Company. So it's somewhat reasonable to say the Netherlands = large commercial conglomerate.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 4, 2021 at 16:18

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