Thorbecke was born on January 14, 1798 in Zwolle, and started studying history and classic literature in Amsterdam in order to avoid conscription. After teaching in Germany and Belgium, he was promoted to professor in diplomacy and modern history at the University of Leiden in 1830.
In 1839, he published his critics to the government of King William I, making him a well known political figure in the Netherlands. Five years later, together with 8 other politicians, he formulated a proposal to change the Dutch constitution. The proposal, known as the Voorstel der Negenmannen ("proposition of the nine men"), didn't pass through the Tweede Kamer, the second chamber of the Dutch parliament.
Due to the international unrest in 1848, King William II decided to form a committee for revision of the constitution, and Thorbecke was appointed as the head of that committee. The changes, which were virtually all architected by Thorbecke, were approved by the parliament, thereby severely limiting the powers of the monarch, and strengthening the powers of the parliament and the ministers. The new constitution was proclaimed on November 3, 1848.
In 1849, Thorbecke was elected the chairman of the Tweede Kamer and minister of internal affairs, thereby de facto becoming the first Prime Minister of the Netherlands. During this cabinet, he devised several important laws, most important of which were laws on elections (1850), municipalities (1851) and provinces (1850). His cabinet was forced to resign in 1853 because of the so-called Aprilbeweging ("April-movement"), a Protestant group which protested against re-instituting the Catholic dioceses, which Thorbecke's cabinet had proposed.
In 1862, Thorbecke again became chairman of the Tweede Kamer. During his second cabinet, a new law regarding secondary education was among the most important achievements. The cabinet fell when Thorbecke resigned in 1866 after a conflict regarding criminal law in the Dutch East Indies.
In 1871, Thorbecke lead his third and last cabinet. His plans for reforms in the army failed, and he became ill in December of that year. He would never fully recover, and he died on June 4, 1872 in his home in The Hague.