History of the United Netherlands, From the Death of William the Silent to the Synod of Dort
With a Full View of the English-Dutch Struggle against Spain ; and of the Origin and Destruction of the Spanish Armada. By Harper & Brothers. Vols. I. and II. 8vo., LL.D., D. C. L. New York:
THESE volumes bear the unmistakable mark, not merely of historical accuracy and research, but of historical genius ; and the genius is not that of Thierry or Guizot, of Gibbon or Macaulay, but has a palpable individuality of its own. They evince throughout a patient, persistent industry in investigating original documents, from the mere labor of which an Irish hod-carrier would shrink aghast, and thank the Virgin that, though born a drudge, he was not born to drudge in the bogs and morasses of unexplored domains of History; yet the genius and enthusiasm of the historian are so strong that he converts the drudgery into delight, and lives joyful, though "laborious days.” There is not a page in these volumes which does not sparkle with evidences of an enjoyment far beyond any that the rich and pleasureseeking idler can ever know; and while the materials are those of the barest and bleakest fact, the style of the narrative is that of the gayest, most genial, and most elastic spirit of romance. We have read all the best fictions which have been published during the interval which has elapsed between the publication of the “ History of the Dutch Republic ” and that of the “ History of the United Netherlands,” but we have read none which fairly exceeds, in what is called, in the slang of fifth-rate critics, “breathless interest,” this novel, but authentic memorial of a past heroic age.
The first requirement of an historian in the present century is original research, — not merely research into rare printed books and pamphlets, but into unpublished and almost unknown manuscripts. No sobriety of judgment, no sagacity of insight, no brilliancy of imagination can compensate for defective information. The finest genius is degraded to the rank of a compiler, unless he sheds new light upon his subject by contributing new facts. The severest requirements of the Baconian method of induction—requirements which have been notoriously disregarded by men of science in the investigation of Nature — remain in force as regards the students of history. The powers of analysis, generalization, statement, and narrative in Macaulay’s historical essays were fully equal to any powers he displayed in the “ History of England from the Reign of James II.” No candid critic can deny that there is little in his “History” which, as far as regards essential facts and principles, had not been previously stated in a more sententious form in his Essays. But we recollect the time when the same dignified scholars who are now insensible to his defects wore blind to his merits, and with majestic dulness classed him among the inglorious company of superficial, untrustworthy, brilliant declaimers. The moment, however, he published in octavo volumes a solid history, and appended to the bottom of each page the obscure authorities on which his narrative was founded, and which plainly exhibited the capacity of the brilliant declaimcr to perform all the austerest duties of the drudge, his reputation marvellously increased among the most frigid and most exacting dispensers of praise. To come nearer home, we remember the time when Bancroft’s rhetoric entirely shut out from the eyes of antiquaries and men of taste Bancroft’s industry and scholarship. It was not until he plainly showed his power to “ toil terribly,” not until he palpably added to our knowledge of American history, that men who had sneered at his occasional rhapsodies of patriotism admitted his claims to be considered the historian of the United States. They resisted Bancroft as long as Bancroft gave them the slightest reason to believe that he was interposing his own mind between them and facts which they knew as well as he; but when, by independent and indefatigable research, at home and abroad, he indisputably widened the sphere of their information, they pardoned the faults of the rhetorician in their gratitude to the toiling investigator who had added to their knowledge.
It is the felicity of Mr. Motley, that, like Prescott, he is not placed under the necessity of overcoming prejudices. There is nobody on either side of the Atlantic (whether we use the word as indicating its limited sense as an ocean, or its larger and more liberal meaning as a magazine) who would not rejoice in his success, and be grieved by his failure. And this good feeling on the part of the public he owes, in a great degree, to the individuality he has impressed upon his work. That individuality is not the individuality of a partisan or of a theorist, but the individuality of a broad-minded, high-minded, chivalrous gentleman. With a soul open to the finest sentiments and ideas of the age in which he lives, tolerant of frailty, but intolerant of meanness, falsehood, and malignity, and writing with the frankness with which a cultivated man of decided opinions might speak to a company of chosen associates, the most obstinate bigot can hardly fail to feel the charm of his free and cordial manner of expression. Hume, Gibbon, Hallam, and Macaulay, Sismondi, Guizot, and Michelet, all have in their characters something which invites and provokes opposition. But the spirit which underlies Mr. Motley’s large scholarship is so thoroughly genial and generous, and is so purified from the pedantry of knowledge and the pedantry of opinion, that it is impossible for him to rouse in other minds any of the antipathy which is often felt for powerful individualities whose powers of mind and extent of erudition still enforce respect and extort admiration. The instinctive sympathy he thus creates is due to no lack of intrepidity in expressing his love for what is right and his hatred for what is wrong. No historian is more decisive in his judgments, or more scornful of the arts and hypocrisies by which the champions of opposite opinions are flattered and propitiated. But his spirit is that of the knight “ without reproach,” as well as the knight “ without fear ” ; and even Ins adversaries cannot but delight in the singleness and simplicity of purpose with which he strives after the truth. Nothing in his position or in his character gives them the slightest pretence for supposing that his bold advocacy of liberal views is connected with any ulterior designs or any “ fatted calf” of theory or office. While he is thus healthily free from the taint of the partisan, he is also independent of the austere insensibility of the judicial Pharisee, whose boast is that he decides questions relating to human nature without any admixture of human instinct and human feeling. Mr. Motley, throughout his History, writes from his heart as well as from his head; and we have been unable to discover that he has swerved from the truth of things by allowing his narrative to be vitiated by an undue prominence of either.
If we pass from the historian’s individuality to Ids materials, we find, that, in a great degree, his facts are discoveries, and that, if his book possessed no literary value whatever, it would still be an important addition to the history of Europe during the latter part of the sixteenth century. He has, of course, studied all the prominent contemporary chronicles and pamphlets of Holland, Flanders, Spain, France, Germany, and England ; and if his materials had been confined to published sources of information, he would still be in possession of facts not generally known or carefully analyzed and combined; but the peculiar value of his History is due to its exhaustive examination of unpublished private letters and political documents. The archives of Holland, England, and Spain have been opened to his investigations, and he has been particularly fortunate in being able to read the whole correspondence between Philip II., his ministers, and governors, relating to the affairs of the Netherlands, from 1584 to the death of that monarch. Placed thus at the centre from which events radiated, and understanding perfectly the real designs which Spain concealed under a cover of the most diabolical dissimulation, and which are now for the first time com pletely elucidated, he was able to judge of the mistakes of the other cabinets of Europe, also laid bare to his unwearied research. The study of the manuscripts in the English State-Paper Office, and in the collections of the British Museum, has given him a perfect insight into the characters and policy of the statesmen of the England of Elizabeth ; and the exact relations which England bore to Holland and Spain he has for the first time clearly indicated. As a contribution to the history of England, these two volumes are of inestimable value. They will disturb, and in some cases revolutionize, the fixed opinions which the most intelligent Englishmen of the present day have formed of almost every public man of the Elizabethan era; and we cannot but wonder that this work should have been left for an American scholar to accomplish.
The present volumes of Mr. Motley’s History begin with the murder of William of Orange, in 1584, and extend only to the assassination of Henry III. of France, in 1589. These five years, however, are crowded with individuals and events of special importance, and the historian has shed new light on every topic he has touched. The determination of Philip II. to put down the revolt of the Netherlands was part of an extensive scheme, which involved the conquest of England and France, the extermination of Protestantism, and the subjection of Europe to the despotic sway of Spain and Rome. The interest of the history is therefore European. To grasp it requires a knowledge of the minutest threads of a tangled web of intrigue which spread from the Escorial to the North Sea. This knowledge Mr. Motley has obtained. The cabinets of Spain, England, and France have yielded up their inmost secrets to his indefatigable research. He peeps over the shoulder of Philip, and reads the despatch by which he intends to outwit Walsingham, — and in a second of time is peeping over the shoulder of Walsirigham, to see what the latter is doing to outwit Philip. There is something inexpressibly stimulating to curiosity in watching the movements of the nimble historian as he speeds from one cabinet to another, and, the invisible spy in the councils of all, detects the misconceptions and blunders of each. In tins complicated game of craft, policy, and passion, our historian is the first writer who has arrived at the knowledge of the cards which each player held in his hand at the time the game was played.
In 1584, the subjugation of the Netherlands seemed to be but a question of time; and the disparity between the power of Spain and that of her revolted provinces is thus strikingly stated : —
“ The contest between those seven meagre provinces upon the sand-banks of the North Sea and the great Spanish Empire seemed at the moment with which we are now occupied a sufficiently desperate one. Throw a glance upon the map of Europe. Look at the broad, magnificent Spanish Peninsula, stretching across eight degrees of latitude and ten of longitude, commanding the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, with a genial climate, warmed in winter by the vast furnace of Africa, and protected from the scorching heats of summer by shady mountain and forest and temperate breezes from either ocean. A generous southern territory, flowing with wine and oil and all the richest gifts of a bountiful Nature, — splendid cities, — the new and daily expanding Madrid, rich in the trophies of the most artistic period of the modern world,— Cadiz, as populous at that day as London, seated by the straits where the ancient and modern systems of traffic were blending like the mingling of the two oceans,— Granada, the ancient wealthy seat of the fallen Moors, — Toledo, Valladolid, and Lisbon, chief city of the recently conquered kingdom of Portugal, counting, with its suburbs, a larger population than any city, excepting Paris, in Europe, the mother of distant colonies, and the capital of the rapidly developing traffic with both the Indies: these were some of the treasures of Spain herself. But she possessed Sicily also, the better portion of Italy, and important dependencies in Africa, while the famous maritime discoveries of the age had all inured to her aggrandizement. The world seemed suddenly to have expanded its wings from hast to West only to bear the fortunate Spanish Empire to the most dizzy heights of wealth and power. The most accomplished generals, the most disciplined and daring infantry the world has ever known, the best-equipped and most extensive navy, royal and mercantile, of the age, were at the absolute command of the sovereign. Such was Spain.
“ Turn now to the north-western corner of Europe. A morsel of territory, attached by a slight sand-hook to the continent, and halfsubmerged by the stormy waters of the German Ocean: this was Holland. A rude climate, with long, dark, rigorous winters and brief summers, — a territory, the mere wash of three great rivers, which had fertilized happier portions of Europe only to desolate and Overwhelm this less-favored land, — a soil so ungrateful, that, if the whole of its four hundred thousand acres of arable land had been sowed with grain, it could not feed the laborers alone, — and a population largely estimated at one million of souls: these were the characteristics of the province which already had begun to give its name to the new commonwealth. The isles of Zeeland — entangled in the coils of deep, slow-moving rivers, or combating the ocean without — and the ancient episcopate of Utrecht, formed the only other provinces that had quite shaken off the foreign yoke. In Friesland, the important city of Groningen writs still held for the King; while Bois-le-Duc, Zutphen, besides other places in Gelderlnnd and North Brabant, also in possession of the royalists, made the position of those provinces precarious.”
The safety of the Netherlands appeared to depend so entirely on their success in gaining the assistance of foreign powers, that it is not surprising that the Estates eagerly offered the sovereignty of the country, first to France and then to England. The details of the negotiations with these powers Mr. Motley recounts at great length. When England, at last, adopted the side of the Netherlands, and caught glimpses of the fact that the struggle of the latter against Spain was her cause no less than the cause of the Dutch, the parsimony and indecision of Elizabeth, and the hesitating counsels of her favorite minister, Burleigh, prevented the English-Dutch alliance from being efficient against the common enemy. An incompetent general, the Earl of Leicester, was sent over to Holland with the English troops; yet even his incompetency might not have stood in the way of success, had he not been hampered with instructions which paralyzed what vigor and intelligence he possessed, and had not his soldiers been left to starve by the government they served. Elizabeth was trying to secure a peace with Spain, while Philip and Farnese were busy in contriving the means of an invasion of England ; and up to the time the Spanish Armada appeared in the British seas, she and her government were thoroughly cajoled by Spanish craft. Mr. Motley remorselessly exposes, not only the duplicity of Philip, but the credulity of Elizabeth ; he demonstrates the superiority of Spain in all the arts which were then supposed to constitute statesmanship ; and shows that it was to no sagacity and vigor on the part of the English government, but to the instinctive intelligence and intrepidity of the English people, that the nation was saved from overthrow. Walsingham is almost the only English statesman who comes out from the historian’s pitiless analysis with any credit; and, in respect to sagacity, Burleigh is degraded below Leicester: for Leicester at least understood that the enmity of Philip of Spain to England was unappeasable, and therefore justly considered his perfidious negotiations for peace as a mere blind to cover designs of conquest.
But we have no space, in this hurried notice of Mr. Motley's work, to linger on the fertile topics which his luminous narrative suggests. In a future article we hope to do some justice to the facts, principles, and judgments he has established. At present, after indicating his diligence in exploring original authorities, and the importance of the conclusions at which he arrives, we can only venture a few remarks on his historical genius and method.
As regards his historical genius, it is sufficient to say that he exhibits both sympathy and imagination. He has so completely assimilated his materials that his narrative of events is that of an eye-witness rather than that of a chronicler, Reproducing the passions, without participating in the errors of the age about which he writes, he intensely realizes everything he recounts. The siege of Antwerp and the defeat of the Spanish Armada are the two prominent and obvious illustrations of his power of pictorial description : in these he has presented facts with a vividness and coherence worthy of the great masters of poetry and romance ; and his capacity of thus giving unmistakable reality to events is not merely exercised in harmony with the literal truth of things, but makes that truth more clearly appreciated. Desirous as he is to impress the imagination, he never sacrifices accuracy to effect.
The same picturesque truthfulness characterizes his descriptions of individuals. In the present volumes he has analyzed and represented a wide variety of human character, separated not only by personal, but national traits. Philip II., Farnese, and Mendoza, — Olden-Barneveld, Paul Buys, St. Aldegonde, Hohenlo, Martin Schenk, and Maurice of Nassau, — Henry III., Henry of Navarre, and the Duke of Guise, — Queen Elizabeth, Burleigh, Walsingham, Buckhurst, Leicester, Davison, Raleigh, Sidney, Howard, Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher, and Norris, — all, as delineated by him, have vital reality, all palpably live and move before the eye of his mind.
The method which Mr. Motley has adopted is admirably calculated to insure accuracy as well as reality to his representation of events and persons. His plan is always to allow the statesmen and soldiers who appear in his work to express themselves in their own way, and convey their opinions and purposes in their own words. This mode is opposed to compression, but favorable to truth. Macaulay’s method is to re-state everything in his own language, and according to his own logical forms. He never allows the Whigs and Tories, whose opinions and policy he exhibits, to say anything for themselves. He detests quotation-marks. His summaries are so clear and compact that we are tempted to forget that they leave out the modifications which opinions reeeive from individual character. The reason that his statements are so often questioned is due to the fact that he insists on his readers viewing everything through the medium of his own mind. Mr. Motley is more objective in his representations; and his readers can dispute his summaries of character and expositions of policy by the abundant materials for differing judgment which the historian himself supplies.