Oliver Wendell Holmes.

John Lothrop Motley. a memoir — Volume 3 online

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By Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Volume III.


1874. AEt. 60.


The full title of Mr. Motley's next and last work is "The Life and Death
of John of Barneveld, Advocate of Holland; with a View of the Primary
Causes and Movements of the Thirty Years' War."

In point of fact this work is a history rather than a biography. It is
an interlude, a pause between the acts which were to fill out the
complete plan of the "Eighty Years' Tragedy," and of which the last act,
the Thirty Years' War, remains unwritten. The "Life of Barneveld" was
received as a fitting and worthy continuation of the series of
intellectual labor in which he was engaged. I will quote but two general
expressions of approval from the two best known British critical reviews.
In connection with his previous works, it forms, says "The London
Quarterly," "a fine and continuous story, of which the writer and the
nation celebrated by him have equal reason to be proud; a narrative which
will remain a prominent ornament of American genius, while it has
permanently enriched English literature on this as well as on the other
side of the Atlantic."

"The Edinburgh Review" speaks no less warmly: "We can hardly give too
much appreciation to that subtile alchemy of the brain which has enabled
him to produce out of dull, crabbed, and often illegible state papers,
the vivid, graphic, and sparkling narrative which he has given to the

In a literary point of view, M. Groen van Prinsterer, whose elaborate
work has been already referred to, speaks of it as perhaps the most
classical of Motley's productions, but it is upon this work that the
force of his own and other Dutch criticisms has been chiefly expended.

The key to this biographical history or historical biography may be found
in a few sentences from its opening chapter.

"There have been few men at any period whose lives have been more
closely identical than his [Barneveld's] with a national history.
There have been few great men in any history whose names have become
less familiar to the world, and lived less in the mouths of
posterity. Yet there can be no doubt that if William the Silent was
the founder of the independence of the United Provinces, Barneveld
was the founder of the Commonwealth itself. . . .

"Had that country of which he was so long the first citizen
maintained until our own day the same proportional position among
the empires of Christendom as it held in the seventeenth century,
the name of John of Barneveld would have perhaps been as familiar to
all men as it is at this moment to nearly every inhabitant of the
Netherlands. Even now political passion is almost as ready to flame
forth, either in ardent affection or enthusiastic hatred, as if two
centuries and a half had not elapsed since his death. His name is
so typical of a party, a polity, and a faith, so indelibly
associated with a great historical cataclysm, as to render it
difficult even for the grave, the conscientious, the learned, the
patriotic, of his own compatriots to speak of him with absolute

"A foreigner who loves and admires all that is great and noble in
the history of that famous republic, and can have no hereditary bias
as to its ecclesiastical or political theories, may at least attempt
the task with comparative coldness, although conscious of inability
to do thorough justice to a most complex subject."

With all Mr. Motley's efforts to be impartial, to which even his sternest
critics bear witness, he could not help becoming a partisan of the cause
which for him was that of religious liberty and progress, as against the
accepted formula of an old ecclesiastical organization. For the quarrel
which came near being a civil war, which convulsed the state, and cost
Barneveld his head, had its origin in a difference on certain points, and
more especially on a single point, of religious doctrine.

As a great river may be traced back until its fountainhead is found in a
thread of water streaming from a cleft in the rocks, so a great national
movement may sometimes be followed until its starting-point is found in
the cell of a monk or the studies of a pair of wrangling professors.

The religious quarrel of the Dutchmen in the seventeenth century reminds
us in some points of the strife between two parties in our own New
England, sometimes arraying the "church" on one side against the
"parish," or the general body of worshippers, on the other. The
portraits of Gomarus, the great orthodox champion, and Arminius, the head
and front of the "liberal theology" of his day, as given in the little
old quarto of Meursius, recall two ministerial types of countenance
familiar to those who remember the earlier years of our century.

Under the name of "Remonstrants" and "Contra-Remonstrants," - Arminians
and old-fashioned Calvinists, as we should say, - the adherents of the two
Leyden professors disputed the right to the possession of the churches,
and the claim to be considered as representing the national religion. Of
the seven United Provinces, two, Holland and Utrecht, were prevailingly
Arminian, and the other five Calvinistic. Barneveld, who, under the
title of Advocate, represented the province of Holland, the most
important of them all, claimed for each province a right to determine its
own state religion. Maurice the Stadholder, son of William the Silent,
the military chief of the republic, claimed the right for the States-
General. 'Cujus regio ejus religio' was then the accepted public
doctrine of Protestant nations. Thus the provincial and the general
governments were brought into conflict by their creeds, and the question
whether the republic was a confederation or a nation, the same question
which has been practically raised, and for the time at least settled, in
our own republic, was in some way to be decided. After various
disturbances and acts of violence by both parties, Maurice, representing
the States-General, pronounced for the Calvinists or Contra-Remonstrants,
and took possession of one of the great churches, as an assertion of his
authority. Barneveld, representing the Arminian or Remonstrant
provinces, levied a body of mercenary soldiers in several of the cities.
These were disbanded by Maurice, and afterwards by an act of the States-
General. Barneveld was apprehended, imprisoned, and executed, after an
examination which was in no proper sense a trial. Grotius, who was on
the Arminian side and involved in the inculpated proceedings, was also
arrested and imprisoned. His escape, by a stratagem successfully
repeated by a slave in our own times, may challenge comparison for its
romantic interest with any chapter of fiction. How his wife packed him
into the chest supposed to contain the folios of the great oriental
scholar Erpenius, how the soldiers wondered at its weight and questioned
whether it did not hold an Arminian, how the servant-maid, Elsje van
Houwening, quick-witted as Morgiana of the "Forty Thieves," parried their
questions and convoyed her master safely to the friendly place of
refuge, - all this must be read in the vivid narrative of the author.

The questions involved were political, local, personal, and above all
religious. Here is the picture which Motley draws of the religious
quarrel as it divided the people: -

"In burghers' mansions, peasants' cottages, mechanics' back-parlors;
on board herring-smacks, canal-boats, and East Indiamen; in shops,
counting-rooms, farm-yards, guard-rooms, alehouses; on the exchange,
in the tennis court, on the mall; at banquets, at burials,
christenings, or bridals; wherever and whenever human creatures met
each other, there was ever to be found the fierce wrangle of
Remonstrant and Contra-Remonstrant, the hissing of red-hot
theological rhetoric, the pelting of hostile texts. The
blacksmith's iron cooled on the anvil, the tinker dropped a kettle
half mended, the broker left a bargain unclinched, the Scheveningen
fisherman in his wooden shoes forgot the cracks in his pinkie, while
each paused to hold high converse with friend or foe on fate, free-
will, or absolute foreknowledge; losing himself in wandering mazes
whence there was no issue. Province against province, city against
city, family against family; it was one vast scene of bickering,
denunciation, heart-burnings, mutual excommunication and hatred."

The religious grounds of the quarrel which set these seventeenth-century
Dutchmen to cutting each other's throats were to be looked for in the
"Five Points" of the Arminians as arrayed against the "Seven Points" of
the Gomarites, or Contra-Remonstrants. The most important of the
differences which were to be settled by fratricide seem to have been
these: -

According to the Five Points, "God has from eternity resolved to choose
to eternal life those who through his grace believe in Jesus Christ,"
etc. According to the Seven Points, "God in his election has not looked
at the belief and the repentance of the elect," etc. According to the
Five Points, all good deeds must be ascribed to God's grace in Christ,
but it does not work irresistibly. The language of the Seven Points
implies that the elect cannot resist God's eternal and unchangeable
design to give them faith and steadfastness, and that they can never
wholly and for always lose the true faith. The language of the Five
Points is unsettled as to the last proposition, but it was afterwards
maintained by the Remonstrant party that a true believer could, through
his own fault, fall away from God and lose faith.

It must be remembered that these religious questions had an immediate
connection with politics. Independently of the conflict of jurisdiction,
in which they involved the parties to the two different creeds, it was
believed or pretended that the new doctrines of the Remonstrants led
towards Romanism, and were allied with designs which threatened the
independence of the country. "There are two factions in the land," said
Maurice, "that of Orange and that of Spain, and the two chiefs of the
Spanish faction are those political and priestly Arminians, Uytenbogaert
and Oldenbarneveld."

The heads of the two religious and political parties were in such
hereditary, long-continued, and intimate relations up to the time when
one signed the other's death-warrant, that it was impossible to write the
life of one without also writing that of the other. For his biographer
John of Barneveld is the true patriot, the martyr, whose cause was that
of religious and political freedom. For him Maurice is the ambitious
soldier who hated his political rival, and never rested until this rival
was brought to the scaffold.

The questions which agitated men's minds two centuries and a half ago
are not dead yet in the country where they produced such estrangement,
violence, and wrong. No stranger could take them up without encountering
hostile criticism from one party or the other. It may be and has been
conceded that Mr. Motley writes as a partisan, - a partisan of freedom in
politics and religion, as he understands freedom. This secures him the
antagonism of one class of critics. But these critics are themselves
partisans, and themselves open to the cross-fire of their antagonists.
M. Groen van Prinsterer, "the learned and distinguished" editor of the
"Archives et Correspondance" of the Orange and Nassau family, published a
considerable volume, before referred to, in which many of Motley's views
are strongly controverted. But he himself is far from being in accord
with "that eminent scholar," M. Bakhuyzen van den Brink, whose name, he
says, is celebrated enough to need no comment, or with M. Fruin, of whose
impartiality and erudition he himself speaks in the strongest terms. The
ground upon which he is attacked is thus stated in his own words: -

"People have often pretended to find in my writings the deplorable
influence of an extreme Calvinism. The Puritans of the seventeenth
century are my fellow-religionists. I am a sectarian and not an

It is plain enough to any impartial reader that there are at least
plausible grounds for this accusation against Mr. Motley's critic. And
on a careful examination of the formidable volume, it becomes obvious
that Mr. Motley has presented a view of the events and the personages of
the stormy epoch with which he is dealing, which leaves a battle-ground
yet to be fought over by those who come after him. The dispute is not
and cannot be settled.

The end of all religious discussion has come when one of the parties
claims that it is thinking or acting under immediate Divine guidance.
"It is God's affair, and his honor is touched," says William Lewis to
Prince Maurice. Mr. Motley's critic is not less confident in claiming
the Almighty as on the side of his own views. Let him state his own
ground of departure: -

"To show the difference, let me rather say the contrast, between the
point of view of Mr. Motley and my own, between the Unitarian and
the Evangelical belief. I am issue of CALVIN, child of the
Awakening (reveil). Faithful to the device of the Reformers:
Justification by faith alone, and the Word of God endures eternally.
I consider history from the point of view of Merle d'Aubigne,
Chalmers, Guizot. I desire to be disciple and witness of our Lord
and Saviour, Jesus Christ."

He is therefore of necessity antagonistic to a writer whom he describes
in such words as these: -

"Mr. Motley is liberal and rationalist.

"He becomes, in attacking the principle of the Reformation, the
passionate opponent of the Puritans and of Maurice, the ardent
apologist of Barnevelt and the Arminians.

"It is understood, and he makes no mystery of it, that he inclines
towards the vague and undecided doctrine of the Unitarians."

What M. Groen's idea of Unitarians is may be gathered from the statement
about them which he gets from a letter of De Tocqueville.

"They are pure deists; they talk about the Bible, because they do
not wish to shock too severely public opinion, which is prevailingly
Christian. They have a service on Sundays; I have been there. At
it they read verses from Dryden or other English poets on the
existence of God and the immortality of the soul. They deliver a
discourse on some point of morality, and all is said."

In point of fact the wave of protest which stormed the dikes of Dutch
orthodoxy in the seventeenth century stole gently through the bars of New
England Puritanism in the eighteenth.

"Though the large number," says Mr. Bancroft, "still acknowledged the
fixedness of the divine decrees, and the resistless certainty from all
eternity of election and of reprobation, there were not wanting, even
among the clergy, some who had modified the sternness of the ancient
doctrine by making the self-direction of the active powers of man with
freedom of inquiry and private judgment the central idea of a protest
against Calvinism."

Protestantism, cut loose from an infallible church, and drifting with
currents it cannot resist, wakes up once or oftener in every century, to
find itself in a new locality. Then it rubs its eyes and wonders whether
it has found its harbor or only lost its anchor. There is no end to its
disputes, for it has nothing but a fallible vote as authority for its
oracles, and these appeal only to fallible interpreters.

It is as hard to contend in argument against "the oligarchy of heaven,"
as Motley calls the Calvinistic party, as it was formerly to strive with
them in arms.

To this "aristocracy of God's elect" belonged the party which framed the
declaration of the Synod of Dort; the party which under the forms of
justice shed the blood of the great statesman who had served his country
so long and so well. To this chosen body belonged the late venerable and
truly excellent as well as learned M. Groen van Prinsterer, and he
exercised the usual right of examining in the light of his privileged
position the views of a "liberal" and "rationalist" writer who goes to
meeting on Sunday to hear verses from Dryden. This does not diminish his
claim for a fair reading of the "intimate correspondence," which he
considers Mr. Motley has not duly taken into account, and of the other
letters to be found printed in his somewhat disjointed and fragmentary

This "intimate correspondence" shows Maurice the Stadholder indifferent
and lax in internal administration and as being constantly advised and
urged by his relative Count William of Nassau. This need of constant
urging extends to religious as well as other matters, and is inconsistent
with M. Groen van Prinsterer's assertion that the question was for
Maurice above all religious, and for Barneveld above all political.
Whether its negative evidence can be considered as neutralizing that
which is adduced by Mr. Motley to show the Stadholder's hatred of the
Advocate may be left to the reader who has just risen from the account of
the mock trial and the swift execution of the great and venerable
statesman. The formal entry on the record upon the day of his "judicial
murder" is singularly solemn and impressive: -

"Monday, 13th May, 1619. To-day was executed with the sword here in
the Hague, on a scaffold thereto erected in the Binnenhof before the
steps of the great hall, Mr. John of Barneveld, in his life Knight,
Lord of Berkel, Rodenrys, etc., Advocate of Holland and West
Friesland, for reasons expressed in the sentence and otherwise, with
confiscation of his property, after he had served the state thirty-
three years two months and five days, since 8th March, 1586; a man
of great activity, business, memory, and wisdom, - yea, extraordinary
in every respect. He that stands let him see that he does not

Maurice gave an account of the execution of Barneveld to Count William
Lewis on the same day in a note "painfully brief and dry."

Most authors write their own biography consciously or unconsciously. We
have seen Mr. Motley portraying much of himself, his course of life and
his future, as he would have had it, in his first story. In this, his
last work, it is impossible not to read much of his own external and
internal personal history told under other names and with different
accessories. The parallelism often accidentally or intentionally passes
into divergence. He would not have had it too close if he could, but
there are various passages in which it is plain enough that he is telling
his own story.

Mr. Motley was a diplomatist, and he writes of other diplomatists, and
one in particular, with most significant detail. It need not be supposed
that he intends the "arch intriguer" Aerssens to stand for himself, or
that he would have endured being thought to identify himself with the man
of whose "almost devilish acts" he speaks so freely. But the sagacious
reader - and he need not be very sharp-sighted - will very certainly see
something more than a mere historical significance in some of the
passages which I shall cite for him to reflect upon. Mr. Motley's
standard of an ambassador's accomplishments may be judged from the
following passage: -

"That those ministers [those of the Republic] were second to the
representatives of no other European state in capacity and
accomplishment was a fact well known to all who had dealings with
them, for the states required in their diplomatic representatives
knowledge of history and international law, modern languages, and
the classics, as well as familiarity with political customs and
social courtesies; the breeding of gentlemen, in short, and the
accomplishments of scholars."

The story of the troubles of Aerssens, the ambassador of the United
Provinces at Paris, must be given at some length, and will repay careful

"Francis Aerssens . . . continued to be the Dutch ambassador
after the murder of Henry IV. . . . He was beyond doubt one of
the ablest diplomatists in Europe. Versed in many languages, a
classical student, familiar with history and international law, a
man of the world and familiar with its usages, accustomed to
associate with dignity and tact on friendliest terms with
sovereigns, eminent statesmen, and men of letters; endowed with a
facile tongue, a fluent pen, and an eye and ear of singular
acuteness and delicacy; distinguished for unflagging industry and
singular aptitude for secret and intricate affairs; - he had by the
exercise of these various qualities during a period of nearly twenty
years at the court of Henry the Great been able to render
inestimable services to the Republic which he represented.

"He had enjoyed the intimacy and even the confidence of Henry IV.,
so far as any man could be said to possess that monarch's
confidence, and his friendly relations and familiar access to the
king gave him political advantages superior to those of any of his
colleagues at the same court.

"Acting entirely and faithfully according to the instructions of the
Advocate of Holland, he always gratefully and copiously acknowledged
the privilege of being guided and sustained in the difficult paths
he had to traverse by so powerful and active an intellect. I have
seldom alluded in terms to the instructions and dispatches of the
chief, but every position, negotiation, and opinion of the envoy -
and the reader has seen many of them is pervaded by their spirit.

"It had become a question whether he was to remain at his post or
return. It was doubtful whether he wished to be relieved of his
embassy or not. The States of Holland voted 'to leave it to his
candid opinion if in his free conscience he thinks he can serve the
public any longer. If yes, he may keep his office one year more.
If no, he may take leave and come home.'

"Surely the States, under the guidance of the Advocate, had thus
acted with consummate courtesy towards a diplomatist whose position,
from no apparent fault of his own, but by the force of
circumstances, - and rather to his credit than otherwise, -
was gravely compromised."

The Queen, Mary de' Medici, had a talk with him, got angry, "became very
red in the face," and wanted to be rid of him.

"Nor was the envoy at first desirous of remaining. . . .
Nevertheless, he yielded reluctantly to Barneveld's request that he
should, for the time at least, remain at his post. Later on, as the
intrigues against him began to unfold themselves, and his faithful
services were made use of at home to blacken his character and
procure his removal, he refused to resign, as to do so would be to
play into the hands of his enemies, and, by inference at least, to
accuse himself of infidelity to his trust. . . .

"It is no wonder that the ambassador was galled to the quick by the
outrage which those concerned in the government were seeking to put
upon him. How could an honest man fail to be overwhelmed with rage
and anguish at being dishonored before the world by his masters for
scrupulously doing his duty, and for maintaining the rights and
dignity of his own country? He knew that the charges were but
pretexts, that the motives of his enemies were as base as the
intrigues themselves, but he also knew that the world usually sides
with the government against the individual, and that a man's
reputation is rarely strong enough to maintain itself unsullied in a
foreign land when his own government stretches forth its hand, not
to shield, but to stab him. . . .

"'I know,' he said, that this plot has been woven partly here in
Holland and partly here by good correspondence in order to drive me
from my post.

"'But as I have discovered this accurately, I have resolved to offer
to my masters the continuance of my very humble service for such
time and under such conditions as they may think good to prescribe.
I prefer forcing my natural and private inclinations to giving an

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Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesJohn Lothrop Motley. a memoir — Volume 3 → online text (page 1 of 4)