The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVIII. Prescott and Motley

§ 17. The United Netherlands; Its Critics

Scarcely taking breath after the publication of this first great effort, the author plunged into the sequel and brought out two volumes of The United Netherlands in 1860. This time neither publisher nor public was shy. The English reviews were very favourable, on the whole; even The Saturday Review was almost commendatory though it did not find the style satisfactory. Perhaps the most severe stricture was that the figurative language was uncultivated in tone, but the general attitude of the censor is quite different from that taken four years previous. The Westminster Review was more lavish in its praise. The Edinburgh Review was a trifle patronizing, but still Motley was given credit.

The American reviews had no reservations in their praise of both works. It is a trifle amusing to note the conclusion of the comments—a long and serious article—on The Rise of the Dutch Republic in the North American: “upon the whole it seems to us that the first William was a greater man than his great-grandson and namesake.” This sounds as though, indeed, the elder Prince of Orange had needed an introduction to the American public in 1856.

In Holland the second book received the same greeting as did the first, a greeting marked by pride and pleasure that a stranger had devoted so much of his life to their affairs, tempered by some careful and discriminating criticism. Professor Fruin wrote: “We have delayed too long in noticing this important work. No one can put down the book until it is finished. Through the beautiful style, the vivid narrative, the artistic descriptions, this work shines out above the works on history in our own language.” Fruin took Motley’s notes and verified every reference: “Even where we differ from his opinion, we must do honour to his good faith, to his keen perception, to his industrious and accurate investigation.” The review was another of Fruin’s fine essays on Dutch history. Fruin once more criticized Motley’s failure to differentiate the values of his authorities and considered him often tempted to expand a phase simply because he had a rich store of material bearing upon it, but without due regard to the need of that phase in the narrative. Letters between Leicester and his officers led him on to tell a detailed story of petty English quarrels which would have been more suitable for a separate publication. That Motley’s vivid imagination inspired him with interlinear visions, hardly substantiated by a strict construction of the text, was gently intimated by Fruin with one or two striking examples. Undoubtedly this is the same imagination that led the tourist to people the Rome before his eye with actors once within her walls. Life was, indeed, breathed into skeleton facts—some new joints being supplied—and life, too, into years of discussion as to the eternal verity of Motley’s conception. One item in The Rise of the Dutch Republic gave Fruin especial concern. That was the use of the term “William the Silent.” He wished that the American had lent his weight towards eliminating the unsuitable adjective from the historical vocabulary. Criticism such as this of Fruin’s was the highest compliment that could have been paid to Motley.

The spring of 1861, momentous in the history of the United States, found Motley still in London. He had been abroad at work in the archives ever since the winter of 1856–57, which he had spent in Boston. The first public news of the imminent Civil War must have come to him on Monday, 29 April. That was the day when the Earl of Malmesbury opened the session in the House of Lords with the assumption that “Almost all your Lordships must have read the account that arrived this morning from America, and must have learned with pain as well as astonishment that civil war has broken out.” Humanely rejoicing that no blood had been shed, the Earl proceeded to ask what the noble Lords were going to do towards settling this most unnatural quarrel. Lord Woodhouse replied that, after mature deliberation, the Government had decided that advice on internal matters would be intrusive unless solicited. From that Monday on, the London Times gave much space to comments on the terrible anachronism of war in general, on the horror of seeing thirty million Anglo-Saxons slaying each other like the Indians whom they had displaced, etc., etc. All civil wars known to history were reviewed. In each of these, asserted the Times, a vital principle had been at stake. Each had been justified by the crying needs of religion or civil liberty. But in the United States, no principle was involved. Day after day this statement was reiterated in varying forms. Admitting that, on the whole, they inclined rather to the Northern cause, they still declared that, nevertheless, the actual issue between the two sections was a mere shadow.

It is curious how long the idea of the causelessness of the strife prevailed in Europe. As late as April, 1863, Bismarck wrote to Motley in a familiar letter: “Do you all know exactly why you are waging furious war with each other? Certainly all do not know, but they kill each other con amore, that is the way the business comes to them. Your battles are bloody; ours are wordy.” This query was, perhaps, half humorous, but the Times was in dead earnest in its opinion that the war was unjustifiable. It went further, after a little, and declared that the spirit of George III had passed into Seward and that his reluctance to let the South go its own way was couched in language quite as tyrannical as that of the British monarch to his colonies when they desired “secession.”