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

§ 22. Sectarian Animosities

In the Netherlands, the book was viewed from a different standpoint. The period treated was one marked by the bitterest kind of theological disputes. Motley thought he could discuss these impartially, but his attempt only brought down upon his head a flood of pained criticism from the heirs to both sides of the controversy,—no dead question in Holland. The old archivist, Groen van Prinsterer, fervent Calvinist as he was, declared that only an Arminian, such as an American Unitarian was, could be so antagonistic to the principles of the Reformation espoused by Maurice. (Perhaps Groen did not believe that Maurice had once declared that he did not know whether Predestination was green or blue!) Motley had become the ardent apologist of Barneveld and latitudinarian doctrine, the orthodox Hollanders felt, and a battle was started that raged for years. Groen devoted a whole book to the topic. At the same time, Dutch scholars paid warm tributes to the American’s conscientious use of sources, though they might not accept his interpretation. No one accused him of neglecting what was obtainable. They only thought “He cannot understand.” By that time the handsome American with his air of distinction was a well-known figure in The Hague. In 1871, the Queen of the Netherlands offered him a house in the Dutch capital, where he spent part of the years when he was working at John of Barneveld.

The death of Mrs. Motley in 1874 was a blow from which her husband never recovered, although he tried to resume his work and complete the story of the Eighty Years’ War. The sub-title of the Barneveld volumes had been A View of the Primary Causes and Movements of the Thirty Years’ War. But Motley was never to take the public with him beyond that view. His own death came in 1877, and he was buried in England.

What is the judgment of posterity upon the work into which Motley poured so much vigorous painstaking effort? This much can be said: he was first a brilliant searchlight, sweeping over an unknown field, and then an able draughtsman in describing the scene. Every new generation claims to have a light in its own hand which enables it to judge the past with greater accuracy than its predecessors. Scholars of today in Holland, Blok, Japikse, Colenbrander, all consider that the American failed to treat Netherland history on scientific lines. He did not understand Europe at large, he did not understand the Church. In his hands Philip II was treated too severely, as was Maurice in his conflict with Barneveld. There was a lack of perspective in his every estimate. Not only that, but in making one period so dominant, he dislocated the perspective of the whole history of the Netherlands. For the last thirty years scholars in Belgium as well as Holland have been working over the ground, bringing small dark places into sober light, shading down other points too highly illuminated. A fair result will be reached at last. But the great light was a pleasant thing.