John Lothrop Motley: as Historian in American Literature

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      John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877).—As naturally as the love of adventure sent Prescott to the daring exploits of the Spanish feats of arms, so the inborn zeal for civil and religious liberty and hatred of oppression led Motley to turn to the sturdy, patriotic Dutch in their successful struggle against the enslaving power of Spain. Motley's histories are The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856), The History of the United Netherlands (1860-1868), The Life and Death of John of Barneveld, Advocate of Holland (1874).

John Lothrop Motley Historian in American Literature
John Lothrop Motley

      The difference in temperament between Prescott and Motley is seen in the manner of presenting the character of Philip II. In so far as Prescott drew the picture of Philip II., it is traced with a mild, cool hand. Philip is shown as a tyrant, but he is impelled to his tyranny by motives of conscience. In Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic, this oppressor is an accursed scourge of a loyal people, the enemy of progress, of liberty, and of justice. Motley's feelings make his pages burn and flash with fiery denunciation, as well as with exalted praise.

      The Rise of the Dutch Republic is the recital of as heroic a struggle as a small but determined nation ever made against tremendous odds. Amid the swarm of men that crowd the pages of this work, William the Silent, of Orange, the central figure, stands every inch a hero, a leader worthy of his cause and of his people. Motley with an artist's skill shows how this great leader launched Holland on her victorious career. This history is a living story, faithful to facts, but it is written to convince the reader that "freedom of thought, of speech, and of life" are "blessings without which everything that this earth can afford is worthless."

      In choosing to write of the struggle of Holland for her freedom, Motley was actuated by the same reason that prompted his forefathers to fight on Bunker Hill. He wanted to play at least a historian's part in presenting "the great spectacle which was to prove to Europe that principles and peoples still existed, and that a phlegmatic nation of merchants and manufacturers could defy the powers of the universe, and risk all their blood and treasure, generation after generation, in a sacred cause."

      The History of the United Netherlands continues this story after Holland, free and united, proved herself a power that could no longer remain unheeded in Europe. The Life and Death of John of Barneveld, which brings the history of Holland down to about 1623, was planned as an introduction to a final history of that great religious and political conflict, called the Thirty Years' War,—a history which Motley did not live to finish.

      Although no historian has spent more time than Motley in searching the musty records and state archives of foreign lands for matter relating to Holland, it was impossible for a man of his temperament, convictions, and purpose to write a calm, dispassionate history. He is not the cool judge, but the earnest advocate, and yet he does not distort facts. He is just and can be coldly critical, even of his heroes, but he is always on one side, the side of liberty and justice, pleading their cause. His temperament gives warmth, eloquence, and dramatic passion to his style. Individual incidents and characters stand forth sharply defined. His subject seems remarkably well suited to him because his love of liberty was a sacred passion. With this feeling to fire his blood, the unflinching Hollander to furnish the story, and his eloquent style to present it worthily, Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic is a prose epic of Dutch liberty.

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