John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Show Summary

[Chapter] XXII.


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 world."

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 historian."

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 volume.

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 reading.

"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
opportunity for the ministers of this kingdom to discredit us, and
to my enemies to succeed in injuring me, and by fraud and malice to
force me from my post. . . . I am truly sorry, being ready to
retire, wishing to have an honorable testimony in recompense of my
labors, that one is in such hurry to take advantage of my fall. .
. . What envoy will ever dare to speak with vigor if he is not
sustained by the government at home? . . . My enemies have
misrepresented my actions, and my language as passionate,
exaggerated, mischievous, but I have no passion except for the
service of my superiors.’

"Barneveld, from well-considered motives of public policy, was
favoring his honorable recall. But he allowed a decorous interval
of more than three years to elapse in which to terminate his
affairs, and to take a deliberate departure from that French embassy
to which the Advocate had originally promoted him, and in which
there had been so many years of mutual benefit and confidence
between the two statesmen. He used no underhand means. He did not
abuse the power of the States-General which he wielded to cast him
suddenly and brutally from the distinguished post which he occupied,
and so to attempt to dishonor him before the world. Nothing could
be more respectful and conciliatory than the attitude of the
government from first to last towards this distinguished
functionary. The Republic respected itself too much to deal with
honorable agents whose services it felt obliged to dispense with as
with vulgar malefactors who had been detected in crime. . . .

"This work aims at being a political study. I would attempt to
exemplify the influence of individual humors and passions—some of
them among the highest, and others certainly the basest that agitate
humanity—upon the march of great events, upon general historical
results at certain epochs, and upon the destiny of eminent

Here are two suggestive portraits:—

"The Advocate, while acting only in the name of a slender
confederacy, was in truth, so long as he held his place, the prime
minister of European Protestantism. There was none other to rival
him, few to comprehend him, fewer still to sustain him. As Prince
Maurice was at that time the great soldier of Protestantism, without
clearly scanning the grandeur of the field in which he was a chief
actor, or foreseeing the vastness of its future, so the Advocate was
its statesman and its prophet. Could the two have worked together
as harmoniously as they had done at an earlier day, it would have
been a blessing for the common weal of Europe. But, alas! the evil
genius of jealousy, which so often forbids cordial relations between
soldier and statesman, already stood shrouded in the distance,
darkly menacing the strenuous patriot, who was wearing his life out
in exertions for what he deemed the true cause of progress and
humanity. . . .

"All history shows that the brilliant soldier of a republic is apt
to have the advantage, in a struggle for popular affection and
popular applause, over the statesman, however consummate. . . .
The great battles and sieges of the prince had been on a world’s
theatre, had enchained the attention of Christendom, and on their
issue had frequently depended, or seemed to depend, the very
existence of the nation. The labors of the statesman, on the
contrary, had been comparatively secret. His noble orations and
arguments had been spoken with closed doors to assemblies of
colleagues, rather envoys than senators, . . while his vast labors
in directing both the internal administration and especially the
foreign affairs of the commonwealth had been by their very nature
as secret as they were perpetual and enormous."

The reader of the "Life of Barneveld" must judge for himself whether in these and similar passages the historian was thinking solely of Maurice, the great military leader, of Barneveld, the great statesman, and of Aerssens, the recalled ambassador. He will certainly find that there were "burning questions" for ministers to handle then as now, and recognize in "that visible atmosphere of power the poison of which it is so difficult to resist" a respiratory medium as well known to the nineteenth as to the seventeenth century.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "[Chapter] XXII. 1874.," John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889), Original Sources, accessed October 2, 2023,

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "[Chapter] XXII. 1874." John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, Boston, Houghton, Mifflin, 1889, Original Sources. 2 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, '[Chapter] XXII. 1874.' in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir. cited in 1889, John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, Houghton, Mifflin, Boston. Original Sources, retrieved 2 October 2023, from