By Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
1874. AEt. 60. “Life of John of Barneveld.”—Criticisms.—Groen van Prinsterer.
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.