Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
William the Silent
By John Lothrop Motley (18141877)
[From The Rise of the Dutch Republic. A History. 1855.]
IN person, Orange was above the middle height, perfectly well made and sinewy, but rather spare than stout. His eyes, hair, beard, and complexion were brown. His head was small, symmetrically-shaped, combining the alertness and compactness characteristic of the soldier, with the capacious brow furrowed prematurely with the horizontal lines of thought, denoting the statesman and the sage. His physical appearance was, therefore, in harmony with his organization, which was of antique model. Of his moral qualities, the most prominent was his piety. He was more than anything else a religious man. From his trust in God, he ever derived support and consolation in the darkest hours. Implicitly relying upon Almighty wisdom and goodness, he looked danger in the face with a constant smile, and endured incessant labors and trials with a serenity which seemed more than human. While, however, his soul was full of piety, it was tolerant of error. Sincerely and deliberately himself a convert to the Reformed Church, he was ready to extend freedom of worship to Catholics on the one hand and to Anabaptists on the other, for no man ever felt more keenly than he that the Reformer who becomes in his turn a bigot is doubly odious.
His firmness was allied to his piety. His constancy in bearing the whole weight of struggle as unequal as men have ever undertaken, was the theme of admiration even to his enemies. The rock in the ocean, tranquil amid raging billows, was the favorite emblem by which his friends expressed their sense of his firmness. From the time when, as a hostage in France, he first discovered the plan of Philip to plant the Inquisition in the Netherlands, up to the last moment of his life, he never faltered in his determination to resist that iniquitous scheme. This resistance was the labor of his life. To exclude the Inquisition, to maintain the ancient liberties of his country, was the task which he appointed to himself when a youth of three-and-twenty. Never speaking a word concerning a heavenly mission, never deluding himself or others with the usual phraseology of enthusiasts, he accomplished the task, through danger, amid toils, and with sacrifices such as few men have ever been able to make on their countrys altar;for the disinterested benevolence of the man was as prominent as his fortitude. A prince of high rank and with royal revenues, he stripped himself of station, wealth, almost at times of the common necessaries of life, and became, in his countrys cause, nearly a beggar as well as an outlaw. Nor was he forced into his career by an accidental impulse from which there was no recovery. Retreat was ever open to him. Not only pardon but advancement was urged upon him again and again. Officially and privately, directly and circuitously, his confiscated estates, together with indefinite and boundless favors in addition, were offered to him on every great occasion. On the arrival of Don John, at the Breda negotiations, at the Cologne conferences, we have seen how calmly these offers were waved aside, as if their rejection was so simple that it hardly required many words for its signification, yet he had mortgaged his estates so deeply that his heirs hesitated at accepting their inheritance, for fear it should involve them in debt. Ten years after his death, the account between his executors and his brother John amounted to one million four hundred thousand florins due to the Count, secured by various pledges of real and personal property, and it was finally settled upon this basis. He was besides largely indebted to every one of his powerful relatives, so that the payment of the incumbrances upon his estate very nearly justified the fears of his children. While on the one hand, therefore, he poured out these enormous sums like water, and firmly refused a hearing to the tempting offers of the royal government, upon the other hand he proved the disinterested nature of his services by declining, year after year, the sovereignty over the provinces; and by only accepting, in the last days of his life, when refusal had become almost impossible, the limited, constitutional supremacy over that portion of them which now makes the realm of his descendants. He lived and died, not for himself, but for his country: God pity this poor people! were his dying words.
His intellectual faculties were various and of the highest order. He had the exact, practical, and combining qualities which make the great commander, and his friends claimed that, in military genius, he was second to no captain in Europe. This was, no doubt, an exaggeration of partial attachment, but it is certain that the Emperor Charles had an exalted opinion of his capacity for the field. His fortification of Philippeville and Charlemont, in the face of the enemyhis passage of the Meuse in Alvas sighthis unfortunate but well-ordered campaign against that generalhis sublime plan of relief, projected and successfully directed at last from his sick bed, for the besieged city of Leydenwill always remain monuments of his practical military skill.
Of the soldiers great virtuesconstancy in disaster, devotion to duty, hopefulness in defeatno man ever possessed a larger share. He arrived, through a series of reverses, at a perfect victory. He planted a free commonwealth under the very battery of the Inquisition, in defiance of the most powerful empire existing. He was therefore a conqueror in the loftiest sense, for he conquered liberty and a national existence for a whole people. The contest was long, and he fell in the struggle, but the victory was to the dead hero, not to the living monarch. It is to be remembered, too, that he always wrought with inferior instruments. His troops were usually mercenaries, who were but too apt to mutiny upon the eve of battle, while he was opposed by the most formidable veterans of Europe, commanded successively by the first captains of the age. That, with no lieutenant of eminent valor or experience, save only his brother Louis, and with none at all after that chieftains death, William of Orange should succeed in baffling the efforts of Alva, Requesens, Don John of Austria, and Alexander Farnesemen whose names are among the most brilliant in the military annals of the worldis in itself sufficient evidence of his warlike ability. At the period of his death he had reduced the number of obedient provinces to two; only Artois and Hainault acknowledging Philip, while the other fifteen were in open revolt, the greater part having solemnly forsworn their sovereign.
The supremacy of his political genius was entirely beyond question. He was the first statesman of the age. The quickness of his perception was only equalled by the caution which enabled him to mature the results of his observations. His knowledge of human nature was profound. He governed the passions and sentiments of a great nation as if they had been but the keys and chords of one vast instrument; and his hand rarely failed to evoke harmony even out of the wildest storms. The turbulent city of Ghent, which could obey no other master, which even the haughty Emperor could only crush without controlling, was ever responsive to the master-hand of Orange. His presence scared away Imbize and his bat-like crew, confounded the schemes of John Casimir, frustrated the wiles of Prince Chimay, and while he lived, Ghent was what it ought always to have remained, the bulwark, as it had been the cradle, of popular liberty. After his death it became its tomb.
Ghent, saved thrice by the policy, the eloquence, the self-sacrifices of Orange, fell within three months of his murder into the hands of Parma. The loss of this most important city, followed in the next year by the downfall of Antwerp, sealed the fate of the Southern Netherlands. Had the Prince lived, how different might have been the countrys fate! If seven provinces could dilate, in so brief a space, into the powerful commonwealth which the Republic soon became, what might not have been achieved by the united seventeen? a confederacy which would have united the adamantine vigor of the Batavian and Frisian races with the subtler, more delicate, and more graceful national elements in which the genius of the Frank, the Roman, and the Romanized Celt were so intimately blended. As long as the Father of the country lived, such a union was possible. His power of managing men was so unquestionable, that there was always a hope, even in the darkest hour, for men felt implicit reliance, as well on his intellectual resources as on his integrity.
This power of dealing with his fellow-men he manifested in the various ways in which it has been usually exhibited by statesmen. He possessed a ready eloquencesometimes impassioned, oftener argumentative, always rational. His influence over his audience was unexampled in the annals of that country or age; yet he never condescended to flatter the people, he never followed the nation, but always led her in the path of duty and of honor, and was much more prone to rebuke the vices than to pander to the passions of his hearers. He never failed to administer ample chastisement to parsimony, to jealousy, to insubordination, to intolerance, to infidelity, wherever it was due, nor feared to confront the states or the people in their most angry hours, and to tell them the truth to their faces. This commanding position he alone could stand upon, for his countrymen knew the generosity which had sacrificed his all for them, the self-denial which had eluded rather than sought political advancement, whether from king or people, and the untiring devotion which had consecrated a whole life to toil and danger in the cause of their emancipation. While, therefore, he was ever ready to rebuke, and always too honest to flatter, he at the same time possessed the eloquence which could convince or persuade. He knew how to reach both the mind and the heart of his hearers. His orations, whether extemporaneous or preparedhis written messages to the states-general, to the provincial authorities, to the municipal bodieshis private correspondence with men of all ranks, from emperors and kings down to secretaries, and even childrenall show an easy flow of language, a fulness of thought, a power of expression rare in that age, a fund of historical allusion, a considerable power of imagination, a warmth of sentiment, a breadth of view, a directness of purposea range of qualities, in short, which would in themselves have stamped him as one of the master-minds of his century, had there been no other monument to his memory than the remains of his spoken or written eloquence. The bulk of his performances in this department was prodigious. Not even Philip was more industrious in the cabinet. Not even Granvelle held a more facile pen. He wrote and spoke equally well in French, German, or Flemish; and he possessed, besides, Spanish, Italian, Latin. The weight of his correspondence alone would have almost sufficed for the common industry of a lifetime, and although many volumes of his speeches and letters have been published, there remain in the various archives of the Netherlands and Germany many documents from his hand which will probably never see the light. If the capacity for unremitted intellectual labor in an honorable cause be the measure of human greatness, few minds could be compared to the large composition of this man. The efforts made to destroy the Netherlands by the most laborious and painstaking of tyrants were counteracted by the industry of the most indefatigable of patriots.
Thus his eloquence, oral or written, gave him almost boundless power over his countrymen. He possessed, also, a rare perception of human character, together with an iron memory which never lost a face, a place, or an event, once seen or known. He read the minds, even the faces of men, like printed books. No man could overreach him, excepting only those to whom he gave his heart. He might be mistaken where he had confided, never where he had been distrustful or indifferent. He was deceived by Renneberg, by his brother-in-law Van den Berg, by the Duke of Anjou. Had it been possible for his brother Louis or his brother John to have proved false, he might have been deceived by them. He was never outwitted by Philip, or Granvelle, or Don John, or Alexander of Parma. Anna of Saxony was false to him, and entered into correspondence with the royal governors and with the King of Spain; Charlotte of Bourbon or Louisa de Coligny might have done the same had it been possible for their natures also to descend to such depths of guile.
As for the Aerschots, the Havrés, the Chimays, he was never influenced either by their blandishments or their plots. He was willing to use them when their interest made them friendly, or to crush them when their intrigues against his policy rendered them dangerous. The adroitness with which he converted their schemes in behalf of Matthias, of Don John, of Anjou, into so many additional weapons for his own cause, can never be too often studied. It is instructive to observe the wiles of the Macchiavelian school employed by a master of the craft, to frustrate, not to advance, a knavish purpose. This character, in a great measure, marked his whole policy. He was profoundly skilled in the subtleties of Italian statesmanship, which he had learned as a youth at the Imperial court, and which he employed in his manhood in the service, not of tyranny, but of liberty. He fought the Inquisition with its own weapons. He dealt with Philip on his own ground. He excavated the earth beneath the Kings feet by a more subtle process than that practised by the most fraudulent monarch that ever governed the Spanish empire, and Philip, chain-mailed as he was in complicated wiles, was pierced to the quick by a keener policy than his own.
Ten years long the King placed daily his most secret letters in hands which regularly transmitted copies of the correspondence to the Prince of Orange, together with a key to the ciphers and every other illustration which might be required. Thus the secrets of the King were always as well known to Orange as to himself; and the Prince being as prompt as Philip was hesitating, the schemes could often be frustrated before their execution had been commenced. The crime of the unfortunate clerk, John de Castillo, was discovered in the autumn of the year 1581, and he was torn to pieces by four horses. Perhaps his treason to the monarch whose bread he was eating, while he received a regular salary from the Kings most determined foe, deserved even this horrible punishment, but casuists must determine how much guilt attaches to the Prince for his share in the transaction. This history is not the eulogy of Orange, although, in discussing his character, it is difficult to avoid the monotony of panegyric. Judged by a severe moral standard, it cannot be called virtuous or honorable to suborn treachery or any other crime, even to accomplish a lofty purpose; yet the universal practice of mankind in all ages has tolerated the artifices of war, and no people has ever engaged in a holier or more mortal contest than did the Netherlands in their great struggle with Spain. Orange possessed the rare quality of caution, a characteristic by which he was distinguished from his youth. At fifteen he was the confidential counsellor, as at twenty-one he became the general-in-chief, to the most politic, as well as the most warlike potentate of his age, and if he at times indulged in wiles which modern statesmanship, even while it practises, condemns, he ever held in his hand the clue of an honorable purpose to guide him through the tortuous labyrinth.
It is difficult to find any other characteristic deserving of grave censure, but his enemies have adopted a simpler process. They have been able to find few flaws in his nature, and therefore have denounced it in gross. It is not that his character was here and there defective, but that the eternal jewel was false. The patriotism was counterfeit; the self-abnegation and the generosity were counterfeit. He was governed only by ambitionby a desire of personal advancement. They never attempted to deny his talents, his industry, his vast sacrifices of wealth and station; but they ridiculed the idea that he could have been inspired by any but unworthy motives. God alone knows the heart of man. He alone can unweave the tangled skein of human motives, and detect the hidden springs of human action, but as far as can be judged by a careful observation of undisputed facts, and by a diligent collation of public and private documents, it would seem that no mannot even Washingtonhas ever been inspired by a purer patriotism. At any rate, the charge of ambition and self-seeking can only be answered by a reference to the whole picture which these volumes have attempted to portray. The words, the deeds of the man are there. As much as possible, his inmost soul is revealed in his confidential letters, and he who looks in a right spirit will hardly fail to find what he desires.
Whether originally of a timid temperament or not, he was certainly possessed of perfect courage at last. In siege and battlein the deadly air of pestilential citiesin the long exhaustion of mind and body which comes from unduly protracted labor and anxietyamid the countless conspiracies of assassinshe was daily exposed to death in every shape. Within two years, five different attempts against his life had been discovered. Rank and fortune were offered to any malefactor who would compass the murder, he had already been shot through the head, and almost mortally wounded. Under such circumstances even a brave man might have seen a pitfall at every step, a dagger in every hand, and poison in every cup. On the contrary, he was ever cheerful, and hardly took more precaution than usual. God in his mercy, said he, with unaffected simplicity, will maintain my innocence and my honor during my life and in future ages. As to my fortune and my life, I have dedicated both, long since, to his service. He will do therewith what pleases him for his glory and my salvation. Thus his suspicions were not even excited by the ominous face of Gérard, when he first presented himself at the dining-room door. The Prince laughed off his wifes prophetic apprehension at the sight of his murderer, and was as cheerful as usual to the last.
He possessed, too, that which to the heathen philosopher seemed the greatest goodthe sound mind in the sound body. His physical frame was after death found so perfect that a long life might have been in store for him, notwithstanding all which he had endured. The desperate illness of 1574, the frightful gunshot wound inflicted by Jaureguy in 1582, had left no traces. The physicians pronounced that his body presented an aspect of perfect health. His temperament was cheerful. At table, the pleasures of which, in moderation, were his only relaxation, he was always animated and merry, and this jocoseness was partly natural, partly intentional. In the darkest hours of his countrys trial, he affected a serenity which he was far from feeling, so that his apparent gaiety at momentous epochs was even censured by dullards, who could not comprehend its philosophy nor applaud the flippancy of William the Silent.
He went through life bearing the load of a peoples sorrows upon his shoulders with a smiling face. Their name was the last word upon his lips, save the simple affirmative, with which the soldier who had been battling for the right all his lifetime, commended his soul in dying to his great captain, Christ. The people were grateful and affectionate, for they trusted the character of their Father William, and not all the clouds which calumny could collect ever dimmed to their eyes the radiance of that lofty mind to which they were accustomed, in their darkest calamities, to look for light. As long as he lived, he was the guiding-star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.