Chapter II

Nature, Progress, and Moral Judgment

The history of the world, like the laws of nature, is consistent with itself, and simple as the soul of man. Like conditions produce like phenomena.

J. C. F. SCHILLER, "The Revolt of the Netherlands" (from the Boston edition of 1847)

The minute and unwearied research, the scrupulous fidelity and impartial justice with which you execute your task, prove to me that you are properly sensible of the high calling of the American press--that rising tribunal before which the whole world is to be summoned, its history to be revised and rewritten, and the judgment of past ages to be cancelled or confirmed.

Letter from Washington Irving to Motley

In his severely critical essay "Prescott as an Historian" Theodore Parker insisted that the New England historian, because of his unique moral advantages, had unique responsibilities. A Turk or a Russian, he said, might be excused for failing to give us the philosophy of history: "But when a man of New England undertakes to write a history, there is less excuse if his book should be wanting in philosophy and in humanity; less merit if it abound therewith."1 Although Prescott might have questioned Parker's interpretation of "philosophy" and "humanity," he certainly would have denied the charge that he had omitted either, for he, too, accepted the obligation. Believing that the American writer looked on the Past from the highest station reached in human progress, each of the romantic historians felt obligated to reflect this viewpoint in his sympathies and in his judgments. The idea of a special New England mission was as old as New England itself, and the Jeffersonian philosophers had extended the obligation to the whole country.2 In nineteenth-century America as in seventeenth-century New England the writer's duty was based on the unusual


moral purity of his country, on its unique situation as the country most nearly in harmony with divine (or natural) laws.

The historians based this appraisal of America's moral condition partly on their own experience. Bancroft wrote repeatedly from Germany in praise of German scholarship and literature, but in letter after letter he deplored its immorality, the motives of the scholars (who looked on scholarship "as a trade"), their irreligion. He wished that German literature and scholarship could be transplanted to the United States, where they could be enriched by that purity which was the only quality they lacked in Germany. When traveling through Europe with some other young men, he discovered that his Polish companion had "a great deal of moral principle for an European"! Motley, who had already spent several years in Europe before writing his essay on Balzac, did admit that Balzac was neither moral nor immoral, that he was simply an artist dedicated to anatomizing French society. But in this estimate, which anticipated William Dean Howells' comment on Dostoyevsky and Zola, Motley left no doubt either that he believed an American writer was obligated to a higher purpose or that the same kind of analysis would be impossible in the healthy society here. He declared that he could not recommend Balzac for "general circulation" in America. Parkman and Prescott, in their journals of trips to Europe, recorded with a disgust that approaches Mark Twain's the corruption, the moral degradation of southern European peasantry and the "hypocrisy" of Catholicism in Europe.3

As young men, then, all four historians were prepared to accept the judicial responsibility that Washington Irving said Motley discharged so well in The Rise of the Dutch Republic. The romantic historian was not only an artist but a judge. Obliged to judge nations as well as men, he based his decisions on a loose system of "natural" laws that grew out of a clear, though largely implicit theory of history. Both the theory and the laws demand close attention, for they often determined the historian's literary techniques as well as his judgments, and they expressed the historical views of many more Americans than those in Unitarian Boston. Despite the peculiarities of his transcendental and Democratic ideas, it was Bancroft who stated the fundamental theory most clearly. He believed in a dynamic Providence whose infinite wisdom had established the laws of the moral world and controlled the direction of history; he declared that "the moral world is swayed by general laws," each acting in harmony with all the others, and that "event succeeds event according to their influence." Every event, therefore, reflected one of these laws, and


since no general law--no truth--could contradict another, there was an essential harmony among the separate incidents of history. History was the unfolding of a vast Providential plan, and the laws of the moral world were the links between the ages, forming "the guiding principle of civilization, which marshals incongruous incidents into their just places and arranges checkered groups in clear and harmonious order." The historian had a didactic as well as artistic duty to arrange apparently disconnected events in their proper order. Facts were, as Macaulay had said, "the mere dross of history," but the historian could achieve the proper rearrangement of historical facts only by reducing "historic truth" to "a science." Just as Thoreau the transcendental naturalist examined his specimens, so the transcendental historian had to "compare document with document" and then to refer each fact to the general laws that it represented. He could check his arrangement by applying his intuitive reasoning to the mass of facts and by remembering that "every false statement contains a contradiction," that "truth alone possesses harmony." Having put himself in tune with divine reason by consulting the known general laws of the moral world, he could, then, say that he was an impartial, an "indifferent" historian who abhorred that history which takes its bias from "the selfish passions of a party." When Ranke said Bancroft's history was the best history written "from the democratic point of view," Bancroft was hurt; the democracy in his history was not subjective, he said, but objective.4

Although Parkman scorned "the she-philosophers" of Brook Farm and Prescott and Motley had little more respect for them, all three emphasized eternal moral laws and the causative power of principles. Unchanging moral laws seemed as self-evident to the "understanding" and "common sense" of a conservative Unitarian as they were to the "reason" of the transcendentalist.* Motley was the closest of the three to Bancroft in the frequency and flamboyance of his allusions to these laws and to Providence. He often reminded his readers that certain characters had violated "elemental laws," he summarized the lessons of his history frequently, and he stressed the importance of finding in history "general rules for the infinite


future." Prescott and Parkman were less explicitly didactic, but they, too, wrote many pointed judgments into the narrative and "reflective" parts of their works.5

Recognizing these temperamental differences, one can ask what the law was that these judges administered. The "eternal dictates" were "simple,"6 and perhaps because they were both simple and self-evident nobody bothered to transcribe all of them in one place. One finds them written in the decisions of the judges.


The basic assumption was human progress. Motley went so far as to say that were it not for progress, history would be the most "contemptible" subject to study.7 Human progress had proceeded westward, from the Middle East to North America. And all along the way, whether they knew it or not, the people of the vanguard had carried with them a new principle: Christianity in the "German woods," nationality in the Iberian peninsula, the Reformation in the Netherlands and England, Democracy (or Liberty) in the American colonies. In the grand design of Providence the victories of these principles were the most meaningful advances in history; moreover, a nation owed her successes to her adherence to the progressive principle--a principle which, by definition (had there been a definition), agreed with natural law.

Recognizing the continuity in history, the historian then had to discover and communicate "the spirit of the age" that he was bringing to life. His highest responsibility was to recognize and abstract the principle that lay behind every major action. His portraits were designed to convey individual character through "lineaments" and actions; his description of a nation was meant to delineate national character and the principles motivating the nation at a certain time, for national "institutions are the result . . . of the national character";8 his history of an age was meant to bring its spirit before the reader.

This obligation was both literary and moral. In his reviews of both Irving and Bancroft, Prescott insisted that the historian must find a "pervading" principle or moral to keep constantly before the reader. Without the pervading principle a history would have no unity; without proper morality its style could not be properly "elevating." Bancroft's pervading principle was the American colonies' "tendency toward independence."9 Motley told his readers to find in his history of the Netherlands "the creative power of civil and religious freedom."10 Parkman kept the large issue,


the battle of Liberty and Absolutism for North America, always before the reader.

Like other natural laws, the law of progress was incontrovertible; progress was inevitable. Wrong principles could not, in the long run, triumph. The battle between French Absolutism and Anglo-American Liberty could have been protracted, Parkman said, if the French government had used better political and military strategy. But the result would have been the same.11 Bancroft said that Lord Baltimore and Shaftesbury could have brought "the oldest oaks in Windsor forest" to America more easily than the "antiquated and rotten" social forms that they had actually tried to transplant.12 Prescott endorsed this idea in his review of Bancroft's History,13 and in the best of his own histories he saw "the resistless march of destiny" in "the sad fortunes of the dynasty of Montezuma." Motley, in criticizing Bancroft's assignment of democratic motives to the authors of the Mayflower Compact, said that if John Carver had been elected "Grand Duke of Moratiggan" for all time instead of Governor of Plymouth for a year, "these United States would have been a democracy notwithstanding." And Philip II, he wrote in his own history, was sure to fail because he was swimming against "the great current of events" which bore on "the great moral principles by which human affairs in the long run are invariably governed."14

The irresistible advance of progress might have held little interest for the historian if its direction had been a straight line. But it rose, these historians believed, in a spiral.15 From the altitude of the nineteenth century the historian could see that the movement had always been upward, but without this perspective the unaided reader, when dropped onto the level of a lower curve, might lose the sense of upward motion.16 The spiral figure explained the temporary triumphs of wrong principles, the sufferings of the progressive leader, and the strange moral vehicles into which Providence or historical fate had sometimes chosen to drop the burden of libertarian progress. For these "seeds" or "germs"17 had sometimes been carried by people who would have tried to destroy them had they known what fruit they were to bear.

According to an elaborate natural analogy that Bancroft used, the party of the Past helps to achieve natural progress, because its conservatism provokes the reform party to action and its resistance prevents excessive reform. In the conflict of central power with individuality, Bancroft said, the law of "attraction" and "repulsion" works constantly, "in every country, in every stage of existence." If this law is not respected, "society will


perish in chaotic confusion or stagnant calm." The reformers, who strive constantly to enact "the eternal law of justice," must avoid an unnatural push for which the whole society is not prepared; but the resultant of the two opposing forces must point toward progress. Necessary though it is, the party that clings to the Past opposes Nature and Providence when it tries to block a reasonable progressive movement.18

Since each of these parties "in its proper proportion is essential to the wellbeing of society," and since only excess is unnatural, Bancroft insisted that it was easy for the historian to be impartial. Historical "crimes" were to be judged according to the eternal law of virtue written in "the depths" of every man's "consciousness," but Bancroft did not define either political excess or proper proportion. He apparently felt that anyone looking back into history could see which actions had conformed to the will of Providence. For since Providence was supreme, the proper rate of progress was clear in the actual rate of progress! John Winthrop had prevented "chaos" when he opposed "the popular party"; Cotton Mather had held for "stagnation" when he tried to maintain the old religious regime.19

Despite Bancroft's and Motley's insistence that the eternal laws of the moral world were simple, not all of them seem to have been either eternal or simple. The law of progress committed the historian to a relative standard of judgment. As the sole standard, it was simple enough: the historian studied the age, looked for the banner of progress in any conflict, and supported the side fighting under it. When he had no heroes who completely understood their progressive mission, he might have to praise the unwitting bearer of the progressive banner by comparing him with his more reactionary antagonists. Bancroft, for example, saw the flag of Progress flying in England when she denied the supremacy of the Pope and, in developing her commerce and her navy, fought against the reactionary forces of France and Spain. But almost immediately the moral laws seem to have grown more complex. Religious authority was "allied with avarice" in Spain; and in Elizabethan England it joined with monarchy to organize a united national front. "Elizabeth reformed the court"; but it was "the ministers, whom she persecuted, [who] reformed the commons."20 From the time of Archbishop Laud's first persecutions the situation was much more complex than it had been before the Establishment. Still the chief liberal foe of the Catholic powers, England had become a reactionary force in her relations with the Puritans and then with all the colonies.

Such ambiguities could be explained by an appeal to the pervading principles of the age. In the period from the Reformation through the first


half of the eighteenth century, Bancroft believed, the main issue had been the struggle of Protestantism and intellectual freedom against Catholic reaction. Therefore, although England's rulers had generally been linked with France and Spain in the seventeenth century as opponents of political freedom, Bancroft's (and Parkman's) English people suddenly rose,21 at the lowest point of English fortunes in the Seven Years' War, to carry on the fight against infallible prelacy. By 1763 Protestantism had won its battle, "had fulfilled its political end, and was never again to convulse the world."22 Bancroft's analysis explained the new alignment of principles and powers in the war of the American Revolution. France, having fought for the supremacy of a Catholic empire until 1763, could fight for the principle of Liberty in 1778; and England, her duty as the chief defender of Protestant freedom accomplished, could be led by a Parliament that was "fretting itself into a frenzy at the denial of its unlimited dominion."23

Although Motley's portrait of Elizabeth is far from flattering, he follows the same rule used by Bancroft. In her relations with her own people and the Dutch she is not progressive, libertarian, or heroic; both the English people and the Dutch people walk ahead of her in the progressive march of humanity. Against Philip II, however, she stands for the English nation--for Protestantism, independent nationality, and the spirit of commerce. The fundamental question that the judge had to answer in applying the law of progress was how closely a given character conformed to "the spirit of the age"--that is, the most progressive ideas of the age. Thus Motley can admit Elizabeth's and Henry IV's similarity to Philip II without condemning them; for although they virtually agreed with Philip on "the right divine and the right of the people," they came closer than he did to understanding the spirit of the age, and they had "the keenest instinct to keep themselves in the advance in the direction whither [history] was marshalling all men."24

The involuntary agents of progress were not always those who, like Elizabeth, Henry IV, and intolerant Calvinists, had kept themselves "in the advance." Nor was it only the good acts of these agents that had contributed to the advance. Elizabeth's disingenuousness, her selfishness, her "niggardliness," and her jealousy of Leicester's possible power in the Netherlands--the delay caused by these "follies," Motley said, had carried the Netherlands through a dangerous period when even the people had wanted a monarchy. Even the assassination of William the Silent, committed by order of the "monstrous" Philip II, had produced the same kind of effect some years earlier; had William not been assassinated, Motley assured the


reader, he would have become a king.25 Moral and progressive law functioned so smoothly that reactionary evil itself worked for progress. "How happy for a nation," Theodore Parker exclaimed ironically, "that, when brought to the brink of ruin, it has a perennial inexhaustible fountain of salvation in the follies, vices, and crimes of its rulers!"26

In very similar language Parkman reminded his readers of the debt liberty owed to the "fatuity of Louis XV. and his Pompadour." The outrages committed by Prescott's Pope Alexander VI made an essential contribution to the Reformation. The moral, in Bancroft's words, was that "evil when it comes is intermixed with good; the ill is evanescent, the good endures." England's long-range policy of "oppression" from 1660 to 1775 had given the American colonists the very experience they needed in order to appreciate the value of liberty; indeed George III was "the instrument chosen by Heaven to accelerate [the] movement of the age."27

The determinism implicit in this view of progress did not trouble these historians. Despite his involuntary contributions to progress, the evil agent was no more immune to damnation than the Devil whom Calvinist historians had said God used for similar purposes. The irony of his occasional utility in the Providential plan was, in a sense, a part of his punishment: his very crimes accelerated the progress that he hoped they would halt. The historian never questioned the free will of such an agent, although Motley, oppressed by Philip's massive record of evil, did argue that Providence tolerated evil only as a "stormy" background for the "spotless marble" character of such heroes as William the Silent.28 The historian's major concern was with the motives, the morality, and the results of the evil agent's behavior; he did not pretend to debate the evil agent's freedom of choice or his utility, but was satisfied to demonstrate them--the first repeatedly and the second on strategic occasions. In discussing evil characters he concentrated on moral judgment and instruction and on the operation of natural law. Virtue, of course, was morally instructive, but the results of evil were more so.29

In his moral drama, then, the romantic historian recorded the operation of a natural law, "the inexorable law of Freedom and Progress."30 In nearly all his histories he took the point of view of the nation that illustrated the law at a given period. Whatever the faults of Ferdinand and Isabella, Cortés or Pizarro, all helped to lead the upward march of humanity; all acted against opponents standing obstinately, whether from necessity or evil motives, in the path of progress. It is true that Parkman said his "point of view" was "within the French lines" in the war for North America,31


but in both A Half-Century of Conflict and Montcalm and Wolfe he stands just as often within the English lines, and his allegiance is always there. In the earlier volumes, moreover, his French heroes, from Champlain to La Salle, serve as agents of progress. Parkman's The Old Régime in Canada and Prescott's Philip II are the major exceptions, but the first is not a narrative history and the second, a logical successor to Prescott's earlier volumes on Spanish achievements, presents the culmination of Spain's material glory as well as the unmistakable symptoms of her decline.


But what did "progress" mean? Except for a few minor variations, all of these histories narrate a consistent story of political and religious change from the fifteenth century through the American Revolution; both the terminology and the substance of the story are romantic. Although material progress had made civilization more complex, this progressive movement had always led toward greater simplicity in ideas, toward a clearer perception of a few truths that were "devoid of mystery."32 In religion, progress had moved toward nineteenth-century Unitarianism; in politics, toward American democracy. It had been a movement from the "artificial" toward the "natural." The man who clung to his artificial principles after humanity had discarded them had inevitably slipped off the spiral highway of progress. He had suffered materially as well as spiritually, for in the long march material success depended directly on right, "natural" principles.

The story begins in Spain. Temporarily in the vanguard of political and geographic progress, and elevated by Isabella's "exalted" religious fervor,33 Spain opened the way to the New World and set new standards of national unity, royal justice, and efficiency. Having defeated the self-indulgent Moors, Ferdinand stood firm against the Pope for the principle of national integrity. His armies succeeded in driving the French from Spain because of "the glorious union, which brought together the petty and hitherto discordant tribes of the peninsula under the same rule and, by creating common interests and an harmonious principle of action, was silently preparing them for constituting one great nation,--one and indivisible, as intended by nature."34 The principles of nationalism and religious enthusiasm gave the Spaniards an energy that could not fail against the demoralized Italian states. Gonsalvo de Cordova's Spaniards were crude, and the Italians were handicapped by an over-refined culture. Because they depended so much on "intellect," deceit, "the subtle webs of policy,"


and "refinements of the cabinet," they had lost the principle of physical courage, of nationality, of straightforward action. They lacked that precious quality which would have saved them: "an invigorating national feeling."35 Corrupt, spiritless intellect led to self-indulgent effeminacy, materialism, cowardice, "torpor." These qualities could not stand against the Spaniard's rugged natural energy and disciplined self-denial.

But Spain's virtue gave way to "mad schemes of ambition," to avarice and bigotry, to indolence and pride, and these eventually threw her into a "paralytic torpor" that allowed her to be stripped of her wealth and shoved aside by smaller nations moving more energetically up the spiral path of progress. Under the emperor Charles V Spain made greater conquests, but his success only demonstrated that "the seed sown under a good system continues to yield fruit in a bad one." Charles's "golden age," Prescott said, would not seem golden to the true Spanish patriot; its "outward show of glory will seem to his penetrating eye only the hectic brilliancy of decay." Charles and his successors forgot the ancient liberties that Ferdinand and Isabella had respected, and the Inquisition settled "like a foul mist" on the national character.36

The Netherlands rose to defend against Spain the principle of nationality that Ferdinand and Isabella had asserted. But the Dutch were more natural than the Spaniards; their leader saw clearly the natural law that demanded freedom of conscience, and "the untaught impulses of the great popular heart" told them that theirs was a struggle not only for Dutch liberty but for world liberty.37 As the hardiest Moors fighting against Ferdinand and Isabella had been nurtured in the rugged mountain country of the Alpuxarras, as the seaboard was the "natural seat" of Spanish liberty,38 so the Dutch had been trained to adversity, and to an understanding of Nature, through their experience of the wild ocean that so often threatened to destroy them.39 They carried not only the seed of religious liberty, encased in the hard shell of Calvinism, but also the spirit of commerce, the principles of industry and self-reliance. They were interested, Motley said, in facts rather than theories;40 they had comparatively little use for man-made superstitions and divine-right theories of monarchy. By following the natural laws of commerce these "hardy mariners," whose "moral sense" (Bancroft said) rebelled against Spanish mercantile avarice, turned the stupid, contrived theory of Spanish colonial trade to their own advantage--bleeding Philip's treasury as well as his army.41

Again true principles and raw energy overthrew unnatural laws; again intrigue, materialism, self-indulgence, unfeeling intellect, and torpor were


defeated. Motley emphasizes this contrast by a variety of devices. Although forced to admire the skill and courage of several energetic Spanish military leaders, he focuses on the contrast between the artful deceit of Philip and his servants, and the natural straightforwardness of the Dutch and later the English. The greatest Spanish military figures reflect the worst characteristics of their declining nation: Alva in camp, refusing to be drawn into a battle, is the counterpart of the "sluggish" Philip leaning over his desk and writing interminable messages. Alexander Farnese, though a great soldier, personifies military falsehood. And in his insincere negotiations for peace with Queen Elizabeth, she, who has been "disingenuous" at times in her treatment of the Dutch, behaves with "confiding simplicity and truthfulness"--traits which make the Englishman incapable of even conceiving Mediterranean deceit.42

The most successful figure of this kind, embodying the opposing qualities in this long war of principles, is Motley's description of the Spanish galley, an unmaneuverable hulk, a lumbering monster symbolizing Spanish pride and stupidity. Motley's objection to it is both moral and aesthetic; he condemns its use of "slave labor," and he remarks that any "true lover of the sea" must regard it as

. . . about as clumsy and amphibious a production as could be hoped of human perverseness. High where it should be low--exposed, flat, and fragile, where elevation and strength were indispensable--encumbered and top-heavy where it should be level and compact, weak in the waist, broad in the stem and stern, awkward in manoeuvre, helpless in rough weather, sluggish under sail, although possessing the single advantage of being able to crawl over a smooth sea when better and faster ships were made stationary by absolute calm, the galley was no match for the Dutch galleot either at close quarters or in a breeze.43

The more natural productions of self-reliant Englishmen and Dutchmen sailed circles around this freak of the Spanish brain. The sluggishness of the galley and its commanders could not stand against the natural storm that destroyed the Spanish Armada or against the quick native intelligence of free sailors. The Spanish and Portuguese in the galleys showed a slug- gishness of mind appropriate to the "top-heavy," "sluggish marine castles" in which they sailed.44

Natural vigor, instinct, and energy belonged to the people who followed the law of progress. The Puritans who fled Archbishop Laud carried into the wilderness a simpler and more natural system than that top- heavy construction of man, the Anglican Church. The "simple" farmers of Bancroft's Connecticut, where "there was . . . hardly a lawyer in the


land,"45 and the merchants and "mechanics" up and down the coast protested for over a century against the impediments placed in the way of natural law by English political and mercantile theorists and by royal authority.

In America as in the Netherlands the influence of Nature helped true principles to give comparatively crude men vigor in their struggle against more sophisticated, less natural Europeans. Parkman repeatedly contrasts the rugged French-Canadian with the less vigorous Frenchman who stayed at home, the Frenchman in the wilderness with the Frenchman who stayed at Quebec. Both Parkman and Bancroft, moreover, contrast the British colonial troops with the English regulars; Rogers' Rangers win more glory than Braddock's Redcoats. The self-reliant amateur who adjusts to the conditions imposed on him by Nature often excels the professional who fights by the book. As Motley's Dutch "militia of the sea" defeated Spanish professionals, so Bancroft's New England militia defeats British regulars.46

It is no mere coincidence, then, that in the controlling image of the Introduction to his first volume Parkman pictured New England as "a body without a head" and New France as "all head."47 The New England colonies won because of their raw energy, which overcame faults of organization. But they would not have had this energetic superiority had they been based on "absolutist" religious, political, and economic principles, the very principles that produced New France's more grotesque and eventually fatal deformity. Despite the "peculiar crop of faults" borne by "New England Puritanism," Parkman insisted that "it produced also many good and sound fruits":

An uncommon vigor, joined to the hardy virtues of a masculine race, marked the New England type. The sinews, it is true, were hardened at the expense of blood and flesh,--and this literally as well as figuratively; but the staple of character was a sturdy conscientiousness, an undespairing courage, patriotism, public spirit, sagacity, and a strong good sense.

The Seven Years' War was "the strife of a united and concentered few against a divided and discordant many. It was the strife, too, of the past against the future; of the old against the new; of moral and intellectual torpor against moral and intellectual life; of barren absolutism against a liberty, crude, incoherent, and chaotic, yet full of prolific vitality."48

Thus the historians described the fundamental conflicts of their histories in familiar terms. The American appeal to simplicity was as old as the Puritan Thomas Hooker's announcement that he did not expect his plain style to please those who "covet more sauce than meat"; but when


Francis Parkman set the New England body against the Canadian head he gave a political extension to the nineteenth-century romantic conflict between heart and head. All four of the historians used this terminology, and they all characterized the "natural" in rhetoric that emphasized ruggedness and hardihood. Even intellectual and moral progress accompanied physical, instinctive energy and deep feeling; "torpor" was a condition induced by excesses of the "head." The progressive man was usually an energetic, warm-hearted protestant cutting through the layers of artificial forms that unnatural intellects had wrapped around the simple truths of politics and religion. The natural man was an active man, usually taught as much by experience as by books; the reactionary forces that opposed him often included "theorists," "casuists," "philosophers."


Although the precise origins of these ideas, if they can be determined at all, are beyond the range of this study, it is important to understand that these historians did not consider themselves indebted to what Bancroft called "eighteenth century philosophy" or to its idea of progress. Bancroft was proud that he had leveled his guns against Locke himself, the originator of eighteenth-century "materialism." And in their historical narratives about mid-eighteenth-century Europe, both Bancroft and Parkman deplored the spiritual barrenness of the whole continent. "The latter half of the reign of George II.," Parkman wrote, "was one of the most prosaic periods in English history." Even the enthusiastic loyalty which some people had felt toward the fallacious "divine right of kings" had, he said, disappeared with the theory itself. Politics, morals, and religion "had run to commonplace." The Whig aristocracy, having "done its great work when it expelled the Stuarts," was now occupied mainly with minor issues and squabbles over offices. Underneath the surface, forces eventually led by Whitefield, Wesley, and Pitt were stirring, but the surface itself was "dull and languid." Indeed, "over all the Continent the aspect of the times was the same. . . . No great idea stirred the nations to their depths."49

Bancroft pronounced the same judgments even more vehemently. The Twelfth Parliament "was corrupt, and it knew itself to be corrupt, and it made a jest of its own corruption." The fundamental evil, Bancroft believed, was a philosophy of materialism. Locke, Voltaire, Dr. Johnson--he contrasted them all with the "spiritual" John Wesley and George Fox. He did not once mention Locke's reason, but allowed him only "a mighty understanding." He condemned the pretentiousness of Locke's and Shaftesbury's effort to impose an aristocratic political system on the Carolinas; true


philosophy had come to government in Carolina only when George Fox, who had acquired his wisdom largely "by deep feeling," had helped the Friends at Albemarle to write their natural laws. In a letter to Emerson about this volume, Bancroft boasted that he had put Locke in his place.50

Eighteenth-century philosophy, as Bancroft read it, led directly to the "despotism of the senses." "George Fox and Voltaire," he said, "both protested against priestcraft; Voltaire in behalf of the senses, Fox in behalf of the soul.''51 The man who submitted to this despotism could not be honored in history. Despite the "ostentatious pomp" of Samuel Johnson's morality, Bancroft concluded, "his own heart was riveted to the earth." Even at the moment of death Johnson was unable "to fix his eye on God, or to grasp eternity," and he lay in terror, "scarifying his limbs in the vain hope of breathing though but a few hours more." This dying "materialist" Bancroft called "the emblem of the old political system, which also lay on its deathbed, helplessly longing to live on." But even the "new" political system planned by the rebels for France could not succeed; "the [French] philosophy could not guide a revolution, for it professed to receive no truth but through the senses, denied the moral government of the world, and derided the possibility of disinterested goodness." The whole century, Bancroft charged in his largest generalization, "refused to look for anything better" than man; "the belief in the divine reason was derided like the cowering at spectres and hobgoblins; and the worship of humanity became the prevailing idolatry."52

Motley laughed at "his serene highness, philosopher Locke," and he expressed the conventional judgment of Hume in a letter recommending reading for his daughter. Advising her to read Lingard's History of England, he observed that Lingard "is a Roman Catholic, but honest enough, and at any rate more respectable than Hume"! 53 Prescott did not condemn Gibbon's deathbed behavior, but his judgment of the spiritual weakness in Gibbon and Voltaire is as severe in its way as Bancroft's condemnation of Dr. Johnson. Voltaire's style was graceful and witty, but his "pernicious philosophy" prevented him from elevating his reader; he could never "kindle into high and generous emotion the glow of patriotism, or moral and religious enthusiasm." Gibbon's writings were "nowhere warmed with a generous moral sentiment." By sneering at the Christian martyrs' self-sacrifice, he was "not only in bad taste, as he is addressing a Christian audience, but he thus voluntarily relinquishes one of the most powerful engines for the movement of human passion, which is never so easily excited as by deeds of suffering, self-devoted heroism."54

This view of eighteenth-century thought helps to explain one of the


most important standards of judgment in the romantic histories. Although the Unitarian historian himself was more strongly committed to morality than to piety, he could rarely tolerate what he called religious skepticism. "Materialism," or unfeeling intellect, was even worse, for it ignored "enthusiasm," the energetic force of spirit, the causative power of principles. The formal thinker who did not act warmly for humanity was liable to this charge. Whether as a transcendentalist or as a Unitarian believer in "common sense," as a lover of Nature or as a hard-headed American advocate of self-reliance, the romantic historian expressed little respect for theorists, for theological argument, or for metaphysical speculation.

Despite his admiration for "the sublime lessons of Kant,"55 Bancroft repeatedly underscored the superiority of less intellectual, progressive groups to learned philosophers. George Fox towered over Descartes, although their method "coincided."56 Tennessee frontiersmen proved what Frederick Jackson Turner later asserted in language surprisingly similar to Bancroft's: that "political wisdom is not sealed up in rolls and parchments. It welled up in the forest, like the waters from the hillside." Just as there were no lawyers in early Connecticut, so there were no ministers or priests in the Quaker colony at Albemarle, no newspapers or churches on the Virginia frontier in 1674.57 At Concord in 1775, the "humble train-bands acted" when prudent statesmen would have "lost from hesitation the glory of opening a new era on mankind."58 And even Kant's ideas had little effect on mankind until William Pitt answered a sound legal argument of Mansfield's by proclaiming his "distrust" in "the refinements of learning." Only when Pitt appealed to "the simplicity of Common Sense," were the theories of "Scotland" and of Kant "translated into the Halls of legislation."59

When Bancroft said, then, that "mind rules the world," he did not necessarily mean the mind of the learned man. He referred to the true principles that any intelligent man might perceive. The Whigs of his own day, he said, were materialists; the Democrats, the party of "morality and mind."60 None of the romantic historians was opposed to learning; what they deplored was learning without natural enthusiasm, without humanity--the sort of learning that had led to the "monstrous" doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of predestination, Catholic casuistry. Motley did not let his reader forget that Philip II had "had daily discussions . . . on abstruse theological points," or that James I had had an unhealthy interest in theology and had taken a ridiculous pride in his learning.61

This kind of emphasis placed a premium on the virtues of active


experience. The man suffering in the trenches knew more of war and patriotism than "grave-visaged statesmen, in comfortable cabinets," who "exchanged grimaces and protocols which nobody heeded";62 Prescott's Gonsalvo de Cordova was a forthright, honorable soldier until he asked the advice of "casuists" on an ambiguous problem of moral duty;63 Parkman's frontiersmen knew more about Indian character than theoretical pacifists meeting in sheltered Philadelphia;64 Dutch and English merchant sailors knew more about economic law than mercantile theorists. Even when natural men did not know the ultimate principles toward which their actions led, "the creative power of civil and religious freedom"65 was working through them; natural behavior eventually led to good results. Thus Motley's Netherlanders created a republic in spite of themselves, beginning to build it before they knew that they wanted it; and Bancroft's Americans were unwittingly building a democracy as early as the seventeenth century.66

In private morals, too, the "artificial" was materialistic. Spirituality came from the heart, the affections, the conscience. Physical hardship and endurance usually helped to preserve spirituality; for however strongly interested in profit, the rugged man was used to self-denial. The vices of the frontier or the merchant service were neither so unnatural nor so enervating as those of the French, Spanish, and Italian courts. Bancroft asserted that "despotism favors the liberty of the senses; and popular freedom rests on sanctity of morals."67 The first half of this statement, at least, seemed to be borne out by history, and all four historians took full advantage of the evidence. As they portrayed him, the authoritarian opponent of progress always fought for selfish ends--always to preserve his own power and often to preserve his sophisticated vices. Sixteenth-century Italians, Moorish leaders, Montezuma and the Incas, the Valois, Philip II, James I, Louis XIV, Louis XV, several of the corrupt Canadian officials--all were called sensual, self-indulgent. Intellectual subtlety often worked together with "effeminacy."68

What was effeminate in the materialist was his self-indulgence, his use of subtlety and deceit, his "languor" or "torpor." The masculine virtues were courage, self-reliance, self-denial, endurance, candor, and vigorous activity. These were chivalric virtues, and in the code dramatized in the romantic histories the lie, the sacrifice of honor, takes on chivalric importance. The most degrading sacrifice a character could make to selfish or unnatural purposes was the abdication of his manhood by deceitful practices. Bancroft, as historical judge, was careful to give the name of


an otherwise unimportant British officer who had violated his parole during the Revolution. Prescott did not criticize Gonsalvo de Cordova for his immediate execution of an officer who had made a lewd joke about Cordova's daughter; but he deplored as "the one foul reproach" on Cordova's character his breach of a promise to a captured commander--even though the promise had been countermanded by the Spanish king.69

The importance of this code is most clearly illustrated by Motley's treatment of William of Orange. For Motley, every kind of deceit was unmanly. Since he believed that governments must be judged by the same moral laws that govern individual men, he considered it almost as reprehensible to employ spies as to break one's word of honor. He wandered through a maze of private casuistry in order to explain William's use of spies against Philip II. In the end he could not wholly exonerate William, and his apology led him to imply that the end justifies the means--a doctrine he loathed.70 Later on in The Rise of the Dutch Republic and again in the United Netherlands, Motley, apparently forgetting both William's and Elizabeth's excursions into intrigue, excused their failure to detect Franco-Spanish trickery by emphasizing their personal honor: William would have needed "malignity" even to suspect the St. Bartholomew massacre; and Elizabeth simply was not "base enough" to suspect the Duke of Parma of duplicity.71

Thus romantic admiration for honor and masculine vigor merged with bourgeois admiration for industry. The inactive person, the torpid society, could not progress. To a nineteenth-century American who knew that his continent had to be "improved," torpor and languor seemed subversive. Provided one could find historical evidence for them, they were the very faults to emphasize in the opponent of progress. The warmhearted, self-denying man progressed in spite of cold theorists and self-indulgent materialists.


Because so many of their unnatural antiprogressives were motivated by greed, because the historians scorned materialism, one might expect them to be suspicious of the profit motive and its results. Parkman and Motley, at least, saw the problem: How could one find lofty heroism in merchants ? When Parkman deplored the absence in America of a gentlemanly corps of officers devoted to principles of honor and valor, he recognized the faults encouraged by such a corps; but he was even more distressed by the pettiness, the sordidness, of a merely commercial society.72 Motley felt that there was something "almost vulgar" about commerce,


and in his account of the last Dutch failure to relieve Antwerp he complained: "It was a city where there was much love of money, and where commerce--always timid by nature, particularly when controlled by alien residents--was often the cause of almost abject cowardice."73

The romantic historian rarely attributed the profit motive to a specific character without making it an unseemly motive, but commerce in general was another matter. The commercial peoples in these histories are not materialists but agents for "the spirit of commerce." They escape the stigma of materialism because they defend other natural principles--Protestantism, nationality, free thought, republicanism--or the natural economic principles of free trade, "enterprise" or industry, and self-reliance. If a Drake, a Frobisher, a Heemskerk, is a pirate and a profiteer, he is also a "Puritan" and a nationalist.74 The desire to profit from an investment is materialistic, but self-reliance is admirably "natural"; when one acts for the spirit of commerce, one adheres to a progressive principle.

All of these historians saw something of that connection between Protestantism and capitalism which Weber and Tawney have more recently established; but in the romantic histories the connection often serves to elevate the economic motive rather than to lower the religious one.75 In describing the transition from a chivalric age to an age of commerce, Motley seeks to equate the virtues of the old period with those of the new. Here he comments on an English officer's lament that long years of peace, encouraging a commercial attitude, had weakened England:

He was wrong in his views of the leading tendencies of his age. Holland and England, self-helping, self-moving, were already inaugurating a new era in the history of the world. The spirit of commercial maritime enterprise--then expanding rapidly into large proportions--was to be matched against the religious and knightly enthusiasm which had accomplished such wonders in an age that was passing away. Spain still personified . . . chivalry, loyalty, piety; but its chivalry, loyalty, and piety, were now in a corrupted condition. The form was hollow, and the sacred spark had fled. In Holland and England intelligent enterprise had not yet degenerated into mere greed for material prosperity. The love of danger, the thirst for adventure, the thrilling sense of personal responsibility and human dignity--not the base love of land and lucre--were the governing sentiments which led those bold Dutch and English rovers to circumnavigate the world in cockle-shells, and to beard the most potent monarch on the earth, both at home and abroad. with a handful of volunteers.76

It was a struggle, Motley adds in the next paragraph, "for national independence, liberty of conscience, freedom of the seas, against sacerdotal and world-absorbing tyranny"; it was "the battle of Protestantism on sea and


shore." Motley recurs often to this theme, praising the "rhythm and romance" and the "genial poetic essence" of the early Dutch expeditions to "the flaming lands of the equator."77

By frequently considering commerce as a spiritual endeavor, and by connecting it when he could with other principles and with deeds of courage and endurance, the romantic historian was able to maintain a convenient distinction between materialism and natural principles--but often at the cost of serious inconsistency. For Bancroft Spanish mercantilism was "a system as old as colonies and the spirit of commercial gain and political oppression"; that system was created by greed; but it was "the moral sense" of Dutch "mariners" that "revolted against the extravagance." Under Bancroft's George III the crown acted always "from love of authority," and in Parliament "the administration of public affairs had degenerated into a system of patronage, which had money for its object"; Boston's merchants, mechanics, and laborers, however, struck for world liberty.78 Prescott, after noting that an adviser wanted Queen Isabella to release a captured Moorish prince because freeing him would accelerate Granada's dissolution, said that Isabella "decided for the release of Abdallah, as a measure best reconciling sound policy with generosity to the vanquished."79

Motley always combined Spanish motives of religion and material gain ironically when he was able to combine them, but he treated the same combination of Dutch motives quite differently. Among some nobles, he confessed, the motives for the Dutch rebellion were partly economic; but he insisted that the rebellion was essentially a "popular" movement and that its real force was religious. In the very paragraph justifying this argument he returned, however, to economic motives in different language. The remarkable sixteenth century, he argued, could not allow the Inquisition to "reign undisturbed over the fairest portion of the earth, and chartered hypocrisy [to] fatten upon its richest lands." Four times in two paragraphs he mentioned the energy and industry of the Netherlanders, contrasting these traits with the greed and corruption of the clergy, who not only produced little, but refused to pay taxes. It was here, too, that he named commerce as "the mother" of Flemish freedom.80

Materialistic motives, then, were suspect; but although the historian believed that the motivating principle made the result inevitable, he often tested the principle by its results. Seeing a decadent country, he could look for the false principles that had caused its decay; examining those principles in his history, he might point to their results as proof of their falsity. Since the "eternal laws" were not systematically defined, the moral value of history


lay in demonstrating them through the material fate of nations. Commerce, industry, and prosperity were the natural nation's reward as well as the cause of its success. Just as Motley pointed with pride to the United Provinces and with pain to the "obedient provinces," so Parkman and Bancroft contrasted the material condition of New France with the teeming vitality and prosperity of New England. Prescott deplored the fact that Spanish overseas conquests had "seduced" the Spanish people "from the humble paths of domestic industry,''81 and he concluded that the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Moors and Jews had also helped to sink Spain into economic misery. Commerce was not only the mother, but the child of freedom.


The administration of undefined natural law through historical judgment allowed the judge a good deal of discretion. As it was applied in the romantic histories the law cannot be codified consistently, but its most prominent features can be briefly restated. The law of progress was supreme; it was by this law that the historian could determine how stringently to apply the "eternal" laws governing private and political behavior. Progress meant an increase in political and intellectual liberty, a movement toward what Theodore Parker called "humanity," a movement away from artificiality or formality toward simplicity, away from torpor and disease toward vigor and health. Natural principles produced health; therefore, although materialism itself was unnatural, the historian could look at the material health of a nineteenth-century country as a test of its earlier principles. In these terms the largest lesson of history was that unmaterialistic freedom was fertile; materialistic despotism, barren.

No method of illustrating this barrenness was more impressive than a contrast between heroic efforts and disastrous results. By treating Spain and New France as ruins which had once been inhabited by "a giant race," Prescott and Parkman added moral force as well as melancholy sentiment to their subjects. The vast accomplishments of Spanish heroes had their monument in Spain's grass-grown streets and crumbling palaces and bridges, "the tokens of [the] nation's degeneracy."82 New France's records shone "with glorious deeds, the self-devotion of heroes and martyrs; and the result of all is disorder, imbecility, ruin."83 In the same way, Motley painted into one large Gothic picture a symbol of the "prize" won by all the disciplined energy of thousands of Spanish soldiers. When the daughter of Philip II took possession of her inheritance at Ostend after having besieged it for three years, she received the portion she deserved. The ruins and the gloomy forces of Nature give the picture a power which shows that


Motley, despite his inconsistencies, was a master of the specific moral painting:

The Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella entered the place in triumph, if triumph it could be called. It would be difficult to imagine a more desolate scene. . . . There were no churches, no houses, no redoubts, no bastions, no walls, nothing but a vague and confused mass of ruin. Spinola conducted his imperial guests along the edge of extinct volcanoes, amid upturned cemeteries, through quagmires which once were moats, over huge mounds of sand, and vast shapeless masses of bricks and masonry, which had been forts. He endeavoured to point out places where mines had been exploded, where ravelins had been stormed, where the assailants had been successful, and where they had been bloodily repulsed. But it was all loathsome, hideous rubbish. There were no human habitations, no hovels, no casemates. The inhabitants had burrowed at last in the earth, like the dumb creatures of the swamps and forests. In every direction the dykes had burst, and the sullen wash of the liberated waves, bearing hither and thither the floating wreck of fascines and machinery, of planks and building materials, sounded far and wide over what should have been dry land. The great ship channel, with the unconquered Half-moon upon one side and the incomplete batteries and platforms of Bucquoy on the other, still defiantly opened its passage to the sea, and the retiring fleets of the garrison were white in the offing. All around was the grey expanse of stormy ocean, without a cape or a headland to break its monotony, as the surges rolled mournfully in upon a desolation more dreary than their own. The atmosphere was mirky and surcharged with rain, for the wild equinoctial storm which had held Maurice spellbound had been raging over land and sea for many days. At every step the unburied skulls of brave soldiers who had died in the cause of freedom grinned their welcome to the conquerors. Isabella wept at the sight. She had cause to weep. Upon that miserable sandbank more than a hundred thousand men had laid down their lives by her decree, in order that she and her husband might at last take possession of a most barren prize. This insignificant fragment of a sovereignty which her wicked old father had presented her on his deathbed--a sovereignty which he had no more moral right or actual power to confer than if it had been in the planet Saturn--had at last been appropriated at the cost of all this misery. It was of no great value, although its acquisition had caused the expenditure of at least eight millions of florins, divided in nearly equal proportions between the two belligerents. It was in vain that great immunities were offered to those who would remain, or who would consent to settle in the foul Golgotha. The original population left the place in mass. No human creatures were left save the wife of a freebooter and her paramour, a journeyman blacksmith. This unsavoury couple, to whom entrance into the purer atmosphere of Zeeland was denied, thenceforth shared with the carrion crows the amenities of Ostend.84


Thus the moral view of history had important advantages, despite the inconsistencies and oversimplifications that it encouraged. The "pervading principle" that Prescott demanded could indeed supply a unity indispensable to literary art. Although the historians often abused the opportunity, the moral emphasis could also add a meaning and interest beyond the merely anecdotal to exciting individual tales--as in Motley's brilliant narrative of Montigny's secret execution in The Rise of the Dutch Republic.85 In the discussion of nations the moral attitude enabled the historian to demonstrate the ironies of Providential justice (or historical fate) in a way much more impressive than that of an amoral economic historian. Prescott summed up the moral of Spain's disastrous colonial policy by alluding to King Midas. Using the conventional "health" rhetoric, he said that her colonies "were miserably dwarfed" because they were "condemned to look for supplies to an incompetent source"; Spain herself, meanwhile,

contrived to convert the nutriment which she extorted from the colonies into a fatal poison. . . . The golden tide, which, permitted a free vent, would have fertilized the region, through which it poured, now buried the land under a deluge which blighted every green and living thing. Agriculture, commerce, manufactures, every branch of national industry and improvement, languished and fell to decay; and the nation, like the Phrygian monarch, who turned all that he touched to gold, cursed by the very consummation of its wishes, was poor in the midst of its treasures.86

Motley's account of the proud Portuguese begging the "untiring Hollanders" for a chance to buy spices that had once been controlled by Portuguese monopoly;87 Bancroft's demonstration, through the "avaricious" bickering of the three great powers while the American colonies grew in vitality, that "the selfishness of evil defeats itself"88--these, with their Old Testament quality, are effective moral judgments.

As the historians themselves recognized, however, their moral drama was least effective when it depended solely on nations, or characters less than heroic, as vehicles for the warring principles of history. Their method was most effective when they could embody the principles in heroic flesh-and-blood characters.