Page:15 decisive battles of the world (New York).djvu/248

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242 DEFEAT OF


seem a perfectly feasible scheme; and Philip had both the ambition to form that project, and the resolution to devote all his energies and all his means to its realization. Since the downfall of the Roman empire no such preponderating power had existed in the world. During the medieval centuries the chief European kingdoms were slowly molding themselves out of the feudal chaos; and though the wars with each other were numerous and desperate, and several of their respective kings figured for a time as mighty conquerors, none of them in those times acquired the consistency and perfect organization which are requisite for a long-sustained career of aggrandizement. After the consolidation of the great kingdoms, they for some time kept each other in mutual check. During the first half of the sixteenth century, the balancing system was successfully practiced by European statesmen. But when Philip II. reigned, France had become so miserably weak through her civil wars, that he had nothing to dread from the rival state which had so long curbed his father, the Emperor Charles V. In Germany, Italy, and Poland he had either zealous friends and dependents, or weak and divided enemies. Against the Turks he had gained great and glorious successes; and he might look round the continent of Europe without discerning a single antagonist of whom he could stand in awe. Spain, when he acceded to the throne, was at the zenith of her power. The hardihood and spirit which the Aragonese, the Castilians, and the other nations of the peninsula had acquired during centuries of free institutions and successful war against the Moors, had not yet become obliterated. Charles V. had, indeed, destroyed the liberties of Spain; but that had been done too recently for its full evil to be felt in Philip's time. A people can not be debased in a single generation; and the Spaniards under Charles V. and Philip II. proved the truth of the remark that no nation is ever so formidable to its neighbors for a time, as a nation which, after being trained up in self-government, passes suddenly under a despotic ruler. The energy of democratic institutions survives for a few generations, and to it are superadded the decision and certainty which are the attributes of government when all its powers are directed by a single mind. It is true that this preternatural vigor is short-lived: national corruption and debasement gradually follow the loss of the national liberties; but there is an interval before