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Biography of John Lothrop Motley


THE designation of an author, a statesman, or a diplomat to what shall prove his life work, is sometimes most unaccountably delayed. He may be indolent or a dilettante, just tasting here and there of literary sweets; he may have no fixed purpose in life, and rambling on in this aimless way may have reached the noonday of manhood without finding out what he is fit for, when suddenly there comes an impulse which transforms the man, rouses him to a sense of his powers and his destiny, and changes him from an elegant idler or drone in the busy hive of this work-a-day world, into a diligent, earnest student, one of the busiest working-bees in the community. And this transformation once begun is not usually left unfinished. The later years of the man's life are as busy as his earlier ones were listless and idle. We can all recall instances of this sudden and complete transformation; one of the most striking we have ever known is that of the eloquent historian whose name we have placed at the head of this sketch.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, April 15th, 1814, of wealthy and highly cultured parentage, JOHN LOTHROP MOTLEY seems to have had no particular inducement to take life otherwise than easily. Trained in the best schools of Boston, and entering Harvard College at the early age of thirteen, he graduated in 1831, with a fair standing, visited Europe after his graduation, spent a year at Gottingen, and another at Berlin, but without brilliant results; travelled in Italy, and in 1834 returned to America and studied law. 

In 1836, he was admitted to the bar, and opened an office, but sought no business, and business did not come to him. Thus far he had taken life very easily, and he seemed inclined to continue to do so. But as a man of his opportunities and position must seem to do something, he wrote a novel and published it in 1839. Its title was "Morton's Hope;" the Morton of Merry Mount, who so vexed the souls of the Pilgrims of Plymouth and Boston. The novel had some merit, and showed a leaning toward historical research; but there was no soul in it, and it died at birth. He was sent to Russia as Secretary of Legation in 1840, but stayed only eight months.

After his return he wrote, in a leisurely fashion, but with a somewhat stronger indication of the power that lay slumbering within him, several review articles. One of these on "Peter the Great," in the North American Review, and two on Goalie, and De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," in the New York, Review, attracted some attention. In 1849, when thirty-five years of age, he produced another novel on a similar theme with his first, " Merry Mount, a Romance of the Massachusetts Colony;" but, like its predecessor, it attracted little or no attention.  He was not to acquire fame as a novelist, evidently.

About this time, from some cause, his attention was attracted to the history of the Netherlands. He procured some books on the subject of Dutch History, read up, and trusting to that "fatal facility" which had been one of his earlier gifts, came near ruining one of our best historians. He wrote in a hurried slip-shod way two volumes of Netherland history, and thought of publishing it; but the conviction began to force itself upon him that the work demanded more thorough and profound investigation, and upon making further inquiry, he found that it would be necessary to go to Holland for the books and manuscripts he needed.

We have heard it from good authority, that at this period he was not familiar with the Dutch language, though he was, of course, a proficient in German. In 1851 he embarked for Europe with his family, and the next five years were spent in close and diligent study in Berlin, Dresden and the Hague. He soon became dissatisfied with his hastily written volumes, destroyed them, and began anew. He now made himself familiar not only with the Dutch language, but with its great wealth of historic literature, and having become thoroughly master of his subject, he published, in 1856, a history of "The Rise of the Dutch Republic," as fascinating as any romance, through which glides, as its hero and statesman, the mystic figure of William the Silent, while the Duke of Alva and Philip II. perform the part of the villains of the play. The success of this work was assured from the day of its publication. It was the very thing the reading world had waited for, and both in England and America it was largely in demand. It was translated into Dutch by Herr Bakhuyzen van den Brink, one of the most eminent historical writers of Holland; two translations were published in German, and one of M. Guizot's family translated it into French, Guizot himself writing an introduction.

Mr. Motley did not return to the United States until 1858, and then made but a short visit, being deeply engrossed in studies for a further history of the interesting country to which he had devoted himself. In 1861 he published two volumes of his history of the United Netherlands, and seven years later completed two additional volumes. Honors were showered upon him by European universities and learned societies. He was complimented with the degree of D. C. L. by Oxford University in 1860, and the same year received the degree of LL. D. from Harvard. He was made a member of the Institute of France and of most of the societies and orders of merit of Great Britain and the Continent. But amid all these honors he did not forget his duty to, and his patriotic interest in his own country. In 1861, he published in the London Times an elaborate and forcible essay on the " Causes of the American Civil War," and by pen and voice aided the American cause, answering the hostile, arousing the indifferent, and doing much to keep Germany and Holland in friendly relations to us. In November, 1866, President Johnson nominated him Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria. He discharged his duties with ability and fidelity, and was too loyal to suit the mousing spies whom President Johnson had set to watch him, and he was recalled in 1867.

After a short visit to the United States, he returned again to his historical studies in Europe. In April, 1869, President Grant nominated him Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, our highest diplomatic appointment. Here his course seems to have been marked by dignity and ability, but his negotiations in regard to a treaty with England on the Alabama and other questions, as well as some other matters, excited Secretary Fish's displeasure, and an acrimonious correspondence ensued, not wholly creditable to either party, but ending in Mr. Motley's recall in November, 1870. Since that time he has been on the Continent engaged in historic studies.

While Mr. Motley is not the equal of Mr. Bancroft as a philosophical historian, and does not bring to his work such a wealth of learning, or so rich an experience of all the different phases of national life, his researches have been very great into the history of the Netherlands, and treating of a homogeneous people, occupying a circumscribed territory, he has had no occasion for that world-wide culture which has characterized the historian of our own country. Whatever he has done has been done well, and the best could do no more.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872 

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