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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Franklin Jameson (1859–1937)
PRESCOTT, in the preface to his ‘Philip the Second,’ dated in 1855, after speaking of the revolt of the Netherlands as an episode in his narrative well deserving to be made the theme of an independent work, adds with characteristic generosity:—“It is gratifying to learn that before long such a history may be expected from the pen of our accomplished countryman Mr. J. Lothrop Motley. No one acquainted with the fine powers of mind possessed by this scholar, and the earnestness with which he has devoted himself to his task, can doubt that he will do full justice to his important but difficult subject.” Aside from what these kindly words toward a possible rival reveal of the lovable Prescott, they show us plainly that in 1855, when Motley was forty-one years old, his brilliant talents still remained unknown save to a relatively small circle. Froude, reviewing the ‘Dutch Republic’ a year later, said: “Of Mr. Motley’s antecedents we know nothing. If he has previously appeared before the public, his reputation has not crossed the Atlantic.” But if Motley came suddenly and somewhat late to his high fame as a historian, there had never been room for doubting his unusual gifts, nor his vocation to literature; he had had, however, a long period of uncertainty and experiment, touching the stops of various quills until at last he struck his true note. Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts (now a part of Boston), on April 15th, 1814, he had a good inheritance of mental qualities. His father, a Boston merchant of North-of-Ireland descent, was a handsome, genial, and witty man, with a taste for letters; his mother, a woman of singular beauty and charm, was the descendant of several Puritan clergymen, who had enjoyed literary repute in colonial and post-Revolutionary Boston. He was a handsome, genial, and straightforward boy, imaginative and impetuous, fond of reading though not of hard study. The most important part of his school life was spent at Round Hill, Northampton, where Joseph G. Cogswell and George Bancroft had established a famous school, and conducted it after a manner likely to give a quick-minded boy, along with his preparation for college, a taste for European literature and culture.  1
  From Round Hill Motley went to Harvard College, and was graduated there in 1831. Wendell Phillips and Thomas G. Appleton were his classmates. He did not win academic distinction, and appeared to lack application and industry, being indeed only a boy when he completed his course. But he was exceedingly clever; and his classmates were not surprised when later he became famous, though they were surprised that his fame was won in a branch of literature involving so much laborious drudgery. His first appearance in print was a translation from the German, which came out in a little college magazine. But he did not often contribute to the college publications, and indeed kept somewhat apart from most of his classmates, partly from shyness perhaps, partly from youthful pride. A few months after his graduation he went to Germany. To go to a German university to continue one’s studies was not then a common thing among American young men; but Bancroft and others at Cambridge had lately given an impulse in that direction. Motley thoroughly enjoyed his two years of life at Göttingen and Berlin. He followed lectures in the civil law chiefly; but was by no means wholly engrossed in study, as may be guessed from the fact that one of his most intimate companions at both places was the youthful Bismarck. A year of travel in Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and England followed; and in the autumn of 1835 Motley returned to Boston, and resumed the study of the law. In March 1837 he married Mary Benjamin, sister of Park Benjamin; a lovely woman, who for thirty-seven years was a constant source of happiness to him.  2
  Motley’s legal studies had never so preoccupied his mind as to turn it away from the love of literature and from literary ambitions. Two years after his marriage he made his first venture in the literary world, publishing a novel entitled ‘Morton’s Hope, or the Memoirs of a Young Provincial,’ of which the scene is the America of Revolutionary times. The book was wholly unsuccessful. Indeed, it had the gravest defects of plan and general form. Yet it had a certain distinction of style, and contained, among its loosely woven scenes, not a few passages of sufficient merit to justify those friends who still prophesied final success in spite of an unpromising beginning. Like many another first novel, ‘Morton’s Hope’ is manifestly in part autobiographic. It reveals to us a young man of brilliant gifts, a strong appetite for reading, a marked inclination toward history, a mind somewhat self-centered, an impetuous temperament, and an intense but vague and unfixed ambition for literary distinction.  3
  For a time, Motley’s ambition was not even confined to literature exclusively; he dallied with diplomacy and politics. In 1841, when the Whigs for the first time had a chance at the federal offices, a new minister was sent out to St. Petersburg, and Motley went with him as secretary of legation. He remained there less than three months, and then abandoned the diplomatic career and returned to Boston, his books, and his dearly loved family. In the campaign of 1844 he made some political speeches, and in 1849 he was a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts. But he derived little satisfaction from his connection with politics, and felt a passionate disgust with the rule of the politicians.  4
  A second novel, ‘Merry Mount,’ published in 1849, was of much more merit than the first; and showed a liveliness of imagination and a power of description that gave promise of success near at hand, if not to be attained in precisely this direction. The field of work for which he was best fitted had already been made manifest to the writer and his friends by the striking excellences of certain historical essays which he had of late contributed to American magazines, especially an essay on Peter the Great in the North American Review for October 1845. By the next year his mind was already possessed with one great historical subject, that of the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, the subject which he has forever associated with his name. “It was not,” he afterward wrote, “that I cared about writing a history, but that I felt an inevitable impulse to write one particular history.” Hearing that Prescott was preparing a history of Philip II., he thought of abandoning the ground; but Prescott generously encouraged him. After three or four years of serious study, Motley concluded that no satisfactory work of the kind he planned could be written save upon the basis laid by thorough researches in Europe, especially in European archives. Accordingly in 1851 he went to Europe with his wife and family, there to labor at his absorbing task, and as it proved, there to spend most of his remaining days.  5
  Destroying what he had already written, Motley immersed himself for nearly three years in the libraries and archives of Dresden, The Hague, and Brussels, and so produced the three volumes of the ‘Rise of the Dutch Republic.’ The great Murray declined the book; and it was published in England at the author’s expense by Chapman & Hall, and in New York by Harper & Brothers, in April 1856. Its success was immediate, and for the production of an almost unknown author, prodigious. Nearly all the reviews, both British and American, praised it in most flattering terms. The author had written to his father that he should be surprised if a hundred copies of the English edition had been sold at the end of a year; in point of fact the number sold within a year was seventeen thousand.  6
  The theme of that famous book is the revolt of the Dutch, and the struggle by which they won their independence from Spain. Its narrative opens with the abdication of Charles V. in 1555, and closes with the assassination of William of Orange in 1584. It relates the story of Spanish misgovernment, tyranny, and religious persecution under Philip II.: the uprising of the provinces, both northern and southern, against the cruelty of the Duke of Alva; the efforts of the Prince of Orange to keep the provinces united and to maintain the war; the heroic sieges of Haarlem and Leyden; the wars and negotiations by which, under the guidance of a great statesman, the seven northern Dutch provinces raised themselves from the condition of dependents upon a foreign despot into that of an independent and permanent republic. No wonder that the theme took possession of Motley’s imagination with haunting power; for the story is an inspiring and stirring one even in the pages of the sober annalists whom he succeeded and superseded, or in the formal documents upon which his work was based. It appealed moreover to higher qualities than his imagination. It is plain that the main source of his interest in the story is a generous love of liberty, and the warm sympathy of an ardent and noble nature with all exhibitions of individual and national heroism.  7
  It is this enthusiasm and warmth of feeling which have given the ‘Dutch Republic,’ to most minds, its chief charm; which have done more than anything else to make it, in the estimation of the world at large, one of the most interesting historical books ever written in any language. But it has also many elements of technical perfection. It is written with great care. Many of the sentences are exquisite in felicity and finish. The style is dignified, yet rich with the evidences of literary cultivation and fertile fancy. The larger matters of composition are managed with taste and power. Rarely has any historian in the whole history of literature so united laborious scholarship with dramatic intensity. His pages abound in vivid descriptions, and in narrations instinct with life and force and movement. Through all runs that current of generous ardor which makes the work essentially an epic, having William of Orange as its hero, and fraught, like the ‘Æneid,’ with the fortunes of a noble nation. No doubt this epic sweep interfered with the due consideration of many important and interesting elements in Dutch history. The historians of that generation were mostly political and not constitutional. Prescott confessed that he hated “hunting latent, barren antiquities.” Though Motley’s early legal studies had made him more apt in these constitutional inquiries, so essential in Dutch history, his predilection was always rather toward the history of men than toward the history of institutions. Neither did Motley entirely escape those dangers of partiality which beset the dramatic historian. Under his hands William of Orange, a character undeniably heroic, became almost faultless; while Philip and those Netherlanders who continued to adhere to him were treated with somewhat less than justice. But much was forgiven, and rightly, to one who had endowed literature with a book so interesting and so brilliant,—so full of life and color that it seemed to have caught something from the canvases of Rubens and Rembrandt.  8
  Uncertain as to the reception of a large book by an unknown author, Motley had paused after the completion of the manuscript of the ‘Dutch Republic,’ had spent a year with his family in Switzerland, and another in Italy, and had made a brief visit to Boston. In the summer of 1857 he returned to Europe, and began the preparation of a work continuing the History of the Netherlands from the date of William’s death. From that time the history of the Netherlands widens into a broader stream, constantly associated with that of several other countries. Motley was obliged to make more extensive researches, delving in the archives of London, Paris, Brussels, and The Hague. He was in London during the London seasons of 1858, 1859, and 1860; a famous author now, fêted everywhere, and everywhere enjoying with genial appreciation the best of English society. In the two intervening winters, in Rome and in England, he wrote the first two volumes of the ‘History of the United Netherlands from the Death of William the Silent,’ which in 1860 were published by Murray and by Harper. A few months before, the author had received from the University of Oxford the honorary degree of D. C. L.  9
  The two volumes now published dealt with the history of five years only, but they were years of the greatest moment to the young republic. In 1584 the mainstay of the Dutch had been taken from them; and Philip’s general, the Prince of Parma, was soon to recover both Ghent and Antwerp. By 1589 the great Armada had been destroyed, the chief of dangers had been removed, and the republic, with Henry of Navarre on the throne of France, was assured of independent existence. During these critical years the relations of the Dutch with England were so close, that to describe duly the diplomatic intercourse, the governor-generalship of Leicester, and the alliance in defense against the Armada, Motley was obliged to become almost as much the historian of England as of the Netherlands. Measured by the technical standards of the scholar, the tale was more difficult than that which had preceded it, and the achievement more distinguished. But Motley felt the lack of a hero; and the new volumes could not, from the nature of the case, possess the epic quality in the same form which had marked the ‘Dutch Republic’ No doubt the book has been less widely read than its predecessor. Yet the epic quality was present nevertheless; and the story of a brave nation conquering for itself an equal place among the kingdoms of the world was inspiring to the writer and deeply instructive to the reader.  10
  Immediately there came an opportunity for Motley’s inborn love of liberty, and that appreciation of heroic national action which his recent work had brought him, to expend themselves on the objects of real and present life. At the beginning of the American Civil War, stirred deeply by the prevalent misunderstanding and want of sympathy in England, he wrote to the London Times an elaborate letter, afterward signally influential as a pamphlet, explaining clearly and comprehensively the character of the American Union, and the real causes of the war. Unable to remain away from his country in such a crisis, he returned to the United States, but was presently sent by Mr. Lincoln as minister to Austria. Here he made it his chief occupation to promote in Europe a right knowledge of American conditions and of the aims of the Union party at home, and to awaken and sustain European sympathy. In the two delightful volumes of his ‘Correspondence’ (published in 1889) nothing is more interesting, nothing contributes more to the reader’s high appreciation of the man, than the series of letters written from Vienna during war-time. They show us a gifted and noble American passing through that transformation which came over many another of his countrymen, through the heart-straining experiences of those wonderful days. He who not many years before had looked upon the public affairs of his country with fastidious scorn, as the prey of low-minded politicians, was now warmed into ardent and even flaming patriotism by the peril of the Union, the struggle and the victory.  11
  Official life in Vienna did not often leave much leisure for historical composition; but in 1867 Motley saw through the press the two volumes which concluded his ‘History of the United Netherlands.’ They continued the narrative at a more rapid rate than had seemed appropriate to the critical years previously treated, and brought it down to the conclusion of the Twelve Years’ Truce between the Netherlands and Spain, arranged in 1609. Twenty years of Dutch history—war against Spain, negotiation with France and England—were embraced in these two volumes. With Elizabeth and Philip II. giving place to James I. and Philip III., these years were not so interesting nor so important as those which had preceded; but Motley’s eloquence, and his extraordinary skill in presentation, prevented the new volumes from seeming inferior to the old. Moreover, to an imaginative American mind, a new element of interest was added as the young republic began to be a naval power, and, prosperous and energetic, launched out into brilliant projects of commerce and colonial expansion in the remote regions of the East and of the New World.  12
  Meanwhile, however, Motley’s official connection with his own country had ceased. Some one wrote to President Johnson a letter slandering Motley. Though the letter might well have passed unnoticed, Secretary Seward requested explanations. Motley, sensitive and impulsive, accompanied his denials of the slanders with the tender of his resignation. It was accepted; and he left the diplomatic service with an acute sense of the indignity. Returning to America in 1868, he was, by the favor of President Grant and of Senator Sumner, appointed in 1869 to the high post of minister to Great Britain. A year later he was asked to resign, and refusing to do so, was recalled. A biographical sketch in a book of literature is doubtless not the place in which to discuss the merits or demerits of political actions of recent times, still warmly debated. It has been said on the one side that the minister had departed from his instructions in the important matter of the Alabama claims, to a degree that impaired his usefulness to his government; on the other side, that the action of President Grant and Secretary Fish was but an angry move in their quarrel with Senator Sumner. What is certain is, that to the high-spirited minister, wholly unconscious of any but the most faithful and patriotic service, this second blow was crushing. Indeed, it may be said to have been ultimately fatal.  13
  The plan which Motley had had in mind while writing the ‘History of the United Netherlands’ had been to continue that narrative through the period of the Twelve Years’ Truce, and then to widen it into a history of the Thirty Years’ War, or of the war so called in Germany, and the thirty remaining years of warfare between the Dutch and Spain, both ending with the peace of Westphalia in 1648. The only part of this extensive plan which he succeeded in carrying out was that relating to the period of the truce. Throughout those twelve years the leading matter of Dutch history is the contest between John van Oldenbarneveld and Count Maurice of Nassau. Not neglecting other aspects of the time,—the death of Henry IV., the struggle over Jülich and Cleves, the preparation for the Thirty Years’ War,—Motley gave to the two volumes which he published in 1874 a biographical form, and the title of ‘The Life and Death of John of Barneveld.’ Thorough and conscientious, interesting and valuable as the book is, it is not to be denied that it takes sides with Oldenbarneveld, and that it is written with less freshness and brilliancy than the earlier volumes. His proud and sensitive spirit had received a lacerating wound, and his health had begun to fail. At the end of this year his dearly loved wife was taken from him. He wrote no more; and on May 29th, 1877, he died near Dorchester in England.  14
  It is a familiar thought that history must be written over again for the uses of each new generation. The present world of historians, critics, and readers is attentive to many things which in Motley’s time were less valued. It has grown more strenuous in insisting upon perfect objectivity in the treatment of international and civil conflicts. Where forty years ago, in all countries, history was chiefly the work of men more or less engaged in public affairs, or at least the offspring of political minds, it now in all countries, whether for good or for ill, springs mainly from professors or from minds professorial. Its fashions change. But it is difficult to imagine that any changes of fashion can seriously diminish either Motley’s general popularity or the force of his appeal to cultivated minds. His books, while nowise lacking in most of the highest qualities of scholarship, are also literature,—eloquent, glowing, and powerful,—and have, one must think, that permanent value which belongs to every finished product of fine art.  15

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