John Lothrop Motley

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John Lothrop Motley
Born (1814-04-15)April 15, 1814
Dorchester, near Boston, Massachusetts
Died May 29, 1877(1877-05-29) (aged 63)
Dorchester, Dorset
Nationality American
Occupation Historian and diplomat

John Lothrop Motley (April 15, 1814 – May 29, 1877) was an American historian and diplomat.


J. L. Motley was born on April 15, 1814 at Dorchester. His grandfather, Thomas Motley, jail-keeper (a public position) and innkeeper in Portland, Maine, had been a Freemason and radical sympathizer with the French Revolution. (An article in The Eastern Herald, the only newspaper then published in Maine, announced that "Citizen Motley" would host a celebration on Washington's Birthday 1793 "rejoicing at the emancipation of our sister republic, France.") Motley's father Thomas and uncle Edward served mercantile apprenticeships in Portland, Thomas with James Deering on Long Wharf and Edward with Hugh McClellan, whose counting house was on Fore Street. Both concerns centered on Portland's thriving importation trade from Liverpool, averaging one ship to arrive or sail every week of the year. Return cargoes usually consisted of salt, crates of crockery and glassware, window glass, iron, hardware, and dry goods. These goods were then shipped to Boston on the regular sailing packets, to be sold on commission.

In 1802 Thomas Motley moved to Boston and established a commission house on India wharf, taking his brother Edward with him as clerk. This became one of the leading commission houses in Boston, under the eventual name of "Thomas and Edward Motley." 1 The senior partner, father of J.L. Motley the historian, married Anna Lothrop, daughter of the Rev. John Lothrop, product of an old and distinguished line of Massachusetts clergymen. Like other successful Boston merchants of the period, Thomas Motley devoted a great part of his wealth to civic purposes and the education of his children. The brilliant accomplishments of his second son, J.L. Motley, are evidence of the care both the father and mother—known both for her learning and what Motley's boyhood friend Wendell Phillips called her "regal beauty"—bestowed on the boy's intellectual development.

Motley attended the Round Hill School, Boston Latin School, and graduated from Harvard in 1831. His boyhood was spent in Dedham, near the site of the present day Noble and Greenough School.2 His education included training in the German language and literature, and he went to Germany to complete these studies at Göttingen, during 1832–1833, during which time he became a lifelong friend of Otto von Bismarck. After this, Motley and Bismarck went study civil law together at Frederick William University, Berlin. After a period of European travel he returned in 1834 to America, where he continued his legal studies.

In 1837 he married Mary Benjamin (died 1874), a sister of Park Benjamin, and in 1839 he published anonymously a novel entitled Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial about life in a German university, based on his own experiences. It was poorly received, but has later been recognized for featuring a valuable portrayal of Bismarck, "thinly disguised as Otto von Rabenmarck", as a young student.3

In 1841 he entered the diplomatic service as secretary of legation in St. Petersburg, Russia, but resigned his post within three months, because, according a letter that he wrote to his mother, of the harsh climate, the expenses living there, and his reserved habits. Returning to America, he soon entered definitely upon a literary career. Besides contributing various historical and critical essays to the North American Review, such as "life and Character of Peter the Great", (1845) and a remarkable essay on the Polity of the Puritans, he published in 1849, again anonymously, a second novel, entitled Merry Mount, a Romance of the Massachusetts Colony, based again on the odd history of Thomas Morton and Merrymount.

Dutch history

Motley, circa 1855–1865

In about 1846 he had begun to plan a history of the Netherlands, in particular the period of the United Provinces, and he had already done a large amount of work on this subject when, finding the materials at his disposal in the United States inadequate, he went with his wife and children to Europe in 1851. The next five years were spent at Dresden, Brussels and The Hague in investigation of the archives, which resulted in 1856 in the publication of The Rise of the Dutch Republic, which became very popular. It speedily passed through many editions, was translated into French, Dutch, German and Russian. In 1860 Motley published the first two volumes of its continuation, The United Netherlands. This work was on a larger scale, and embodied the results of a still greater amount of original research. It was brought down to the truce of 1609 by two additional volumes, published in 1867.

The reception of Motley's work in The Netherlands itself was not wholly favorable, especially as Motley described the Dutch struggle for independence in a flattering light, which caused some to argue he was biased against their opponents. Historians like the orthodox Protestant Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (whom Motley extensively quotes in his work) viewed him very favorably. However, the eminent liberal Dutch historian Robert Fruin, (who was inspired by Motley to do some of his own best work), and who had reported already in 1856 in the "Westminster Review" Motley's edition on the "Rise of the Dutch republic", was critical of Motley's tendency to make up "facts" if they made for a good story. Though he admired Motley's gifts as an author, and stated that he continued to hold the work as a whole in high regard, he stressed it still required "addition and correction".4 The humanist historian Johannes van Vloten was very critical however, and responded to Fruin in the introduction to his Nederlands opstand tegen Spanje 1575-1577 (1860): "...about the proper appreciation of Motley's work (...) I agree less with your too favorable judgement. (...) We cannot build on Motley['s foundation]; for that — apart from the little he copied from Groen's Archives and Gachard's Correspondances — for that his views are generally too obsolete."5 Although appreciating his efforts to make Dutch history known among an English-speaking audience, Van Vloten argues that Motley's lack of knowledge of the Dutch language prevented him from sharing the latest insights of the Dutch historiographers, and made him vulnerable to bias in favor of Protestants and against Catholics.

Civil War

In 1861, just after outbreak of the American Civil War, Motley wrote two letters to The Times defending the Federal position, and these letters, afterwards reprinted as a pamphlet entitled Causes of the Civil War in America, made a favourable impression on President Lincoln.

Partly owing to this essay, Motley was appointed United States minister to the Austrian Empire in 1861, a position which he filled with distinction, working with other American diplomats such as John Bigelow and Charles Francis Adams to help prevent European intervention on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. He resigned this position in 1867.6 Two years later he was sent to represent his country as Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but in November 1870 he was recalled by President Grant. Motley had angered Grant when he completely disregarded Secretary of State Hamilton Fish's carefully drafted orders regarding settlement of the Alabama Claims.7 After a short visit to the Netherlands, he again went to live in England, where the Life and Death of John Barneveld, Advocate of Holland : with a View of the Primary Causes and Movements of the Thirty Years War appeared in two volumes in 1874. Ill health now began to interfere with his literary work, and he died at Frampton Court, near Dorchester, Dorset, leaving three daughters. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

Selected works

  • Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial, 1839
  • Life and Character of Peter the Great (North American Review), 1845
  • On Balzac's Novels (North American Review), 1847
  • Merry Mount, a Romance of the Massachusetts Colony, 1849
  • Polity of the Puritans (North American Review), 1849
  • The Rise of the Dutch Republic, 3 vol., 1856
  • Florentine Mosaics (Atlantic Monthly), 1857
  • History of the United Netherlands, 4 vol., 1860–67
  • Causes of the Civil War in America (from the Times), 1861
  • Historic Progress and American Democracy, 1868
  • Review of S. E. Henshaw's History of the Work of the North-West Sanitary Commission (Atlantic Monthly), 1868
  • Democracy, the Climax of Political Progress and the Destiny of Advanced Races: an Historical Essay 1869
  • The Life and Death of John of Barneveld, 2 vol., 1874


  1. ^ Boston Advertiser (June 7, 1877), reprinted from The Portland Press.
  2. ^ Guide Book To New England Travel. 1919. 
  3. ^ Steinberg (2011), pp. 39–41
  4. ^ See Fruin's discussions of Motley's work in R. Fruin, "Motley's Geschiedenis der Vereenigde Nederlanden", in: De Gids. Jaargang 1862 (1862) part 1 and part 2
  5. ^ (Dutch) Johannes van Vloten, Nederlands opstand tegen Spanje 1575-1577 (1860) I, III.
  6. ^ "Former u.s. ambassadors to austria". U.S. Embassy in Vienna. Retrieved 2008-12-31. , following a political dispute with Secretary of State William H. Seward.dead link
  7. ^ Corning, Amos Elwood (1918). Hamilton Fish. pp. 59–84. 


  • G. W. Curtis, ed., The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, 1889
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, 1879, reprinted by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York, (1972), ISBN 0-8369-6775-5, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number : 71-38358 .
  • Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-978252-9
  • Wheaton, Robert. "Motley and the Dutch Historians," New England Quarterly (1962) 35#3 pp. 318–336 in JSTOR

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Primary sources

  • Motley, John Lothrop. John Lothrop Motley: Representative Selections, edited by Chester Penn Higby and B. T. Schantz (1939) online

External links

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Anson Burlingame
U.S. Minister to the Austrian Empire
1861 – 1867
Succeeded by
Edgar Cowan
Preceded by
Reverdy Johnson
U.S. Minister to Great Britain
1869 – 1870
Succeeded by
Robert C. Schenck

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