John Lothrop Motley (April 15, 1814 – May 29, 1877) was an American author, best known for his two popular histories The Rise of the Dutch Republic and The United Netherlands. He was also a diplomat, who helped to prevent European intervention on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War.
J.L. Motley was born on April 15, 1814 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His grandfather, Thomas Motley, a 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 McClelland, whose counting house was on Fore Street. Both concerns centered on Portland's thriving on 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". The senior partner, Thomas, 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 and 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. 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 studied civil law together at Frederick William University, Berlin. After a period of European travel, Motley returned in 1834 to America, where he continued his legal studies.
In 1837 he married Mary Benjamin (died 1874), a sister of Park Benjamin Sr., and in 1839 he published anonymously a novel titled 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.
In 1841, Motley entered the U.S. diplomatic service as secretary of legation in St. Petersburg, Russia, but resigned his post within three months, because, according to a letter 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, titled Merry Mount, a Romance of the Massachusetts Colony, based again on the odd history of Thomas Morton and Merrymount. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1856.
In 1846, Motley 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 and was translated into Dutch, French, 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. Although historians like the orthodox Protestant Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (whom Motley extensively quotes in his work) viewed him very favorably, 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". The humanist historian Johannes van Vloten was very critical, 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 Correspondences — for that his views are generally too obsolete." 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.
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. At this point the English census of 1861 confirms that he was living with his wife and two daughters at 31 Hertford Street, in the parish of St George's, Hanover Square, London and describing himself as an 'author - history'.
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. 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. After a short visit to the Netherlands, Motley 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 Kingston Russell House, near Dorchester, Dorset, leaving three daughters. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Motley, John Lothrop". Encyclopædia Britannica. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 909–910.
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|U.S. Minister to the Austrian Empire
1861 – 1867
|U.S. Minister to Great Britain
1869 – 1870
Robert C. Schenck