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John Lothrop Motley

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

John Lothrop Motley was a man of high scholarship and varied attainments, but was late in concentrating his labor on the historical work which was to give him fame. He was born at Dorchester, (now part of Boston) Massachusetts, in 1814. He was partly of New England Puritan descent, and partly Scotch-Irish. He was educated at Bancroft's Round Hill School and at Harvard College; after his graduation he went to Germany and studied at Göttingen and Berlin, forming a memorable student-friendship with Bismarck. On his return to Boston he studied law. His first book, "Morton's Hope" (1839), a novel of Revolutionary times, was unsuccessful, but his second, "Merry Mount" (1849), a story of the founding of Bos-ton, had greater favor. Meantime he had contributed some historical articles to the "North American Review," and had determined to write a work on the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain in the Sixteenth Century, and was encouraged in his undertaking by Prescott. Finding it essential to his purpose to consult the European archives, he went abroad in 1851. So great was the labor that his "Rise of the Dutch Republic" did not appear until five years later. But it immediately won fame by its impetuous, graphic style, its enthusiastic love of liberty, its masterly exposure of Spanish misrule, tyranny, and religious persecution under Philip II and the Duke of Alva. The great hero of the work is William the Silent, and in the portrayal of this great statesman and others on both sides of the struggle, the ability of the author was finely dis-played. The whole work was characterized by vivid description and dramatic force. After a year's interval, spent in travel, Motley continued his historical labors, and published in 186o the "History of the United Netherlands," which was marked by the same general character as the former work. While the great hero was missing, the scene was greatly enlarged, and much attention was given to English and French affairs. It was an inspiring recital of the story of a brave little nation conquering for itself a place in the world's affairs.

When the American Civil War broke out, Motley wrote to the London "Times" an elaborate letter explaining the cause of the war and the nature of the Union, which was misunderstood in Europe. He was appointed by President Lincoln Minister to Austria, where he still exerted himself in behalf of his country's interests. The concluding volumes of his "History of the United Netherlands" were also issued, bringing the narrative down to 1609. Motley resigned his ministerial position in 1867, owing to some complaint by an American traveler, which should have been disregarded. President Grant sent Mot-ley as minister to Great Britain in 1869 at the request of Senator Sumner, but afterward, when the President and Senator quarreled, recalled him. Motley was deeply hurt and never recovered from the effects of the blow. In 1874 he published "The Life and Death of John of Barneveld," a continuation of his history, giving a view of the primary causes of the Thirty Years' War. Motley had hoped to bring his narrative down at least to the peace of Westphalia in 1648, but his health failed, and he died near Dorchester, England, May 29, 1877.

It cannot be denied that Motley wrote his histories as a partisan, as an enthusiastic, eloquent advocate of the great cause of liberty. Nowhere could he have found a more inspiring theme than in the uprising of a gallant and determined people, with few natural resources, against the crushing, bloody despotism of Spain, enriched with the spoils of two worlds. But the method of historical writing has been changed and in treatment of great movements perfect objectivity is now insisted on. Yet Motley's works retain their high mark and popularity, owing to their thorough research and splendid delineation of an important period in the progress of humanity. Froude, who is the English historian most akin to Motley in spirit and manner, pronounced his first work "as complete as industry and genius can make it."

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