John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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[Chapter] XVI.


The winter of 1859-60 was passed chiefly at Oatlands Hotel, Walton-on- Thames. In 1860 Mr. Motley hired the house No. 31 Hertford Street, May Fair, London. He had just published the first two volumes of his "History of the Netherlands," and was ready for the further labors of its continuation, when the threats, followed by the outbreak, of the great civil contention in his native land brought him back from the struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the conflict of the nineteenth.

His love of country, which had grown upon him so remarkably of late years, would not suffer him to be silent at such a moment. All around him he found ignorance and prejudice. The quarrel was like to be prejudged in default of a champion of the cause which to him was that of Liberty and Justice. He wrote two long letters to the London "Times," in which he attempted to make clear to Englishmen and to Europe the nature and conditions of our complex system of government, the real cause of the strife, and the mighty issues at stake. Nothing could have been more timely, nothing more needed. Mr. William Everett, who was then in England, bears strong testimony to the effect these letters produced. Had Mr. Motley done no other service to his country, this alone would entitle him to honorable remembrance as among the first defenders of the flag, which at that moment had more to fear from what was going on in the cabinet councils of Europe than from all the armed hosts that were gathering against it.

He returned to America in 1861, and soon afterwards was appointed by Mr. Lincoln Minister to Austria. Mr. Burlingame had been previously appointed to the office, but having been objected to by the Austrian Government for political reasons, the place unexpectedly left vacant was conferred upon Motley, who had no expectation of any diplomatic appointment when he left Europe. For some interesting particulars relating to his residence in Vienna I must refer to the communications addressed to me by his daughter, Lady Harcourt, and her youngest sister, and the letters I received from him while at the Austrian capital. Lady Harcourt writes:—

"He held the post for six years, seeing the civil war fought out and
brought to a triumphant conclusion, and enjoying, as I have every
reason to believe, the full confidence and esteem of Mr. Lincoln to
the last hour of the President’s life. In the first dark years the
painful interest of the great national drama was so all-absorbing
that literary work was entirely put aside, and with his countrymen
at home he lived only in the varying fortunes of the day, his
profound faith and enthusiasm sustaining him and lifting him above
the natural influence of a by no means sanguine temperament. Later,
when the tide was turning and success was nearing, he was more able
to work. His social relations during the whole period of his
mission were of the most agreeable character. The society of Vienna
was at that time, and I believe is still, the absolute reverse of
that of England, where all claims to distinction are recognized and
welcomed. There the old feudal traditions were still in full force,
and diplomatic representatives admitted to the court society by
right of official position found it to consist exclusively of an
aristocracy of birth, sixteen quarterings of nobility being
necessary to a right of presentation to the Emperor and Empress.
The society thus constituted was distinguished by great charm and
grace of manner, the exclusion of all outer elements not only
limiting the numbers, but giving the ease of a family party within
the charmed circle. On the other hand, larger interests suffered
under the rigid exclusion of all occupations except the army,
diplomacy, and court place. The intimacy among the different
members of the society was so close that, beyond a courtesy of
manner that never failed, the tendency was to resist the approach of
any stranger as a ’gene’. A single new face was instantly remarked
and commented on in a Vienna saloon to an extent unknown in any
other large capital. This peculiarity, however, worked in favor of
the old resident. Kindliness of feeling increased with familiarity
and grew into something better than acquaintance, and the parting
with most sincere and affectionately disposed friends in the end was
deeply felt on both sides. Those years were passed in a pleasant
house in the Weiden Faubourg, with a large garden at the back, and I
do not think that during this time there was one disagreeable
incident in his relations to his colleagues, while in several cases
the relations, agreeable with all, became those of close friendship.
We lived constantly, of course, in diplomatic and Austrian society,
and during the latter part of the time particularly his house was as
much frequented and the centre of as many dancing and other
receptions as any in the place. His official relations with the
Foreign Office were courteous and agreeable, the successive Foreign
Ministers during his stay being Count Richberg, Count Mensdorff, and
Baron Beust. Austria was so far removed from any real contact with
our own country that, though the interest in our war may have been
languid, they did not pretend to a knowledge which might have
inclined them to controversy, while an instinct that we were acting
as a constituted government against rebellion rather inclined them
to sympathy. I think I may say that as he became known among them
his keen patriotism and high sense of honor and truth were fully
understood and appreciated, and that what he said always commanded a
sympathetic hearing among men with totally different political
ideas, but with chivalrous and loyal instincts to comprehend his
own. I shall never forget his account of the terrible day when the
news of Mr. Lincoln’s death came. By some accident a rumor of it
reached him first through a colleague. He went straight to the
Foreign Office for news, hoping against hope, was received by Count
Mensdorff, who merely came forward and laid his arm about his
shoulder with an intense sympathy beyond words."

Miss Motley, the historian’s youngest daughter, has added a note to her sister’s communication:—

"During his residence in Vienna the most important negotiations
which he had to carry on with the Austrian Government were those
connected with the Mexican affair. Maximilian at one time applied
to his brother the Emperor for assistance, and he promised to accede
to his demand. Accordingly a large number of volunteers were
equipped and had actually embarked at Trieste, when a dispatch from
Seward arrived, instructing the American Minister to give notice to
the Austrian Government that if the troops sailed for Mexico he was
to leave Vienna at once. My father had to go at once to Count
Mensdorff with these instructions, and in spite of the Foreign
Minister being annoyed that the United States Government had not
sooner intimated that this extreme course would be taken, the
interview was quite amicable and the troops were not allowed to
sail. We were in Vienna during the war in which Denmark fought
alone against Austria and Prussia, and when it was over Bismarck
came to Vienna to settle the terms of peace with the Emperor. He
dined with us twice during his short stay, and was most delightful
and agreeable. When he and my father were together they seemed to
live over the youthful days they had spent together as students,
and many were the anecdotes of their boyish frolics which Bismarck


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "[Chapter] XVI. 1860-1866.," John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1889), Original Sources, accessed July 15, 2024,

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "[Chapter] XVI. 1860-1866." John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, Boston, Houghton, Mifflin, 1889, Original Sources. 15 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, '[Chapter] XVI. 1860-1866.' in John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir. cited in 1889, John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir, Houghton, Mifflin, Boston. Original Sources, retrieved 15 July 2024, from