John Lothrop Motley: The Witty US Minister to Vienna Chapter 1 of Foreign Vistas: Stories from a Life in the Foreign Service.

Author:Sommers, William
Position:Diplomats Who Are Writers - Excerpt

March/April 2017

If success in the diplomat's trade were based solely on education, language facility, mastery of the verbal and written arts and moral courage, then John Lothrop Motley (1814-77) should have been an outstanding success. He was a graduate of Harvard College, attended the universities of Gottingen and Berlin, became extraordinarily fluent in German and French, was the first American historian to write a best-seller, and never wavered in his belief in American principles and policy. And yet for all his talent, devotion and intelligence, he is remembered, if at all, for botching serious assignments in Venice and England. He became involved in a bitter controversy that, after more than 100 years, still smolders in anger in the dispatches, correspondence and memoirs of those who were deeply involved in those events.

Who was John Lothrop Motley? How did he enter the diplomatic service? What were the circumstances of his service? What are we to make of his initially promising but tragic career? These are questions worth pursuing for they yield the fascinating story of one man's destiny at a crucial time in the growth of the American Foreign Service. It is a tale of people, events and politics that ought not to be forgotten.

John Lothrop Motley was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1814, the second of eight children. His father was a successful merchant, and his mother was the daughter of a well-known clergyman, the Reverend John Lothrop. Young Motley was a voracious reader and, even at Harvard, was more intent on following his own course of reading than that required by his teachers.

He was surrounded from birth by ease and Boston culture. In fact, said a contemporary of Mr. Motley and his peers, "in no other group of friends in New England were the characteristics and engaging qualities of Puritan and Cavalier more happily combined." His father once scolded him on his variegated tastes and habits, to which young John replied: "I can spare the necessities of life, but not the luxuries." Even at that age, it was a most undiplomatic reply!

After graduating from Harvard in 1831, Mr. Motley studied at the University of Gottingen for two years, toured Europe and returned to Boston in 1835, where he married another illustrious Bostonian, Mary Benjamin, sister of Park Benjamin, a then-famous writer on the Boston scene. At Gottingen, his roommate was the young Bismarck: their friendship was close, broken only by Mr. Motley's death in 1877. Herr Bismarck recalled his early impression of Motley, in reply to a query from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote a memorial biography in 1878. "He exercised a marked attraction by a conversation sparkling with wit, humor or originality." Herr Bismarck said, "The most striking feature of his handsome and delicate appearance was his uncommonly large and beautiful eyes."

Although Mr. Motley made a pretense of studying for the law, his real interest focused on writing. In 1839 he wrote a dismal novel, Morton's Hope, followed by the not-much-better Merrymount. He served a term in the Massachusetts legislature, but found the political game not to his liking. In retrospect, fuller immersion in the muddy pool of political experience might have served him better in his diplomatic career than his intimate knowledge of German or his facile gift for writing and speaking.

After the failure of his novels, what he was to do with himself became a subject of some importance. It was then that he thought of the diplomatic life. The choice was not out of context. He had already made the European circuit, spoke German fluently and achieved high marks in French and Spanish. In his circle of friends, some either had brief experience as consuls overseas or were connected to the currents of the day. Convinced that such service would be useful for him and his country, Mr. Motley applied to the State Department for an appointment. He was soon informed that he had received a post as secretary to the American legation at St. Petersburg. This was, however, a post not generally sought after. He could expect to be underpaid in the extreme, and to serve in a cold and inhospitable climate which, even for a Bostonian, could prove to be too much.

His journey to take up the new post was not carefully "advanced" by one of today's travel services; it was "by hook or by crook" all the way. Because of the uncertainty of what he could expect in St. Petersburg, Mr. Motley decided wisely to leave his wife and family at home and to send for them later. His arduous journey to post was an unhappy introduction to the vagaries of Foreign Service travel; he was buffeted about like the codfish weather vane on Boston's Statehouse getting caught in a nor'easter.

In the first part of his journey, from Boston to Halifax, Mr. Motley encountered unusually heavy seas. It was decidedly unpleasant. "Everything is dirty, disorderly and disgusting," he wrote to his wife. "There is no room in the stateroom to put as much as a toothpick, not a drawer or a shelf, but everything is left to knock about on the floor at its own sweet will. There is no cabin to sit in, the narrow piggery in which we are fed being entirely filled with the troughs and benches..."

He arrived at Liverpool and transferred to London, where he met Colonel Todd, the newly-appointed US minister to Russia. In London, he tried to figure out with the help of the Russian ambassador to Great Britain what was the best route to St. Petersburg. No "frequent flyer" arrangements were available, no computerized bookings and no Eurail assistance.

The plan he settled on was to take the mail steamer from London to Hamburg, then catch another steamer at Lubeck bound for St. Petersburg. Minister Todd went on ahead of Mr. Motley, who was a few days behind. Mr. Motley's steamer ran into fearfully heavy winds and, by the time he reached Hamburg, the last steamer of the winter had already left for Russia. Mr. Motley was forced to make the rest of the long journey overland. To his wife he wrote in dejection; "it seems I have only to form a resolution, however secretly, to go to sea to any given place for the wind instantly to make a point of blowing a gale exactly from that direction."

He arrived in St. Petersburg on November 17, 1841, and was ensconced in "comfortable rooms" in the house Minister Todd had taken for himself. He began to make the official rounds, but his presentation, as was that of the minister, was delayed--first by the absence of the czar, then by the death of the Queen Dowager of Bavaria. While waiting he tried to immerse himself in the work of the legation. He noted in a letter to his wife: "I like the office par. very well. In fact, the only part of the whole business that I do like is the office business--that is to say, I should like it, but...

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