In 1837 he married Mary Benjamin (d. 1874), a sister of Park Benjamin, and in 1839 he published anonymously a novel entitled Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial. In 1841 he entered the diplomatic service as secretary of legation in Russia, but resigned his post within three months. Returning to America, he soon entered definitely upon a literary career. Besides contributing various historical and critical essays to the North American Review, including 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.
About 1846 the project of writing a history of the Netherlands, in particular the period of the United Provinces, had begun to take shape in his mind, 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 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, and also into 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. In 1861, just after the Civil War had broken out in America, 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 Austria in 1861, a position which he filled with great success until his resignation in 1867. Two years later he was sent to represent his country in London, but in November 1870 he was recalled by President Grant. After a short visit to the Netherlands, he again took up his residence in England, where the Life and Death of John Barneveld 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.
The merits of Motley as an historian are undeniably great. He has told the story of a stirring period in the history of the world with full attention to the character of the actors and strict fidelity to the vivid details of the action. But it may safely be said that his tale is best where most unvarnished, and probably no writer of the same rank has owed less to the mere sparkle of highly polished literary style.
An excellent edition of his historical works was published in nine volumes in London in 1903-1904. See the Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, edited by GW Curtis (New York, 1889); OW Holmes, John Lothrop Motley, a Memoir (Boston, 1878); MD Conway, Biographical Introduction to The Rise of the Dutch Republic (London, 1896); and John Lothrop Motley and his Family: Further Letters and Records (1910), edited by his daughter, Mrs Susan St John Mildmay.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.