John Lothrop Motley and Bismarck

by Edwin Watts Chubb

John Lothrop Motley, the American historian, a writer who in his The Rise of the Dutch Republic produced a history as fascinating as a romance and a work that was immediately in Europe translated into three different languages, was, after graduation from Harvard, a student at Goettingen. Here he studied German so well that in after years he was asked by the emperor of Austria whether he were not a German. Here too he became acquainted with Bismarck.

That they were great friends is evident from letters by Bismarck himself. "I never pass by old Logier's House, in the Friedrichstrasse—wrote Bismarck in 1863—without looking up at the windows that used to be ornamented by a pair of red slippers sustained on the wall by the feet of a gentleman sitting in the Yankee way, his head below and out of sight. I then gratify my memory with remembrance of 'good old colony times when we were roguish chaps.'" And here is another part of a letter which illustrates that even dignitaries like to unbend and become like boys again. This letter was written by the minister of foreign affairs to the minister of the United States at the court of Vienna:

Berlin, May 23d, 1864.

Jack my Dear,— ... what do you do that you never write a line to me? I am working from morn to night like a nigger, and you have nothing to do at all—you might as well tip me a line as well as looking at your feet tilted against the wall of God knows what a dreary color. I cannot entertain a regular correspondence; it happens to me that during five days I do not find a quarter of an hour for a walk; but you, lazy old chap, what keeps you from thinking of your old friends? When just going to bed in this moment my eye met with yours on your portrait, and I curtailed the sweet restorer, sleep, in order to remind you of Auld Lang Syne. Why do you never come to Berlin? It is not a quarter of an American's holiday from Vienna, and my wife and me should be so happy to see you once more in this sullen life. When can you come, and when will you? I swear that I will make out the time to look with you on old Logier's quarters, ... and at Gerolt's, where they once would not allow you to put your slender legs upon a chair. Let politics be hanged and come to see me. I promise that the Union Jack shall wave over our house, and conversation and the best old hock shall pour damnation upon the rebels. Do not forget old friends, neither their wives, as mine wishes nearly as ardently as myself to see you, or at least to see as quickly as possible a word of your handwriting.

Sei gut und komm oder schreibe.

Dein,
V. Bismarck.

In a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1878, Bismarck in answer to an inquiry tells how the two became friends.

"I met Motley at Goettingen in 1832, I am not sure if at the beginning of the Easter term or Michaelmas term. He kept company with German students, though more addicted to study than we members of the fighting clubs. Although not having mastered yet the German language he exercised a marked attraction by a conversation sparkling with wit, humor, and originality. In autumn of 1833, having both of us emigrated from Goettingen to Berlin for the prosecution of our studies, we became fellow lodgers in the house No. 161 Friedrichstrasse. There we lived in the closest intimacy, sharing meals and outdoor exercise. Motley by that time had arrived at talking fluently: he occupied himself not only in translating Goethe's poem, Faust, but tried his hand even in composing German verses. Enthusiastic admirer of Shakspere, Byron, Goethe, he used to spice his conversation abundantly with quotations from these his favorite authors. A pertinacious arguer, so much so that sometimes he watched my awakening in order to continue a discussion on some topic of science, poetry, or practical life cut short by the chime of the small hours, he never lost his mild and amiable temper.... The most striking feature of his handsome and delicate appearance was uncommonly large and beautiful eyes. He never entered a drawing-room without exciting the curiosity and sympathy of the ladies."

While the sheets of Motley's history were passing through the press in 1856, he paid a visit to Bismarck at Frankfort:

"When I called," says Motley, "Bismarck was at dinner, so I left my card, and said I would come back in half an hour. As soon as my card had been carried to him (as I learned afterwards) he sent a servant after me to the hotel, but I had gone another way. When I came back I was received with open arms. I can't express to you how cordially he received me. If I had been his brother, instead of an old friend, he could not have shown more warmth and affectionate delight in seeing me. I find I like him better even than I thought I did, and you know how high an opinion I always expressed of his talents and disposition. He is a man of very noble character, and of very great powers of mind. The prominent place which he now occupies as a statesman sought him. He did not seek it or any other office. The stand which he took in the Assembly from conviction, on the occasion of the outbreak of 1848, marked him at once to all parties as one of the leading characters of Prussia....

"In the summer of 1851, he told me that the minister, Manteuffel, asked him one day abruptly, if he would accept the post of ambassador at Frankfort, to which (although the proposition was as unexpected a one to him as if I should hear by the next mail that I had been chosen governor of Massachusetts) he answered after a moment's deliberation, yes, without another word. The king, the same day, sent for him, and asked him if he would accept the place, to which he made the same brief answer, 'Ja.' His majesty expressed a little surprise that he made no inquiries or conditions, when Bismarck replied that anything which the king felt strong enough to propose to him, he felt strong enough to accept. I only write these details that you may have an idea of the man. Strict integrity and courage of character, a high sense of honor, a firm religious belief, united with remarkable talents, make up necessarily a combination which cannot be found any day in any court; and I have no doubt that he is destined to be prime minister, unless his obstinate truthfulness, which is apt to be a stumbling-block for politicians, stands in his way....

"Well, he accepted the post and wrote to his wife next day, who was preparing for a summer's residence in a small house they had taken on the sea-coast, that he could not come because he was already established in Frankfort as minister. The result, he said, was three days of tears on her part. He had previously been leading the life of a plain country squire with a moderate income, had never held any position in the government or in diplomacy, and had hardly ever been to court."