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The evolution of an American

Emerson once wrote, ‘We go to Europe to be Americanized.’ In the recent Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley-the most attractive series of letters which the present writer has for many a day encountered—the most interesting feature, after all, is the gradual evolution of all American. Wendell Phillips used to delight in testifying to the manner in which this process went on in this his classmate and friend, and also in himself. Both came out of Harvard College, Phillips said, the narrow aristocrats of a petty sphere; both—though he did not say this—handsome, elegant, accomplished, the prime favorites of the small but really polished circle of the Boston of that day. In case of Phillips, the emancipation was more rapid; and he too owed it in a sense to Europe, for it was there he met his future wife, through whom he first became interested in the anti-slavery movement. In Motley's case the [222] change came more slowly, and reached its crisis at the outbreak of the Civil War; and it must have been at the time of his arrival in this country in 1861 that he met Phillips with the ardent exclamation, as the latter used to repeat it, ‘Phillips, you were right, and I was wrong!’This may, however, have been when he visited home in 1858, for his dissatisfaction with the pro-slavery tendency of public affairs was manifest as early as 1855.1

I can remember well my first impression of Motley and his friend and afterward brotherin-law, Stackpole, as the acknowledged leaders of the Boston society of which I had an occasional boyish glimpse; and the glamour of youth still remains strong enough to make it impossible for me to believe that any drawing-room was ever ruled by more elegant and distinguished men. There was a younger brother—nearer my own Age—Preble Motley, who was an athlete as well as an Antinous, and hence doubly the idol of his compeers; and his early death was caused, in the traditions of that time, by a too daring excess in those gymnastic exercises which were [223] just beginning to come into vogue. The elder brother was of a more delicate and poetic mould; and it could be said of him, as is said of the prophet Mohammed in the Sheeah traditions, that ‘his manners charmed all mankind.’ Hence he found himself readily at home in the court society of Vienna, to which he was first sent; and when he was transferred to England, he felt keenly the delight at finding, with a shade less of elegance in the society around him, a recognition which he had not before encountered, of purely intellectual claims. Hence we find him in the first volume of his letters lavishing praises on London society, such as he was by no means ready to reaffirm after the crucial test of our Civil War had been applied. In the earlier days, too, he naturally contrasted the accumulated intellectual wealth of Europe with the comparative poverty of his own land in these respects. ‘When I see here in Europe such sums of money spent by the government upon every branch of the fine arts, I cannot help asking why we at home have no picture-galleries, or statue-galleries, or libraries. I cannot see at all that such things are only fit for monarchies.’2 [224] This was in his student days in 1833; and it would now seem less appropriate were it not that our barbarous tariff on works of art is still continued; and a later complaint, in 1851, that our American rivers are ‘deaf and dumb’ for want of literary associations3 is rapidly growing obsolete.

The habitual and still lingering indifference of Europeans to all matters in the New World had already struck Motley in 1852, at the time of Daniel Webster's death, when he found scarcely any one on the European continent who had ever heard his name, although one literary lady had an impression that he was one of our principal poets. Nobody in England supposed that he was in any way to be ranked with their public men—such as Lord Brougham, for instance. ‘The fact is,’ he adds, ‘no interest is felt in America or American institutions among the European public. America is as isolated as China. Nobody knows or cares anything about its men, or its politics, or its conditions. It is, however, known and felt among the lower classes that it is a place to get to out [225] of the monotonous prison-house of Philistines, in which the great unwashed of Europe continue to grind eternally. Very little is known of the country, and very little respect is felt for it; but the fact remains that Europe is decanting itself into America a great deal more rapidly than is to be wished by us.’4

While trying to work away on his history Motley found himself absorbed not only in our great conflict, which made European politics seem ‘pale and uninteresting,’ but in the extraordinary way in which it set at naught all European traditions. ‘All European ideas are turned upside down by the mere statement of the proposition which is at the bottom of our war. Hitherto “the sovereignty of the people” has been heard in Europe, and smiled at as a fiction. . . . But now here comes rebellion against our idea of sovereignty, and fact on a large scale is illustrating our theoretic fiction.’5 In the next letter he uses that fine phrase which illustrates so much in our early struggles and difficulties through that contest: ‘It is not a military war, if such a contradiction can be [226] used. It is a great political and moral revolution, and we are in the first stage of it.’6 This was the period of which the English Hayward wrote,—the translator of ‘Faust,’ —‘I passed a day with the Motleys at their villa, and found him more unreasonable than ever, vowing that the restoration of the Union in its entirety was as sure as the sun in heaven.’ It was the period of which Motley himself afterward wrote, ‘All English “society,” except half a dozen individuals, was then entirely Southern.’

It was, in short, the opening of that period of cleavage between the English and American literary classes which still bears its fruit in the habits of mind of this generation, and will never be forgotten till a new generation has wholly taken its place. The fact that the literary class especially, which in other countries is usually found on the side of progress, in this case echoed all the sympathies of the people of rank, and left only the workingmen of England, with a few illustrious exceptions, to be our friends—this it was that made Motley not merely a patriot, but a man of democratic [227] convictions at last. In 1862 he wrote, ‘I am so much of a democrat; far more than I ever was before in my life.’7 Two years later he writes,—this man of experience in many courts, —‘For one, I like democracy. I don't say that it is pretty, or genteel, or jolly. But it has a reason for existing, and is a fact in America, and is founded on the immutable principles of reason and justice. Aristocracy certainly presents more brilliant social phenomena, more luxurious social enjoyments. Such a system is very cheerful for a few thousand select specimens out of the few hundred millions of the human race . . . but what a price is paid for it’8 When he wrote this, the evolution of an American was complete. Who can doubt that if Motley had lived till now he would have approached the new and even profounder problems developed by another quarter of a century with the equipoise and the fearlessness that an American should show?

1 Correspondence, i. 170, 268.

2 Correspondence i. 29.

3 Correspondence, i. 125.

4 Correspondence, i. 147.

5 Ibid., II. 79.

6 Correspondence, II. 82.

7 Correspondence, II. 77.

8 Ibid., II. 193.

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