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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVIII. Prescott and Motley

§ 13. St. Petersburg; Massachusetts Legislature

Between the production of the two novels, Motley had had fresh experiences. In 1841 he was appointed secretary to the legation at St. Petersburg and spent some months in the Russian capital, long enough to be convinced that he did not wish to have his wife and children join him. So he resigned his post before his year was out. Once again in America, he began to give utterance to his opinions on political events, the failure of Henry Clay to secure the presidential nomination having roused him to mournful expressions of his conviction that all that was fine in American public life had been overpowered by mediocrity if not by evil. He had a little taste of public life himself; he served in the Massachusetts legislature for one term (1849). The one measure he seems to have worked for was an endowment of higher education at the expense of the common schools. “Failure was inevitable,” says George S. Boutwell, a fellow legislator. “Neither Webster nor Choate could have carried the bill.” Motley had written a report as Chairman of the Committee on Education, thinking that he had achieved a fine document, and was much surprised at the unanimity of its condemnation. He had no more desire for Massachusetts political life. By this date, Motley was thirty-five, no longer a youth, yet all his failures seem those of immaturity. It sometimes happens when a boy is precocious that the reputation of being in advance of his years lingers about him after the time when a man of more normal powers makes his public appearance. But Motley began to show himself in another light than that of romancer or legislator; his essays were proving that he could conquer some of the glaring faults of his style and write on sober themes. His articles on Peter the Great, on Balzac, and on Talvi’s Geschichte der Colonisation von New England were scholarly and original. He had no desire, however, to dissipate his store of energy in ephemeral reviews. Before the publication of his half-historical Merry Mount he had selected the theme of the contest between the Netherlands and Spain for an extensive work, had been checked momentarily by the news of Prescott’s projected Philip II, had been spurred on by the kindly words of the elder American, and had then devoted himself to going to the foundations of the story of the events. He says in reference to hearing of Prescott’s work:

  • It seemed to me that I had nothing to do but to renounce authorship. For I had not at first made up my mind to write a history and then cast about to take up a subject. My subject had taken me up, drawn me on, and absorbed me into itself. It was necessary for me, it seemed, to write the book I had been thinking much of, even if it were destined to fall dead from the press, and I had no inclination or interest to write any other.