“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

“Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you?” John Lothrop Motley, Otto von Bismarck, and the Civil War

Historians have rarely examined the German States’ reactions to the Civil War. Much has been said about German immigrants fighting in the war, German-American political leaders involved in community and political organization, and the nativist backlash in the United States; however, Central Europe’s perspectives are a blank page in English language scholarship.[1] As the archetypal political schemer of the era, Otto von Bismarck looms large in German politics and misconceptions continue to persist about where Bismarck may have gotten some of his opinions about the Civil War.

Photograph of John Lothrop Motley in the Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

The answers may come through a deeper understanding of the relationship between the U.S. Minister in Vienna, John Lothrop Motley, and his friend from university, Prussian Minister President Otto von Bismarck. In August 1864, a peculiar meeting took place in Vienna between Motley and Bismarck. Bismarck had come to Vienna for the peace negotiations ending the Dano-German War, which started earlier that year over constitutional and royal succession questions in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and resulted in a resounding military victory for the German allies. Bismarck and Motley enjoyed a trouble-free evening together; however, the self-absorbed Motley walked away with the impression that he had enlightened Bismarck regarding the events in North America. The two men shared a deep bond of personal friendship.

After having started his education at Harvard, Motley transferred to the University of Göttingen in 1831. Göttingen was one of the premier universities in the German states, whose faculty at the time included such respected professors as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, historian Georg Gottfried Gervinus, physicist Wilhelm Eduard Weber, and theologian and orientalist Heinrich Georg August Ewald. At Göttingen, Motley encountered Bismarck for the first time. The two friends eventually transferred to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin where Bismarck impressed with his drinking and sword-dueling skills, rather than his scholarship.[2] Apparently Motley was so drawn to Bismarck that he made him the main character of his unsuccessful novel, Morton’s Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial, which included an Otto von Rabenmarck.[3] The two friends reconnected every decade as Motley became a respected writer and historian.

In 1861, Motley’s friend Charles Sumner obtained a diplomatic post in Europe for his fellow Bay Stater. The two were lucky. The Lincoln Administration had initially intended to send Anson Burlingame to Vienna. However, the Austrian court had refused the appointment due to ties between Burlingame and the Hungarian rebellion of 1848. With Burlingame finding an abundance of opportunities in his new post at Beijing, Motley assumed the post in Vienna.[4]

In May 1864, Bismarck reached out to Motley, most likely remembering their friendship and revisiting the days of carefree fun. In an informal tone, Bismarck wrote his friend, “Jack My Dear,-Where the devil are you, and 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 on your feet tilted against the wall of God knows what a dreary colour.” Bismarck did not stop with this scolding of his friend to be a more active correspondent. He insisted that Motley should come for a visit to Berlin, proposing “Let politics be hanged and come to see me. I promise that the Union Jack shall wave over our house, and the conversation and the best old hock shall pour damnation upon the rebels.”[5]

Steel engraving of Otto von Bismarck, after a painting by Alonzo Chappel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was a rather peculiar moment for Bismarck to remember his friendship and to express his desire to escape politics with his old college buddy for a few days. Just as Bismarck wrote to Motley, the international community had come together in London for negotiations on how to settle the Dano-German conflict. Motley did not leave his post in Vienna, but the two friends soon had another opportunity to reconnect in person.

During the peace negotiations, the two met and shared a peaceful evening together, allowing Bismarck to escape the political and diplomatic wrangling over the terms of the agreement. Motley recounted the meeting in a letter to his mother, “He thinks it about as possible to transplant what is called parliamentary government into Prussia, as Abraham Lincoln believes in the feasibility of establishing an aristocracy in the United States.”[6] The conflict in the United States of course became part of the conversation.

Motley’s wife dramatically recounted in a letter to their daughter, “Your father gave him [Bismarck], at his request, a brief but graphic sketch of our affairs, the causes of the war and the sole conditions upon which it would terminate, etc., etc. He was listened to with the greatest interest and respect, and Bismarck told him he was very glad to know his opinions which he accepted unequivocally and adopted and should use as his own when occasion required.”[7] The statement by Motley’s wife has created the perception that Motley enlightened Bismarck about the Civil War’s causes and that the Prussian adopted Motley’s views as his own.[8]

It is highly unlikely that a man of Bismarck’s shrewd diplomatic and political caliber would not have understood the causes of the Civil War by 1864. Newspapers in Berlin and all major cities of the German states covered the events in North America on an almost daily basis. The Prussian minister in Washington, Friedrich Freiherr von Gerolt had been in his post since 1844 and could provide Bismarck with remarkable insights. Furthermore, if the friendship between Bismarck and Motley was as deep as the “My Dear Jack” line indicates, then even in distant St. Petersburg, where Bismarck was stationed in 1861, the Prussian would have read Motley’s lengthy editorial in The Times of London explaining the Union cause and righteousness of the U.S. war effort.

As Bismarck was extremely eloquent in crafting his own personal history, often infusing myth and legend, a closer and critical examination of the relations with Central Europe is long overdue. Motley and his family encountered a good friend in Vienna in August 1864 and had a private evening. Bismarck likely humored Motley as he tried to escape ever so briefly the realities of diplomacy. While Motley’s correspondence is extraordinarily rich, one has to be careful as he occasionally overstates his importance. Even more, an over emphasis on Motley or Bismarck in Central Europe’s relations with the belligerents in North America, is problematic and assumes a reality that did not yet exist, such as Prussia’s success in the Wars of German Unification and thus dominance in German affair. The relationship between the two men reminds us of the multifaceted diplomatic relationship with Prussia, Austria, and the other German states, but also how much Bismarck’s Prussia and Motley’s post in Austria soon collided in a civil war similar to the one in the United States.


[1] The only significant works are in German. Enno Eimers, Preussen und die USA 1850 bis 1867 (Berlin, Germany: Dunker and Humblot, 2004); Michael Löffler, Preussens und Sachsens Beziehungen zu den USA während des Sezessionskrieges 1860-1865 (Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 1999)

[2] J. Gubermann, The Life of John Lothrop Motley (The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijohoff, 1973); Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Lothrop Motley: A Memoir (Boston, MA: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879).

[3] John L. Motley, Morton’s Hope: The Memoirs of a Provincial (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1839).

[4] David L. Anderson, Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861-1898 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 19.

[5] Otto von Bismarck to John Lothrop Motley, May 23, 1864, in The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, ed. George W. Curtis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1889), 2:160.

[6] Motley to his Mother, August 3, 1864, Ibid., 2:170.

[7] Mrs. Motley to Lily Motley, August 1, 1864, in John Lothrop Motley and His Family, ed. Susan Margaret Stackpole Motley, St. John Mildmay, and Herbert Alexander St. John Mildmay (New York: John Lane, 1910), 210, 214.

[8] Graf Otto zu Stolberg-Wernigerode, Germany and the United States of America during the Era of Bismarck, trans. Otto E. Lessing (Reading, PA: Henry Janssen Foundation, 1937), 62.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at eichhorn.niels@gmail.com.

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