Sunday, September 4, 2016

John L. Motley to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., August 31, 1862

Vienna, August 31, 1862.

My Dear Holmes: Bare, bare, bare of news, events, objects of the slightest interest to you or any one else, what need have I to apologize for silence? Naked, but not ashamed, I involve myself in my virtue, while you, if, like kind fortune, you will still wag your swift pen at me, — si celerem quatis pennam, — will find me ever grateful, or even trying to be resigned if you do not. I have not written for about four months. Even to my little Mary I am obliged now to write themes instead of letters. By this mail I send her one “on the advantages of silence.” If you should happen to meet her, ask her to show it to you that you may see to what a depth of imbecility your old friend has descended. I have yours of the 27th of April and the 20th of June. I am deeply grateful for them. I have just been reading them both over, and you will be glad to know that now, after the lapse of fifty years, which is about the distance from the first date at the rate we are living at, there is no false coloring, no judgment turned inside out, no blundering prophecy, no elation or no despondency which subsequent events have come to rebuke.

Writing as you do to me out of the kindness of your heart and the fullness of your head, you willingly run the risk of making blunders for the sake of giving me, in your vivid and intense way, a rapid image of the passing moment. I strain my eyes across the Atlantic through the stereoscope you so kindly provide me, and for an instant or two I am with you. I think very often of your Wendell. He typifies so well to me the metamorphosis of young America from what it was in our days. Consule Planco. There, within less than a twelvemonth after leaving college, the young poet, philosopher, artist, has become a man, robustus acri militia puer, has gone through such scenes as Ball's Bluff, Fair Oaks, and the seven days before Richmond, and, even while I write, is still engaged, perchance, in other portentous events, and it is scarcely a year since you and I went together to the State House to talk with the governor about his commission. These things would hardly be so startling if it was the mere case of a young man entering the army and joining a marching regiment. But when a whole community suddenly transmutes itself into an army, and the “stay-at-home rangers” are remembered on the fingers and pointed at with the same, what a change must be made in the national character!

Pfui liber den Buben
Hinter den Ofen,
Hinter den Sttthlen,
Hinter den Sophen,

as the chivalrous Koerner sang.

I had a very well-written letter the other day from a young cousin of mine, Julius Lothrop by name, now serving as sergeant in the Massachusetts Twenty-fourth. I need not say how I grieved to hear that Lowell had lost another nephew, and a near relative to your wife, too. You mentioned him in your very last letter as having gained health and strength by his campaigning. There is something most touching in the fact that those two youths, Putnam and Lowell, both scions of our most honored families, and both distinguished among their equals for talent, character, accomplishment, and virtue, for all that makes youth venerable, should have been among the earliest victims of this infernal conspiracy of slaveholders. I know not if such a thought is likely to comfort the mourners, but it is nevertheless most certain that when such seed is sown the harvest to be reaped by the country will be almost priceless. Of this I entertain no doubt whatever. God knows I was never an optimist, but in the great result of this tremendous struggle I can foresee nothing but good. The courage and the determination of both sides being equal, the victory must be to the largest army and navy and the longest purse.

What has so long held back the imprisoned power of the North during all these dreary years of the slave domination of our Republic was, after all, a moral principle. It was pushed to excess till it became a vice, but it was still the feeling of patriotism and an exaggerated idea of public faith. There is even a lingering band or two to be broken yet before the great spirit of the North is completely disenthralled. But I hope I am not mistaken in thinking that they have become weaker than packthread.

SOURCE: George William Curtis, editor, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley in Two Volumes, Library Edition, Volume 2, p. 276-9

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