Mr. Motley to Mr. Seward

No. 101.]

Sir: The news of the great tragedy, which has brought desolation upon our country in the very moment of our highest joy, reached this place on the 26th. This is the first post which leaves Vienna since the receipt of the intelligence.

I shall not even attempt to picture the consternation which the event has caused throughout the civilized world, nor to describe the anguish which it has excited in my own heart, as in that of every loyal American, whether at home or abroad.

The European public spontaneously expresses in every public way its admiration for the character of the murdered President, and its horror at the vile assassin who has taken his life. And if the inhabitants of foreign and distant lands are giving expressions to such deep and unaffected sentiments, what must be the emotions now sweeping over our own country? I confess that I shudder at the thought of the despatches and journals now on their way to Europe. As yet we have nothing but the brief telegraphic tale of horror published by the Secretary of War to Mr. Adams, in London, and by him transmitted to the United States legations on the continent.

Not often in human history has a great nation been subjected to such a sudden conflict of passions. In the midst, not of triumph nor vulgar exultation, but of deep, religious, grateful joy at the final suppression of a wicked rebellion, the redemption of the land from the perils of death, and the certainty of its purification from the great curse of slavery, blessings brought about under God by the genius of our great generals, the courage of our armies, and the sagacity of our statesmen, the American people has seen its beloved and venerated Chief Magistrate murdered before its eyes.

The eminent statesman who, with such surpassing ability, has guided our foreign [Page 21] relations during the most critical and dangerous period of our history seems, thank God, to have escaped death, if we may trust the recent telegrams received last night; but we must wait with intense anxiety the arrival of more than one post before we can feel confidence that the cowardly and murderous assault upon him in his sick bed has not after all been successful. May God grant that his invaluable life may be spared, and that the country may long have the benefit of his wise and faithful counsels. May the life of that excellent son, who has so nearly perished in the attempt to defend his father, also be preserved. What may be the effect of this sudden revulsion in the national feeling I hardly dare to contemplate.

The benignant heart of the late President was filled, as we have reason to believe, with thoughts of peace and reconciliation and reunion; with the feelings of compassion for the criminal, mingled with detestation of the crime, becoming the chief of a great, free, and magnanimous nation, in the hour of its victory, when the assassin took his life. And the country itself, conscious of its strength, seemed fully to respond to these sentiments of the President.

Will not these gentler feelings give way to a desire to vengeance, to a conviction of the necessity of terrible severity, now that the great treason has just accomplished its darkest crime, now that the most illustrious of all the innumerable victims of the slaveholders’ rebellion has been so basely and wantonly sacrificed?

I should apologize for giving expression to these thoughts, not suitable to a formal despatch, but in such days as these, and in the midst of such a national sorrow, it is difficult to be formal, and impossible to be calm. Nor can I resist the impulse to add my humble contribution to the universal eulogy which I know is pouring forth at this moment from so many more eloquent tongues than mine, and out of so many millions of sorrowing and affectionate hearts, now that the most virtuous of chief magistrates is no more.

I know that one should avoid the language of exaggeration of over-excited enthusiasm, so natural when a man, eminent in station, mental abilities, and lofty characteristics, is suddenly taken away, yet I am not afraid to express the opinion that the name of Abraham Lincoln will be cherished so long as we have a history as one of the wisest, purest, and noblest magistrates, as one of the greatest benefactors to the human race, that have ever lived. I believe that the foundation of his whole character was a devotion to duty. To borrow a phrase from his brief and simple, but most eloquent inaugural address of this year, it was “his firmness in the right as God gave him to see the right” which enabled him to discharge the functions of his great office, in one of the most terrible periods of the world’s history, with such rare sagacity, patience, cheerfulness, and courage. And God, indeed, gave him to see the right, and he needs no nobler epitaph than those simple words from his own lips.

So much firmness with such gentleness of heart, so much logical acuteness with such almost childlike simplicity and ingenuousness of nature, so much candor to weigh the wisdom of others, with so much tenacity to retain his own judgment, were rarely before united in one individual.

Never was such vast political power placed in purer hands; never did a heart remain more humble and more unsophisticated after the highest prizes of earthly ambition had been obtained.

Certainly, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—to quote again his own words—shall never perish from the earth so long as the American people can embody itself in a character so worthy to represent the best qualities of humanity—its courage, generosity, patience, sagacity, and integrity—as these have been personified in him who has been one of the best of rulers, and is now one of the noblest of martyrs.

If it seems superfluous and almost presumptuous that I, a comparative stranger to Mr. Lincoln, although honored with his commission, should speak of, him [Page 22] thus at length to those who shared his counsels and enjoyed his intimacy, I can only reply that the grief which, in common with every loyal American, I most profoundly feel at his death demands an expression, and that at this distance from my country it is a consolation for me to speak of his virtues to those who knew him best.

I have followed his career and have studied every public act and utterance of his with an ever-increasing veneration for a character and an intellect which seemed to expand and to grow more vigorous the greater the demand that was made upon their strength.

And this feeling, I believe, is shared not only by all Americans worthy of the name, but by all the inhabitants of foreign lands, who have given themselves the trouble to study our history in this its most eventful period.

I wish to conclude this despatch by requesting you to convey my most respectful compliments to President Johnson, together with my prayers for his success in administering the affairs of his great office. That he is animated with the warmest patriotism, and by a determination to meet wisely and manfully the great responsibility which has devolved upon him, we are all convinced; and I am sure that the best wishes of every patriotic heart, and the counsels of the wisest minds will be ever ready to support him in the great task of reconstructing that blessed Union which traitor hands have failed with all their efforts to destroy.

I have the honor to remain, respectfully, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington.