Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II

In the summer of 2008, Marge and I visited the Oshkosh Public Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to see a special exhibition entitled “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator.” It was a fascinating exhibit presented by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation and it was subsequently moved to the Kansas City Union Station Museum after three months. We both enjoyed the exhibit and gained new insights about the history of US-Russian relations.

A Surprising Friendship

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than existed between the United States and Russia in the middle of the 19th century. The vast Russian empire was celebrating its millennium and the new American Republic was not yet one hundred years old. In addition, the two systems of government were diametrically opposed. Russia was ruled by a hereditary monarchy and America by an elected president. Tsar Alexander II was well groomed and carried the persona of royalty that was in complete contrast to the lanky, homespun figure of Lincoln.

There are six letters in the National Archives from Alexander II to President Lincoln, each written in two languages, French and Russian, and signed “Your good friend, Alexander.” Also preserved in the National Archives are hand copies of Lincoln’s replies, signed “Your good friend, A. Lincoln.”

Alexander II’s Interest in America

Tsar Alexander II was a well educated man. He spoke four languages, including English, and was trained from birth to understand his responsibility to rule the Russian Empire. He was 37 years old when he ascended to the Russian throne in 1855, and was described as “tall and very handsome” by the American Minister in St. Petersburg.

The Tsar had long been fascinated by America and this interest began when the Siberian missionary to Alaska, Father Veniaminov, visited the Winter Palace and shared his experiences in the Russian colony in North America. One impressive piece of evidence indicating the Tsar’s interest in America is that when he was crowned Emperor, “Tsar of All the Russias,” one of the first letters he wrote was to President Buchanan, expressing the hope that he “would be given the same consideration that was extended to his father,” Nicholas I. The Tsar’s first letter to President Lincoln is dated September 21, 1860, just a few weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration. It is a friendly letter in which the Tsar tells the new American President about the birth of his son, Grand Duke Paul. By the way, there are altogether 21 letters of Alexander II to American Presidents in the National Archives.

An important factor in US-Russian relations was the Tsar’s appointment of Prince Alexander Gorchakov as Chancellor and Foreign Minister. He was a distinguished statesman and historian who had great respect for the United States. “The American Union,” he said, “has exhibited to the world the spectacle of a prosperity without example in the annals of history.” Gorchakov became the Tsar’s right hand man in foreign affairs and helped to shape constructive relations between the two countries.

Russian Support During the Civil War

When the Civil War broke out, both England and France considered hostile intervention on behalf of the South and they tried to convince the Tsar to join them. Alexander II’s refusal was critically important because the British and French then decided to abort their plans. This was the second time that Russia refused to undermine the new American Republic. The first was during the War for Independence when the British asked Catherine the Great to send 20,000 Cossacks to help put down the rebellion in their colonies and she refused.

Eleven days before the first battle of Bull Run, Chancellor Gorchakov sent the following message to the Russian Envoy in the United States, Edouard de Stoeckl: “ . . . for more than eighty years that it has existed the American Union owes its independence, its towering rise, and its progress, to the concord of its members, consecrated, under the auspices of its illustrious founder, by institutions which have been able to reconcile union with liberty . . . . In our view, this Union is not only a substantial element of the world political equilibrium, but additionally, it represents the nation toward which our Sovereign and Russia as a whole, display the friendliest interest, since the two countries located at the ends of two worlds, during the previous period of their development seemed to have been called to a natural solidarity of interests and leanings which they have already proved to each other.”

As a sign of the Tsar’s moral support for the President during the Civil War, he sent two squadrons of Russian naval vessels to America in September 1863, one that landed in New York and the second in San Francisco, where they remained for seven months. The visit by the Russian fleet was seen by the Lincoln administration as a great encouragement during the difficult days of the Civil War.

The Russian Envoy in Washington sent regular updates to Chancellor Gorchakov that he shared with the Tsar, who often noted his comments in the margins, in one case writing “Bravo!” Despite one leader serving as the ruler of an autocracy and the other as leader of a democracy, these two remarkable men became friends who shared their admiration for one another. They also both took the revolutionary steps of freeing their serfs and slaves, but that story will follow.

NOTE: This essay is based on the booklet “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator,” published by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation.