Thursday, March 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II: Part I

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.

- Originally released in May 2009


  1. John, interesting stuff. Never knew that the Tsar reached out to Lincoln nor the war support. They are also similar in that the Tsar freed the serfs as Lincoln the slaves and that they were both assassinated. The Tsar was killed the day before he changed to constitution to establish a duma and set the country on the way to a constitutional monarchy (maybe). Neil

  2. As an artist myself, I enjoy reading Philip Koch's sensitive writing about Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, who along with Whistler and Rothko, are my favorite American painters.
    I don't live in the United States but have traveled and passed a short time there. But even with the little time spent in your beautiful country, especially in small-town America, I can relate to some of the poetical feel that Hopper and Wyeth had captured in their art, which is for me part of the attraction of their paintings.
    Browsing at the other day, as I do now and then, I find a good selection of Edward Hopper's work, ,in the big archive of Western Art, that customers can order online for canvas prints and even hand-painted, oil-painting reproductions can be made and sent to them.
    Hopper's surrealistic and depersonalized world is there again. Timeless, yes, as it is still there now in the roadside cafes and diners that I ate at all over America.

  3. Many people do not know or realize that Tsar Alexander II Nikolaevich of Russia was a contributing factor and perhaps the most significant factor that saved the North from being defeated from the South in the American Civil War. You won't read about this in any text book. Here are the facts and proof that validate what I am saying. Please bear in mind what I am about to present is Fact; not Fiction.

    In 1861 Lincoln approached the large banks in New York in an attempt to obtain loans to finance the Civil War. All and I mean 100% of all large banks in New York were under the influence of the Rothschild empire; an empire built on financing wars. The banks offered Lincoln a deal, 36% interest, knowing full well the United States simply could not afford this loan and knew Lincoln couldn't and wouldn't accept. This infuriated Lincoln; therefore, President Lincoln decided to print his own money. By 1862, Lincoln had printed $449,338,902 to finance the Civil War. In 1863, Lincoln discovers the Tsar of Russia, Alexander II Nikolaevich, was having problems with Rothschild as well because Rothschild was attempting to set up a central bank in Russia and the Tsar didn't allow this. The Tsar of Russia wasn't arch enemies of Rothschild like Lincoln was; however, they still had a strong dislike for each other. It was at this time, Alexander II Nikolaevich gives Lincoln the help he needs. It has been documented and well noted in history that England and France were about to side with the South (which would have meant dooms day for Lincoln and the North). The Tsar of Russia "stated publically" if England and France actively intervened with the American Civil war and side with the South, Russia would consider such action a declaration of war and fully support Lincoln and the North. The Tsar of Russia sent his Pacific Fleet to port in San Francisco as well as New York to deter England and France from joining the South and this action caused the North to win and the South to lose. Think about it, the North had an extremely difficult time winning the Civil War against the South by themselves. Can you just imagine if the South had England and France to support them. The North would have been crushed in no time. America has Alexander II Nikolaevich of Russia to thank for his support and public statements as his actions changed the course of America as we know it today.


    1. "It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning."

      Henry Ford