The Curious Entente Cordial: President Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II

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SOME 15 YEARS BEFORE Abraham Lincoln was elected president, an enterprising American adventurer, Henry Wikoff, was sailing between Yalta and Odessa and debating with Russian Prince Mikhail Vorontsov the nature of American government.

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"It is a strange experiment to put a government in the hands of the masses," Vorontsov said, opining that holding frequent elections makes for an erratic government.

Wikoff, recounting this conversation in his book, Reminiscences of an Idler, responded that the common interest of the people is reflected in democratic elections.

To this Vorontsov replied: "You have a system of slavery supported by the South and condemned by the North. These opposite views are founded on antagonistic interests, and how is a collision sooner or later to be avoided?"

The collision would not be avoided. Under Abraham Lincoln, the United States would, during the Civil War of 1861-1865, be forced to address the contradictions tabled at the founding of its democracy, a system, needless to say, that was viewed by the ruling classes of Europe as dangerous and revolutionary.

Meanwhile, Europe had its own problems. When the 1848 popular revolutions swept the continent, the United States sympathized with those fighting oppression. Lincoln, a young attorney in Springfield, Illinois sided with "the patriotic efforts" of people in Hungary, Ireland, Germany and France "who have unsuccessfully fought to establish in their several governments the supremacy of the people." He deplored Tsar Nicholas' military intervention in support of the Hapsburgs to quash Hungarian independence. Writing to his friend, Joshua Speed, in August 1855, Lincoln fulminated against tyranny and bigotry, stating, "When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Despite this background of mutual incomprehension and even occasional contempt, two extraordinary leaders of Russia and the United States--Tsar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln--maintained a brief correspondence, established friendly relations and developed a working partnership; a significant, though little known entente cordial.

Both men, at roughly the same time, emancipated enslaved people in their countries: the Russian peasantry in 1861, American slaves in 1863. Both leaders were tried by domestic unrest: the American Civil War in the United States and terrorism in Russia. And both leaders were assassinated: Lincoln for having gone too far, Alexander II for not having gone far enough.

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When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Russian Charge de Affaires, Edouard de Stoeckl--who had been in Washington since 1841 as secretary of the Russian legation, and had married an American--made every effort to involve the United States in the conflict. Believing in the adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Stoeckl followed and delighted in the commercial disputes between the United States and Great Britain. He urged St. Petersburg "to offer [the U.S.] special inducements in the way of lower tariffs especially on cotton and colonial goods" and observed that the "Americans will go after anything that has enough money in it. They have the ships, they have the men, and they have the daring spirit. The blockading fleet [of British and French ships] will think twice before firing on the Stars and Stripes."

Stoeckl's lobbying efforts did not succeed in engaging the U.S. militarily on behalf of Russia, but they did foster sympathy for the Russian cause. Hundreds of Americans requested letters of marque from the Russian legation to fight the British and French. Three hundred riflemen from Kentucky volunteered to fight in Sevastopol in the service of the tsar. …