Russian Post Causes Lincoln Problems

November 23, 1862

Secretary of State William H. Seward sent a note to President Lincoln: “Bayard Taylor, Mr Cameron’s Secretary, now in charge of the Legation desires to be Minister to Russia. I cannot, of course, [illegible] withhold his letter from you.1 How many complications this one mission produces.”

The American mission to St. Petersburg was a problem for the Lincoln Administration.   They had first sent Cassius Clay, an outspoken Kentucky abolitionist.   He last only a few months before he asked to be recalled, hoping for a military commission.  He was replaced in January 1862 by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, whom President Lincoln decided to remove from his post and needed a face-saving alternative.  Cameron also only lasted a few months.  In June 1862, Pennsylvania-born poet and travel-writer Bayard Taylor began his campaign to replace Cameron, writing Vice President Hannibal Hamlin:

Since reaching here, two facts have become apparent, both of which affect my plans — one favorably, and the other unfavorably. The first is, that Gen. Cameron will certainly not remain longer than September, when he will return to the United States. The second — Mr. Clay now regrets that he asked to be recalled, and desires to come back as successor to Mr. Cameron. He has already written to the President, asking to be re-appointed at the proper time. His object, however, as he frankly confesses, is simply to save a little money, by leaving his family behind him, and thereby reducing his expenditures. In this way, he could probably save some $3000 annually, but he would be equally satisfied with a position which would enable him to do the same thing at home. I do not wish to stand in the way of his interests, for I have a great admiration for his character and capacities; and if his object in asking to be returned were other than it is, would sacrifice my own desires. The true state of the case, however, does not oblige me to do this, and I see additional reasons for asking, most earnestly, to be allowed to remain in a higher capacity. I find that my volume of Travels in Russia has been approved by the Government Censor, and is allowed to be sold: I find, also, that my design of visiting Russian Asia could only be satisfactorily accomplished after I had been honored with some distinguished mark of the confidence of my Government — and the field is so vast, so important, and so interesting in its bearings on the future, not only of Russia but of all nations (our own included) that I cannot but think it worthy of some consideration at home. I have commenced the study of the Russian language, which I intend to master thoroughly. I intend also to make myself fully acquainted with the internal organization of the Empire — especially with all those phases and developments which it may be useful for us to know. In short, my residence here will be a period of earnest and laborious study, in which I hope to be of service to our beloved country. The researches and explorations I propose could, of course, only be accomplished after the termination of my official duties at this capital. For years I have looked forward to this work as the crowning labor of my life. If, on personal grounds, there is any hesitation in regard to my appointment, I have not a word to say: if not, I must ardently hope that other temporary political considerations may be laid aside, in this one instance.

In late October, Taylor renewed his campaign but writing Seward: “You will have already heard, through Mr. Cameron, that I desire to remain in charge of this Legation — that my only reason for accepting the Secretaryship was the opportunity which it gave me to qualify myself for more important duties. In this desire I am very anxious to have the support of your good-will, and therefore beg that you will hear the grounds on which I base my application.

As I have no purely political services to present, so I have no political ambition to gratify. My principal claim is, simply, the profound interest which I feel in Russia, her people, her present development, and her position with regard to the other great powers of the world. My knowledge of Turkey, Asia Minor, India, China and Japan, enables me to undertake the study, with peculiar advantages. The information which I am now gradually acquiring cannot fail to be of great value to the Government of the United States, in its future and possibly still more intimate relations with that of His Imperial Majesty. Without overestimating my own capacity, I may safely claim greater qualifications for the task — such as the knowledge of languages, the study of races, familiarity with European society and general experience of the world — than most of the applicants for the post, whose claims are based entirely on partizan services. The first measure applied to an American representative at foreign courts is that of social cultivation and general intelligence. His degree of political distinction at home is rarely understood, and has but a subordinate value. This post, especially, has not yet been filled by any one who has taken the trouble to acquaint himself with the language, institutions and natural destiny of the Empire. The Russians are sensitive on this point, and justly so. The little knowledge I have already been able to acquire has gained me their cordial good-will, and without any other recommendation, except their knowledge of me as an author, my relations with the officers of the Imperial Government are of the most cordial and agreeable kind.

Our interests here have been much damaged by the frequent changes in the Legation. My appointment would be one change the less — probably two, as I am willing to remain here for some years. You may ask, what is the selfish motive behind these reasons? It is, to produce a work in Russia which shall truly represent this great Empire to the world — which shall be so thorough and exact that it shall supersede all other works on the subject for many years to come. The necessary labor demanded by such a work would be almost entirely within the line of my official duty. In other respects, you are probably able to judge whether the interests of the country may be safely confided to my hands.

The above is my sole ambition. I shall never seek political distinction, I can save very little from the salary without damaging the standing of the Legation, and my social desires, so far as the circles of Courts are concerned, have already been satisfied. My private means have been so damaged by the war that I cannot afford to remain as Secretary, besides which, a subordinate capacity is not adapted to my habits of mind.

Taylor would not get the mission but he did get a Christmas Day note from President Lincoln suggesting that Taylor prepare a lecture on  “Serfs, Serfdom, and Emancipation in Russia.”   In 1863, Taylor would be named charge d’affaires at St. Petersburg.

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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