Title Reviewed:
A Kentuckian at the Court of the Tsars

Author Reviewed:
James Rood Robertson

Lee F. Crippen


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 155-157

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Kentuckian at the Court of the Tsars. By James Rood Robertson. Berea College Press, Berea, 1935. Pp. 286, $2.50, illustrated.

This volume deals with the ministry of Cassius M. Clay to Russia 1861–62 and 1863–69. Mr. Clay was one of Kentucky's most picturesque characters. Dr. Robertson's book presents a fine biographical study of what was perhaps the most dramatic and colorful decade in Mr. Clay's life of ninety-three years. Though Mr. Clay would naturally have preferred a diplomatic position in England or France, a conference with President Lincoln led him to accept an appointment to Russia. This was most fortunate as he was well fitted for the Russian post and he soon came to refer to himself as "a sentinel on the frontier" (p. 35). He had much in common with the upper classes of Russia and undertook to outdo the Russian aristocracy in their own field. He became a welcome guest at social functions and invitations to his dinners were not only accepted but sought after.

Mr. Clay's letters were sometimes curious diplomatic documents, ranging over the whole field of international affairs rather than being confined to specific issues. He was of course vitally interested in the political and military conditions in the United States and often made suggestions and gave advice concerning these to Secretary Seward and President Lincoln. His correspondence also gives interesting characterizations of personalities—rulers, foreign ministers, other diplomats, etc., with whom he came in contact both in the United States and in Europe.

Mr. Clay was an enthusiastic admirer of Tsar Alexander II and of Prince Alexander Gortchacow, the Russian Chancellor. The genuinely cordial feeling of Prince Gortchacow for Mr. Clay led to many special attentions and unusual opportunities. An example of this is cited by Dr. Robertson in the invitation to Mr. Clay to attend the reception given by the Mayor and citizens of Moscow in 1866, on the occasion of the anniversary of Alexander's coronation and the Emancipation Proclamation for the serfs—a courtesy, the first of its kind granted to Russia by a foreign legation.

Dr. Robertson presents the interesting comparison of the position of the United States during the Civil War, and Russia during the Polish Insurrection. When England and France were threatening intervention in the United States Civil War, our minister sought and obtained moral support from Russia who assured us that we "could count upon most cordial sympathy". In 1863, during the Polish Insurrection, Mr. Clay found the tables turned and he was to seek moral support of his country for Russia when Great Britain, France, and Austria were proposing that the United States join them in intervention in Russia's internal affairs. Prince Gortchacow was gratified at the refusal of the United States to join these powers, and conveyed the Tsar's appreciation of the "firmness with which the government of the United States maintains the principle of non-intervention" … and the "loyalty with which they refuse to impose upon other states, a rule, the violation of which in respect to themselves, they would not allow" (p. 148).

The author also discusses Mr. Clay's concern over French intervention in Mexico, his opposition to the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction, his lack of sympathy with the notorious Perkins claims against the Russian government, his activity in promoting the plan to connect Russia and the United States by telegraph through Alaska and Siberia, and the Purchase of Alaska.

The book is written in a charming narrative style and will appeal not only to Kentuckians but to all who are interested in our diplomatic history. A noteworthy feature of the work is nine full page illustrations. The frontispiece is a photograph of Dr. Robertson, who died in 1932. The other eight illustrations pertain to the life of Mr. Clay and his Russian mission. The little volume has faults which are evident to the professional historian, such as incomplete footnotes. There are also evidences of the inexperience of the printer. The lack of more complete documentation is doubtless due to the untimely death of the author. Dr. Robertson had practically completed the manuscript before his demise. His widow, Catherine Lansing Robertson, edited the manuscript and arranged for its publication. In spite of minor shortcomings, however, this modest book is a wholesome and welcome aid to the understanding of our relations with a friendly European power during a critical period in our history.


Published by the Indiana University Department of History.