Tom Dillard: Prescient Arkansan worried US underestimated threats posed by Russia

More than a century ago, Clifton R. Breckinridge, an Arkansan serving as American minister to Russia, clearly recognized that Russia posed a threat to American interests.

On Nov. 11, 1896, Breckinridge sent a personal letter to U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney in which he decried the tendency of Americans to underestimate the threats posed by Russia, concluding, "our people cherish the mistaken idea that in time of trouble Russia would help us. That time has past. Nothing now in sight indicates its return." Indeed!

Breckinridge had no experience in foreign affairs, yet he turned out to be a natural diplomat. Historian James F. Willis has written that Breckinridge "... never adjusted to the autocratic tone and character of government, diplomacy and society in St. Petersburg, but he was no backwoods diplomat. Rather, he was one of the ablest American diplomats of his era."

It should have surprised no one that Breckinridge was an able and astute man. After all, he came from Kentucky, the seedbed of leadership for 19th century Arkansas. Not only was Kentucky the birthplace of numerous early Arkansas leaders such as Whig Party founder Robert Crittenden and Territorial Judge Benjamin Johnson (a Democrat), it was where many well-off early Arkansas families sent their children for finishing school and college.

Clifton Rodes Breckinridge was born in Lexington on Nov. 22, 1846, to Mary Burch and John Cabell Breckinridge. "The Breckinridges were a political dynasty," James Willis noted, "that began with his grandfather, John Breckinridge, who was President Thomas Jefferson's attorney general. The dynasty continued with John Cabell Breckinridge, who served as a senator and vice president of the U.S. and as a general and secretary of war for the Confederacy."

Following his father's enlistment, 15-year-old Clifton joined the Confederate Army. Afterward he studied at Washington College in Lexington, Va., where former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was president, but left school reportedly because of problems with his vision. He settled in Pine Bluff and became a successful cotton planter.

Clifton felt the pull of politics at an early age. Shortly after his marriage in 1876 to the daughter of a rich Louisiana planter, young Breckinridge won election as a Pine Bluff alderman. In 1882 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a post he would hold for a decade.

Breckinridge's career was almost ended in 1890 when the Republican-controlled House ruled that he had lost the 1888 election due to fraud. His opponent in that election had been Republican John M. Clayton, brother of Reconstruction Gov. Powell Clayton.

The 1888 election was perhaps the most corrupt in Arkansas history, with Democrats taking whatever action they thought necessary to beat back a coalition of Republicans, organized labor and agrarian reformers.

Clayton contested the defeat and was murdered while gathering evidence in Conway County, where ballot boxes had been stolen by masked men. No evidence connected Breckinridge with the murder, and he was re-elected in 1892.

The economic panic of 1893 probably cost Breckinridge his seat in Congress. He had always been an outspoken supporter of the gold standard, not a popular stand with struggling Arkansas farmers. They supported bimetalism in an effort to expand the economy by minting more silver-backed currency. Democratic President Grover Cleveland, an ardent "gold bug," rewarded Breckinridge for his loyalty to the gold standard by naming him minister to Russia.

The appointment took Breckinridge, his wife Katherine, and three children to St. Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia. Located on the Baltic Sea, the city, although large and sophisticated, was frigid for much of the year, and the sun seldom shone. The staff was tiny, with one secretary and a messenger, though it was later augmented with a clerk and a doorkeeper.

The legation also had a military attaché for part of Breckinridge's tenure. At first the attaché, Lt. Henry Allen, was skeptical of the new minister and his wife, recording in his diary that they were "not at all qualified for the new role that they are to assume." By that, he meant the family lacked sophistication. They spoke only English.

Perhaps most importantly, Allen believed Breckinridge did not have the wealth to entertain properly. That was true. While he had some wealth -- and access to his wife's family money -- Breckinridge could not afford to carry on like his predecessor.

Breckinridge worried about the costs he incurred while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. At that time the State Department did not provide an embassy building, so the minister was expected to rent quarters sufficiently large for both the family and the legation. He found a location much less expensive than the previous minister, though it consisted of 20 rooms. He personally paid for the staff of Russian servants, all of whom were needed for the weekly dinner parties for 20 to 30 guests.

The State Department budgeted a mere $5,000 for entertainment. By contrast, the French embassy imported 100,000 roses for a single party. As devout Presbyterians, Breckinridge and his wife never entertained on Sundays, though Allen thought "such Puritanism is not adapted to either St. Petersburg or diplomatic society."

Much of the minister's day was taken up in mundane administrative matters. In March 1897, Breckinridge had to provide identification papers for Wadded Moccasin, a Sioux Indian left behind by a touring American Wild West show.

Despite the distractions, Breckinridge turned out to be an astute observer who constantly prodded the U.S. to pay attention to Russia. He was appalled by the authoritarian nature of tsarist Russia, its cripplingly slow bureaucracy, rampant antisemitism, and treatment of arrested American fur seal trappers.

"An autocracy has two degrees, one supreme and the other dependent," Breckinridge wrote to the State Department, "and our sincere good will for this [tsarist] Government and people is sometimes I fear construed to our disadvantage."

Breckinridge also detected a growing divergence in American-Russian interests, especially in Asia. Russia, the minister concluded, was expansionistic with eyes on both the tottering Ottoman empire in Turkey and China, which was being forcibly carved up into spheres of European dominance. He reluctantly concluded that Russia and America had little in common, stating "... our country has ceased to be either warmly or seriously taken into account by Russia."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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