"Reactionary, Catholic and Despotic Poland."

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"Reactionary, Catholic and Despotic Poland."


            The Polish Insurrection demonstrates the extent to which American diplomacy prioritized a strong relationship with Russia during the Civil War. In January 1863, protests against conscription in Poland exploded into a general rebellion against Russian rule.[1] The official diplomatic response of the United States reveals both the geopolitical conception of Russia as an unofficial ally and the perception of Alexander II as a respectable and just ruler.

            Since the realpolitik of European relations in the mid-19th century had already shaped the progression of Russo-American relations, unsurprisingly the relationships between Britain, France, the United States, and Russia would shape American policy regarding Poland. In May, Britain and France requested that the United States join an official statement of disapproval.[2] As discussed, Britain and France had become the unofficial counterbalance to the de facto alignment of the United States and Russia, and therefore the American refusal to intervene reinforced this friendship.

            The language of American diplomats at that time, however, reveals that American unity was not simply a practical response to geopolitics. In his official response to the French, Secretary of State William Seward referenced the “enlightened and humane character” of Alexander II, so described for his emancipation of the serfs and “effective administration of justice.”[3] Such high language demonstrated the respect for Russia that the American government openly espoused, especially in light of its own recent emancipation. Somewhat less appealing was the private comment of Cassius Clay, minister to Russia. In a reply to Seward in June 1863, Clay contrasted “liberal Russia” with “reactionary, Catholic and despotic Poland.”[4] At least privately, enthusiasm for Russia both as an ally and a fellow emancipator could lead American diplomats to criticize the Polish insurrection as the enemy of progressive Russian rule.

[1] Joseph Wieczerzak, “American Reactions to the Polish Insurrection.” Polish-American Studies 22, no. 2. (Jul.-Dec., 1965): 92.

[2] Benjamin Platt Thomas, Russo-American Relations, 1815-1867. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1930), 136-137.

[3] Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), 667.

[4] “American Reactions to the Polish Insurrection,” 94.


Samuel Coffin


Papers Relating to Foreign Affairs. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864.

Benjamin Platt Thomas, Russo-American Relations, 1815-1867. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1930.

Joseph Wieczerzak, “American Reactions to the Polish Insurrection.” Polish-American Studies 22, no. 2. (Jul.-Dec., 1965): 90-98.


January 1863-1864


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