Minister v. Ambassador

Clifton Rodes Breckinridge was the last Minister to Russia from the United States of America. This is one of those fine details of history that can get professional historians following over themselves and can trip up history buffs. It’s those little details that make history an art!

As part of the thesis process, and especially a biography, you have to become an expert of sorts in a lot of different areas of historical thought. For KCB I had to look at a lot of different areas – southern women, plantation life, material culture, Americans in Europe, nineteenth century motherhood, hereditary societies, and American diplomacy.

Some might say “Minister. Ambassdor. Same difference!” But no – just no!

Here’s what I wrote in my thesis.

President Grover Cleveland rewarded Clifton Rodes Breckinridge’s loyalty on issues such as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the Wilson-Gorman Tariff by appointing him United States Minister to Russia in 1894.[1]  Breckinridge should have been named as the first United States Ambassador to Russia. Instead, Breckinridge became the last United States Minister to Russia.  The United States Constitution grants the President the power to appoint “Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls,” but until 1893, the Chief Executive only bestowed the title of Chief of Mission or Minister to the American envoy.[2]  Foreign Service historian W. Wendell Blancké states that “ambassadorial rank was considered too exalted for the representatives of a democracy and smacked, moreover, of monarchy, titles, and la-di-da.”[3]

In 1893, Congress approved the use of the title Ambassador for the American representative in a foreign country.  The language included in the Diplomatic and Consular Appropriations Act stated

Whenever the President shall be advised that any foreign government is represented, or is about to be represented, in the United States by an ambassador . . . he is authorized, in his discretion, to direct that the representative of the United States shall bear the same designation.[4]

Cleveland immediately elevated the rank of the American envoy to Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy but he did not raise the rank of the Minister to Russia until 1898.[5]

Most historians consider Breckinridge’s tenure as minister successful.[6]  Breckinridge was among a hand-full of American diplomats who understood the political significance of late nineteenth century European governmental shifts. Breckinridge understood the “fundamental shift in American-Russian relations” and reported to Washington with his thoughts “on this changing pattern of diplomacy, provided analyses of the difficulties with Russia and urged appropriate adjustments in policy.”[7]  For almost a century, America and Russia maintained a diplomatic friendship because of a lack in competing interests between the young democratic republic and the giant autocracy but by the time the Breckinridges arrived in Saint Petersburg, the relationship between the two countries was changing.  Breckinridge alerted the President and other State Department officials of the Russian push toward the Pacific through the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad; the Empire’s desire to control the Korean peninsula; and efforts to “secure influence over the Chinese government.”[8]

As a member of the Southern elite, Katherine Breckinridge received an education that included literature, music, art, and French.  This education, especially her remedial understanding of French, enabled her to communicate with members of the Diplomatic Corps[9], their spouses and members of the Imperial Court because French was the official language of the Court.  The State Department provided its diplomats with little to no training and provided diplomatic wives with no training at all. The Imperial Court also saw no need to provide training to the envoy or his wife.  Clifton Breckinridge did correspond with his predecessor, Andrew D. White, former president of Cornell University.[10]  In a letter to Clifton Breckinridge in August 1894, White states “it will give me especial pleasure to be of use to you in any possible way before leaving this post in September.”[11]  He also opens a correspondence with Katherine Breckinridge and Mrs. White.

Raised in the tradition of the Southern Lady, Breckinridge reverted to many of the tenets of the Cult of True Womanhood during her four years in Russia.  The tenets of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness served her well in Russia. Another American woman born at a different time, of a lower socioeconomic class, or raised in a different region of the United States would not have had the skills to adapt to the patriarchal and hierarchical world of 1894 Saint Petersburg.

The Breckinridges arrived in Russia during a volatile period in the Empire’s history.  In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs and five years later in 1866, a Russian revolutionary attempted to assassinate him because of the assassin’s dissatisfaction with the Emancipation Acts of 1861 and other issues such as the economic disparity between the ruling class and the majority of the Russian people.[12]  For the next twenty-eight years, social upheaval such as peasant discontent plagued the reigns of Alexander II and his son, Alexander III.  By 1894 with the ascension of Nicholas II to the throne, the revolutionary undertones within Moscow and Saint Petersburg increased through public demonstrations and peasant outcry against the Tsarist regime.[13]

[1]James F. Willis, “Clifton Rodes Breckinridge,” in Arkansas Biography(Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 37. [2]William Barnes, The Foreign Service of the United States: Origins, Development, and Functions(Washington, DC: Department of State, 1961), 146. [3]W. Wendell Blancké, The Foreign Service of the United States(New York: Praeger, 1969), 15. [4]Blancké. 15. [5]Ibid. [6]James Duane Bolin, “Clifton Rodes Breckinridge: ‘The Little Arkansas Giant’,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly53, no. 4 (1994): 417; Willis, “An Arkansan in Saint Petersburg,” 4. [7]Willis, “An Arkansan in Saint Petersburg,” 4-5. [8]Breckinridge to Gresham, February 18, 1895, Diplomatic Despatches From United States Ministers to Russia, 1808-1906, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives Microfilm Publication M35, Roll 46. [9]In July 1896, the Diplomatic Corps in Saint Petersburg included seven ambassadors, fifteen ministers (including Breckinridge), one chargé d’affaires, and one military representative from Austria-Hungary. List of Diplomatic Corps, Container 872, Family Papers. [10]White was also the first president of the American Historical Association and president of the American Social Science Association.  Although the federal government did not officially regulate career Foreign Service until after the turn of the twentieth century, White’s diplomatic life could be called a career.  He served as Commissioner to Santo Domingo, Minister to Prussia, Minister to Russia, a member of the Venezuela Boundary Commission, president of the American delegation to The Hague Peace Conference, and Ambassador to Germany between 1871 and 1902. [11]Andrew D. White to Clifton Rodes Breckinridge, Saint Petersburg, 4 August 1894, Container 851, Family Papers. [12]W. Bruce Lincoln, The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias(New York: Doubleday, 1981), 575-577; 437-447. [13]Ibid, 479; 591-592.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s