SC statesmen who helped build U.S.-Russian relations

Joel Poinsett
Joel Poinsett Provided photo

The diplomat who holds the record for longest-serving American ambassador to Russia. A swashbuckling young man from a wealthy American family who traveled to Russia in his 20s and almost served in Tsar Alexander I’s army in its famous battles against Napoleon.

What do these two men who occupied strategic positions in American-Russian relations have in common? They are both South Carolinians. In fact, South Carolina has enjoyed a fascinating role in U.S.-Russian relations since before the American Revolution.

Long before today’s Russian hacking controversy and President Trump’s controversial comments about Vladimir Putin, and long before Cold War anxieties between the United States and the then-Soviet Union, there was a solid diplomatic relationship, built carefully on mutual benefits and something approaching friendship.

South Carolina statesmen and politicians played a strategic role in this early American-Russian diplomacy, helping to craft decisions and policies that shaped the history of our young country. In fact, Henry Middleton, a 19th century South Carolina landowner, former legislator and governor, holds the record for longest-serving U.S. Ambassador to Russia in our nation’s history. Appointed by President James Monroe, Middleton and his large family lived in St. Petersburg, then Russia’s capital, for a decade.

However, another famous South Carolinian spent three years in Russia in an unofficial capacity almost two decades before Henry Middleton would become ambassador. Most remember Joel Poinsett as a sort of Renaissance man from South Carolina. During his career, he served as a South Carolina legislator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first U.S. Ambassador (then called Minister) to Mexico, U.S. Secretary of War, and co-founder of an organization that was the precursor to the Smithsonian Institute. Poinsett was also an amateur botanist who brought a bright red flower into the United States from Mexico, later named the poinsettia in his honor.

However, it is Poinsett’s three years spent in Russia during his 20s that hint at the scholar and adventurer that he would become. Equally significant is his relationship with Tsar Alexander I, who appreciated Poinsett’s intelligence and spirited demeanor.

At a young age, Joel Poinsett inherited a great deal of money. Like many wealthy young men of the time, he embarked on a trip to Europe, one that would take him across the continent to Russia. Arriving in St. Petersburg, Poinsett became acquainted with Russian aristocrats, even meeting with the Dowager Empress, the tsar’s mother. Upon finding out Poinsett was from South Carolina, she wanted to discuss cotton-growing in Russia, since she had given the new cotton industry there her patronage. A few days later, he was invited to meet with the tsar himself. Like Poinsett, Alexander was a young man, just 29 when he met Poinsett, and only two years older than the South Carolinian.

Impressed with Poinsett’s extensive knowledge and poise, Tsar Alexander tried to encourage Poinsett to join Russian government service. When he did not give the tsar an answer immediately, Alexander suggested that Poinsett “see the Empire, acquire the language, study the people,” and then perhaps he would be more inclined to stay on in Russia for a few years. Poinsett agreed to the invitation and left St. Petersburg on a journey through Russia that would last almost a year.

Poinsett made his way first to Moscow. He would be one of the last westerners to see Moscow before it was burned during Russia’s war with Napoleon’s forces, a scene vividly recounted in Tolstoy’s famous novel “War and Peace.” From Moscow Poinsett traveled to the southern regions of Russia, a region full of tribes led by a khan.

Upon Poinsett’s eventual return to the capital, Tsar Alexander again offered Poinsett a position, this time as a colonel in the Russian army. By now, however, news had reached Russia about the escalating tensions between the United States and England over maritime rights, and a war seemed inevitable. Poinsett made arrangements to leave Russia immediately for America. Before leaving the country, Poinsett met again with Tsar Alexander I, who told Poinsett of his approval of the strong stance made by the U.S. Congress against England’s attempt to dominate the seas. The tsar told the young South Carolinian that one day, he would like to have an official minister from the United States at his Russian Court. Little did Poinsett realize that in two decades, the person occupying that position would be a fellow South Carolinian.

Henry Middleton inherited not only immense wealth, but also an aristocratic and public service pedigree. One of South Carolina’s most prominent and prestigious families, the Middleton’s had a long history of serving their country. Middleton’s grandfather, also named Henry, was a leader of the American Revolution, who served for a time as President of the First Continental Congress. Middleton’s father, Arthur, was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and an original signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Middleton family owned numerous plantations in South Carolina, the most famous of which is Middleton Place near Charleston. Henry Middleton grew up there, and was educated by private tutors in Charleston and eventually was sent to England for a more formal education. He met his future wife in England, and they would eventually have 12 children.

Middleton was elected to the South Carolina House of Representative in 1802, and to the state Senate in 1810. He resigned when the legislature elected him governor for a two-year term. During his tenure as governor, the Bank of South Carolina was incorporated, and Middleton recommended, and the legislature approved, the creation of a statewide free public education system. Middleton also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Early in 1820, a letter arrived at Middleton Place from U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams offering Henry Middleton, under President James Monroe’s direction, the position of U.S. Ambassador to Russia, then called Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. They recognized that Middleton had traveled widely and knew European style and manners. They knew he was well-educated and came from an aristocratic background.

However, a primary rationale for Middleton’s appointment to serve in Russia came in two significant policy areas. Middleton’s hawkish attitude toward war with England would serve him well in discussions with Tsar Alexander as the tsar arbitrated the Treaty of Ghent issues after the War of 1812. And Middleton’s experience in politics would assist him in navigating the thorny issues concerning America’s determination to remain independent of European alliances.

At the time Henry Middleton arrived in Russia, there were five major European powers: Austria, England, France, Prussia, and Russia. After George Washington’s farewell address in which he admonished America to remain free of involvement in European politics, and with The Monroe Doctrine, the policy of the United States was to remain neutral without involvement in internal politics of foreign nations. The United States, however, was quickly becoming recognized as an important new country, and could not remain totally withdrawn from international affairs. Monroe and Adams thought Henry Middleton could serve the interests of the United States without becoming overly involved in European political issues.

While the Middleton family enjoyed a busy social life in Russia, Henry Middleton went about his work. The first several months of his tenure in Russia involved advising Tsar Alexander I as he arbitrated the Treaty of Ghent issue of reparation by England to America after the War of 1812. Alexander’s decision was not an easy one, but the tsar sided with the Americans. He came to the conclusion that the American claim to reparation from England was legally correct. Historians also argue that Alexander I wanted the friendship of the United States. President Monroe gave Henry Middleton much credit for helping the tsar to reach this decision.

Another significant issue with which Middleton dealt involved negotiating U.S. trade and fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest. Russia had long held rights to parts of this land and had historically limited both U.S. and English trade and fishing. Middleton raised the issue with the tsar frequently, and after months of discussion, Alexander signed a document that gave America more extensive trade and fishing rights. Historians, however, view the tsar’s decision more important for another reason: his decision to award America more fishing and trade rights effectively ended Russia’s plans to expand their occupation to more territory in the region.

In the middle of Henry Middleton’s tenure in St. Petersburg in 1825, Tsar Alexander I died suddenly while touring southern Russia. Since Alexander had no heirs, his brother Nicholas ascended the throne. Nicholas I went on to become a strong, militarist leader, and all indications are that he and Henry Middleton enjoyed a strong, positive relationship. Nicholas often invited Middleton to the palace for discussions and advice, and when Middleton’s tenure as ambassador came to an end in 1829, Nicholas I presented him with a very rare and expensive set of Imperial china once owned by Nicholas’ grandmother, Catherine the Great. He also gave Middleton a full-length portrait of himself, and today, this large painting of Tsar Nicholas I is on display at Middleton Place in our state.

With the changing landscape of U.S.-Russia relations today, it is fitting to remember the contributions that statesmen from South Carolina made in helping to establish policies between the two countries –at a time when our country was young, and when our positive relationship with Russia helped us emerge as a new world power.

Sherry Beasley is an educator who lives in Columbia, and has made several trips to Russia over the last several years, participating in various educational exchange programs.

Exhibit: “Friends and Fashion: An American Diplomat in 1820’s Russia”

Some of the most extensive accounts of the Middletons’ life in Russia come from the letters and diaries of Middleton’s wife, Mary, and her older daughters. A special exhibition of these items, along with portraits of the family’s time in St. Petersburg, will go on display this month in Washington D.C.’s Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, from Feb. 18-June 11.

For details about admission, location and hours: