Clinton’s mentor and the Russian interregnum of 1825

In his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic nomination, Bill Clinton named his history professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, Carroll Quigley, as a major influence. Quigley was a scholar of wide-spanning, almost Toynbean ambition and indisputably great learning. Perhaps the greater the range of a historian’s interests, the more relaxed is his approach to peripheral facts.

From Prof. Quigley’s 1976 lecture, Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, 976-1976:

There are no constitutional rules of succession in Islamic Civilization, in Byzantine Civilization or in Russian Civilization — ever. To talk about constitutional law in Russia is to talk nonsense. Alexander the First left a note in his desk saying that he wanted his second son, I believe, to succeed him, and that settled it. That was not an act of constitutional law: it was an act of will.

Alexander I had no sons; his two daughters died in infancy. He might have had illegitimate children but no historian has seriously suggested Alexander ever thought of them as heirs to the throne.

What Quigley probably had in mind are Alexander’s brothers. The claim becomes this: Alexander disinherited his natural successor, the oldest of his younger brothers, in favor of the second-oldest, in a secret and whimsical manner.

I would call it an unorthodox view. As a scholar of the Napoleonic period — his doctoral dissertation was The Public Administration of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy — Quigley might have had access to some secret archive unavailable to Russian historians, but speaking seriously, his recall of the facts was probably imperfect.

Alexander’s father, Paul I, enacted a succession law in 1797 restoring male primogeniture. Although Alexander loved and respected his imperial grandmother Catherine more than he did his father Paul, he only made one change to the succession law, disqualifying children of morganatic marriages from the throne. 

Paul’s law made Constantine, the second of Paul’s sons, Alexander’s lawful successor, although Constantine’s children from his marriage to Countess Grudzińska might have been ineligible for further succession. However as early as 1819, Constantine indicated he was indisposed to rule. In 1823, he sent a formal letter to Alexander asking to be removed as his heir. Alexander wrote a manifesto citing Constantine’s renunciation and making Nicolas the heir apparent. For some reason, however, Alexander sealed the manifesto and ordered it published upon his death.

Alexander passed away unexpectedly on November 19, 1825. The State Council, the advisory legislative chamber created and appointed by the late emperor, was at a loss: Alexander’s manifesto appeared to contradict the succession law. The majority of the council decided to pledge allegiance to Constantine, and were encouraged to do so by Nicolas, who also took the oath, on November 27. 

Once Constantine had confirmed his refusal to take the scepter, Nicolas proclaimed himself emperor on December 13. The day after, Decembrist officers assembled their troops in the Senate Square in St. Petersburg but were defeated. They used the temporary confusion over the succession process to strike but it was too late. Perhaps they would have had a chance if Constantine had changed his mind.

Quigley’s offhand remark works like a fun house mirror. Not Alexander’s second son but second brother. Not an envelope discovered by chance but three sealed copies of a decree left with three trusted officials. Top bureaucrats reluctant to accept the late monarch’s will as law. (As to why Constantine stepped aside, and whether he was coerced to a decree, conspiracy theories abound.)

This does nothing to disprove Quigley’s general thesis, of course. One can argue that in matters of succession, Russian autocrats faced options limited by tradition or by elite opinion but that would take a more serious effort than correcting an imprecise statement.

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