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Forge of Empires

Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861-1871

About The Book

In the space of a single decade, three leaders liberated tens of millions of souls, remade their own vast countries, and altered forever the forms of national power:
  • Abraham Lincoln freed a subjugated race and transformed the American Republic.
  • Tsar Alexander II broke the chains of the serfs and brought the rule of law to Russia.
  • Otto von Bismarck threw over the petty Teutonic princes, defeated the House of Austria and the last of the imperial Napoleons, and united the German nation.

The three statesmen forged the empires that would dominate the twentieth century through two world wars, the Cold War, and beyond. Each of the three was a revolutionary, yet each consolidated a nation that differed profoundly from the others in its conceptions of liberty, power, and human destiny. Michael Knox Beran's Forge of Empires brilliantly entwines the stories of the three epochal transformations and their fateful legacies.

Telling the stories from the point of view of those who participated in the momentous events -- among them Walt Whitman and Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Chesnut and Leo Tolstoy, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie -- Beran weaves a rich tapestry of high drama and human pathos. Great events often turned on the decisions of a few lone souls, and each of the three statesmen faced moments of painful doubt or denial as well as significant decisions that would redefine their nations.

With its vivid narrative and memorable portraiture, Forge of Empires sheds new light on a question of perennial importance: How are free states made, and how are they unmade? In the same decade that saw freedom's victories, one of the trinity of liberators revealed himself as an enemy to the free state, and another lost heart. What Lincoln called the "germ" of freedom, which was "to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind," came close to being annihilated in a world crisis that pitted the free state against new philosophies of terror and coercion.

Forge of Empires is a masterly story of one of history's most significant decades.


Forge of Empires Chapter 1


Saint Petersburg, January 1861

IN THE WINTER PALACE two court functionaries walked down a long gallery towards a pair of massive bronze doors. They tapped thrice with their wands, ebony batons surmounted with double-headed eagles. The doors were thrown open, and the Tsar of Russia emerged from the seclusion of his private apartments, together with his Tsaritsa.

As he passed through galleries of his palace, the Tsar acknowledged, with the merest nod of his head, the bows and curtsies of the court. Every so often he would catch the eye of some devoted servant of the state, dressed, after the fashion of the eighteenth century, in silk stockings and a coat heavy with gold embroidery. The happy courtier, his face flushed with pride, would look about to see whether those around him had observed the mark of imperial approbation.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa proceeded to the Nicholas Hall, blazing with the light of a dozen chandeliers and ten thousand candles. Diamonds and sapphires sparkled on aristocratic bosoms; the cross and star of Alexander Nevsky flashed on glittering uniforms; moiré sashes shimmered. The chevalier guards, specially selected, out of the immensity of Russia, for their good looks, stood to attention in white tunics and polished breastplates. It was a spectacle meant to impress; and it did impress. Foreign visitors struggled to do justice to the triple pomp of guards and grooms and gold-laced grandees that hedged this man whose Empire stretched from Poland to the Pacific, from the snows of Siberia to the vineyards of the Crimea, and encompassed a sixth of the land surface of the earth. Some thought the Winter Palace baroque, others likened it to a northern edition of the Arabian Nights. All sensed in the autocracy of which it was the symbol a refinement of coercion, the most opulent and at the same time most naked form of power. In the world struggle between freedom and oppression, Russia figured as the beau ideal of government by force.

The Tsar and Tsaritsa opened the ball with a polonaise. When the dance ended, the imperial couple mingled with their guests. Those who had never before attended an imperial ball were startled by the courtesy with which they were received by Their Majesties. A “certain democratic air prevailed,” one diplomat thought. The Tsar was determined to put his guests at ease. His manner was amiable, even gentle. Nevertheless, an invisible veil hung about the person of the autocrat. An English visitor, watching the Tsar converse with an ordinary mortal, was reminded of “the Great Mogul addressing an earthworm.”

Alexander II was forty-two years old at the beginning of 1861. He had for six years been the supreme ruler of Russia. His upbringing had in many ways fitted him for the exalted station he occupied. His father, Tsar Nicholas I, though of a strong and despotic nature, with acts of blood and cruelty to his name, had nevertheless been a serious and in some directions a large-minded man. The prospect of surpassing other monarchs in the education of an heir had been agreeable to his vanity, and he had taken pains to prepare little Alexander for the throne. The Tsarevitch’s tutor, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, had labored to open the boy’s mind. In a letter to Alexander’s mother, the Empress Alexandra, Zhukovsky described the young Prince as “the beautiful poem on which we are working.” To less sympathetic eyes, Alexander appeared in a different light. There “are times,” one of his teachers said, “when he can spend an hour or more during which not a single thought will enter his head.”

When, at the age of thirty-six, Alexander ascended the throne of his ancestors, many predicted that he would not prosper. “He does not give the idea of having much strength either of intellect or of character,” Earl Granville wrote to Queen Victoria shortly after the Tsar’s coronation in Moscow. The more superstitious noted how, when Alexander was crowned in the Kremlin, the heavy chain of the Order of Saint Andrew slipped from a pillow and fell to the floor—an evil omen surely3.

No one knew better than Alexander himself the difficulty of his task. He had inherited from his father power and riches almost fabulous in extent; he was Tsar of all the Russias. But his Empire was troubled. Russia lay at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Over the centuries she had been oppressed by a succession of invaders. Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries a form of authoritarian government took hold in the land. The government of the nation that in time became Russia was modeled partly on the autocratic rule of the Byzantine despots, and partly on the tyrannical forms of the Mongolian Khans. Russia never knew the mixed constitutions which, in the Middle Ages, restrained the authority of the kings of Europe. The subjects of the tsars regarded themselves as “kholops, that is slaves of their Prince,” and the tsars, in turn, looked upon the state as their personal patrimony.

Sensible that a nation of slaves will never realize the highest forms of greatness, Peter the Great, who acceded to the throne in 1682, reformed the patrimonial constitution of Russia. But he chose, as his models of civil polity, the régimes which, in France, in Spain, and in Germany, superseded the limited monarchies of the Middle Ages, and erected in their place absolute governments supported by large military establishments. In doing so Peter exchanged one form of despotism for another. Nor was his effort to break with his own patrimonial habits altogether successful. His preferred method was coercion; and in order to break the spirit of those who opposed his reforms, he made liberal use of the ancient implements of despotism, the ax, the wheel, and the stake.

Catherine the Great, who ascended the throne in 1762, relaxed somewhat the servile régime of Peter. Russia ceased, in the waning years of the eighteenth century, to be a slave state. But she did not become a free state. The country suffered from the contradiction. The decaying autocracy, strong enough to overwhelm men’s energies, was too weak to suppress their hopes. The people were discontented, but they were no longer abjectly afraid. A crisis, it was evident, could not be far off.

Alexander ascended the throne determined to forestall the catastrophe. But how? Two courses of action presented themselves. One lay in a continuation of the policy of coercion, the other beckoned towards freedom. Free states like England and the United States had, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberated their peoples’ energies, and were rapidly outstripping their rivals in trade, in industry, and in the accumulation of capital. Their entrepreneurial creativity produced a series of technological revolutions that were reshaping the world. For a time the institutions of freedom seemed poised to carry all before them. But a countervailing reaction set in. Around the world, privilege rose up to defend its prerogatives. In Russia, in Germany, in America itself, grandees with their backs against the wall met the challenge of liberty with a philosophy of coercion designed to protect their power.

The new philosophy of coercion was founded on two ideas. The first was paternalism, an idea which, in different forms and under various guises, proved to be a potent weapon in the reaction against the free state. Landowners in Russia and in the American South argued that their domestic institutions embodied the paternal principle; the bondsman had, in his master, a compassionate father to look after him, and he was therefore better off than the worker in the cruel world of free labor. In Germany, the most ingenious of the Prussian aristocrats sought to implement a paternal code designed to regulate the masses and make them more subservient to the state. In the new paternal theory of government, the state was to love its subjects as a father loves a child. So Lord Macaulay, the great historian of freedom, wrote. The new paternal régime would “regulate the school, overlook the playground, fix the hours of labour and recreation, prescribe what ballads shall be sung, what tunes shall be played, what books shall be read, what physic shall be swallowed. . . .”

The second idea the grandees lighted on was militant nationalism. Shorn of the romantic rhetoric in which its apologists couched it, this form of nationalism meant the right of certain (superior) peoples to impose their will on other (inferior) peoples. Planters in the American South dreamt of enslaving Central America and the Caribbean. Germany’s nationalists aspired to incorporate Danish, French, and Polish provinces in a new German Reich. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, romantic nationalists with Pan-Slav sympathies yearned to rout the Ottoman Turks and impose Russia’s will on Byzantium. By creating an enticing jingo-spectacle, the nationalists hoped to divert the imaginations of oppressed populations at home. At the same time, they sought to open new fields of exploitation—what in Germany came to be called Lebensraum (living space). Not least, the nationalists worked to reinforce racial chauvinism, that convenient prop of the oppressor; they argued that certain races (white, German, Slav) were superior to other races. Militant nationalism, like authoritarian paternalism, rested on the premise that all men are not created equal; some men are more equal than others.

The easiest course for Tsar Alexander would have been to follow the path of coercion. He had only to place himself at the head of the great Slav nation and burnish the messianic eagles Russia had inherited from Byzantium. He could then hope to rout the Turk and seat himself on a golden throne in Sancta Sophia, the jewel of Constantinople. Russia’s problems would be solved in the acquisition of an even vaster empire, and she would become in fact what she had long been in mystical aspiration, the “Third Rome.”

But the Tsar, breaking with the traditions of his dynasty, chose the more difficult course. At a decisive moment in the gathering world crisis, Alexander decided that the future lay with freedom. He resolved to smash the fetters and liberate his country’s forgotten potential. He did not intend to relinquish his own autocratic power; that would be going too far. But though it is tempting to scoff at the imperial hypocrite, the step the Tsar contemplated was, given the condition of his country and the doubtful stability of his throne, a daring one. He intended to free the serfs.

Icy winds swept the night as the Tsar, in the warmth of the Winter Palace, made his way from table to table. The northern landscape that lay beyond the double-glazed windows—the snow-bound plazas and stage-prop temples—strangely heightened his authority; only a superhuman authority, it seemed, could contrive to fashion a capital out of this desolate ice-world. Inside, the tables were heaped with rare and delicate dishes, all that extravagance which despotism can command and in which absolute power delights to indulge. At each table Alexander spoke a few gracious words, then raised a glass of champagne to his lips and took up an hors d’oeuvre; his guests might then say that they had dined with the autocrat. At the next table he would, machinelike, repeat the performance. Wherever he turned, he saw faces flushed with dancing, wine, and the intoxicating sense of proximity to power.

He knew how soon the happy countenances would be changed into frowns and grimaces. The revolution he contemplated would displease many of his guards and courtiers. If conducted with insufficient finesse, it might even drive them into open rebellion. The serf-owning magnificoes of the capital would doubtless embrace a policy of romantic opposition to reform. A revival of the tradition of conquest, the raising of fresh regiments, the avenging of past humiliations—the old guard never could resist the call of a bugle-horn. But would the grandees stand patiently by while the Tsar experimented with freedom, and broke the chains of the vassals who harvested their crops, cooked their meals, and polished their jewels?

Washington, January 1861

JAMES BUCHANAN had long aspired to the office of President of the United States. At length, in the twilight of life, he had attained it. He was a curious figure; and not the least curious feature of his character was his relationship with the lady who served as the mistress of his White House. Harriet Lane was the President’s niece. She was also his most intimate companion. Nothing could be stranger than the intensity of the attachment that developed between the tired old bachelor and the strong and beautiful lady; but each was necessary to the other. Miss Lane organized a splendid social calendar for her uncle; she arranged exquisite dinners in the White House, and intimate champagne parties, though the President, weakly accommodating as he was in all the important questions of state, drew the line at card-playing, and he positively forbade dancing. Miss Lane, for her part, was exalted into a sphere far above that to which any young man of her acquaintance could have introduced her. In the afternoons, she would ride out, sidesaddle, on a white horse, with only a single groom in attendance. When she came in from her ride and greeted her uncle, no one who saw the pair could doubt which was the more formidable personage.

But how soon it turned to dust and ashes. In the autumn of 1860 the country was gripped by what President Buchanan could only regard as a strange hysteria. An election was on. In the North, paramilitary groups like the Wide Awakes organized torchlit processions in honor of their hero, Abraham Lincoln. Thousands of young men in flowing capes and black helmets carried their flambeaux with an almost religious fervor down the streets of Northern cities. When, in November, Lincoln was elected President, citizens in the cotton and rice counties of the South rose up to denounce his elevation. In South Carolina a flag emblazoned with the palmetto, the image of the state’s patriotic defiance, was hoisted at Charleston, and in December the state declared herself independent of the Union.

President Buchanan, in the White House, lay paralyzed by nervous irresolution. He trembled on the eminence to which his grasping mediocrity had raised him, and even Miss Lane was incapable of rousing him to exertion.

What was he to do?

No state had ever before seceded from the Union. The Secretary of State, old Lewis Cass of Michigan, a hero of the War of 1812, hobbled into the White House with a red nose and a gaudy wig. He implored the President to put down the Carolina insurrection by force of arms. The Secretary of the Interior, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, as vigorously pressed the President not to undertake measures that might kindle the spark of the Carolina revolt into a conflagration. Yet from President Buchanan himself there came neither orders nor actions, only a request for memoranda. Did a state, he asked, possess a right to secede? No, he concluded, it did not. Did the government possess a right to prevent a state from seceding? The light which the precedents threw upon the question was dubious. As the nation edged closer and closer to collapse, the President and his lawyers plunged deeper and deeper into the perplexing mysteries of sovereignty and the Constitution.

The futility of this policy was soon enough apparent. A country on the verge of civil war cannot be saved by barristers, and President Buchanan inclined to despair. The collision, in America, between the institutions of the free state and the philosophy of coercion was bound to be shattering. Here was concentrated, in a pure form, the essence of two antipathetic creeds. In the North, the principal opponents of slavery were, in temper if not dogmatic faith, Puritans, descended from men and women who, however sour might have been their characters, stoutly opposed a succession of tyrants. In the South, the leading planters were, in self-conceit if not hereditary fact, Cavaliers, who traced, or pretended to trace, their ancestry to men and women who sprang from the gentry of England, and who in the New World transmuted the principles of feudal subordination into a justification of human bondage. The characteristics of type must not be exaggerated. The planter, after the fashion of aristocracy, loved his own freedom, though he bought and sold slaves. The Puritan, having obtained liberty for himself, was often careless of that of others. But in the imagination of the Cavalier the idea of freedom slowly withered, while in the conscience of the Puritan it acquired a transforming strength.

Even in the Republic’s Golden Age, when Washington and Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson, bestrode the scene, the leading statesmen saw no way to assimilate the two antagonistic cultures. Unable to reconcile the institution of slavery with the professions of the Declaration of Independence—the faith that all men are created equal—the founders of the American Republic threw onto the future a burden they could not shoulder themselves. The generation that succeeded the founders shrank from the problem their fathers had bequeathed to them. The spirit of the Republic’s second epoch—its Silver Age, the age of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster—was the spirit, not of inspired creation, but of cautious compromise, the virtues of which were openly celebrated in the audacious bargaining of Clay, and darkly conceded in the polished orations of Webster.

But the Silver Age was breaking down. In the South, power passed from the tobacco counties of Virginia, where the planters had long assumed, or at least affected, a pose of anguish over their chattels, to the richer soils of Mississippi and Alabama, where a more lucrative crop— cotton—overcame any such fastidious doubts. In 1861 the leading cotton planters looked, not to Virginia, but to South Carolina for a moral and intellectual ideal. In some of South Carolina’s tidewater districts slaves accounted for more than eighty percent of the population. The slave driver there could not be as careless of his bondsmen as the Virginian was or pretended to be, and the intellectuals of the Carolina master class elaborated justifications of coercion grounded in the same paternal theories advanced by grandees in Russia and Germany. Under the tuition of South Carolina, Southern political leaders ceased to be reluctant apologists for slavery; the “Fire Eaters,” as they were called, pronounced their peculiar institution “a good—a positive good.”

Men in the North also hastened towards the precipice. Abolitionists, touched by the light of the old Puritan conscience, demanded the immediate emancipation of the slaves, while partisans of Free Soil repudiated the conciliatory policies of the Silver Age and called for the prohibition of slavery in the virgin territories of the West.

President Buchanan, weak and dispirited though he was, attempted, after the fashion of the Silver Age, to work a compromise between the spirit of revived Puritanism and the ghost of renovated feudalism. The President was himself one of the last of the Silver Age statesmen. He had first entered Congress in 1821, when Jefferson and Adams were living. But the President had outlived his age. The accumulated burden of suspicion and mutual antipathy was by this time so great that it is doubtful whether even the arts of Clay or the oratorical skill of Webster could have effected a compromise between the contending sections and philosophies. And in vigor and ability, in imagination and courage, in all the qualities that make for greatness in politics, Buchanan was far inferior to Clay and Webster. He had, moreover, forfeited any claim to impartial arbitration. Though he came from Pennsylvania, his sympathies lay decidedly with the racial paternalism of the slaveholders and their dream of a Caribbean imperium; he was a true doughface.

Yet he had the strength of his weaknesses. He was by vocation less a leader than a diplomat; and diplomacy, he believed, might yet save the nation. He possessed the charming manners, the fawning graciousness, the half-effeminate politesse sometimes found in men who, through an idiosyncrasy of soul, combine a soft and yielding nature with a yearning for power and authority. Now, in the crisis of his career, James Buchanan comforted himself with the thought that his old suavity might yet save him.

Germany and France, February-March 1861

IT WAS NOT ONLY in Russia and the United States that the new decade began with a heightening of tensions between the advocates of rival conceptions of man’s destiny. Germany also was torn. Some Germans spoke of the need for free constitutions and ministers responsible to elected lawmakers; others exalted an ideal of national power, to be realized in a new and potent German state. Still others wavered between the two contending points of view, and cherished the delusive hope that their country could worship at the twin altars of power and freedom.

Of the two antagonistic parties, the champions of liberty possessed, at the beginning of 1861, the superior organization. They had formed committees, drafted reports, drawn up programs of action. By contrast, those who dreamed of a new German Empire had, at this time, no strategy; they had no plan. But they had something no less vital—they had an inspiration. Revolutions begin, not in plans, but in poetry, and in music4.

“God knows,” Richard Wagner wrote to a friend, “what will come out of this projected Tannhäuser: inwardly I have no faith in it, and that for good reasons.” The composer was, he said, tired—tired “to the very depths” of his soul. He was preparing for the production of his Tannhäuser at the Opéra in Paris, and nothing was going right.

The tenor in particular was a fiasco. Albert Niemann was a young man with a beautiful voice. He was eager to have a success in Paris. This, he feared, would be denied him. He had heard the chatter of the boulevards; Tannhäuser, it was predicted, would be a failure, and he would be dragged down in its ruin. He avenged himself against the composer, whom he regarded as the author of his misfortunes, by sullenly refusing to cooperate with him during rehearsals.

Wagner’s troubles were not limited to a desponding tenor. The composer was in debt, and he was reduced to humiliating shifts to raise money. “I have enormous losses,” he said, and “no one who helps me!” To one of his loves, Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner spoke of the tragic fate of the artist—his numerous ordeals, his struggles with the uncomprehending world, the unbridgeable chasm between his inner spiritual purity and the vileness of the philistines who so often thwarted his aesthetic will. “I feel myself pure,” he told Frau Wesendonk. “I know in the innermost depth of me that I have never wrought for myself, but only for others; and my perpetual sufferings are my witnesses.” No one, he said, understood him, though he ventured to express the hope that “some day something at least of my works will meet with understanding.”

As the night of the first performance approached, Wagner was sombre. He was, he said, a German—a German to the core of his being. How could he be expected to make music for Frenchmen?

The fatal night arrived. To the Opéra carriages bearing opulent figures of the Second Empire of the Bonapartes drew up. Ancient generals and grave counselors of state handed down their ladies. Young swells from the Jockey Club, having finished their games of baccarat, came swaggering in, intent on making mischief. At last the Emperor himself came. The audience rose, in a mass of silk and a blaze of tiaras, and Napoleon III, nephew of the great Bonaparte, took his seat in the imperial box.

The fuss over the Emperor’s arrival subsided, and the first strains of the opera sounded, with their note of obscure yearning. Then came a rising, and soon the listener was borne aloft, as to some Alpine height, “into the pure air.” Yet it was not the melody alone that was meant to soar; Wagner intended that his listeners, too, should ascend. He wanted them to leave behind the existing world, so sordid and prosaic, and to help him build a better, loftier one. His weapons, in this battle for men’s souls, were myths, forged in music. Like other romantic poets, he found an inspiration in his people’s oldest songs; he constructed Tannhäuser, he said, out of material with “typically German associations.” “My very blood and nerves were stirred with the greatest excitement as I began to sketch and develop the music of Tannhäuser. My true nature, which out of disgust with the modern world was oriented toward one that was older and nobler, enveloped with ardent embrace the eternal form of my being, and mingled the two in one stream: the highest longing for love.”

The Parisians in the Opéra yawned. Swathed in silks and furs, lapped in the accumulated luxuries of progress and empire, they were unable to see how soon their own repose was to be disturbed by the Sturm und Drang Wagner’s opera betokened. Before the decade was finished, their city would be besieged by German armies, and their temples and houses and hospitals would be smashed by German shells. The waking of Tannhäuser’s soul was a parable of the reawakening of Germany itself, freshly conscious of its strength. But the Parisians did not see it.

Their obtuseness was in some ways understandable, for the revolution in Germany was not, at the beginning of 1861, easy to perceive. The true extent of German power was obscured by the innumerable divisions of the German polity. Observers had, since the time of Tacitus, been astonished by the special qualities of Germany’s genius, its spirit of violent activity. But in March 1861 that genius was wasted in the squabbles of two hostile parties and three dozen petty sovereignties. Those who gave their adhesion to the party of liberty were absorbed in a contentious struggle with those who upheld the dogma of force. The two leading German powers, Prussia and Austria, were locked in a sterile rivalry with one another, and the spirit of a people which, a thousand years before, had subdued much of Europe under the standard of Charlemagne languished under the sway of so many inferior diadems.

During the second act the catcalls began to sound. Not even the presence of the Emperor prevented the young blades of the Jockey Club from caterwauling for their favorite ballerinas, who Wagner in his zeal for artistic purity had banished from the stage. At a signal they raised their white-gloved hands and blew their dog-whistles. “The row was beyond belief,” Niemann, the disaffected tenor, wrote to a friend in Berlin. “Princess Metternich, to whose patronage the production of the opera is mainly due, was compelled to leave the theatre after the second act, the audience continually turning round towards her box and jeering at her at the top of its voice.” On the second night Tannhäuser was again disrupted by the genteel hooligans of the Jockey Club. On the third night Wagner withdrew the opera. Tannhäuser was, Niemann said, “literally hissed off, hooted off, and finally laughed off” the stage.

Wagner himself was graceful in defeat; and after the third and final performance he retired to his rooms in the Rue d’Aumale. There, at two o’clock in the morning, the prophet of the German revolution was to be found quietly drinking tea and smoking his pipe with a small party of friends. He drolly accused one of the party, little Olga Herzen, the daughter of the Russian expatriate writer, of having hissed his opera. Yet at the same time it was noticed that his hand trembled uncontrollably.

France had triumphed over Germany in the Opéra. But Wagner was not wrong in his perception of the future. The slumberers had awakened.

About The Author

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Michael Knox Beran has written for The Wall Street JournalNational Review, and The New Yorker. A graduate of Columbia, Cambridge, and Yale Law School, he is a lawyer and lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and daughter.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 1, 2011)
  • Length: 496 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743270700

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