Serfdom had long plagued the Russian monarchy, both morally and pragmatically. Since the time of the Empress Catherine the Great, if not before, the House of Romanov had grappled with the unpleasant fact that the vast bulk of their subjects lived in a form of legal slavery that had long since died out in other European nations. The fact that the slave-owning enterprise only persisted in a country like the United States which in 1861 was considered positively frontier by the established Great Powers of Europe, only added yet further embarrassment to Russia's national prestige.
To his credit, Alexander II managed to do what several of his ancestors had conspicuously failed to do - he transformed his scruples into actions. His late father, the ultra-conservative Emperor Nicholas I, who ruled Russia for thirty years from 1825 until 1855, had possessed an abhorrence of social unrest, having come to the throne amidst the turmoil of the near-revolution called "the Decemberist Uprising," which had attempted to put his liberal brother, Grand Duke Constantine, on the throne instead of him. Like Thomas Jefferson, in private Emperor Nicholas had held the opinion that the only thing more dangerous than having serfdom was abolishing it. The imperial government had a wolf by the ears - a distinctly disagreeable set of circumstances - but if they let go, the wolf was likely to maul them to pieces.
After thirty years of comparative success, Nicholas I had died amidst the wreckage of his foreign policy and the once-revered tsar was held by many of his subjects to have been proof positive that conservatism had failed. Alexander ascended the Russian throne amidst a general outpouring of national euphoria and expectation, not too dissimilar to that which had greeted Louis XVI of France in 1770. And after clearing up the national humiliation of Russia's failure in the Crimean War - to date the only major conflict the House of Romanov had actually lost - Alexander then turned his attention to the fact that twenty-three million or more of his subjects lived in a form of slavery which had vanished from countries like England in the fourteenth century. (Although the British Empire had not actually abolished racially-based slavery until the reign of King William IV, thirty years earlier.)
Some aristocrats surrounding the Imperial Family - and some of the Emperor's own relatives - begged him not to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom from slavery would mean nothing more than the freedom to starve - or so Russian conservatives claimed. With some justification, they pointed to the luck of peasants in France in the aftermath of the supposedly liberating Revolution. Hadn't their lives become exponentially more difficult thanks to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity? Why inflict the same kind of anarchic liberalised cruelty on Russia's peasant population? But, French peasants had not been owned by Louis XVI or by the French aristocracy. Russian serfs in contrast were owned by their monarchy or by the 5% of the population which made up the empire's nobility. The Emperor believed adamantly that such a position was both morally untenable and practically unsustainable. If Russia's industrialisation was to continue, then it was the monarchy's duty to free her from the repugnant institution of serfdom and from its crippling effect on a modern economy.
On March 3rd, 1861, Alexander II formally proclaimed the emancipation of twenty-three million of his subjects and formally endowed them with the inalienable rights and legal privileges of being full and free subjects of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor-Tsar-Autocrat of All the Russias. The Emperor himself saw the sunrise on the Emancipation day wearing a cherry-coloured dressing gown, sitting in his study in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
Years later, there was to be some confusion over the reaction of Britain and America to this imperial decree. Considering that Russia was regularly described as an arcane despotism by most 19th-century Americans and Britons, the fact that the world's most powerful absolute monarch had moved in the cause of freedom much faster and more definitively than the world's most celebrated republic was something that caused genuine bafflement or embarrassment. Abraham Lincoln, who ironically became president twenty-four hours after Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs, said, "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy."
Later, many in America were to claim that the Tsar had been influenced in the cause of freedom by the American ambassador to Russia, Cassius M. Clay, a fifty-one year old Yale graduate and abolitionist who had served in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Clay was indeed to become American ambassador to Saint Petersburg, but he did not set sail from America until May 1st - nearly two months after the Emancipation Proclamation - and he did not formally have an audience with the Emperor until July 14th, a day which most 19th-century monarchists chose to spend with a cold compress pressed against their foreheads. Clay's actual impact in his first spell as a diplomat in Russia was confined to spending most of his time trying to impress Saint Petersburg's aristocratic party-goers. On his second spell to Saint Petersburg, he was more effective - helping to negotiate the selling of Alaska to the United States, but, in 1861, his impact on the momentous events in the Tsar's empire was non-existent. Indeed, it's far more likely to have influenced him than vice-versa.
The Emancipation of the serfs was something which many in America and Britain would like to have seen as a sign of the triumph of Whig historical progress, but whilst modern economics certainly played a part in Alexander II's heroic decision, it's also true that the seed for the emancipation had been sewn in Russia itself years before. If Catherine II or Nicholas I had enjoyed Alexander's level of courage and idealism, they would have done what he did. Both Catherine and Nicholas had come to the throne in uncertain circumstances and, as such, were extremely fearful at the prospect of rocking the boat of state. Alexander, who succeeded in uncontested legitimacy, had no such fears and for years after 1861 he was nicknamed "the Tsar-Liberator."
He was still known by that name when, twenty years and ten days after freeing tens of millions of people, he was blown to pieces by a revolutionary bomb on the streets of Saint Petersburg.