John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part I

During America’s War of Independence against British colonial rule, efforts were made by Congressional leaders to form alliances with European powers that could help them in their struggle. As a newly formed nation, the only significant diplomatic relationship was with France and King Louis XVI eventually agreed to assist the rebels in their battle against the British, France’s long-time rival. Efforts to develop ties with other European powers were largely rebuffed, since few of the ruling dynasties looked favorably on colonialists who wanted freedom from imperial rule.

Francis Dana, a Puritan jurist who was sent to St. Petersburg in 1781 with the hope of building a constructive relationship with Empress Catherine the Great, was never able to get an audience with her during his two year residence in Russia’s capital city. Thus America’s first efforts to form a friendship with the Russians failed miserably.

Alexander I and His Friendship with Americans

At the end of her life, Catherine the Great became preoccupied with the issue of who would succeed her to the throne. The heir apparent was her oldest son Paul, whom she despised. She thought he was too weak, not sufficiently Russian because he loved all things Prussian like his father, Peter III, and prone to needless cruelties. In addition, during her reign there were rumors of conspiracies to unseat her and his name was often mentioned in these schemes. But Paul’s son, Alexander, was the recipient of her affection and she groomed him to be the future Emperor of all Russians. She personally supervised his education and worked constantly to alienate him from his father. She also secretly prepared a manifesto instituting a new order of succession in which her grandson Alexander would become Emperor.

Despite her best-laid plans, Paul succeeded Catherine to the throne of Russia following her death in 1796. But his reign was cut short by a group of Russian nobility who murdered him in March 1801 and immediately made the young Alexander Russia’s new ruler. What a contrast from his father who had a mania for goose-stepping soldiers in Prussian uniforms and was considered by some to be mentally unstable!

Alexander I was a liberal minded reformer and an intellectual. He spoke English and French fluently, read works of philosophy, studied mathematics and geography, and sympathized with the revolutionaries in France. Unlike his grandmother, he also showed an interest in the new American republic and began a friendship with its president, Thomas Jefferson. In response to a letter from Jefferson in which the American president commented on his “great pleasure with the rising commerce between our two countries,” Alexander I wrote back and made “a pledge of the hospitality, the protection, and the prerogatives which they [citizens of America] will always enjoy in my domain.” He also added these remarkable words: “I have always nourished a high esteem for your nation, which has been able to make of its independence the most noble use in giving itself a free and wise Constitution which assures the happiness of all and of each.”

John Quincy Adams’ Preparation for an Assignment in Russia

John Quincy Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1767, and was raised by two remarkable parents, John and Abigail Adams. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill as a nine-year-old boy and first learned about the Declaration of Independence from the letters his father wrote his mother from Philadelphia. Much of his youth was spent overseas accompanying his father who served as a diplomat in France (1778-79) and in the Netherlands (1780-82). During these years, the precocious youth attended several universities before the age of fourteen, including the University of Leiden.

When Congress asked Francis Dana to travel to St. Petersburg as an American envoy in 1781, Dana asked John and Abigail Adams if they would allow their fourteen-year-old son to accompany him as his secretary. “Master Johnny” was obviously a gifted boy and Dana could not find anyone else willing to take on this assignment. Their frustrating two years in St. Petersburg were a difficult initiation for this young man who would later become a Congressman, a Secretary of State, and then America’s sixth President.

After he returned to America, Adams graduated from Harvard, was admitted to the bar, and began practicing law in Boston. In 1794, President Washington appointed him minister to the Netherlands, then to Portugal and next to Prussia from 1797 until 1801. He returned to Quincy, Massachusetts, where he began his political career. After losing an election to the House of Representatives in 1802, he was successful in his second effort and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1803. Following his service in the Senate, John Quincy Adams was asked to serve his country as its minister to Russia, a place he knew quite well.

When Adams left Boston in August 1809, his fourth trip to Europe by ship, he was clearly one of America’s most seasoned diplomats. He was forty-two years old, fluent in many European languages, and comfortable in diplomatic circles. This hazardous journey of seventy-five days in a simple merchant vessel was not for the faint-hearted, but Adams’ memoirs reflect no fear or anxiety on his part. He spent his days reading classic works of history and philosophy and studying sermons, which he critiqued in his journal. This diplomat from America was also probably one of the best educated persons of his day. Unlike his first trip to Russia with Francis Dana, this time he was going to St. Petersburg with a receptive Alexander I waiting to greet him.