Puritan Diplomat in Tsarist Russia (Part I)

America’s first effort at formally initiating diplomatic relations with Tsarist Russia began during the War for Independence from Great Britain. When the war began, the only formal diplomatic relationship that existed for the American Republic was with France and any problems Americans had on the European continent were often handled by French representatives. For the revolutionary leaders, it was of critical importance that the new republic establish diplomatic ties in Europe and that allies be found to support their struggle for freedom from British colonial rule. A delegation was sent to France and Holland under the dominant leadership of Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay was sent to Spain.

When war broke out between the colonies and the British, the Great Powers of Europe immediately became involved. France, having been badly beaten by the British in the Seven Years’ War, was looking for revenge. By 1778, King Louis XVI signed an alliance with the Americans and declared war on Great Britain. French weapons poured into the colonies and the American rebels were declared “one people with us” by the French leadership. The Dutch and Spanish followed suit.

The Pivotal Role of Catherine the Great

One major factor that had to be addressed was the role of Russia under the leadership of Catherine the Great. While the British had the best fleet in the world, their army was negligible and they usually hired mercenaries to fight their land battles. The Russians had a large army, hardened by war and known for their brutality, as seen during their repression of peasants in the Pugachev Rebellion. King George III asked Catherine the Great for 20,000 infantry, plus the use of Russian naval vessels to bolster his own fleet.

Catherine refused the request and expressed her frustration with the weakness of the British monarchy in the face of these rebels. She made it clear that she thought George III had mismanaged the whole affair and “should be taught a lesson.” Although she refused to form a military alliance with the British, Catherine considered an anti-American alliance with the Danish monarchy. She fumed about the rebellious “Sons of Liberty” and was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the “American rabble.”

Although she distrusted republics and despised rebels, she also craved power and viewed herself as the major force on the European continent. When she later proposed the “League of Armed Neutrality,” which was designed to ensure “freedom on the seas,” this alliance was targeted at the British and, in effect, isolated them. By doing this, Catherine the Great “almost inadvertently helped midwife America to independence,” according to historian Jay Winik.

Francis Dana’s Mission to St. Petersburg

Francis Dana

The person chosen to represent the new American Republic in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire built by Peter the Great, was a lawyer from Massachusetts, Francis Dana. Educated at Harvard, he graduated in 1762, and built a successful legal practice in Boston. When the conflict with Great Britain began to dominate life in the colonies, he was elected to the Massachusetts provincial congress in 1774; sent to England in 1775 to reconcile differences with British authorities, which failed; and was then elected to the Continental Congress in 1777, where he subsequently signed the Articles of Confederation.

Dana went back overseas as secretary to John Adams who was sent to Paris to join a team of American representatives in the capital of the republic’s most important ally. Then, a year later (1780), Dana received a commission from the U. S. Congress to serve as America’s first minister to Russia. His only staff assistant was the precocious fourteen-year-old son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams.

Francis Dana and John Quincy Adams arrived in St. Petersburg on August 27, 1781, with high hopes and great ambitions. While some diplomats feared this assignment because they thought they could be banished to Siberia, Dana was anxious to build a relationship with Russia based on trade that would benefit both nations. However, Catherine the Great and her officials refused to acknowledge the presence of the Americans and would not give them an audience.

For the Puritan diplomat, who thought in terms of principled action and argued for the “justice” of the American cause, the realization that European courts, especially in St. Petersburg, were full of intrigue, favoritism and blackmail was a shock. Dana soon learned that the signature of any public treaties required substantial gifts in hard cash, not snuff-boxes or wood carvings like in Western Europe. Catherine the Great made it known that any foreign power entering into a treaty with Russia had to pay 6,000 rubles (4,500 pounds sterling) each to her four ministers. To a frugal Congress, this information came as a rude surprise. Not only was the Russian Empress not willing to even meet with the American representative, but any treaty signed with her government would be very expensive. This was the seedy side of European diplomacy that encouraged Americans to distance themselves from “entangling alliances” in Europe.

Although the leadership in the Continental Congress continued to assume that Russia would welcome constructive relations with the new republic, Catherine the Great adopted an attitude of hostility toward Dana and his mission. For the Empress and other autocratic rulers of Europe, the intrusion of the American Republic into their delicate balance of power system was a problem. There was no place for a Republic in their established system of dynastic alliances. Dana’s frustration, which was shared by other Founders, was articulated in these words: “Does the world not recognize that we are destined to be a great power?”