John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part III

Russia Withstands Napoleon’s Attack

While America was engaged in another war with the British, Adams was a witness to the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in June 1812. In a letter to his mother Abigail, Adams argued that in the course of human history since the creation of the world, he could not think of a greater, more sudden, and more total reversal of fortune ever experienced by man that what Napoleon faced as a result of his attack on Russia. Over the course of twenty years he had been a leader with unparalleled success. Then, on June 24th, he entered Russia at the head of an army of 300,000. On September 15, he took possession of Moscow, while the Russian armies retreated before him, but not without a fight. Of the two battles between French and Russian soldiers, one “was perhaps the bloodiest that has been fought for many ages.”

In Adams’ judgment, Napoleon appeared to believe that all he had to do was reach Moscow and the Russian Empire would fall prostrate at his feet. Instead, to his great surprise, Napoleon realized that he was in trouble. Moscow was destroyed in part by his troops and in part by the Russians themselves. First his communications were interrupted by small detachments of Russian troops. Then he found re-constituted Russian army groups on his flanks closing in on him while he spent an idle six weeks in Moscow. Napoleon soon found himself with a starving and almost naked army 800 miles from his frontier, exposed to a rigorous Russian winter. On October 28, Napoleon began his retreat but it was too late. Thousands of his men perished by famine, thousands from the deadly winter, and thousands simply threw down their weapons without a fight. Adams concluded that if Napoleon “has a soul capable of surviving such an event, he will probably be a prisoner himself.”

In a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, Adams extolled the courage and fortitude of the Russian people during their courageous battle against the invading French army. He wrote there was “little to censure and much to applaud and admire” in the conduct of Alexander I, the nobility, the citizens, the peasants, and the Russian army. “The spirit of patriotism has burnt with the purest and most vivid flame in every class of the community. The exertions of the nation have been almost unparalleled; the greatest sacrifices have been made cheerfully and spontaneously.” He continued: “In the most trying extremity they have been calm and collected, deeply anxious, but uniformly confident and sanguine in their hopes of the result.”

As Adams reflected on the consequences of the defeat of Napoleon and the march of the victorious Allies (Russia, England and Austria) into Paris, he predicted that revolutions would follow in Germany, France and Italy and that Alexander I would become the “Arbitrator of Europe.”

Russian-American Relations After the Wars Ended

As his five years of service in St. Petersburg came to an end, and the defeat of Napoleon was assured, Adams had high expectations for the Russian Tsar. He wrote that he placed “great reliance upon the moderation, equity, and humanity of the Emperor Alexander,” and he confessed that “I have confidence in nothing else.” Adams was convinced that the Allies on the European continent “must be governed entirely by him” and that Alexander I must resist the policy of severely crippling defeated France.

While Russia was involved in the struggle against Napoleon, Alexander I offered to mediate the peace negotiations between the Americans and British who had been at war since 1812, a war that resulted in the burning of the White House by British troops. Repeatedly his efforts at mediation were accepted by the Americans, but rejected by the British. Finally the British agreed to direct negotiations with the Americans and the Treaty of Ghent was eventually signed on December 24, 1815, without Russian involvement.

The high expectations of Alexander I that John Quincy Adams had when he left St. Petersburg to become Minister to the Court of St. James in London and then Secretary of State vanished in subsequent years. The second half of the reign of the Russian Emperor was much different than the first half. He abolished many of his own liberal reforms and become more arbitrary in his behavior while serving as one of Europe’s most powerful leaders. “Liberty,” he maintained, “should be confided within just limits. And the limits of liberty are the principles of order.” Until his death in 1825, Alexander I increasingly became more autocratic and no longer was admired by American leaders.

Commercial relations continued to grow between America and Russia in the early part of the 19th century, but the mutual admiration that had previously existed between the young Alexander and President Jefferson was over. As Secretary of State in the cabinet of President James Monroe and later as America’s sixth President, John Quincy Adams faced a much less friendly neighbor. Alexander I’s successor, Nicholas I, had no sympathy for democracies or constitutional governments and American leaders were equally disinterested in a close relationship with a rigid autocratic regime.