Skip to main content

The Yankee And The Czar

May 2024
23min read

Amid the intrigue of the Russian court, John Quincy Adams took walks with Alexander I, spoke up for America, and scored a diplomatic triumph.

In late October the sun hangs low in the south over the Gulf of Finland and sets early into the Baltic’s leaden waters. The equinox is usually seen only through clouds scudding from the rime-crusted shores, and it signifies not the turning point of autumn but the onset of winter, bringing ice that soon seals the harbors.

Captain Beckford of the American merchant brig Horace, over seventy days out of Boston, had been anxious about making Kronstadt before the ice closed in as he beat up the Baltic in the equinoctial weather of 1809. He had set out on a hot noon in early August from the wharf of his owner, William Gray, just as the Boston and Charlestown bells rang the hour. Aboard he had a cargo of American and West Indian staples such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee to be traded for Russian hemp, cordage, iron, and naval stores. He also carried a distinguished passenger, a friend of owner Gray, going abroad on an official diplomatic mission.

Europe was at war, as it had been off and on for over fifteen years. The Horace’s passage was delayed, once she entered the North Sea, by the British on one hand and the allies of Napoleon on the other—two sides each blockading the other and thereby harrying neutral traffic. Alter being boarded by two of the King’s ships and then hailed into a port of the opposing Danes, Captain Beckford thought he had best give up trying to reach Kronstadt before winter and lay over in Germany until the spring. But his passenger, a prematurely bald man just over forty, with an air of austerity that sometimes relaxed after a glass of wine at the Captain’s table, called on him to push on despite the obstacles.

So on October 22 the Horace finally made landfall on the gray headlands of Kronstadt, entry port of imperial Russia’s vast domain. A guard ship drew near. The Horace asked for a pilot, but a three-hour wait in the blustery roadstead produced none. By now it was dusk, and the passenger hailed the guard ship for a boat to take him ashore for overnight lodgings. On the way in he was challenged by a naval barge and summoned by officers speaking German to present himself to the commandant of the port, one Admiral Kolokoltzof. This the visitor did, and on landing introduced himself as John Quincy Adams, Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Court of His Imperial Majesty Alexander, Czar and Autocrat of All the Russias.

Therewith began one of the most remarkable missions in the history of American diplomacy, as well as one of its most engaging ones. The crusty son of rugged John Adams, reared to be the leading young Puritan of Boston, found himself as America’s first plenipotentiary at the most extravagant, Byzantine, and corrupt court of Europe.1 His four years there were ones of rising tumult and drama, during which the envoy of the faraway republic conducted himself with an aplomb that captivated the most cynical of courtiers and a success that astonished even himself.

He walked with Alexander I when the youthful Czar and the conquering Napoleon were at the height of their exuberant friendship, having just divided between them virtually all the continent of Europe. He saw that friendship break up and end in Napoleon’s suicidal march on Moscow—and was in fact himself, like some fateful herald in classic tragedy, a contributor to that outcome. He not only observed the struggle of the dynasts at close range, but he spoke up on every side for our own American rights and aims and did so in such a way as to bring home what his historian grandson, Henry Adams (naturally disposed to favor the Adamses), called a diplomatic triumph “Napoleonic in its magnitude.” And amid all this he enjoyed himself in this exotic environment, dining out among the titled great, seeing the dawn in at balls, and even being captivated by the voracious Mme de Staël, the greatest man-killer of her day, although on mornings after he sometimes wrote self-reproving entries in his diary about “this life of dissipation."

Admiral Kolokoltzof showed every courtesy to the visitor on learning who he was and offered him and Mrs. Adams (accompanied by little Charles Francis Adams, then aged two) a government barge to take them up the river Neva next day to St. Petersburg. Tacking up the narrow channel past palaces and swamps, they drew up at length at the city quay opposite the huge equestrian statue that the late Empress Catherine had erected to her predecessor, Peter the Great, builder of this baroque metropolis on its twilit northern marshland.

Remote as the scene was from his house in Boylston Street. Adams was no stranger to it. He had in fact lived here for over a year when he was a schoolboy and America was not yet a republic. He had seen the great Empress Catherine in her splendor. Precocious in all things, Adams was never more so than when he had come here in 1781 directly from school to serve as private secretary to Francis Dana, an agent sent out by the Continental Congress in the vague hope of aid from Russia. Dana could speak no word of French, the language of the Russian court, and so John Adams had lent him his own son, who could speak it with ease and who thus became a diplomatic interpreter at fourteen. Almost thirty years later, at the table of the Russian imperial chancellor, Minister Adams caused surprise when he recalled that he had dined in this very house in company with the then French minister over half a generation before.

Schooled abroad also while accompanying his father on special missions, young Adams had come into his own diplomat’s estate as envoy to Holland at twenty-seven and to Prussia at thirty—altogether a preparation unique in our annals. Yet The Hague and Berlin at that time were hardly to be compared with glittering St. Petersburg, now the hub of half of Europe. Here, far down on the list, Adams found himself amid a high-titled, high-living diplomatic corps that included such names as Count Schenk de Castel Deschingen, minister of Würtemberg: the Duc de Mondragone, minister of the kingdom of Naples: General Pardo de Figueroa, minister of Spain; Baron de Bussche Hunnefeldt, minister of Westphalia: Count de Maistre, minister of Sardinia: and, leading all the rest, the magnificent figure of Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Duc de Vicence, Master of the Horse to His Majesty the Emperor Napoleon, and ambassador of France.

Still, minor as the American seemed in this company, high Russian officialdom promptly welcomed him. Within five days of his arrival Adams found himself at his first diplomatic dinner at the home of the chancellor, rotund, oleaginous Count Romanzoff, in company with the dashing Caulaincourt himself. Over forty sat down at table in what Adams described as “the style of highest splendor,” the men being “covered with stars and ribbons beyond anything that I had ever seen”—and he had seen Paris and London as well. The Chancellor took him aside to show him superb Sèvres vases presented to him personally by Napoleon—a hint, if any was needed, of the close relations between the two capitals. And the mood that night was one of special festivity. News had just come in that Russia’s ally Napoleon had signed a new, victorious peace with Austria following his triumph on the field of Wagram.

Within another week the American minister was received by the Czar, also under circumstances that suggested favor. Protocol specified that an arriving envoy, after being escorted through the succession of antechambers of the Imperial Palace, enter the Czar’s private cabinet with three deep bows, there to be presented by the master of ceremonies to the monarch standing in mid-room, after which a set address was to be delivered to accompany submission of the letter of credence. Yet Adams had barely begun upon his bows when Czar Alexander, alone in his room, advanced on him and disarmingly greeted him: “Monsieur, je suis charmé d’avoir le plaisir de vous voir ici.”

This was sometimes Alexander’s way. Far from being forbidding, he was at the time Adams met him the most ingratiating, the most handsome, and also the most tantalizing monarch of Europe. Then 32, tall, majestic, and already growing stout, he both looked and acted younger than his years. His complexion was strangely delicate; his eyes were almost boyishly bright; he wore his golden blond hair arranged in imitation of the heads on antique medallions. When he spoke, his voice adapted itself to each visitor, passing through myriads of shadings designed to convey friendly sentiment and solicitude. He enthused about French philosophy, Rousseau, even American republicanism, and was hard to pin down on anything. He looked the part of a young god, yet everyone knew that his late father had been insane and had been murdered in his own palace by Alexander’s friends. Napoleon, baffled, called him “The Northern Sphinx.” Adams, the junior minister at court, resolved to draw him out.

Their first meeting began with the usual exchange of amenities, Adams voicing on behalf of President Madison the hope that this mission would further the ties of friendship and commerce between the two countries and the Czar reciprocating with like sentiments. America’s position toward the “disturbances” presently agitating Europe, Alexander went on to say, was “wise and just.” He turned to the latest disturbance, namely, his own current war with Britain, and remarked, “The only obstacle to a general pacification of Europe is the obstinate adherence of England to a system of maritime pretensions which is neither liberal nor just. The only object of the war now is to bring England to reasonable terms on this subject.”

To Adams, apostle of the American doctrine of freedom of the seas, these were welcome words. The Czar took him by the arm and led him to the window overlooking the Neva. “As for me, I shall adhere invariably to those [principles] which I have declared”—meaning those he had declared to Adams about the rights of neutral navigation in time of war, although he hadn’t clearly declared them before. Adams at once remarked that the President would be highly gratified to find his Imperial Majesty in such agreement with our own American position, particularly since our country was “a great commercial and pacific nation.” The United States, he added succinctly, would use all means in its power consistent with peace and its separation from Europe “to contribute to the support of the liberal principles to which your Majesty has expressed so strong and so just an attachment.”

The talk continued far beyond the time usually allotted for presentations, ranging over topics from the climate of Massachusetts to the geographic extent of Russia. “Its size is one of its greatest evils,” the Czar mused of his own country. “It is difficult to hold together so great a body as this empire.”

Adams had reason to be gratified by his first interview with the Czar. As his dispatches to the State Department show, he was aware of the strong impression he himself had made. What he did not know at the time was that there was another reason for the Czar’s special cordiality. On the very day of their interview, Alexander was privately weighing a move that was to become fateful for him, for Napoleon, and for all Europe.

The young Czar was fighting Britain and her pretensions on the seas. Yet his bosom French ally was never more triumphant than now after his newest victory over Austria, and the peace he had imposed on her—in which France crept still closer to Russia’s borders—showed little consideration for the Czar’s aid and loyalty. Moreover, through his Continental System of counterblockade against England, Napoleon had set himself up as arbiter of all that moved to and from Europe by water, including that which moved to Russia. So the Czar found it interesting just now to talk at length to this short, well-spoken visitor from a neutral, transatlantic country that seemed to have no interest but peaceable trade. Very interesting, in fact. Who knew, in the end. …

Two days later, Alexander made his first move against his French friend. It was only a gesture—an expression of complaint at some of the terms of Napoleon’s Austrian treaty, cast in the flowery, courtly language of friendship—yet it cast its shadow before. From here the paths of the emperors began, at first imperceptibly, to part. It was Adams’ fortune to be present at the right place at a moment of historic change and to expound ideas that found echo in the mind of Napoleon’s uneasy partner in the game of European grab.

Adams’ own object was by no means to breed dissension among monarchs. It was simply to stop their interference with American shipping in the Baltic—a problem most acute in the narrow seas controlled by Denmark under Napoleonic edicts. But when he first raised the matter with Romanzoff, the pro-French chancellor sighed, saying that of course it would be pleasant if allied Denmark became more “liberal,” but that under present circumstances “this is a dream.”

Meanwhile the affairs of Europe moved at their slow, measured pace. It took a courier two weeks in winter to get through from Paris to the Russian capital, while Adams was fortunate if he could get an answer to a dispatch of his to Washington within six months. So there was time to look about, observe, and even amuse oneself.

Within less than a week of his arrival he had done some systematic sampling of Russian liquors—particularly the heady kvass and chitslitsky, which he found tasted like “small beer.” He found them “not unpalatable,” although Mrs. Adams didn’t agree. Then he attended his first full-dress royal affair, a Te Deum sung at the palace chapel in honor of the new Austro-French peace, beginning with a salute of cannon from the Admiralty and continuing for two hours as candles and icons were borne in procession and the Czar kissed the crucifix proffered him by the Archbishop.

Next came a ball at Chancellor Romanzoff’s, lasting very late, at which again “the dresses were more splendid, and the profusion of diamonds and other precious stones worn by both the men and women … was greater than I ever witnessed anywhere.” There the empress mother, widow of the late mad, assassinated czar, conversed at length with Adams on the subject of the St. Petersburg weather, which in November was notoriously bad.

This was followed by a dinner given by Count Einsiedel, the minister of Saxony, at which Adams shone by discussing German literature with his host, Homer with the Spanish minister, and the new constitution of Holland with the Dutch envoy. Next came a gala affair at the French ambassador’s, at which forty sat down to dinner and then heard Mlle Bourgoin, an actress imported from Paris, declaim scenes from Racine’s Phèdre. Afterward dancing began with a polonaise, while a French jester performed sleight-of-hand tricks in Caulaincourt’s private theater. From this, Adams got home at 2 A.M.

He met the grand dukes and grand duchesses at stiff palace receptions where conversation also centered on the weather (“How does Mrs. Adams support the climate of the country?” Alexander’s empress asked him), but he was more intrigued by the phenomenal Princess Woldemar Galitzin, who was “venerable by the length and thickness of her beard.” Adams had understood that beards were known among women “of Slavonian breed,” but the Princess, he thought, “of all the females I have ever seen [is] the one who most resembles a Grecian philosopher.”

Mrs. Adams, being pregnant, was often unable to accompany her husband on his evening rounds, which reached their midwinter height at a gay torchlight party given by Caulaincourt at his country retreat. To this the Ambassador had invited some fifty friends to enjoy sliding down his “ice-hills” with their ladies. Most of them came “specially equipped for the purpose,” Adams recorded in his diary, the men in heavy pantaloons, the ladies in fur-lined riding habits. Together, after a magnificent dinner at 4 P.M., they coasted on their posteriors while servants with lamps and torches lighted the way.

Adams’ custom had always been to rise early—never later than six—and begin the day with an hour’s reading of the Bible. Yet here “we rise seldom before nine in the morning—often not before ten. … The night parties seldom break up until four or five in the morning. It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation as I cannot and will not continue to lead.”

But he did, regarding it as his duty to meet everyone and miss nothing. On the empress mother’s birthday, festivities began with a formal court at noon, followed by a cercle that lasted until three. Then, after dinner, back to the palace for an opera at the adjoining Hermitage, followed by still another reception and the viewing of fireworks on the river. Easter Eve brought a late night in another vein. At midnight, as cannons heralded the coming of Easter, the imperial family and the whole court entered the palace chapel, each person carrying a lighted taper, while the choir in red-laced robes chanted a processional. After the ceremony of kissing sacred relics, the Czar embraced a whole line of priests, his mother then doing the same. Then the Czar embraced his mother, and all the grand dukes in turn embraced him and her. Thereupon the Chancellor, the grand chamberlains, and the officers of court also kissed the relics and the Czar’s hand, the chanting going on continually for an hour. Finally, as Adams stood astonished, the massed noblemen “turned to one another, and such a scene of kissing and embracing ensued as I never saw before. As they passed from one to the other it was a continual motion, like a beehive. It reminded me of a description in Ariosto of a Sultan and his Court falling suddenly into a fit of involuntary dancing.” After that, High Mass. Home at 3 A.M.

The minister of Austria, elderly Count St. Julien, then gave a dinner in a style designed to rival that of the French ambassador. Footmen lined the antechambers and stood behind each place at table. Rare delicacies such as pineapple were served. During dinner a band played so loudly upon horns, drums, and cymbals as to make conversation almost impossible. Count St. Julien was, unfortunately, half-deaf: he couldn’t hear how loud his band was. Adams: “I observed the rule of temperance better than usual, to which I believe the stunning noise of the music in some contributed. For by preventing all conversation it left my mind unoccupied by anything which could lead me to forget my resolution.”

No one, actually, could hope to vie with the brilliant Caulaincourt. A favorite of Napoleon ever since his own mistress had become lady in waiting to Empress Josephine, he lived in St. Petersburg at an annual outlay of about one million rubles (well over $300,000 at that time, and the equivalent of perhaps $1,500,000 now) and was served by over sixty retainers and a comparable number of horses. Adams wrote his mother, Abigail, in Boston what a dinner at the Frenchman’s was like. At the door you were greeted by a gold-laced porter, then ushered upstairs by some twenty footmen, saluted by a pair of chasseurs in green and silver, escorted through antechambers by a line of higher servants, then welcomed by a succession of secretaries before being received by the Ambassador himself.

After appetizers in the inner salon, the fifty-odd guests filed into the dining room to sit down to a succession of seven or eight courses of rising novelty before the main one was reached. Different wines were served with every dish, the butlers whispering to each guest the year of the vintage and the name of the vineyard. For the pièce de résistance precious Sèvres porcelain was laid and fresh napkins of the finest damask were presented. Then came the champagne, preserves, fruits, and ices, accompanied by small glasses of dessert wine. After this, frozen punch, and later, English porter and ale. The whole massive dinner, Adams wrote home, was served in little more than an hour by attendants moving like clockwork, and, he found, “there is less of intemperance in fifty such feasts than in one of our dinners succeeded by a carousal of six hours long, swilling upon a mixture of madeira wine and brandy.”

In such an environment Adams could not hope to compete financially, and at one point his mother, worried about his expenses, wrote President Madison suggesting that he bring her son home. Friends offered loans to the Minister, but Adams replied that he must stick to his principles and live within his income. Everyone at court, even the Czar himself, knew that the American representative was strapped for funds. Not that he was living in penury. Adams’ salary was $9,000 (again, equivalent to possibly five times that much today), a sum exceeded at home only by that paid to the President himself; in addition, he had received on departure another $9,000 for expenses. His establishment included a maître d’hotel, or steward; a cook and two Russian helpers; a Swiss porter; two footmen; “a mujik to make the fires”; a coachman and a postilion; a Negro valet; an American chambermaid; a personal maid for Mrs. Adams; a housemaid and a laundry helper. When he went out to dine, he did so in a style he termed “altogether republican,” although by this he meant that he went in a coach-and-four, attended by his two footmen in livery, the coachman on the box, and his postilion on the right-side horse of the leading pair.

But it was not Adams’ excursions in a coach-and-four that made his success in Russia. It was his daytime habit of going out on walks alone. The Czar, an unconventional man himself, liked also to go out walking alone. Adams soon discovered where Alexander liked most to walk, namely, along the embankment of the Neva, and this led to a series of sidewalk encounters of increasing intimacy—all presumably accidental—between monarch and minister.

Only an ambassador had the right of direct access to the sovereign, and the only diplomat of that rank then at St. Petersburg was Napoleon’s Caulaincourt. Adams, almost the least of ministers, was expected to conduct his business with the Chancellery. The only error in this hierarchic calculation was that Napoleon’s envoy did not go out walking.

Often the talk at Adams’ riverside meetings with the Czar revolved merely about that perennial St. Petersburg subject, the weather. Alexander apologized for its severity and hoped that Mr. Adams would not have “too bad an opinion” of it, to which Adams responded diplomatically that he thought highly of cold climates. One frosty day the Czar noticed that Adams was out walking without gloves, to which Adams replied that he wore them only in extreme temperatures. This led to a discussion of the merits of opening one’s windows to the cold night air and of wearing flannel pajamas. The Czar inquired solicitously about Mrs. Adams’ confinement. He was also interested in learning more about a young American named Jones who had already made two trips to this part of Europe, which struck him as remarkable, since “such a voyage is not like crossing the Neva.” Adams answered pleasantly yet meaningfully in French, “My countrymen, Sire, are so familiarized with the ocean that they think not much more of crossing it than of going over a river.”

The Czar began to look forward to these man-to-man encounters, even though the two rarely touched upon the urgent matters uppermost in their minds. One evening at a ball, Alexander remarked to Adams that he had missed him that day on their promenade: had he kept to his house? No, Adams hadn’t. But he had gone out without his court wig, which possibly had caused the Czar to fail to recognize him. This led to some banter about wigs, which Adams hated wearing. The upshot was that he felt himself exempted from wearing one even at court and never did again.

The court asked itself just what had been said at these unusual meetings. “Minister Adams’ influence here has an element of the mysterious,” remarked a visiting Frenchwoman, the Countess de Choiseul. Yet all Adams had really been doing was to keep before the Czar’s mind the image of himself and the nation he represented—this at a time when the Czar had become so harassed he was not sure he knew his own mind.

On one hand Alexander was beholden to his French ally, and on the other, he was becoming increasingly restive. For one thing, Russia needed foreign commerce, and the neutral Americans were now its chief carriers. The French branded the Americans as virtual partners of Britain, demonstrating that many of our ships touched at British ports and even sailed in British convoy. True; yet Yankee shippers were offering needed staples and good money for Russia’s own. Adams spoke incessantly of this commerce, stressing first its rights and then its opportunities. His manner conveyed conviction and strength, and Alexander intensely admired strength.

Within a few months of his arrival, Adams’ persistence bore first fruit. The Czar made representations to the Danes about their stoppage of American ships. In doing so he interfered directly in the affairs of one of Napoleon’s allies. All next spring, as Baltic ports reopened, Adams pursued his case. That summer he told the State Department that the issue of commerce was threatening to disrupt the Russo-French alliance.

In the fall he sharply lectured Caulaincourt, hoping that the French would still mend their policy. “You will do us immense injury; you will oppress the continent of Europe and yourselves with it; but take my word for it, and I pray you three years hence to remember what I say, you will do England more good than harm.”

Caulaincourt smiled, but Adams’ prediction came true. That winter the Czar, determined at last to free himself of French dominance, issued a ukase freely admitting American ships to his ports and at the same time virtually blocking French produce from them. Adams informed the secretary of state in code that Russia’s new determination seemed “fixed and unalterable.” It was more than that. It was revolutionary, and it helped lead to war.

Napoleon angrily recalled Caulaincourt, charging his favorite with a lack of diligence and with having become “mesmerized” by the Czar. Before the out-maneuvered ambassador left, he had sharp exchanges with Adams. “Your ships have done a great deal of business here on English account,” he charged. Adams retorted that Americans worked for themselves; and, “Thanks to you, we have had scarcely any part of the continent of Europe open to us.” In the end, though, the departing Frenchman took Adams’ hand and congratulated him on his professional success. “It seems you are great favorites here; you have found powerful protection.”

That spring some two hundred American ships swarmed into the Baltic. Adams relaxed to reread the Bible, Cicero, and Massillon’s sermons and to measure the sun’s inclination at the solstice. Then, one day in March, 1812, he again met the Czar on the blustery quay. The usually affable monarch was somber. “And so it is, after all, that war is coming which I have done so much to avoid,” he blurted. “Napoleon keeps pushing forward. Now he can’t advance any further without attacking us.” Several regiments of the St. Petersburg garrison had already been moved to the frontier. The following month, monarch and minister met once more on the embankment, and this time the Czar’s expression was even more cheerless. Adams knew that Alexander was about to join his army in the field. They talked only about the weather. It was the last time they met.

The Grande Armée rolled in across the Niemen, and St. Petersburg promptly suppressed all news of military movements. “Great anxiety here,” Adams noted in July; “rumors of disasters both to Prince Bagration’s army and to that of the Emperor himself.” Then the government began putting out optimistic reports. Adams was told that “the French army is wedged in between the first and second Russian armies, and in an extremely dangerous position.” He attended a Te Deum at the great Church of Our Lady of Kazan and there saw the barrel-shaped figure of General Kutuzov, hero of the late war against the Turks.

August brought another Te Deum with bell-ringing, cannon salutes, and illuminations because of a supposed victory around Smolensk. Yet the French kept advancing. General Kutuzov was hurried forward to take command of both Russian armies. Adams watched new levies being ordered up, many of them serfs of the nobility: “I saw many of them this morning, just in from the country, with the one-horse wagons, and the families of the recruits taking leave of them.” In late September he heard the first rumors of the capture of Moscow. There had been no battle reported since that at Borodino, “which Kutuzov reported as a splendid victory, for which he was made a Field Marshal and received from the Emperor a present of 100,000 rubles. The result of this great Russian victory was to put the French in possession of Moscow.”

Dark gloom now descended upon the capital. It was thought that Napoleon’s next objective would be St. Petersburg. The days grew short and the weather more severe. Yet Adams, again prophetically, wrote his father, “Napoleon is in an enemy’s country, hemmed in between four Russian armies over whose bodies he must either advance or retreat; two thousand miles distant from his own capital; having lost one half the forces with which he commenced the war; and surrounded in the midst of his camp by auxiliary armies so disaffected … that at the first symptom of defeat they would more eagerly turn their arms against him than they now follow his banners.”

Then came the bells of another Te Deum —a dubious sound to an American already highly suspicious of Te Deums. Moscow had been liberated! November brought still another Te Deum to honor the defeat of Davoust’s and Ney’s corps, Davoust’s baton being exhibited in the church beside the icons as a trophy. A few days later Adams dined at Chancellor Romanzoff’s in a festive company that included the wives of Kutuzov and his chief field commanders—not including the greatest of them all, the one whom Napoleon had called “General Winter.” That day it was reported that forty to fifty thousand shivering Grand Armée prisoners had been brought in. In St. Petersburg the cold became so fierce, even indoors, that for seventeen days on end Adams could hardly hold a pen in hand. Yet Russian spirits were exuberant, and soon it became known that Napoleon had abandoned his broken army in headlong flight, coaching home over snows with only one companion—Caulaincourt.

After a climactic thanksgiving in the Kazan sanctuary, at which Adams was amazed to see all the Czar’s family prostrate themselves utterly, Russia buried obese Marshal Kutuzov, dead after his exertions, surrounded by captured eagles and with the huge figure of an angel suspended from the dome on a rope holding a crown of laurel over the two-ton catafalque.

Yet there was more for the American minister to do than simply witness history in procession. There was human comedy no less than tragedy to be observed. There were Americans, like the steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, to be assisted. There was Mme de Staël. And there was the inconvenient war newly broken out between the United States and England to be justified and prevented from growing into a bigger war.

One day, amid the deadly Russian clash with Napoleon, Adams took time to notice that the new British ambassador had been so overcome by weariness at a long reception in the chairless Throne Room of the Winter Palace that he simply stretched out on one edge of the imperial dais and went to sleep. Another day, Mrs. Adams learned from Countess Colombi that one Baroness Koscull, “alias Mrs. Hall,” had gone into the business of fortunetelling and had foretold so much that the chief of police had paid her a visit and advised her not to be so knowing.

Then, in the war’s darkest days, came a request from the ambitious Fulton, fresh from his success on the Hudson with his Clermont, that Adams procure him a monopoly for steamboat operation on Russian rivers, too. Adams, always anxious to promote American enterprise, composed a note to the Chancellor in his best French, beginning, “Le Sieur Robert Fulton, citoyen des Etats Unis, est l’inventeur d’une espèce de chaloupe ou navire pour naviguer sur les rivières, même contre les vents et les courants par le moyen du feu et de la vapeur …” He went on to say that Fulton and his partner Robert R. Livingston, having proved their success with a vessel able to steam in as little as 24 hours from New York to Albany (”a distance of 240 versts”) would like a twenty-year franchise in Russia also. “Can Fulton’s vessels stem rapids as well as currents?” the Chancellor asked dubiously—although few Russian rivers had rapids. Adams had to confess that so far as he knew, they couldn’t—and there the matter rested.

Then, also in mid-war, came Mme de Staël, a fugitive from Napoleon and bent on overwhelming St. Petersburg with her conversation as well as her fame as Europe’s greatest femme fatale. “She talks in folios,” Lord Byron had said of her; “she should have been a man.” Yet a trail of famous love affairs all across Europe testified to her femininity. The French emperor had tried to have her silenced as a libertarian bent on destroying his regime. Within a fortnight of reaching the Russian capital, she invited Adams to come and see her.

Although America by then was at war with Britain, Adams was received in her salon together with the British envoy and veteran Admiral Bentinck of the Royal Navy, with both of whom he still mixed socially—such were the forms of the times—and then was treated to a long monologue by his hostess praising the British nation as the world’s greatest civilizing force since antiquity. When the famous woman finally ended her oration, bluff Admiral Bentinck muttered to Adams, “Thank God, that is finished,” and took his leave with the others, leaving the American alone with Mme de Staël. Then began a duel between Europe’s leading freethinker and free liver and the Boylston Street Puritan that ranged from topics such as religion (for which she had little use) and international morality (of which she claimed herself an apostle) to American and British policy. “How was it possible that America should have declared war on England?” she demanded. “Why didn’t America join in the holy cause against Napoleon?”

Adams fixed the bosomy, slightly untidy presence and answered crisply, “First, because we have no means for making war against him. Secondly, because it is a fundamental maxim of American policy not to intermeddle with the political affairs of Europe. Thirdly, because it is altogether unnecessary. He has enemies enough upon his hands already.”

“What! Don’t you dread his universal monarchy?”

“Not in the least, madam. I don’t believe and never have that he would subjugate even the continent of Europe. If there ever was a real danger of such an event, it is past.”

“Everything you say of Napoleon is very just,” she finally heaved. “But I have particular reasons for resentment against him. I have been persecuted by him in the most shameful manner … for no good reason but because I would not eulogize him in my writings.”

Next day Adams called on her again. Before she took off for her next stop at Stockholm, she asked him to be sure to visit her wherever their paths might cross once more, which he promised to do. To his father at home he wrote, “Whom can one help deserting for Mme de Staël?”

When Adams had first arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia was fighting Britain in league with France, and America had seemed London’s tacit ally. Now America was fighting Britain on her own over rights at sea, while Russia in turn was fighting France and was in growing accord with maritime Britain. All of this left St. Petersburg looking upon Adams as being in cahoots with the hostile French. In this international whirligig Adams kept both his senses and his humor, insisting that no matter what either changing side did, Americans had no reason to fall out with our imperial Russian friends—a sentiment Czar Alexander reciprocated when he proposed that he himself mediate the Anglo-American war before it had hardly begun. The British first disdained this proposal, then seemed willing to toy with it—and, although the unstable Czar himself backed away from it, his intervention led to the equitable settlement we finally reached with the British at Ghent, of which John Quincy Adams himself was chief architect.

Schoolbooks today still tend to present this second Adams as a somewhat dour patriot who emerged on the stage with that treaty, then wrote the Monroe Doctrine, and finally became our starchiest statesman and one of our least personable Presidents. Yet there was also an Adams who became a superbly rounded, human, and effective American—in St. Petersburg.

1 The United States had had consular representation in Russia since 1794, and in 1808 President Jefferson had appointed a minister to St. Petersburg, but a Senate dubious of foreign inveiglements and of Russia in particular had refused to confirm him.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.