Thursday, February 23, 2012

John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part II

Adams’ First Meeting with Alexander I

Adams was a brilliant intellectual whose father, John Adams, one of America’s founders, insisted that his son be studious. As a result of his father’s strict discipline and his mother’s encouragement, he developed an amazing appetite for learning. His travel diaries were famous and his memoirs were published in nine volumes. His journal entries from his time in Russia are to be found in Chapter VII of his memoirs, a chapter of 495 pages. From the first day he arrived in St. Petersburg, he was studying the Russian alphabet and making notes about stoves, kitchens, double windows and “the construction of houses generally.”

Shortly after he arrived in 1809, Adams was granted an audience with Alexander I. After an hour wait at the Imperial Palace, Adams was ushered into the Emperor’s office where Alexander greeted him in French and welcomed him to his new position as the American Minister in Russia. After presenting his credentials, Adams told Alexander I of his President’s respect for his Majesty’s person and character and the desire of the American government to strengthen friendship and commerce between the two nations.

Alexander I responded warmly to Adams’ remarks and said it would give him great pleasure to build good relations with America. He then described the difficult political situation in Europe and the possibility of war involving France and England and possibly other European powers. Adams made it clear that America did not want to get involved in these conflicts, but did want to strengthen and expand its commercial relations with Russia. He also emphasized the desire of his government to support Alexander’s commitment to “liberal principles” about which the Russian tsar had spoken so strongly.

Alexander said he did not see any reason for a conflict of interest between the two countries and that increased commerce would be beneficial to both. Adams noted that in the middle of their conversation, Alexander took him by the arm and walked to a window overlooking the Neva River, “a movement seemingly intended to avoid being overheard.” After answering questions about several cities in America and the differences in architecture and weather, Adams recorded Alexander’s comments that “a republican form of government whose principles and conduct were just and wise was as respectable as any other.” These were beliefs that his grandmother, Catherine the Great, would never have supported.

The Routine of an Ambassador’s Life in St. Petersburg

Within a month of his arrival, Adams began to see the pattern of activities he was expected to maintain as a diplomat in the Russian capital. He recorded in his journal that he and his family rarely were up before 9 a.m., sometimes 10 a.m. After breakfast, they either received guests or visited others until 3 p.m. At 4 p.m. a meal was served and then the evening activities began with either guests at their house until 11 p.m. or parties with other officials that seldom broke up before 4 or 5 a.m. “It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation as I cannot and will not continue to lead.”

Several months later, when taking a walk along the river, he met Alexander I, who was also walking alone. Adams noted that the Emperor often stopped to talk with people whom he met on his walks. This was a ruler who was not fearful for his life, despite what happened to his father and the fears of his grandmother.

The extremely lavish ceremonial balls and banquets that filled many nights in St. Petersburg began to wear on the frugal American. Russian nobility were living beyond their considerable means and no one seemed to worry. Adams reported to his mother Abigail that “the tone of society among them [the nobility] is almost universally marked by an excess of expense over income. The public officers all live far beyond their salaries; many of them are notorious for never paying their debts. . . .”

Faced with expenses beyond his meager salary, Adams had to wrestle with the issue of bribery and kickbacks, which many diplomats gladly accepted. Adams admitted that “it is difficult to resist the opportunities [of bribes], . . . but I am determined to do it. The whole experience of my life has been one continual proof of the difficulty with which a man can adhere to the principle of living within his income – the first and most important principle of private economy.”

The increased commerce between America and Russia was clearly seen by the leadership of both nations as an encouraging trend and with the growth in trade came American visitors. By July 1811, Adams reported that there was a “continual succession of Americans, so that we dwell among our own people almost as much as if we were at home.” Over 150 American ships sailed in and out of Russian ports in the summer of 1810 and 63 had already arrived that summer, according to Adams’ notes.

By the following year (1812), both Russia and America were engaged in war, different wars, so that their relationship was not significantly impacted. In June, the United States declared war on Great Britain and, in the same month, Napoleon’s army invaded Russia. Within a month of Napoleon’s attack, Russia and Great Britain formed an alliance against France. For America, the complexities of European entanglements were hard to avoid, despite the best intentions of the Founders.

- Originally released in November 2008

Thursday, February 16, 2012

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.

- Originally released in October 2008

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Puritan Diplomat in Tsarist Russia (Part II)

Building Commercial Relations with Russia

When Francis Dana, America’s first diplomat assigned to Russia, arrived in St. Petersburg, he wrote that the city “far exceeds all my expectations.” He said it alone immortalized the memory of Peter the Great. Unlike European diplomats who considered the assignment to St. Petersburg as a place of exile in comparison to Paris or London or Amsterdam, Dana was hopeful that he could build constructive relations with the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, who was lauded all over Europe by the leading writers of the Enlightenment.

Catherine’s hostility toward the new American republic and her unwillingness to receive Dana on an equal footing with diplomats from other nations made the experience for the Puritan statesman a painful one. Dana was not a flamboyant person; he was the stereotype of a Puritan lawyer with a judicial temperament and a deep devotion to his country. He was not particularly interested in forming a political alliance with Russia, but rather pursued trade negotiations which he felt were “the surest basis of common interest between a great dynastic state and a struggling republican commonwealth,” according to Dana’s biographer.

When Catherine the Great refused to grant him an audience, Dana took advantage of this free time and studied the details of Russian commerce. He carefully listed the exports from Russia and highlighted the products that he felt the Americans could import. Rather than continuing to import many products from Great Britain, Dana proposed that Russia become one of America’s principal suppliers.

Unlike other American statesmen who were trying to figure out how the new American republic would fit into the European balance of power and its system of alliances, Dana prophesied that America’s greatness would be based on its commercial relations. Free trade was his priority, not political entanglement.

Catherine the Great’s Opposition

Dana was frustrated by the unwillingness on the part of the Empress to even grant him an audience because he was convinced that if he could discuss the formation of a commercial relationship between America and Russia, she would be an enthusiastic supporter. Catherine’s top officials also refused to meet with him. Largely ignored by the elites in St. Petersburg, Dana and his assistant, John Quincy Adams, endured the disrespect for over two years.

While many Americans, including members of the Congress, saw Catherine the Great’s “League of Armed Neutrality” as proof that she was devoted to “freedom” and “liberty,” Dana saw an Empress who was after power and prestige. He had no patience with the respectful adulation of other diplomats and neither hoped for favors from her nor feared her country as a potential enemy. He saw bribery in her court, favoritism toward certain lovers and their schemes, as well as a vacillating foreign policy which began to increasingly focus on the Black Sea and the expansion of the Russian Empire toward the east.

American Isolationism

In a letter to his mentor, John Adams, Dana outlined his growing conviction that America needed to withdraw from European affairs. “We have a world to ourselves,” he wrote, and “we may form a system of politics to ourselves.” His prophetic statement helped to shape the foreign policy system that developed under the leadership of Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Monroe. He argued against any “entangling alliances” and the bribes demanded by the Empress’ money-hungry officials.

Back in the United States, the Founders were drawing their own conclusions from Dana’s miserable experience in St. Petersburg. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison ridiculed the kings of Europe and argued that America’s true interest required her to stay away from Old World entanglements, a sentiment famously expressed by President George Washington in his farewell address in 1796.

A Difficult Start

The experience of the first American minister to Russia was a failure. He was never granted official recognition and never had an audience with Catherine the Great. The Empress expressed her hostility toward the new republic and its “Sons of Liberty,” and chided the British for failing to prevent the colonies’ successful drive to independence. But the relationship between these two countries dramatically changed as a new Romanov, Alexander I, came to power in 1801. But that’s another story.

- Originally released in September 2008

Thursday, February 2, 2012

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?”

- Originally released in August 2008