The Yankee And The Czar

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.