The Yankee And The Czar

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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.”