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The Yankee And The Czar
Amid the intrigue of the Russian court, John Quincy Adams took walks with Alexander I, spoke up for America, and scored a diplomatic triumph.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
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.