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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
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.