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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
On one hand Alexander was beholden to his French ally, and on the other, he was becoming increasingly restive. For one thing, Russia needed foreign commerce, and the neutral Americans were now its chief carriers. The French branded the Americans as virtual partners of Britain, demonstrating that many of our ships touched at British ports and even sailed in British convoy. True; yet Yankee shippers were offering needed staples and good money for Russia’s own. Adams spoke incessantly of this commerce, stressing first its rights and then its opportunities. His manner conveyed conviction and strength, and Alexander intensely admired strength.
Within a few months of his arrival, Adams’ persistence bore first fruit. The Czar made representations to the Danes about their stoppage of American ships. In doing so he interfered directly in the affairs of one of Napoleon’s allies. All next spring, as Baltic ports reopened, Adams pursued his case. That summer he told the State Department that the issue of commerce was threatening to disrupt the Russo-French alliance.
In the fall he sharply lectured Caulaincourt, hoping that the French would still mend their policy. “You will do us immense injury; you will oppress the continent of Europe and yourselves with it; but take my word for it, and I pray you three years hence to remember what I say, you will do England more good than harm.”
Caulaincourt smiled, but Adams’ prediction came true. That winter the Czar, determined at last to free himself of French dominance, issued a ukase freely admitting American ships to his ports and at the same time virtually blocking French produce from them. Adams informed the secretary of state in code that Russia’s new determination seemed “fixed and unalterable.” It was more than that. It was revolutionary, and it helped lead to war.
Napoleon angrily recalled Caulaincourt, charging his favorite with a lack of diligence and with having become “mesmerized” by the Czar. Before the out-maneuvered ambassador left, he had sharp exchanges with Adams. “Your ships have done a great deal of business here on English account,” he charged. Adams retorted that Americans worked for themselves; and, “Thanks to you, we have had scarcely any part of the continent of Europe open to us.” In the end, though, the departing Frenchman took Adams’ hand and congratulated him on his professional success. “It seems you are great favorites here; you have found powerful protection.”
That spring some two hundred American ships swarmed into the Baltic. Adams relaxed to reread the Bible, Cicero, and Massillon’s sermons and to measure the sun’s inclination at the solstice. Then, one day in March, 1812, he again met the Czar on the blustery quay. The usually affable monarch was somber. “And so it is, after all, that war is coming which I have done so much to avoid,” he blurted. “Napoleon keeps pushing forward. Now he can’t advance any further without attacking us.” Several regiments of the St. Petersburg garrison had already been moved to the frontier. The following month, monarch and minister met once more on the embankment, and this time the Czar’s expression was even more cheerless. Adams knew that Alexander was about to join his army in the field. They talked only about the weather. It was the last time they met.
The Grande Armée rolled in across the Niemen, and St. Petersburg promptly suppressed all news of military movements. “Great anxiety here,” Adams noted in July; “rumors of disasters both to Prince Bagration’s army and to that of the Emperor himself.” Then the government began putting out optimistic reports. Adams was told that “the French army is wedged in between the first and second Russian armies, and in an extremely dangerous position.” He attended a Te Deum at the great Church of Our Lady of Kazan and there saw the barrel-shaped figure of General Kutuzov, hero of the late war against the Turks.
August brought another Te Deum with bell-ringing, cannon salutes, and illuminations because of a supposed victory around Smolensk. Yet the French kept advancing. General Kutuzov was hurried forward to take command of both Russian armies. Adams watched new levies being ordered up, many of them serfs of the nobility: “I saw many of them this morning, just in from the country, with the one-horse wagons, and the families of the recruits taking leave of them.” In late September he heard the first rumors of the capture of Moscow. There had been no battle reported since that at Borodino, “which Kutuzov reported as a splendid victory, for which he was made a Field Marshal and received from the Emperor a present of 100,000 rubles. The result of this great Russian victory was to put the French in possession of Moscow.”