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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
Dark gloom now descended upon the capital. It was thought that Napoleon’s next objective would be St. Petersburg. The days grew short and the weather more severe. Yet Adams, again prophetically, wrote his father, “Napoleon is in an enemy’s country, hemmed in between four Russian armies over whose bodies he must either advance or retreat; two thousand miles distant from his own capital; having lost one half the forces with which he commenced the war; and surrounded in the midst of his camp by auxiliary armies so disaffected … that at the first symptom of defeat they would more eagerly turn their arms against him than they now follow his banners.”
Then came the bells of another Te Deum —a dubious sound to an American already highly suspicious of Te Deums. Moscow had been liberated! November brought still another Te Deum to honor the defeat of Davoust’s and Ney’s corps, Davoust’s baton being exhibited in the church beside the icons as a trophy. A few days later Adams dined at Chancellor Romanzoff’s in a festive company that included the wives of Kutuzov and his chief field commanders—not including the greatest of them all, the one whom Napoleon had called “General Winter.” That day it was reported that forty to fifty thousand shivering Grand Armée prisoners had been brought in. In St. Petersburg the cold became so fierce, even indoors, that for seventeen days on end Adams could hardly hold a pen in hand. Yet Russian spirits were exuberant, and soon it became known that Napoleon had abandoned his broken army in headlong flight, coaching home over snows with only one companion—Caulaincourt.
After a climactic thanksgiving in the Kazan sanctuary, at which Adams was amazed to see all the Czar’s family prostrate themselves utterly, Russia buried obese Marshal Kutuzov, dead after his exertions, surrounded by captured eagles and with the huge figure of an angel suspended from the dome on a rope holding a crown of laurel over the two-ton catafalque.
Yet there was more for the American minister to do than simply witness history in procession. There was human comedy no less than tragedy to be observed. There were Americans, like the steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, to be assisted. There was Mme de Staël. And there was the inconvenient war newly broken out between the United States and England to be justified and prevented from growing into a bigger war.
One day, amid the deadly Russian clash with Napoleon, Adams took time to notice that the new British ambassador had been so overcome by weariness at a long reception in the chairless Throne Room of the Winter Palace that he simply stretched out on one edge of the imperial dais and went to sleep. Another day, Mrs. Adams learned from Countess Colombi that one Baroness Koscull, “alias Mrs. Hall,” had gone into the business of fortunetelling and had foretold so much that the chief of police had paid her a visit and advised her not to be so knowing.
Then, in the war’s darkest days, came a request from the ambitious Fulton, fresh from his success on the Hudson with his Clermont, that Adams procure him a monopoly for steamboat operation on Russian rivers, too. Adams, always anxious to promote American enterprise, composed a note to the Chancellor in his best French, beginning, “Le Sieur Robert Fulton, citoyen des Etats Unis, est l’inventeur d’une espèce de chaloupe ou navire pour naviguer sur les rivières, même contre les vents et les courants par le moyen du feu et de la vapeur …” He went on to say that Fulton and his partner Robert R. Livingston, having proved their success with a vessel able to steam in as little as 24 hours from New York to Albany (”a distance of 240 versts”) would like a twenty-year franchise in Russia also. “Can Fulton’s vessels stem rapids as well as currents?” the Chancellor asked dubiously—although few Russian rivers had rapids. Adams had to confess that so far as he knew, they couldn’t—and there the matter rested.
Then, also in mid-war, came Mme de Staël, a fugitive from Napoleon and bent on overwhelming St. Petersburg with her conversation as well as her fame as Europe’s greatest femme fatale. “She talks in folios,” Lord Byron had said of her; “she should have been a man.” Yet a trail of famous love affairs all across Europe testified to her femininity. The French emperor had tried to have her silenced as a libertarian bent on destroying his regime. Within a fortnight of reaching the Russian capital, she invited Adams to come and see her.