The Yankee And The Czar

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Although America by then was at war with Britain, Adams was received in her salon together with the British envoy and veteran Admiral Bentinck of the Royal Navy, with both of whom he still mixed socially—such were the forms of the times—and then was treated to a long monologue by his hostess praising the British nation as the world’s greatest civilizing force since antiquity. When the famous woman finally ended her oration, bluff Admiral Bentinck muttered to Adams, “Thank God, that is finished,” and took his leave with the others, leaving the American alone with Mme de Staël. Then began a duel between Europe’s leading freethinker and free liver and the Boylston Street Puritan that ranged from topics such as religion (for which she had little use) and international morality (of which she claimed herself an apostle) to American and British policy. “How was it possible that America should have declared war on England?” she demanded. “Why didn’t America join in the holy cause against Napoleon?”

Adams fixed the bosomy, slightly untidy presence and answered crisply, “First, because we have no means for making war against him. Secondly, because it is a fundamental maxim of American policy not to intermeddle with the political affairs of Europe. Thirdly, because it is altogether unnecessary. He has enemies enough upon his hands already.”

“What! Don’t you dread his universal monarchy?”

“Not in the least, madam. I don’t believe and never have that he would subjugate even the continent of Europe. If there ever was a real danger of such an event, it is past.”

“Everything you say of Napoleon is very just,” she finally heaved. “But I have particular reasons for resentment against him. I have been persecuted by him in the most shameful manner … for no good reason but because I would not eulogize him in my writings.”

Next day Adams called on her again. Before she took off for her next stop at Stockholm, she asked him to be sure to visit her wherever their paths might cross once more, which he promised to do. To his father at home he wrote, “Whom can one help deserting for Mme de Staël?”

When Adams had first arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia was fighting Britain in league with France, and America had seemed London’s tacit ally. Now America was fighting Britain on her own over rights at sea, while Russia in turn was fighting France and was in growing accord with maritime Britain. All of this left St. Petersburg looking upon Adams as being in cahoots with the hostile French. In this international whirligig Adams kept both his senses and his humor, insisting that no matter what either changing side did, Americans had no reason to fall out with our imperial Russian friends—a sentiment Czar Alexander reciprocated when he proposed that he himself mediate the Anglo-American war before it had hardly begun. The British first disdained this proposal, then seemed willing to toy with it—and, although the unstable Czar himself backed away from it, his intervention led to the equitable settlement we finally reached with the British at Ghent, of which John Quincy Adams himself was chief architect.

Schoolbooks today still tend to present this second Adams as a somewhat dour patriot who emerged on the stage with that treaty, then wrote the Monroe Doctrine, and finally became our starchiest statesman and one of our least personable Presidents. Yet there was also an Adams who became a superbly rounded, human, and effective American—in St. Petersburg.

1 The United States had had consular representation in Russia since 1794, and in 1808 President Jefferson had appointed a minister to St. Petersburg, but a Senate dubious of foreign inveiglements and of Russia in particular had refused to confirm him.