While Napoleon was standing at the gates of Moscow waiting for the deputation that never came, guess who was in St. Petersburg at the court of Czar Alexander? The ubiquitous JQA — the same guy who witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, rescued the Smithsonian Institution after its funds were stolen, and saved the crew of the liberated slave ship Amistad from being sold back into slavery.
John Quincy Adams’ mission to Moscow is chronicled in yet another great article from an old American Heritage (February, 1958) by William Harlan Hale called “The Yankee and the Czar.”
You just can’t beat old American Heritage. I buy them whenever I see them and every one has lots of great articles.
In what must be considered a diplomatic coup of the first order, JQA actually became friends with the czar himself. Turns out they both liked to take early morning walks along the Neva. JQA was the first diplomat admitted to court without a wig. He told Alexander that he didn’t like wearing them, and Alexander told him not to bother.
In St. Petersburg in 1810, JQA met Armand de Caulaincourt, later Napoleon’s master of horse during the Russian campaign, then serving as the French ambassador to Russia. They sat down at a splendid eight-course dinner for 50, glittering diamonds and decorations everywhere.
Caulaincourt gets to chatting with JQA, who remarks that he had dined in the same hall back in the time of Catherine the Great. That was when he was 15 years old, during the American Revolution. The Continental Congress was short on translators, so John Adams sent his young son to translate for American emissary Francis Dana.
The Russians actually spoke French at the time, as they continued to do right up until a certain butthead French emperor invaded their country. In War and Peace Tolstoy mentions the Russian nobles who actually have to take lessons in Russian once the war starts.
JQA also got Alexander to get the Danes to admit American vessels into the Baltic ports and Napoleon actually gave that as his pretext for invading Russia, claiming that that was the same as admitting British vessels, so you could say JQA messed up and caused a war that killed more than a million people. I don’t happen to see it that way. After all Russia was at war with England at the time, and America went to war with England that same year. Whatever.
One of Caulaincourt’s splended entertainments while he was French minister in St. Petersburg involved the construction of giant ramps covered with ice that his guests could slide down. Ironically, later on during the French retreat from Moscow, the army came upon a steep slope where all wagons and carts and horses had to be pushed down the hill and everybody, even the emperor himself, had to slide down on their rear ends.
JQA had diplomatic missions in Holland and Prussia, and he visited Finland and Scandinavia, so he was a real world traveler. And he later acquired a pet alligator. How cool is that?
The story of how he saved the Smithsonian I read in a great historical publication called Old News, which my mom gets for me, Thanks Mom! I’ll save it for a future entry. It’s pretty funny.