September 01, 2008

The First Ambassador

John Quincy Adams in St. Petersburg, 

On a brisk February day in 1810, forty-two-year-old John Quincy Adams was out for his daily constitutional, strolling with an American colleague along St. Petersburg’s Neva River. Adams, in his role as the first American minister to the Court of Alexander I, had spent the morning writing in his small hotel on the Nevsky Prospect. A creature of routine, he ventured out despite the cold, and, while passing under a bridge along the quay of the Neva, he and his companion were “overtaken by the Emperor, who stop’d and spoke to us about the weather.” Adams remarked later in his diary – a diary of over 50 volumes he kept faithfully for 68 years – that the Emperor “walks entirely alone, and stops and speaks to many persons whom he meets.” Tsar Alexander was just 32 years old, but after succeeding his murdered father to the throne in 1801, he became one of the most powerful men in the world – his influence and wealth challenged only by Napoleon. 

Adams had been formally presented to Tsar Alexander the previous fall, and they saw each other often at diplomatic functions, but after the chance encounter on the Neva they met frequently for exercise. They shared a polite aversion to the endless parade of balls, festivals, feast days, soirées, and sleigh rides – even the tsar could not escape the ritualized “dissipation” of St. Petersburg – and found rejuvenation in the outdoors. In the five years Adams lived in St. Petersburg, he records thirty-three unofficial meetings with the Tsar, sometimes simply noting, “Met and spoke to the Emperor.” During these walks they rarely spoke about official business. They discussed the weather and the merits of flannel underwear, and they debated when the ice on the Neva would break. While they avoided larger diplomatic issues of trade between neutral countries, the coming war between the United States and Great Britain, or Napoleon’s bellicose push across Europe, Alexander and John Quincy enjoyed a close familiarity that would foster a positive relationship between their countries for decades to come.

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