Francis Dana's letter to John Adams, written from St. Petersburg, is dated 28 August 1781, O.S. "O.S." ("Old Style") distinguishes the Julian calendar date--Russia did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918--from the reformed ("New Style") Gregorian calendar date already in use in Western Europe and America, in this case, 8 September 1781.
After an epic, fifty-one-day journey from Amsterdam, Francis Dana, the head of a mission from the Continental Congress that consisted of John Adams's fourteen-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, and himself, quickly found that the Russian court would not receive him or formally recognize the American revolutionary government. Dana's mission had originated in an attempt by the Continental Congress and its agents in Europe, principally John Adams, to secure wider support for the American revolutionary cause. His instructions from Samuel Huntington, the president of the Continental Congress, stated that "the great object of your negotiation is to engage Her Imperial Majesty [Catherine the Great] to favour and support the sovereignty and independence of these United States and to lay a foundation for good understanding and friendly intercourse between the subjects of Her Imperial Majesty and the citizens of these states, to the mutual advantage of both nations."
In St. Petersburg, Dana found himself in a complicated and isolated position. He was to "to use every means which can be devised" to see that the United States was admitted to the League of Armed Neutrality that had been formed by Russia to protect neutral shipping from the depredations of the British navy, but it is difficult to see how the United States, a belligerent nation with privateers cruising in European waters, could have been expected to join a neutral alliance, even in Russia where there was wide sympathy for the American colonies. Dana also complained about the interference of the French minister at St. Petersburg, Charles Olivier de Sainte Georges, Marquis de Verac, whom he refers to sarcastically as "our friend," and that his diplomatic mission was subordinated to the foreign policy interests of France. Nevertheless, Dana had a very positive impression of St. Petersburg itself: "This is the finest City I have seen in Europe, & far surpasses all my expectations: Alone, it is sufficient to immortalize the memory of Peter the first."
Francis Dana was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1743, the son of Richard Dana, a lawyer. He graduated from Harvard College in 1762 and practiced law in Boston. Although Dana was active in the patriot movement, he was in London dealing with family finances when the Revolution began. Following his return from England in 1776, he was elected to the Massachusetts revolutionary government and later to the Continental Congress. In 1779, he sailed with John and John Quincy Adams to France where he served as Adams's secretary, while Adams attempted to negotiate a peace treaty with England. With support from Adams, Dana was appointed minister to Russia in 1780. Dana remained at St. Petersburg until he was recalled in 1783 when the end of the Revolutionary War made the need of foreign allies unnecessary. After his return to Massachusetts in 1784, he was elected to the Confederation Congress and in 1785, he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, becoming chief justice in 1791. Dana resigned from the Court in 1806 and died in 1810. The Dana family papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society (see the online finding aid to the collection), include Francis Dana's extensive correspondence, along with the papers of his son Richard Henry Dana, the poet, and his grandson, lawyer and author, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
In his letter to John Adams, Dana gives Adams news of his son, John Quincy Adams, who had accompanied Dana to Russia. While fourteen-year-old John Quincy Adams was too young to hold a formal diplomatic appointment, he acted as Dana's secretary and translator, as Dana was not fluent in French. At the same time, Dana found himself responsible for supervising the education of his teenage charge. After fifteen months in Russia, John Quincy Adams traveled alone across Europe to rejoin his father in the Netherlands. Twenty-eight years later, in 1809, John Quincy Adams would become the first formally recognized American minister to Russia.