Object of the Month

"I am here too soon": Francis Dana's Failed Attempt to Establish Diplomatic Relations with Russia During the American Revolution

Letter from Francis Dana to John Adams, 28 August 1781 O.S. [8 September 1781 N.S. (New Style)]

Letter from Francis Dana to John Adams, 28 August
1781 O.S. [8 September 1781 N.S. (New Style)]

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  • 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.

    The Beginnings of Diplomatic Relations with Russia

    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."

    Who was Francis Dana?

    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.

    John Quincy Adams, Teenage Diplomat

    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.

    A Special Exhibition

    To commemorate the bicentennial of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, the Massachusetts Historical Society will exhibit letters and diaries from its collections from 27 September to 31 October 2007. The exhibition, "'Moments of Destiny': Two Centuries of Russian-American Diplomatic Relations from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society," will feature the papers of men and women from Massachusetts who have witnessed or participated in momentous events in modern Russian history.

    In addition to the Francis Dana letter described here, visitors to the exhibition will see the diary that teenage John Quincy Adams kept when he accompanied Francis Dana in St. Petersburg during the American Revolution, along with letters and diaries written by Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, when he returned to St. Petersburg in 1809, as the first American minister to Russia. Also on display will be vivid descriptions of the Russian Imperial Court in the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution written by two later ambassadors to Russia from Massachusetts, George von Lengerke Meyer and Curtis Guild, as well as accounts of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.'s behind-the-scenes role in the Khrushchev visit to the United States in 1959, and the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow, as witnessed by Senator Leverett Saltonstall.

    The exhibition is free and open to the public from 27 September to 31 October 2007, every day, from 1:00 PM-4:00 PM. For further information, contact Anne Bentley, curator of art, at abentley@masshist.org or 617-646-0508.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Adams, John. Papers of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1977-. [Vols. 11-13 (1781-1782) of the Papers of John Adams contain Francis Dana's extensive correspondence with Adams, including a fully annotated transcription of the letter displayed here.]

    Cresson, W. P. Francis Dana: A Puritan Diplomat at the Court of Catherine the Great. New York: The Dial Press: 1930.

    Saul, Norman. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas, 1991.

    The United States and Russia: The Beginnings of Relations, 1765-1815. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1980.


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