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"The Spirit of Party ... stupefies even those whom it cannot deprave"

Letter from John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 July 1810

Letter from John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 July 1810

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  • In a letter to his mother, Abigail Adams, written from St. Petersburg, Russia, on 25 July 1810, John Quincy Adams, the United States minister at the Court of the Czar, reflects upon the ferociously partisan politics of the day in Massachusetts, the complicated diplomatic scene in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and the tragic end to the disastrous reign of Gustav IV, the king of Sweden.

    John Quincy Adams in 1810

    Although he had accompanied his father, John Adams, to France during the American Revolution, travelled to Russia as a teenager with first American diplomatic mission to that country, served as the U.S. minister to the Netherlands and Prussia, been elected to the United Senate in 1803, and, while he served in the senate, been appointed the firsts professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard, John Quincy Adams dated the “really important period” of his life to the British attack on USS Chesapeake in 1807. Senator Adams split with his Federalist colleagues and supported President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on foreign trade—a crushing blow to maritime commerce in his native Massachusetts. When he attended the Republican presidential caucus that nominated James Madison in January 1808, Adams’ Federalist supporters accused him of “apostasy.” He replied that they had “deserted their country.” Adams was driven from office: in a special election in May 1808, the Massachusetts legislature elected James Lloyd to succeed Adams six months before his senatorial term ended. Adams resigned a month later. In 1809, after briefly resuming his legal career and arguing two cases before the Supreme Court, he was nominated by President Madison to become the first minister plenipotentiary to represent the United States in Russia. You can follow Adams’s line-a-day diary account of his voyage to St. Petersburg in August 1809 and his life at the Russian court on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/JQAdams_MHS.

    By 1810, John Quincy Adams had spent years in foreign diplomatic service, but through regular correspondence with his mother and father—and his voluminous diary entries—he remained a faithful reporter of all he observed both abroad and, from a distance, at home. From his diplomatic post in St. Petersburg, he wrote to his mother, Abigail Adams, decrying the state of politics in Massachusetts: “There is something in the Spirit of Party which stupefies even those whom it cannot deprave, and which blinds the eyes, when it cannot succeed to vitiate the heart.” Adams hoped that the election of Republicans Elbridge Gerry and William Gray as governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts would turn the policy of the “Eastern sages” (the “Anglo-federalist” leadership known as the Essex Junto), “if not to something useful and honourable, at least to something less pestilential to their Country and their Posterity—To any thing more pernicious, in my sincere opinion, the Prince of Darkness could not spur the most devoted of his instruments upon Earth.”

    While Adams’ principled stand for the national interest against the wishes of his party is celebrated as a prime example of senatorial courage in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, his harsh views of his opponents may have robbed him of the ability to fully comprehend an increasingly tense political and diplomatic situation in the United States. Adams denigrated concerns in Massachusetts over the treatment of the British minister to the United States “Mr. [Francis James] Jackson” and the “panic terrors of a War, between the United States and England” less than two years before the War of 1812 began.

    The murder of Axel von Fersen

    In the second part of his long letter to his mother—almost a formal political and diplomatic report—John Quincy Adams described “the most remarkable political transactions of the present time … in Sweden—The late king of that Country [Gustav IV] laboured under the same prejudices as of late years have taken possession of almost all the New-England federalists—He not only hated Napoleon as he deserves, but he relied upon the friendship and protection of England….” After a disastrous war with Russia, the kingdom of Sweden was dismembered, losing its Finnish and Pomeranian territories, and the Swedish Diet “not only discarded him [the king], but his children—excluded all his descendants with him from the succession, and sent to Norway for a Prince of Holstein Augustenburg, to be the successor to the Swedish Throne.” When the new heir apparent, Crown Prince Karl August died suddenly and mysteriously on 29 May 1810, the populace rose up and—in scenes that Adams compared to the French Revolution—at the crown prince’s funeral a mob rioted and murdered Count Axel von Fersen, the grand marshal of Sweden.

    What John Quincy Adams appears to have forgotten, or did not think he should include in a letter to his mother, is that many years before, in an entirely different context, he had taken note of Axel von Fersen. On 28 March 1785, seventeen-year-old Adams, then living in Paris, recorded in his diary that the son born to Marie Antoinette the day before had been given the title of the Duke of Normandy, and that rumors of a liaison between the queen and the gallant young von Fersen, a veteran of the American Revolution then commanding a Swedish regiment in French service, made the title doubly ironic. William the Conqueror, the “real” Duke of Normandy, had been both illegitimate and of Scandinavian descent and now, perhaps, the infant Duke was as well. Whatever the connection between von Fersen and Marie Antoinette, in 1791, during the French Revolution, he made a romantic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue the French royal family. The Duke of Normandy—by then the Dauphin of France—died in 1795, a child prisoner of the Revolution.

    John Quincy Adams remained in Russia through the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, leaving in the spring of 1814 to travel to Ghent in Belgium where he led the negotiating team that brought an end to the conflict the New England Federalists had dreaded, the War of 1812, on Christmas Eve 1814—an event that he immediately analyzed and reported in another letter to his mother.

    A new exhibition: "Mr. Madison's War: The Controversial War of 1812"

    John Quincy Adams' 1810 and 1814 letters will be on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society from June 18-September 8, 2012, as part of a new exhibition, Mr. Madison's War: The Controversial War of 1812. The Historical Society will commemorate the bicentennial of the declaration of war on 18 June 1812, with an exhibition of letters, broadsides, artifacts, and images from the Society's rich collections. Mr. Madison's War will be on display, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, through 8 September 2012. Items from the exhibition, including John Quincy Adams' 24 December 1814 letter to his mother, also are on "virtual" display at the link to website.

    Further Reading

    For John Quincy Adams’ own writings:

    Digital images of more than 14,000 manuscript pages in the 68 volumes of John Quincy Adams’ extraordinary diary are available at the Massachusetts Historical Society website: http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/.

    A portion of the diary has been published as:

    Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of his Diary from 1795-1848, ed. by Charles Francis Adams, 12 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1874-1877.

    Selections from Adams’ personal and diplomatic correspondence from this period have been published in:

    Adams, Charles Francis. “Correspondence of John Quincy Adams, 1811-1814,” in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, new ser., 23 (April 1913), p. 110-169.

    Writings of John Quincy Adams, ed. by Worthington C. Ford, 7 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1913-1917.

    Other sources:

    Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1949.

    Jorgensen, Christer. The Anglo-Swedish Alliance against Napoleonic France. Basingstroke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper & Bros., 1956.

    Lewis, James E. John Quincy Adams: Policymaker for the Union. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2001.

    Scott, Franklin D. Sweden: The Nation’s History. Enlarged ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.


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