John Quincy Adams in Russia and Great Britain

(August 1809 to August 1817)

John Quincy Adams (JQA) resumed his diplomatic duties in 1809 when he traveled to St. Petersburg as the United States’ first minister plenipotentiary to Russia. He went from there to Ghent, Belgium, in 1814, where he led the American peace delegation to end the War of 1812. He then spent two years in England as the U.S. minister at the Court of St. James before returning to the United States in August 1817. During these eight years abroad, JQA gained a reputation as a tenacious and able diplomat.

When JQA sailed from Boston on 5 August 1809 with his wife Louisa Catherine Adams (LCA) and youngest son Charles Francis Adams (CFA), almost two, they left behind their two older sons, George Washington Adams (GWA), age eight, and John Adams (JA2), age six, to continue their education in the United States. The family would not reunite until 1815. JQA claimed the decision to accept the diplomatic commission “neither suits my own inclination, nor my own private judgment, I deem it a duty to sacrifice them both to public sense.” LCA’s younger sister Catherine Maria Frances Johnson accompanied her as a companion; JQA’s nephew, William Steuben Smith, and two other young Massachusetts men, Francis Calley Grey and Alexander Hill Everett, comprised the legation staff. After a tedious and sometimes dangerous voyage, the American minister and his family and staff reached St. Petersburg on 23 October.

John Quincy Adams’ drawing of Helsingborg Tower, 1 October 1809, page 490 of Diary 49John Quincy Adams’ drawing of Helsingborg Tower, 1 October 1809, page 490 of Diary 49

Priding himself on his republican principles, JQA complained regularly about court life and society at St. Petersburg and chafed at the obligatory social commitments associated with his post: “It is not safe or prudent to despise them; nor practicable for a person of rational understanding to value them.” Compared to the American minister, most European diplomats had vast resources and entertained lavishly. Obliged to attend splendid parties, JQA was “reduced to the necessity of dancing, to avoid gambling at Cards.” He mentioned several instances when he rejected gifts that were offered to him or members of the family: “Under the Circumstances in which I find myself here it is difficult to resist the opportunities thus presented for anticipating upon my regular income— But I am determined to do it.”

Domestic life during the years in Russia was trying for the minister and his wife. Corruption and thievery plagued their household. “It is I believe the law of Nature . . . that the Servant shall spoil or plunder the Master— In this Country at least it is universal usage— It requires the most constant and minute attention to keep this pilfering within tolerable bounds.” Likely prompted by dishonest merchants and servants, JQA became increasingly engaged “in the labyrinth of enquiries concerning weights & measures.” It was an obsession that served him well in the following decade when, as secretary of state, the U.S. Senate tasked him with preparing a report on weights and measures, which he completed on 22 February 1821.

View of St. Petersburg, RussiaView of St. Petersburg, Russia

Family matters also weighed on JQA during his time in St. Petersburg. On 12 August 1811, JQA and LCA’s only daughter Louisa Catherine Adams was born. The child died a little over a year later, in September 1812, after contracting dysentery. “Her last moments were distressing to me and to her mother, beyond expression,” JQA wrote of his and LCA’s devastating grief. Only a few months later, JQA had to have “a long and very serious conversation” with his nephew William Steuben Smith about the intimate relationship he had with Catherine Johnson. Smith “finally avowed a disposition to do right,” and the couple married in February 1813.

Europe remained at war during JQA’s tenure in Russia. His diplomatic activities most often concerned the protection of American commerce. The shifting alliances, generated by Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial expansion, tested him. He gained the respect of the Russian emperor Alexander I and St. Petersburg’s diplomatic community. The French ambassador, Armand Augustine Louis de Caulaincourt, Duc de Vicence, acknowledged JQA as one of the “great favorites here— You have found powerful protection.” In June 1812, two significant international events shifted his diplomatic focus: the United States declared war on Great Britain and France invaded Russia in retaliation for its refusal to support the Continental System and as a means to control Poland. JQA later played an important role in ending the conflict that became known as the War of 1812; in the meantime, he and his family, from the relative safety of St. Petersburg, followed reports about the French occupation of Moscow, the war of attrition fought by the Russians, and the subsequent French retreat later that year.

Emperor Alexander I of RussiaEmperor Alexander I of Russia

The United States and Great Britain fought over a number of issues, including British impressment of American seamen and British support for Native Americans in conflict with the United States. As the War of 1812 dragged on, Alexander I offered to mediate between the two nations in 1813. When nothing came of the offer, the American delegation that now included Albert Gallatin and James Bayard moved to Ghent to negotiate directly with the British peace commissioners. JQA was appointed to head the commission in January 1814. The same day he left St. Petersburg to join the American delegates, word arrived in the Russian capital of Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba. “With this prospect of a general Peace in Europe, I commenced my Journey, to contribute if possible to the restoration of Peace to my own Country.” Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell also joined the American commission that negotiated through the summer and fall of 1814. Issues, including the Canadian-United States boundary, commercial restrictions, fishing rights, and compensation for slaves taken by the British, prolonged the peace process. JQA also recognized that the priorities of the American commissioners differed—frequently as a result of their regional loyalties. He found Clay to be the most acrimonious, once noting that the Kentuckian “lost his temper, as he generally does whenever this right of the British to navigate” the Mississippi River was debated. “He was utterly averse to admitting it as an equivalent for a stipulation securing the contested part of the Fisheries.”

As head of the American delegation, JQA drafted most of the written exchanges with their British counterparts. His fellow American commissioners reviewed and edited the drafts. As early as 10 November, JQA included a “proposal to conclude the Peace on the footing of the State before the war, applied to all the subjects of dispute between the two Countries, leaving all the rest for future and pacific Negotiation.” His fellow American delegates rejected most of JQA’s draft, including that section, arguing that such a statement offered Britain too many concessions; Clay adamantly stated that he “would concede no more.” JQA, however, contended that the American government “would now gladly take the State before the War as the general basis of the Peace,” that he was “prepared to take on . . . the responsibility” of explaining the proposal to the United States, and that he “would at this moment cheerfully give my life, for a Peace on this basis.” Despite the internal opposition, “status quo ante bellum” was in fact the basis of the peace agreement that both commissions signed on Christmas Eve 1814 as the Treaty of Ghent. When JQA left Ghent for Paris at the end of January 1815, he concluded, “My residence in the City has been of seven Months and two days, and it has been the most memorable period of my life.”

LCA and CFA remained at St. Petersburg when JQA traveled to the Ghent peace negotiations. He wrote to LCA three days after the conclusion of the treaty inviting her to come and join him. He received her answer on 16 January 1815, informing him that “She will come as soon as possible, and will I hope be here in the course of a Month.” LCA did not leave St. Petersburg until 12 February and arrived at Paris forty days later. Her overland trek not only took place in winter but at the very time Napoleon returned from exile. Several years later she recalled that dangerous adventure in a memoir, “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France.” The Adamses remained in Paris for two more months, during which time JQA feasted on theater productions, a life-long pleasure, though one he described as “A fearful waste of time.”

Louisa Catherine Adams’ French passport, 10 March 1815Louisa Catherine Adams’ French passport, 10 March 1815

On 28 February 1815 JQA was appointed as U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, a post his father, John Adams, had also held. In May, JQA traveled with LCA and CFA from Paris to London. Shortly after reaching the British capital, “We found our dear sons whom we had not seen for nearly six years”; GWA and JA2 had just arrived from America. In August the family moved to the village of Ealing about seven miles from London. The near two-year tenure at “Little Boston”—the most appropriate name of the house they rented—may have been the happiest time of JQA’s adult life. He enrolled the younger boys in a local boarding school and personally oversaw GWA’s studies. The family socialized with merchants, clergy, and scholars in the local community. Although he was obligated to attend court functions and other diplomatic events, JQA admitted, “one of my strongest reasons for remaining out of town, is to escape from the frequency of invitations at late hours, which consume so much precious time.” He went to London several times each week and walked much of the way. During these walks, he frequently composed verses. “Could I have chosen my own Genius and Condition I should have made myself a great Poet”; however, he realized that he was “spell-bound in the circle of mediocrity.”

To fulfill his diplomatic duties, JQA met frequently with Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary. Their discussions most often concerned attempts to resolve lingering issues left unsettled at Ghent—the Atlantic slave trade and how to improve commercial relations. In a separate negotiation, Adams, with Henry Clay and Albert Gallatin, concluded a minor trade agreement with a British commission in 1815.

In early December 1816, JQA learned that the newly-elected president, James Monroe, would likely proffer “the Office of Secretary of State to me.” A letter arrived on 16 April 1817 from the president, officially offering the post to JQA. He wrote the next day to accept. On 15 May the family sailed for the United States aboard the ship Washington, landing at New York on 6 August. The journey was completed when JQA arrived at Quincy “and had the inexpressible happiness of finding my dear and venerable father and mother in perfect health.”

Selected Bibliography for Further Reading

Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, ed. Judith S. Graham, Beth Luey, and others, Cambridge, 2013; 2 vols.

Nina N. Bashkina and others, eds., The United States and Russia: The Beginnings of Relations, 1765–1815, Washington, D.C., 1980.

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

British-American Diplomacy: Treaty of Ghent, 1814. The Avalon Project. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp

Duncan Cameron and others, compilers, An American President in Ealing: The John Quincy Adams Diaries, 1815–1817, London, 2014.

Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, Cambridge, 2016.

Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, New York, 2014.

Michael O’Brien, Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon, New York, 2010.

Willard Sterne Randall, 1814: America Forged by Fire, New York, 2014.