John Quincy Adams spent several years as the American diplomatic representative in Russia, at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Here’s the story.
Cook (The Faith of American’s First Ladies, 2006, etc.) gives as much space to Louisa, Adams’ English-born wife, as to the future president. Adams, a compulsively honest and frugal man, was hard-pressed to keep up with the extravagant lifestyles expected of the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg. The situation was complicated by the Napoleonic wars, in which American interests seemed distant and trivial to the European powers, especially England and France, both of which set up trade barriers against American merchants. Adams’ job was to work out an agreement with the Russians, giving the fledgling country at least one large trading partner in Europe. Luckily, Czar Alexander took a liking to the Adamses and helped smooth their way in the tricky maze of high Russian society. Adams’ ordeal included horrible traveling conditions, stubborn bureaucrats, a hostile French ambassador and a chronic shortage of money. But Louisa, one of the few diplomatic wives in Russia, had far worse to deal with—not just separation from their two young sons, but two miscarriages and the death of her 1-year-old daughter. Eventually, as the War of 1812 broke out, the czar offered his services to mediate between England and America, an offer declined by the British. Eventually, Adams was called to Ghent, where he helped negotiate the treaty that ended the war. Louisa, after a year waiting behind in Russia, undertook a harrowing journey to rejoin him in Paris. Cook, drawing on the journals of both the Adamses, gives a detailed if sometimes overwrought account of their experiences. Interestingly, the book is set in the same time and place as War and Peace and sheds considerable light on the background of that novel.
A well-researched treatment of two interesting figures in one of the most eventful times in world history. Though a bit plodding at first, it’s well worth sticking with it.