Russia

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Bust of Alexander I; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
Bust of Alexander I; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Jefferson's deried all of the monarchs of Europe, except for Alexander I (1771-1825?). The mutual admiration of the president and the tsar is especially noteworthy because both men have been launched beyond strictly historical levels to a transcendent reimaging as sphinxes. As elusive figures whose power and renown have diminished the distance between fact and fiction, their epistolary exchange offers a rare glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts of early nineteenth-century diplomatic relations.

Jefferson's praise of Alexander I took place at a time when formal recognition of America by Russia had barely been established. In 1775 Catherine II refused to grant George III's request for 20,000 Russian soldiers. Not only was she unwilling to defend English interests in America, she did not perceive Americans as rebels as much as she considered the separation of the colonies an egregious mistake of the British cabinet. This de facto recognition did not alter her views on representative government; after concluding that "the American record is filled with declarations in which there is too little that is reasonable and too much that is unbecoming impertinence," she refused to exhange ministers and proscribed publication of the Declaration of Independence. She further chastened Jefferson by deeming his amazing plan for John Ledyard to walk east from France to the U.S. via Siberia as "chimerical." Ledyard was almost to Kamchatka when he was arrested, taken back to the Polish border, and warned never to come back. Evidently Catherine II did not want this potential rival to discover an alternative route to the Pacific.

A coincidental array of events, however, fostered contact between the fledgling republic and the autocratic empire. In 1801 Jefferson mounted the antimonarchical, antiaristocratic Republican presidential chair over the moribund body of the Federalist party. In the same year Alexander I ascended the imperial throne over the murdered body of his insane father. From his youth Alexander I had shown an interest in the government of the United States and a deepening admiration for Jefferson. Although Russians could not speak openly about democratic freedoms, it had become possible to write about America's struggle for independence and the facts took on special meaning for this reform-minded tsar in serfdom-ridden Russia. In addition, although Jefferson remained skeptical about the "herculean task" of preparing the Russian people for self-government, he responded to the tsar's liberality--not to mention the increasing volume of Russian-American trade--by making the controversial appointment of Levett Harris as the first U.S. Consul at St. Petersburg in 1803.

After the tsar helped to secure the release of the crew of a U.S. frigate captured by Tripolitan pirates, Jefferson struck up an intriguing correspondence with the tsar and furthered his interest in the republic by sending him books about the American constitution. Jefferson's "particular esteem" for Alexander I even convinced him to accept a marble portrait bust, an exception to his rule of not accepting gifts while in office. However fleeting (just 4 communications), their correspondence was both timely and mutually beneficial. Alexander I, who had been fighting on the side of Britain against France, was severely defeated in 1807 by Napoleon. The Tilsit treaty negotiated shortly thereafter led to the tsar joining his adversary, and as a result of this pact with Napoleon, Alexander I soon found himself at war with the British, who proceeded to cut off seaborne trade with Russia. He was forced to look elsewhere for a maritime outlet and Russia's toleration of American independence gave way to a more persistent courtship. Russia, landlocked and ice-clogged, had long suffered from the arbitrary practices of the British navy. If the Russians needed assistance against England's maritime power, so did the U.S. After the British attack on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake and self-crucifying embargo that was an attempt to enforce American rights at sea, St. Petersburg and Washington formally exchanged ministers in 1809. When Jefferson's office ended, the tsar and his ministers expressed regret.

Only later did Jefferson become aware of Alexander I's ambiguous role. In 1822 he wrote to John Adams that a war between Russia and Turkey would be like the battle of the kite and the snake, "whichever destroys the other, leaves a destroyer the less for the world." He nevertheless chose to display Alexander I's bust across from Napoleon's in his parlor, recognition of his role as opponent to the "unprincipled tyrant," and perhaps a reminder of their improbable interchange.

--Original author, Rebecca Bowman