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 derided all of the monarchs of Europe, except for Alexander I (1771-1825?).[1] 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 exchange ministers and proscribed publication of the Declaration of Independence. She further chastened Jefferson by calling his plan for John Ledyard to walk east from France to the U.S. via Siberia "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 series of events, however, fostered contact between the fledgling republic and the autocratic empire. In 1801, Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States; in the same year, Alexander I ascended the imperial throne after the assassination of his father, Paul I. 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.

Jefferson's Opinions

1802 November 29.[2] "Certainly the information it communicates as to Alexander kindles a great deal of interest in his existence and strong spasms of the heart in his favor. Though his means of doing good are great, yet the materials in which he is to work are refractory." (Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 29 November 1802, L&B, 10:341.)

1802 November 29. "The apparation of such a man on a throne is one of the phaenomena which will distinguish the present epoch so remarkable in the history of man. But he will have a herculean task to devise and establish the means of securing freedom and happiness to those who are not capable of taking care of themselves. Some preparation seems necessary to qualify the body of a nation for self-government...Alexander will doubltess begin at the right end, by taking means for diffusing instruction and a sense of their natural rights through the mass of his people, and for relieving them in the meantime from actual oppression." (Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 29 November 1802, Ford, 8:179.)

1804 June 15. "...I avail myself of this occasion of expressing the exalted pleasure I have felt in observing the various acts of your administration during the short time you have yet been on the throne of your country, and seeing in them manifestations of the virtue and wisdom from which they flow..." (Jefferson to Alexander I, 15 June 1804, LC: Thomas Jefferson Papers)

1806 April 18. "It is now some time since I received from you...a bust of the Emperor Alexander, for which I have to return you my thanks. These are the more cordial, because of the value the bust derives from the great estimation in which its original is held by the world, and by none more than by myself. It will constitute one of my valued ornaments of the retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home." Jefferson mentions his "law" of accepting no valuable gifts while in public office. "But my particular esteem for the character of the Emperor, places his image in my mind above the scope of the law. I receive it, therefore, and shall cherish it with affection. It nourishes the contemplation of all the good placed in his power, and of his disposition to do it." (Jefferson to Levett Harris, April 18, 1806, L&B, 11:101.)

1806 April 19. Jefferson embraces opportunity receipt of Tsar's letter affords of "giving expression to the sincere respect and veneration I enterntain for your character. It will be among the latest and most soothing comforts in my life, to have seen advanced to the government of so extensive a portion of the earth, and at so early a period of his life, a sovereign whose ruling passion is the advancement of the happiness and prosperity of his people; and not of his own people only, but who can extend his eye and his good will to a distant and infant nation..."(Jefferson to Tsar Alexander 19 April 1806, LC: Thomas Jefferson Papers)

1807 July 20. "...a more virtous man, I believe, does not exist, nor one who is more enthusiastically devoted to better the condition of mankind. He will probably, one day, fall victim to it, as a monarch of that principle does not suit a Russian noblesse. He is not of the very first order of understanindg, but he is of a high one. He has taken a peculiar affection to this country and its government, of whicdh he has given me public as well as personal proofs...I have gone into thi subject, because I am confident that Russia (while her present monarch lives) is the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth, will go furthest to serve us, and is most worthy of conciliation..." (Jefferson to Willian Duane, 20 July, 1807, L&B, 11:291-292.)

1810 March 5. "These animals had become without mind and powerless; and so will every hereditary monarch be after a few generations. Alexander, the grandson of Catherine, is as yet an exception. He is able to hold his own. But he is only of the third generation. His race is not yet worn out." (Jefferson to John Langdon, 5 March 1810, L&B, 12:379.)

1810 July 13. "The approbatin of the good is always consoling; but that of a sovereign whose station and endowments are so pre-eminent, is received with the sensibility which the veneration for his character inspires...The accession of a sovereign, with the dispositions and qualifications to improve the condition of a great nation, and to place its happiness on a permanent basis, is a phenomenon so rare in the annals of mankind, that, when the blessing occurs, it is lamentable that any portion of it should be usurped by occurences of the character of those we have seen." (Jefferston to Count Pahlen, minister plenipotentiary of Russia, 13 July, 1810 L&B, 12:395.)

1810 November 13. "Of Alexander's sense of the merits of our form of government, of its wholesome operation on the condition of the people, and of the interest he takes in the success of our experiment, we possess the most unquestionable proofs...I thought it a salutary measure to engage the powerful patronage of Alexander at conferences for peace, at a time when Bonaparte was courting him; and although circumstances have lessened its weight, yet it is prudent for us to cherish his good dispositions, as those along which will be exerted in our favor when that occasion shall occur. He, like ourselves, sees and feels the atrociousness of both the belligerents." (Jefferson to William Duane, 13 November 1810, L&B, 12:434.)

1813 May 24. "Our accepting at once, and sincerely, the mediation of the virtuous Alexander, their [British ministers'] greatest friend, and the most aggravated enemy of Bonaparte, sufficiently proves whether we have partialities on the side of her [England's] enemy. I sincerely pray that this mediation may produce a just peace. It will prove that the immortal character [Alexander], which has first stopped by war the career of the destroyer of mankind, is the friend of peace, of justice, of human happiness, and the patron of unoffending and injured nations. He is too honest and impartial to countenance propositions of peace derogatory to the freedom of the seas." (Jefferson to Madame de Stael-Holstein, 24 May 1813, L&B, 13:244.)

1813 October 3. "No man on earth has stronger detestation than nyself of the unprincipled tyrant who is deluging the continent of Europe with blood. No man was more gratified by his disasters of the last campaign; nor wished, more sincerely, success to the efforts of the virtuous Alexander." (Jefferson to George Logan, 3 October 1813, L&B, 13:386.)

1815 October 15. "I had from other information formed the most favorable opinion of the virtues of Alexander, and considered his partiality to this country as prominent proof to them. The magnanimity of his conduct on the first capture of Paris still magnified everything we had believed of him..." (Jefferson to George Logan, 15 October 1815.)

1816 July 23. "...His character is undoubtedly good, and the world, I think, may expect good effects from it..." (Jefferson to George Logan, 23 july 1816, L&B, 15:48.)


  1. This section is based on Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Report, Undated.
  2. This section is based on Lucia Stanton, Monticello Research Report, 1989.