From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Bust of Alexander I
Bust of Alexander I

Alexander I was Emperor of Russia from 1801 to 1825, which includes Jefferson's two terms as president.[1] Part of his reign saw a reorganization of the ministries, founding of universities, a draft constitution prepared by Speranskii, and the emancipation of the Baltic serfs. However, his later reign became more autocratic.

Jefferson derided all of the monarchs of Europe, except for Alexander I. His 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.

A coincidental array of events, however, fostered contact between the fledgling republic and the Russian empire. In 1801, Jefferson became president and 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 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 a correspondence with the tsar and furthered Alexander's interest in the republic by sending him books about the American constitution. Jefferson's "particular esteem" for Alexander I even convinced him to accept his marble portrait bust, an exception to his rule of not accepting gifts while in office. However fleeting (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 the tsar to join his adversary, and as a result of this pact with Napoleon, Alexander soon found himself at war with the British, who proceeded to cut off seaborne trade with Russia. He was forced to look elsewhere for trade 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 the embargo that was an attempt to enforce American sea rights, 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's ambiguous role. In 1822, Jefferson 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."[2] He nevertheless chose to display Alexander's bust across from Napoleon's in his parlor, possibly as recognition of his role as opponent to the "unprincipled tyrant."


  1. This article is based on Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Report, undated.
  2. Cappon, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2:578.