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."

Primary Source References[3]

1802 November 29. (Jefferson to Thomas Cooper). "...I thank you for the long extract you took the trouble of making from Mr. Stone's letter. 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. Tho his means of doing good are great, yet the materials on which he is to work are refractory."[4]

1802 November 29. (Jefferson to Joseph Priestley). "The apparition 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 doubtless 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. I should be puzzled to find a person capable of preparing for him the short analytical view of our constitutional which you propose."[5]

1804 June 15. (Jefferson to Tsar Alexander). "...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..."[6]

1806 April 18. (Jefferson to Levett Harris). "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 the most valued ornaments of the retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home...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."[7]

1806 April 19. (Jefferson to Tsar Alexander). "...I have received from your letter of August the 20th, 1805, and embrace the opportunity it affords of giving expression to the sincere respect and veneration I entertain for your character. It will be among the latest and most soothing comforts of 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, unoffending in its course, unambitious in its views."[8]

1807 July 20. (Jefferson to William Duane). "A more virtuous 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 a victim to it, as a monarch of that principle does not suit a Russian noblesse. He is not of the very first order of understanding, but he is of a high one. He has taken a peculiar affection to this country and its government, of which he has given me public as well as personal proofs...I have gone into this 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..."[9]

1810 March 5. (Jefferson to John Langdon). "These animals [sovereigns of Europe] 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."[10]

1810 July 12. (Jefferson to Count Pahlen). "The approbation 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 occurrences of the character of those we have seen."[11]

1810 November 13. (Jefferson to William Duane). "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 alone which will be exerted in our favor when that occasion shall occur. He, like ourselves, sees and feels the atrociousness of both the belligerents."[12]

1813 May 24. (Jefferson to Madame de Stael Holstein). "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."[13]

1813 October 3. (Jefferson to George Logan). "No man on earth has stronger detestation than myself 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."[14]

1815 October 15. (Jefferson to George Logan). "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 of them. The magnanimity of his conduct on the first capture of Paris still magnified everything we had believed of him..."[15]

1816 July 23. (Jefferson to George Logan). "...His character is undoubtedly good, and the world, I think, may expect good effects from it..."[16]


  1. This article is based on Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Report, undated.
  2. Cappon, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2:578.
  3. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
  4. Ford, 9:402.
  5. Ibid, 9:404-405.
  6. L&B, 19:144.
  7. Ford, 11:101.
  8. L&B, 11:103-104.
  9. Ibid, 11:291-292.
  10. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress
  11. L&B, 12:395.
  12. Ibid, 12:434.
  13. Ibid, 13:244.
  14. Ibid, 13:386.
  15. Ibid, 14:354.
  16. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress