At a time when formal recognition of America by Russia had barely been established, Alexander I expressed interest in the government of the United States and in Thomas Jefferson in particular. Jefferson, despite his aversion to monarchs, was remarkably receptive.
Jefferson's eagerness may have stemmed from a desire to improve his reputation as unenfant terrible. Alexander I's grandmother, Catherine II, indirectly supported America's cause by refusing to grant Britain's request for 20,000 Russian soldiers in 1775. Not only was she unwilling to defend George III's interests in America, she did not perceive Americans as rebels as much as she considered the separation of the colonies a blunder by the British cabinet. Of course, this de facto recognition of American independence 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 prohibited publication of the Declaration of Independence in Russia.1 She further chastened Jefferson by disparaging his plan for John Ledyard to walk east from France to the U.S. via Siberia as "chimerical."2 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 later events fostered contact between the fledgling American republic and the autocratic Russian empire. In 1801, Jefferson became president and Alexander I ascended the imperial throne after his father was murdered. As visionary leaders, both hoped to save their respective countries from ruin. 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. Early in his reign, Alexander I pushed for governmental reform by consolidating the executive branch and reforming the legislative and judicial bodies, but these reforms were stopped due to the war with Napoleon and opposition from conservative nobles. Jefferson remained skeptical about the "Herculean task" of preparing the Russian people for self-government,3 yet 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,4 Jefferson struck up a correspondence with the tsar and fed Alexander's interest in the republic by sending him books about the American Constitution.5 The tsar returned the favor by sending a marble bust of himself and a rare book on Russian customs. Jefferson's "particular esteem" for Alexander I convinced him to break his rule of not accepting gifts while in public office.6 He eventually placed the bust of Alexander I across from Napoleon's in the Parlor of Monticello, a recognition of the tsar's role as an opponent of the "unprincipled tyrant."7
However fleeting — just four exchanges — 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. As a result of this pact with Napoleon, Alexander soon found himself at war with the British, who proceeded to cut off sea 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 interference 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 term of office ended, the tsar and his ministers expressed regret.
Only later did Jefferson express awareness of Alexander I'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."8
- Rebecca L. Bowman, 1998. Originally published as "A Monarchical Interlude," in Monticello Newsletter, 9 (Spring 1998); revised Anna Berkes, 9/18/11.
Primary Source References
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."9
1802 November 29. (Jefferson to Joseph Priestley). "[T]he apparition of such a man on a throne is one of the phaenomena which will distinguish the present epoch so remarkeable in the history of man. but he must have an Herculean task to devise and establish the means of securing freedom & 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 & a sense of their natural rights through the mass of his people, and for relieving them in the mean time from actual oppression. I should be puzzled to find a person capable of preparing for him the short analytical view of our constitution which you propose."10
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 & wisdom from which they flow."11
1806 April 18. (Jefferson to Levett Harris). "It is now some time since I recieved from you through the house of Smith & Buchanan at Baltimore, 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 it’s original is held by the world, & 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 law. I recieve it therefore & shall cherish it with my affection. it nourishes the contemplation of all the good placed in his power, & of his disposition to do it."12
1806 April 19. (Jefferson to Tsar Alexander). "... I have recieved from your letter of Aug. 20. 1805. and sincere expressions of the respect and veneration I entertain for your character. it will be among the latest & most soothing comforts of my life to have seen advanced to the government of so extensive a portion of the earth & 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 & his good will to a distant & infant nation, unoffending in it’s course, unambitious in it’s views."13
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 & it’s 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, & is most worthy of conciliation."14
1810 March 5. (Jefferson to John Langdon). "[T]hese animals [sovereigns of Europe] had become without mind & 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 3d generation. his race is not yet worn out."15
1810 July 12. (Jefferson to Count Pahlen). "[T]he approbation of the good is always consoling; but that of a sovereign whose station and endowments are so preeminent, is recieved with the sensibility which the veneration for his character inspires. ... the accession of a sovereign with the dispositions & qualifications to improve the condition of a great nation, and to place it’s happiness on a permanent basis, is a phaenomenon 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."16
1810 November 13. (Jefferson to William Duane). "[O]f Alexander’s sense of the merits of our form of government, of it’s 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 altho circumstances have lessened it’s 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."17
1813 May 28. (Jefferson to Madame de Stael Holstein). "[O]ur accepting at once, & 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."18
1813 October 3. (Jefferson to George Logan). "[N]o man on earth has a stronger detestation than myself of the unprincipled tyrant who is deluging the continent of Europe with blood. no one was more gratified by his disasters of the last campaign; nor wished, more sincerely, success to the efforts of the virtuous Alexander."19
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 a prominent proof of them. the magnanimity of his conduct on the first capture of Paris still magnified every thing we had believed of him ...."20
1816 July 23. (Jefferson to George Logan). "... His character is undoubtedly good, and the world, I think, may expect good effects from it."21