Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

From Shannon Selin:
John Quincy Adams accompanied his father on the latter’s posts as American envoy to France (1778-1779) and to the Netherlands (1780-1782). He also, at age 14, acted as secretary to the US minister to Russia. Adams himself served as US minister to the Netherlands (1794-1797) and Prussia (1797-1801). He was thus familiar with Europe and its diplomacy. Adams learned to speak several European languages, including French. In 1809, Adams became the US ambassador to Russia. As such, he reported on Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of that country and the disastrous retreat.
It may well be doubted whether in the compass of human history since the creation of the world a greater, more sudden and total reverse of fortune was ever experienced by man, than is now exhibiting in the person of a man whom fortune for a previous course of nearly twenty years had favored with a steadiness and a prodigality equally unexampled in the annals of mankind…. It has pleased heaven for many years to preserve this man and to make him prosper as an instrument of divine wrath to scourge mankind. His race is now run, and his own turn of punishment has commenced. (5)
Adams admired Napoleon’s intelligence and military talent. However, he thought they were overshadowed by flaws in the Emperor’s character. In January 1814 he wrote to his brother from St. Petersburg:
The events of the last two years opened a new prospect to all Europe, and have discovered the glassy substance of the colossal power of France. Had that power been acquired by wisdom, it might have been consolidated by time and the most ordinary portion of prudence. The Emperor Napoleon says that he was never seduced by prosperity; but when he comes to be judged impartially by posterity that will not be their sentence. His fortune will be among the wonders of the age in which he has lived. His military talent and genius will place him high in the rank of great captains; but his intemperate passion, his presumptuous insolence, and his Spanish and Russian wars, will reduce him very nearly to the level of ordinary men. At all events he will be one of the standing examples of human vicissitude, ranged not among the Alexanders, Caesars, and Charlemagnes, but among the Hannibals, Pompeys, and Charles the 12th. (6)
In 1814, Adams was recalled from St. Petersburg to become the chief US negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent. This ended the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. In 1815, he was appointed US ambassador to Britain. Before leaving for London, Adams spent time in Paris, where he learned of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. He was as surprised as anyone. On March 19, 1815 he wrote to his mother:
At the first news of his landing I considered it as the last struggle of desperation on his part. I did not believe that he would be joined by five hundred adherents, and fully expected that he would within ten days pay the forfeit of his rashness with his life. (7)
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