American Phoenix

A good many years ago, Robert Massie wrote one of the best accounts ever of a part of Russian history.  The book, Nicholas and Alexandra, covered the fateful years of Russia when the country was struggling with efforts to modernize, while seeking to maintain its old order and suppress revolution.  The centerpiece of this story was the lives and marriage of Nicholas Romanov, Czar of Russia, and his wife Alexandra, a German princess and a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.  The book has often been described as history that reads like a novel.

Jane Hampton Cook’s American Phoenix: John Quincy Adams and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence is a similar type book.  It is the story of a marriage.  The marriage, between John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa, was a good and strong marriage between two amazing people.  But they faced great struggles and tensions both in the world they lived in and in their marriage.

John Quincy Adams was at a low point in his political career.  Although he had entered public service early in life and had served Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, the political tides had turned against him.  After looking around at some of the options back home, he recieved an appointment from President Madison to serve as ambassador to Russia.

This book is about the labors of Adams as the ambassador to Russia.  Most Europe was locked in a series of wars and entangling alliances with Napoleon and France.  Britain was at war with France and at odds with Napoleon’s allies.  The United States was still, nearly some 30 years after winning the War for Independence, hardly regarded as a separate country.  Life in Russia, even for a diplomat, was hard.

Much of this book focuses on the personal struggles of Louisa Adams.  She struggled to find the right clothes for balls and receptions.  She suffered several miscarriages and the death of a baby girl while in Russia.  And she missed her family back in the United States.  Two of her sons were left behind in America and several of her relatives died while she was away.

On behalf of the United States, John Quincy Adams was seeking trade agreements, the freeing of Americans held hostage in Denmark, and better foreign relations with Russia.  On behalf of her family, Louisa Adams was seeking to maintain her life and get back to the United States.

A key part of this story is Louisa’s decision to leave Russia by carriage and travel across the cold and snow of a Russian winter and along the pathway recently traveled by Napoleon’s army and reunite with her husband who had transferred to France.  That trip demonstrated the true mettle of the woman.  Meanwhile, amidst news and rumors of disasters in the United States during the War of 1812, John Quincy Adams was negotiated the best possible treaty to end that war.

This book is lengthy and filled with bits and pieces from the diaries of the Adams family.  Both were incessant journal keepers, seriously devout believers, and readers.  The end result of the times in Russia and then France resurrected Adams’ political and public service career.

Usually we remember a President in one or two sentence snippets.  That is not good news for Presidents Nixon and Clinton.  In the case of John Quincy Adams, it is often difficult to recall much more than his being the son of the second President or his election battles with Andrew Jackson.  John Quincy Adams was a dedicated and honorable statesman.  It was, perhaps, his life and careers both before and after his four years in the White House that best distinguish him.  His wife, unlike his mother, is an obscure figure in our history.  She was also the only foreign born first lady.  This book will do well in bringing her into more prominence, as well as highlighting another honorable chapter in J. Q. Adams’ life.

I noticed that several reviewers were put off by various tendencies in the author’s writing style.  I think the author is a gifted writer and researcher, but some serious editing and shortening could have helped this book.  Certain phrases and cute sayings were repeated endlessly.  At one point, I felt that I would go crazy if the statement “Adam and his Eve” were used again in describing the family after they got to Russia without their wardrobe.

The key to reading this book if one does not enjoy the author’s flowery and emotional-laden style is to read fast.

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