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John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence
By JANE HAMPTON COOK
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013Jane Hampton Cook
All rights reserved.
Louisa Adams expected to deal with the hazards of snow and ice as she said good-bye to St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 1815. She knew traveling by land to Paris in winter wouldn't be easy. The distance alone was overwhelming—sixteen hundred miles.
What she didn't expect to slow her down was the inconvenience of a murder.
Weather woes, however, were her first worry. When she left St. Petersburg, she traveled more than 330 miles southwest along an icy, winding road toward Mitau, the capital of Courland. Centuries earlier, Baltic merchants had used this pathway to transport their most abundant natural treasure—fossilized amber—to jewelry makers and medicinal healers throughout the Roman Empire. No matter the era, ice still ruled these roads in winter.
Not far from Mitau, her carriage became stuck in icy sludge, which had refrozen after a brief thaw. Today, Mitau is called Jelgava, a city in Latvia, an independent Baltic nation about the size of West Virginia. In Louisa's day the region was a rugged country of swamps, forests, hills, valleys, and crusty roads dimpled by deep holes—and stuck wheels.
When her carriage wouldn't budge, her hired post drivers rang bells to rally the locals for help. Several Russian farmers came to her aid by bringing pickaxes and shovels. As their amber-supplying ancestors had witnessed centuries earlier, so they also saw many coaches and wagons become stuck in refrozen slush. While offering their hands and brawn and hacking around the wheels, these men made a startling discovery.
Louisa was not Russian, as her carriage's insignia indicated. She was an American, and a female at that.
Few of them had seen an American, let alone a lady from that land. To most Europeans, Americans were Yankee Doodles—buffoons in beaver hats. Others envisioned Native American chiefs with feathered headdresses and scantily clad wives who resembled Eve in buckskin fig leaf. Louisa was neither of these. What they didn't realize was this: she was more demure than Dolley Madison, the perfectly mannered, snuff-inhaling socialite wife of the president of the United States, and as sensible, opinionated, and observant as Jane Austen, the popular but still anonymous English novelist.
More than her sex, Louisa's aloneness plagued the propriety of these Russians that winter day. She was traveling to Paris without her husband, brother, or grown son. Gypsies did that—not a lady clad in clean clothing in the high-waist Empire style or riding in her own carriage. Then again, maybe American ladies were different—more independent—than European women.
With the skill of sculptors and the speed of dogs digging for bones, the farmers chiseled and shoveled until the carriage loosened and the icy sludge cracked. They cheered the instant the wheel broke free. Thanking them, Louisa resumed her journey.
When she arrived at the post house in Mitau later that day, she was emphatic. Her stay was to be short. She was already lagging behind her schedule, which was as realistic as chasing a comet. Rest, not recreate. Then resume.
"Here I stopped to rest for some hours, with a determination to proceed one stage more to sleep," she recalled.
Travelers were at the mercy of innkeepers, post house managers, and others who opened their houses to strangers. Unlike a modern voyager, Mrs. Adams couldn't use her smartphone to make hotel reservations via the Internet or call ahead by telephone. None of these advances, not even the telegraph, had been invented yet. All she had were hired drivers, called postilions. They were her communication network, the social media of the day. Postilions worked for post house managers, who furnished fresh horses and drivers from stage to stage for traveling carriages and post coaches.
For centuries Europe's postal systems were nothing more than messenger boys riding alone on horseback to carry letters to the next post or town. This system changed in the 1780s, when postal services, such as the one operated by the famed Thurn and Taxis family, began using coaches to carry both mail and passengers from post to post. Russia's postal system was similar. Louisa, however, was paying for post drivers and horses to transport her private carriage.
Russia's mammoth postal system differed in one significant way from the rest of Europe. In compact England postal stations were close together, allowing drivers to change horses every six to twelve miles. The Russians spurred their beasts much farther, forcing horses to pull a coach eighteen miles or more to the next station.
No matter the country, postal drivers were sometimes suspicious characters. One Englishman described a postal carrier as "an idle boy mounted on a worn-out hack, who so far from being able to defend himself against a robber, was more likely to be in league with him."
Despite this, local drivers knew these postal paths better than anyone and recommended places to stay. One thing was certain. Travelers could usually find shelter at post houses, but hospitality—especially along roads recently ripped by Napoleon's army and the czar's pursuing Cossacks—was no guarantee.
Louisa found an inn at Mitau, called upon its master, and ordered dinner for her party, which included her seven-year-old son, Charles; a nurse; and two servants. Everything was comfortable—at least for the first sixty minutes.
"In about an hour after my arrival, Countess Mengs, a lady with whom I was slightly acquainted at St. Petersburg, called and gave me a most kind and urgent invitation to her house entreating me to remain with her some days."
Word of this American's arrival traveled as quickly as the cook could serve soup. Countess Mengs remembered Louisa as the musical, French-fluent, intelligent wife of John Quincy Adams, the son of the former US president— whatever that meant to the countess's European understanding of America.
When Mengs realized her socialite friend was traveling alone, especially without her reserved, in-control husband, she immediately asked her to stay for a few days. She not only asked; she implored. Her demeanor suggested Louisa's life depended on it, while her words masked her true concerns. She claimed she simply wanted to introduce her to friends at her house nearby.
Though flattered, Louisa declined the kind offer. How could Mrs. Adams possibly stop to enjoy herself when her mission was so pressing? Didn't her papers imply her travels were urgent? Weren't these letters of introduction as glued to her person as her own hands? She had to get to Paris.
What her papers didn't reveal was how long it had been since she had taken a stroll with John Quincy by the river or heard him recite the most inspiring points of a sermon he had just read. Although she had dreaded the days when he would wake up with some new-fangled determination—such as scouring his floor-to-ceiling library of books to find the circumference of the earth—she now missed his calculations of trivia.
She even longed for those endless summer days when he would pull out his apothecary scales and compare the weights of European coins to American ones. Back then his weights and measurements obsession seemed a terribly boring way to tinker with time.
"Mr. Adams too often passed it [the evening] alone studying weights and measures practically that he might write a work on them," she had complained back then. Now she would trade anything for the pleasure of his most annoying habits.
Nearly a year had passed since their separation. Diligence, not entertainment, must guide each and every decision. How dare she even think of recr
Excerpted from American Phoenix by JANE HAMPTON COOK. Copyright © 2013 by Jane Hampton Cook. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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