American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence by Jane Hampton Cook
Thomas Nelson; May 2013
Hardcover 512 pages
Review copy provided by BookSneeze in exchange for this review, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
American Phoenix tells the gripping story of John Quincy Adams’s “honorable exile” during the War of 1812 and the harrowing journey of his wife, Louisa, to be reunited with her family.
American diplomat John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa, had two things in common with the audacious Napoleon Bonaparte—speaking perfect French and living in exile. American Phoenix reveals the untold true story of Quincy’s unexpected nomination as the top US envoy to Russia in 1809, and Louisa’s agony at being forced to leave their six- and eight-year old boys behind in Boston. Believing that ambition can never repay such sacrifice, she clings to the hope of reuniting with her sons in a year. Pretention, royal dissipation, extreme weather, covert political maneuvers, French interference, private tragedy, and two great wars trap them in St. Petersburg longer than their worst fears. Their personal story is soon swept into the public drama of Napoleon’s war with Russia and America’s war with Great Britain, which ultimately force John Quincy and Louisa to live apart. When Napoleon escapes his exile, his march to reclaim Paris threatens to forever separate John Quincy and Louisa from each other and their children back home.
American Phoenix uncovers the challenges, fears, sorrows, joys, triumphs, and faith that come when life—no matter the era—takes an unexpected journey.
American Phoenix is the story of the political exile that John Quincy and Louisa Adams endured in Russia in 1809-1815. These historical figures wrote many letters and diaries which are now used to help characterize these two iconic figures of American history. But this book is more than just a look at this famous couple, there are other diplomats also in the Imperial courts of the Czar Alexander which is the setting for most of this impressive piece of literature.
Aside from just the important political atmosphere of the times, issues with social customs, trade embargoes, Napoleon and family matters all come together in this non-fiction account of this period that is left out of most children’s history books. The nuances of the era are evident as Louisa laments of her lack of funds to suitably dress herself for the dances held at court because when she humbly declines she is facing the ire of the Imperial Mother. Louisa’s sister Kitty is with the Adams on this diplomatic trip abroad, and she attracts the attention of the Czar and irks Louisa’s sensibilities, illustrating one example of Louisa’s own family life.
The author writes, “The long-term repercussions would influence not only John’s future as a diplomat but ultimately the success of US trade in Europe and thus practical acceptance of America’s sovereignty.” This was John Q Adams main purpose in Russia: opening up favorable trade routes despite the enmity between France and England. But who was the USA, anyway? In 1810 America was certainly not an influential country it has since become; the book indicates it was still seen as a part of England no matter how many times the USA sought independence from the British.
The strongest theme in the first half of the book is this commerce and trade issue, which is why Adams was sent to Russia as a diplomat. “There was a pretty strong sentiment against the colonial trade in Paris, because they considered it as all English,” a peeved Caulaincourt replied. Napoleon was a major player in this as the Emperor of France and as diplomats began to talk amongst themselves the seeds of discontent regarding Napoleon are planted. We watch Napoleon come and go, and come again, and go again as Adams attempts to avoid costly wars despite the European conflicts, and he hears months later of news from America and the Redcoats invasion.
Alongside John’s peacemaking political endeavor, we never forget Louisa, who was forced to leave two of her boys behind in America while she was surrounded by blankets of ice with little hope of communication from her family in America. Since she was fluent in French she was able to converse easily with others in a royal court, and was a respectable and pretty lady. On the inside, she was aching to go home, and the author imparts this sort of depression through the very words of Louisa herself. And this little foray to St. Petersburg wasn’t supposed to take quite as long as it did, so as the years iced over during that “honorable” exile she suffered “doubt, guilt, denial depression and nightmares” as she coped with childbearing and loss.
And of course there is John Quincy, with intriguing facts about the man who was subject to venomous attacks from political foes in America. Yet, while in Russia, later Paris, and later England, he was achieving respectability, even though it was a long and tedious process. But relations with Britain and America were never going to get better unless the British made amends for either kidnapping or killing sailors and injuring others during supposed peace time off the Virginia coast. The book relates all the maneuvers through John’s eyes that lead to the wars, with British’s invasion of Washington in October 1814 as well as Napoleon’s earlier invasion of Russia. The eventual rise of America from the ashes is coincidental (or is it?) with the rise of Adams’ respectability, and imparts the symbolism of the title American Phoenix.
As evidenced by this lengthy review (typical of all non-fiction reviews I write) the material was vast and the book shows how well the author researched her topics. I cannot imagine a full biography on the couple; if it came from this author I would expect it to be a few thousand pages! The Adams left us many of their letters and notes that their son helped edit and compile which were used as sources for this work by Jane Hampton Cook but her writing offers much more insight and details surrounding the atmosphere in which the letters were written. By focusing on these important political years, the author was able to exhibit the characteristics of John Quincy and Louisa Adams in such an informative way that we don’t miss the “full biography” format and we get an expansive look at the political connections of John Quincy Adams as a representative of America. The author ended the book with the brief summary of their lives after these significant years of the exile, so you will not be left wanting to learn any more that what this book provides for this topic. This book is a fabulous tool to help humanize John Quincy and Louisa Adams as they endured much hardship on behalf of securing America’s independence.
I also wanted to add that there were extensive notes and references as opposed to footnotes, thankfully they were at the end of the book as opposed to interfering with the flow of the book. After the notes were the bibliography and index for easy reference material, making this book a keeper for your American history library.