Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: "American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile That Saved American Independence"

American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile That Saved American Independence intrigued me, but what a long title. It's about my favourite period of American history — the development of the American republic. It's about two people about whom I was mostly ignorant — John Quincy and Louisa Adams. Plus, since my childhood, I have loved biographies. It's a good read and I recommend it even though I think there are enough faults in the book to warrant a 3-star rating rather than a 4-star (a book has to really capture me to get 5 stars out of me).

American Phoenix is not a complete biography of the Adams. The bulk of the book covers the period 1809, when Adams was appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. Petersburg [Russia], through 1815 when Adams led the US delegation that successfully negotiated the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812 with England. Adams and his wife, Louisa, and this biographer, Jane Cook, considered this period of 6 years as a time of exile for John Quincy and Louisa. But Ms. Cook also considers this time period a major turning point both in the political life of Adams and in the national life of the United States of America — both phoenixes that rose from the ashes of near disaster to become prominent and powerful.

Ms. Cook demonstrates that the Adams' accomplishments during this period were important to the ongoing independence of the United States of America. Adams' ability to build and maintain relationships with Russia, especially in obtaining Russian sanction for the USA as a serious world trader, strengthened the ability of the USA to survive. Louisa played an important role in her ability to relate to both the Czar and his family. And, Adams' negotiating skills and his courageous initiative to propose treaty terms that had not, yet, been sanctioned by the President helped to end the War of 1812 on terms that were advantageous to the USA. But it seems to me that the successes of the US navy against the British navy, considered unbeatable in 1812, as well as the US military's successful stands against the British forces at Baltimore and then in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 were at least as important, if not more so.

Ms. Cook's assertion that this time period was a key factor in John Quincy's revitalized political career seems to me to be on shaky ground. With all of her speculations about how much easier and more successful Adams could have been with modern communications technology, I have serious doubts that the American voting population were well-informed about Adams' diplomatic successes, at least not sufficiently so to move them to elect him as the 6th President of the US — something else had to account for that. But, perhaps Adams' accomplishments were sufficient to rescue, in the eyes of fellow politicians, a political career that had been grievously damaged by Adams' support of Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807.

This biography focused as much on Louisa Adams as on John Quincy. There is a similarity in Ms. Cook's treatment of Louisa Adams and David McCullough's treatment of her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams in his biography, "John Adams." Both women played important roles in the successes of their husbands. Louisa was a brave wife of a diplomat. She managed to befriend both the Russian Czar and his family and to satisfy, at least to them, the social demands of a diplomat's wife even though the Adams operated under severe financial constraints, Louisa was terribly unhappy about being separated from her two oldest sons, and she had at least 2 miscarriages while in Russia. She demonstrated her bravery and her stamina when, in 1815, she undertook what turned out to be a perilous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in the winter and through territory in which Napoleon's forces had been or were soon to be fighting against the official forces of France.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and think it was worth reading. I learned about a facet of US history that I did not know well at all. I appreciated the focus on Louisa's contributions to the diplomatic success of her husband. The book offers detailed insights into the development of American diplomacy and the difficulties of that endeavor in the early 19th century when the US was a new, barely recognized country and when international communications were so slow as to be almost nonexistent, a fact exacerbated by the long Russian winters that drastically further slowed any communication.

Even though I enjoyed the book, I think it would have worked better as a historical novel and/or that it should have been shortened by 100-200 pages. There were too many instances of speculative statements of the type, "perhaps Louisa did...." or "it's possible that John Quincy did...." Ms. Cook's reliance on metaphors got a bit tedious and seemed more appropriate to a fictional work than to a biographical work. At one point in the book, she compares the negotiations in the Congress of Vienna to an orchestra and there are at least 12 references to that metaphor in a span of approximately 2 pages. The timeline of Louisa's treacherous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris completely threw me. As I read that section, I thought it was concurrent with the negotiations in Ghent. Suddenly, I discover that the negotiations had been successfully concluded prior to Louisa's departure from Russia. There were also abrupt shifts in time, backwards and forwards, between Ghent, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and France.

(DISCLOSURE: I received a free, review copy of this book, the Kindle edition, from the publisher through its blogger review program, BookSneeze. I was free to write the review that I felt the book deserved. )

Run and read well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

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