Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview
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Like John Jay in Madrid, Francis Dana spent two futile years in St. Petersburg ( 1781-1783) seeking recognition as America's minister to the court of Catherine the Great. However, unlike Jay who understood Spain's concern with the Mississippi, Dana was completely befuddled by the twists and turns in European political relations. Yet with all due justice to Dana, not even a Franklin could have fulfilled the instructions of the Continental Congress. The Congress not only ordered Dana to seek a treaty of commerce and amity, but to induce, if possible, the acknowledgment of independence. Although Catherine had nothing but contempt for English leadership, "those petty men lost in small politics," and was already convinced in 1776 that the American colonies "have told England goodbye forever," Dana arrived in Russia just at the moment that Catherine was transferring her gaze from Poland south to the crumbling Ottoman empire. Thus it was imperative not to antagonize England or to get involved in the military squabbles of western Europe.

But Catherine did sponsor the League of Armed Neutrality, especially to protect the Baltic trade; unfortunately this action was misread by the Americans since it incorporated the cherished concept that free ships made for free goods. Not surprisingly, American leadership looked upon Russia as a potential ally with recognition of independence a foregone conclusion. Thus Dana was rushed off to St. Petersburg, although with reluctant approval from Franklin. Ever the realist, the sage of Passy recognized that Dana was proceeding upon the fragile principle that "the United States trust to the justice of their cause and the rectitude of their intentions to open the way for them into the affections of the sovereigns of Europe." Catherine, of course, was not about to open any doors, even though it was known that she had refused an English request for Russian mercenaries, British overtures for a military alliance against France, and naval assistance after Spain entered the war.

In the meantime Dana's hope remained alive in his lonely exile in St. Petersburg with the rumor that Catherine had agreed to act as mediator in the European conflict if England suspended military operations in the colonies. History records that the rumor was true,

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