Francis Dana and America’s Failed Embassy to Russia

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

February 22, 2017
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches


The war between Britain and her North American colonies shut off the availability of raw materials, specifically timber, tar, and pitch, for the British Royal Navy and her commercial fleet. This placed greater concern on protecting their second biggest supplier, the Baltic States. Part of that protection included confiscating all contraband and naval stores aboard any Baltic ships headed for France or Spain. On February 28, 1780, the Empress Catherine II of Russia, believing the action was in violation of maritime law, announced the Declaration of the Principles of Neutrality and invited all of the other Baltic states to join her. She believed that she and her country had with “scrupulous Exactness”

observed the Rules of Neutrality, during the course of this War …  [but] the Subjects of her Majesty [were] often times troubled in their Navigation, or interrupted and retarded in their Commerce, by the Subjects of the Belligerent Powers. These interruptions, having come upon Business in general, and that of Russia in particular, are of a Nature to awaken the Attention of all the neutral Nations, and oblige her … to seek to deliver herself from them.1

The declaration sought to secure for neutrals the freedom to navigate from one port to another as well as along the coasts of the belligerents, asserted the principle “free ships make free goods,” restricted contraband to munitions and the essential instruments of war, and set forth the conditions which constitute a blockade.

It was Article 2 and Article 3 of the declaration that Britain took most issue with. Article 2 read,  “That the Effects belonging to the Subjects of the belligerent Powers, shall be free, in neutral Ships, except always, contraband Goods”. 2 For five hundred years, the status of neutral property was based on the notion of consolato del mare – neutral property, except contraband, was safe from capture at sea on enemy ships, but enemy property was subject to capture on neutral ships. This favored countries with large navies because countries with small navies could not protect their commercial shipping. They were forced to negotiate treaties with the countries with large navies that would allow them to carry enemy property freely; as a concession they had to agree that neutral property on enemy ships could be confiscated. This was not much of a concession seeing as the smaller countries shipped their goods on their own ships. From this understanding came the maxim, free ships, free goods. Even though the maxim had no standing in the law of nations, it was at the time a more common practice than consolato del mare. Between 1650 and 1780, thirty-six treaties were signed establishing free ships, free goods and only fifteen adhered to consolato del mare. 3 Britain, however, believed that the law of the sea was founded on consolato del mare and that free ships, free goods was nothing more than a treaty privilege.

Article 3 read:

That her Imperial Majesty, in Consequence of the Limits above fixed, will adhere strictly, to that which is stipulated by the tenth and eleventh Articles of her Treaty of Commerce with Great Britain concerning the manner, in which She ought to conduct towards all the Belligerent.

The articles referenced were part of the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1766. They specifically defined what was considered contraband. Only contraband could now be considered; this meant raw materials and naval stores could not be confiscated as contraband.

Empress Catherine also expressed her determination to use her maritime forces to maintain and to protect  “the Commerce of her States and also … the navigation of her Subjects against all those to whom it may concern.” 4  The situation escalated for Britain when Sweden on July 21 and the United Provinces (Holland) on November 20 joined with Russia in an Armed League of Neutrality.

Seizing the opportunity to expand their trade relations and develop “a good understanding and friendly intercourse between the subjects of her Imperial majesty the Empress of all the Russias and these United States,” the Continental Congress on December 15, resolved

That an envoy a minister charged with the affairs of the United States to reside at the Court of the Empress of Russia be appointed … that Monday next be assigned for electing such envoy minister … and that a committee of three be appointed to prepare a commission and draught of instructions for the said envoy minister. 5

Francis Dana (Wikimedia Commons)

On December 19, the Continental Congress elected Francis Dana, minister plenipotentiary to the Court of the Empress of Russia. 6 Dana, who had been serving as John Adams’ secretary in Paris, was not informed of his appointment until the middle of March in 1781. 7 Little did he know that between his election and learning of his appointment, Denmark had joined the League on January 5. The goals of his embassy to St. Petersburg were

to engage her Imperial Majesty to favor and support the sovereignty and independence of the United States … [that it was] “a leading and capital point that these United States shall be formally admitted as a party to the conventions of the neutral maritime powers.… [and to propose a treaty of amity and commerce with Russia which was to be] “founded upon principles of equality and reciprocity and for the mutual advantages of both nations and agreeable to the spirit of the treaties existing between the United States and France. 8

He was directed by the President of the Continental Congress upon his arrival in France to “communicate your powers and instructions to our ministers plenipotentiary at the court of Versailles … and avail yourself of their advice and information.” He was also to “communicate the general object of your mission to the minister of his most Christian majesty at the court of Petersburgh, and endeavor through his mediation to sound the disposition of her Imperial majesty or her ministers towards these United States.” 9

On March 24, Dana informed the President of the Continental Congress that he had safely arrived in France and had already communicated his instructions and commission to Dr. Franklin who recommended that he speak with the Count de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, about “whether it would not be proper to make [his] communication also to the court of St. Petersburgh and obtain their approbation of the measure before [he] should set off for that country.” 10 One week later, he informed Vergennes of his commission and then stated,

It is not my intention to assume any public character on my arrival there, but to appear only as a private citizen of the United States, until the result of my inquiries shall point out a ready and honorable reception. I shall most cheerfully obey my instructions to communicate the general object of my mission to his majesty’s minister at St. Petersburgh, whose able advice and assistance I hope your excellency will be pleased to assure me. 11

On April 4, in an interview with Dana, Vergennes did not oppose his mission, but reinforced that he

should appear as a mere private gentleman travelling with a view of obtaining some knowledge of that country; … [and] advised me to mention my design of going to the [Russian] minister at The Hague. 12

On April 18, he sought the advice of one more person, John Adams. Adams said,

I should think it altogether improper to communicate your design to the ambassador of traveling to St. Petersburgh as a private gentleman, secreting from him at the same time your public character … and [if he] advised against the journey, or to postpone it for instructions from his court, it would be less respectful to go than to go now when the circumstances of the times are very favorable … America, my dear sir, has been too long silent in Europe. Her cause is that of all nations and all men. 13

This was the advice he chose to follow. Unfortunately, in doing so, it set off a series of actions that would eventually make Dana’s embassy an unmitigated disaster. John Adams did not hide the fact that he had little regard for Vergennes. So when Vergennes secured a promise from Dana not to proceed in presenting his Letters of Credence, that is, making the Russian Court aware of his mission, Adams felt an American diplomat was being held accountable to a foreign ministry. Because Dana had been Adams’ secretary before receiving his commission, he had a strong affinity for Adams. It was not surprising that such admiration would lead to the appropriation of many of his opinions.

While he was en route to St. Petersburg, a fourth country, Prussia, joined the League on May 19; she was the second country since Dana’s appointment.

On November 29, 1775, the Continental Congress established a committee to oversee their agents in Britain and their “friends in … other parts of the World.” Because of the nature of its role, soon the word “secret” was added to the committee’s title. On April 17, 1777, owing to the growing demand of their duties, Congress renamed the committee; it was now the Committee of Foreign Affairs. On August 10, 1781, Robert R. Livingston was elected the first Secretary of Foreign Affairs. 14 Dana was to report directly to him.

Dana reached St. Petersburg on August 27, 1781. On the 31st, he wrote to the Marquis de Verac, the French Minister to Russia, announcing his arrival. That same day, Verac wrote back stating that Vergennes had prepared him for his arrival. On September 1, Dana again wrote to Verac, this time informing him of his commission. The next day, Verac wrote back warning Dana to “reflect much before you display the character with which you are clothed, or make advances which will be more injurious than beneficial to the success of your views” 15 and that without the intervention of any other belligerent parties, not even that of the two imperial courts, [before] their mediation shall be formally asked and granted for this object.” 16 This was a major point of misunderstanding for the Continental Congress and Dana. The Empress had directed the Declaration to the three European belligerents only, Britain, France and Spain; it was not directed to the United States because if it had been, Empress Catherine would have been recognizing the United States as a sovereign state when in fact they were colonies of one of the belligerents. Belligerents could accede to the principles of the League, but this did not mean that they would be allowed to be part of the League.

Frustrated, Dana wrote back,

the United States of America have been, ever since the 4th of July 1776, a free, sovereign, and independent body-politic. Your illustrious sovereign made this declaration in the face of the world more than three years since; and I flatter myself the time has now come when other sovereigns are prepared to make the same, if properly invited to do it … [and ignoring his promise to Vergennes wrote] I see no difficulty in adopting the measure I shall presently mention … it appears to me to be betraying the honor and dignity of the United States to seclude myself in a hotel, without making one effort to step forth into political life [therefore] … the measure I propose to take is make a confidential communication of my public character to the proper minister of her majesty and of the general object of my mission. 17

Dana could not accept that diplomatic recognition could not be rendered after he made his mission known. What made the communication between Dana and Verac even more difficult was that Dana did not speak Russian or French, the language of the royal court, and Verac did not speak English. All communication between them had to be through translators.

Over the next six months, Dana waited patiently for his audience with the Empress Catherine. He strongly believed that “the critical moment for the Maritime Provinces of Europe {had] arrived. They may never, or at least for a long time to come, again see so fair an occasion to promote their essential Interests.” 18 During this time he received a surprising letter from Livingston and had to combat a rumor that could jeopardize his embassy.

In the letter the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was adamant about how Dana was to carryout his mission. He wrote that Dana’s

eager desire to render essential service to your country had in some measure biased your judgment … [but] that you entertain serious thoughts of making and immediate display of your powers to the Russian ministry, notwithstanding the cautions given you [by those] whom you were expressly directed to consult … if you have not yet made a communication of your powers, to delay doing it till the Marquis de Verac shall agree in sentiment with you that it will be expedient … [because] The conclusions of the Marquis de Verac on the plan of the proposed mediation are sound and just.

Before sending the letter off, Livingston requested the approval of its contents from Congress. Two weeks later, Congress directed him to add the following:

That Mr. Dana be instructed not to present his Letters of Credence to the Court of Petersburg until he shall have obtained satisfactory assurances that he will be duly recd. and recognized in his public Character. 19

With this weighing on his mind, Dana was confronted with a piece of information that had been spread at the Court in Madrid by Russian Ambassador Brandenburg:,

If North America confirms its independence and the number of inhabitants increases, they will then begin to raise there flax and hemp; and they already have timber, tar, pitch, wax, and other products which come from the North (the Baltic), and are in a position to satisfy with these all the southern areas at a better price and more conveniently than the North is able to do. 20

In other words, if the United States gained its independence, her “free commerce … would be highly prejudicial to their [Russian] commerce.” Dana, believing that commerce was the main obstacle which prevented Russia’s recognition of the United States, wrote a polemic entitled, Reflections to refute the Assertion of the British that the Independence of the United States will be injurious to the commercial Interests of the Northern Nations, and of Russia in Particular. 21 In it he made three points: first, that there was no difference if Russia sold her commodities in total to one country or in total to two or more countries; second, that there was a market in the United States for iron bar, sailcloth, cordage, and hemp and in Russia there was a market for rice and a higher quality of tobacco; and third, an independent United States could trade with Russia without undergoing the middleman expense currently imposed by Britain. The arguments changed few minds because in Russia commerce was thought of as a fixed market for exports only and not as the balance between imports and exports – she could not comprehend that two countries could export the same commodity, and the commerce of both could increase rather than decrease due to the nature of each country’s imports.

As the months continued to pass, Dana became convinced that Verac had no intention of allowing him to present his Letters of Credence to the Court under any circumstances. Verac opposed the presentation in September of 1781 when Dana had just arrived in St. Petersburg, in December when he learned of Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown, in March of 1783 when Parliament enacted a series of new policies just prior to the fall of Lord North’s Ministry, in October when Richard Oswald was empowered to negotiate a peace treaty with the American Commissioners, in November when Charles James Fox, the new Secretary of State for the Northern Department under the Rockingham ministry, announced that there would be no pre-conditions to the peace negotiations, and in February of 1783 when the preliminary treaty was signed. 22

On February 22, Dana received a letter from Adams. In it he stated,

You can no Longer hesitate to make known your Errand. Whether the advice of the Marquis de Verac is for it or against it, I should think you would now go to the Minister. – Your Instructions are Chains Strong Chains. – Whether you shall break them or no as We have been obliged to do, you are the only judge. – There is a Vulcan at Versailles [Vergennes] whose constant Employment it has been to forge Chains for American Ministers. – But his Metal has not been fine and strong enough … My advice to you is immediately to communicate your mission.23

On March 5, a member of Catherine’s cabinet visited Dana and informed him that he could communicate his mission to the Vice-Chancellor, Count Ostermann, as soon as he pleased. Ostermann was serving, de facto, as Russia’s Foreign Minister with Catherine’s secretary, I. A. Bezborodko, as his advisor, after the dismissal of Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin in May of 1781.  On March 7, without consulting Verac, Dana communicated his mission to Ostermann and requested an audience so that he might present his Letters of Credence. 24 Five days later, he received a message from Osterman confirming that he had received the letter and would present it to her majesty. There was no further communication between the two men until they met on April 23. In the meeting, much to Dana’s surprise, the Count stated that Russia, in order to maintain her neutrality, could not recognize the United States as an independent and sovereign state, that Dana needed new Letters of Credence dated “prior to the acknowledgment of the independence of the United States by the King of Great Britain,” and that a minister from the United States could not be received by Russia before one had been received by Great Britain. Dana, after being assured by a member of the Empress’s cabinet that there would be no obstacles to his reception, was stunned, confused, and angry. He told Ostermann that he needed to some time to consider his response. On May 8, he sent a memorial to Ostermann explaining why he would not apply to Congress for the revocation of his Letters of Credence:

  1. Because it would be to desire the United States of America to strike seven years of their existence as free, sovereign, and independent State
  2. Because their compliance with it would, in effect, annul their resolution contained in the declaration of their independence …
  3. Because it would imply on their part that they owed their existence as a free nation to the acknowledgment of their independence by the King of Great Britain
  4. Because … it would go to annul all their acts of sovereignty prior to that period, and among others, the most important ones of their treaties with France and Holland, as well as their commissions granted to their ministers at the court of Madrid and other courts …
  5. Because the requisition of new letters of credence bearing date since the period above-mentioned involves in itself a decision on the part of her Imperial majesty, that the United States of America ought [not] of right to be considered as a free, sovereign, and independent power, but in virtue of the acknowledgment of them as such by the King of Great Britain
  6. Because the granting of new letters of credence would amount to a confession on the part of the United States of the justice of such a decision and
  7. Because a compliance with such a requisition would … in every point of view, be highly derogatory to the dignity of the United States, and is a sacrifice which circumstances by no means require to be made. 25

The next day Dana sent a copy of the memorial to Livingston and added,

What the effect of this memorial will be, is impossible to say. I have no sanguine hopes from   it … but if [Congress] should be inclined, would it not be more eligible for me to return, when they would have an opportunity to get rid of the matter without any revocation … by nominating another minister after I had quitted the empire. 26

One week later, Dana wrote to John Adams, “If they [Congress] have not lost all sense of their own Dignity, and I believe they have not, they wou’d sooner resolve never to send a Minister to this Court, during the life of the present Sovereign.” 27

Unbeknown to Dana, on May 21, the Continental Congress resolved to permit him to bring his embassy to an end:

That Mr. Dana be informed, that the treaties lately entered into for restoring peace have caused such an alteration in the affairs of these states, as to have removed the primary object of his mission to the Court of Russia …That with respect to a commercial treaty with Russia, they consider the benefits of it to this country … as rather remote, and have therefore little present inducement to enter into it …

That…, unless Mr. Dana shall have already formed engagements or made proposals, from which he cannot easily recede …  he be permitted to return [to the United States]. 28

Livingston had expressed a similar opinion to the President of the Continental Congress on February 26 29 and again in his report to the Continental Congress on June 3. Dana would not receive a copy of the resolution until July 27.

On June 14, Dana met with Ostermann for the second time. He informed Dana that the Empress

will receive him with pleasure in that quality as soon as the definitive treaties which are now on the eve of being concluded between the powers who have been at war shall be consummated 30

He told him that in a few days the Empress Catherine would be travelling to Finland and probably would not return until the end of September at which time she would receive him. On July 27, Dana received the Continental Congress’s resolution attached to a letter from Livingston. The good news was that he would be allowed to return home; the bad news was that Congress refused to pay the customary fee for a settling a commercial treaty and that his power only permitted him “to communicate with her Imperial Majesty’s ministers on the subject of a treaty, etc…, but not to assign it. He was taken aback with this assertion,

…But it is useless to spend a moment’s consideration upon the extent of my powers, when you say you are persuaded that it is the wish of Congress rather to postpone any treaty with Russia rather than buy one at this day, as I am persuaded no treaty is to be obtained, or could be honorably postponed, without conforming, as other nations have done, to the usage of this court in that respect.31

Dana vented his frustration and anger in a letter to Adams two days later. He was commissioned a minister plenipotentiary

with full power on behalf of the United States, to propose a treaty of amity and commerce between these United States and her said Imperial Majesty, and to confer and treat thereon with her ministers, vested with equal powers … ; transmitting such treaty for our final ratification.

Then he referenced point number six in his instructions:

… and you are authorized to communicate with her Imperial Majesty’s ministers on the form and terms of such treaty, and transmit the same to Congress for their ratification. 32

Dana was confounded by Livingston’s position since there would be no point for Dana or any Russian ministers to enter into any negotiations if he, Dana, could not sign what they concluded. This would also make what they concluded nothing more than a draft, leaving nothing for Congress to ratify. On August 8, Dana informed Ostermann that there was no need to schedule an audience with the Empress because he was departing for America in a couple of weeks. 33 Concerned that Ostermann might misinterpret his motives for departing, he explained that his health was poor and he had some private affairs that needed his attention. On August 16, Dana paid Ostermann one final visit to extend personal wishes.

On September 29, 1783, Dana boarded the Duchess of Kingston and set sail for the United States. He arrived in Boston on December 13. Four days later, he wrote to the President of the Continental Congress:

Sir: I do myself the honor to acquaint your excellency of my arrival at Boston … on Friday last … I wish that your excellency would be pleased to write to me  … whether it is the expectation of the Congress that I should come to the place of their session, and without loss of time, to render a more particular account of my late mission. There is nothing I should more earnestly wish than to meet a strict inquiry into my conduct during the time I have had he honor of being a servant of the public. 34

The failure of Francis Dana’s embassy has numerous reasons. Putting aside any alleged subversion by Minister Verac or British Minister Harris, the following appear to be more than enough:

  • the effort of the Continental Congress to send ministers to European courts where there appeared no remote prospect of obtaining aid to or recognition of the United States was over-zealous;
  • the United States had nothing to offer Russia by way of a military alliance – all they had to offer was a trading partner;
  • the United States had a lack of understanding of the military alliances on the continent and their influence on political policies;
  • communication between the Continental Congress and Dana roundtrip took between five and six months;
  • Empress Catherine was concerned first and foremost with what transpired on the continent. She was nearing a war with the Turks which meant at some time she needed the support of Britain;
  • Empress Catherine needed to maintain her commercial relationship with Britain and;
  • Empress Catherine needed to maintain Russia’s neutrality in order to protect her commerce and be viewed as a fair and just mediator.


1 J. B. Scott, Armed Neutralities 1780 and 1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918), 295-6.

2 “Declaration of her Majesty the Empress of Russia, made to the Courts of Versailles, Madrid, and London, mentioned in the foregoing Memorial,” in The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, Vol. 9, March 1780-July 1780, ed. Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 121-26.

3 Matzen, in J. B. Scott, Armed Neutralities, 167.

4 “Declaration of her Majesty the Empress of Russia.” in The Adams Papers, 9:121-26.

5 Journals of the Continental Congress, 18:1155.

6 Ibid, 18:1167.

7 Francis Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington DC: Library of Congress, American Memory, 1888), Diplomatic Correspondence, 4, 325-27.

8 “Secret Journals of Congress,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 2, 362-65.

9 “Instructions to Francis Dana, as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. Petersburgh, 19 December 1780,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 4:202.

10 “Dana to the President of Congress, 24 March 1781,” in Ibid., 4:326.

11 “Dana to the Count de Vergennes, 31 March 1781,” in Ibid., 4:343.

12 “Dana to the President of Congress, 4 April 1781,” in Ibid., 4:350-51.

13 “J. Adams to Dana, 18 April 1781,” in Ibid., 4:368.

14 Journals of the Continental Congress, 21:851-52.

15 “Verac to Dana, 2 September 1781,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 4:684.

16 “Verac to Dana, 12 September 1781,” in Ibid., 4:705.

17 “Dana to Verac, 4 September 1781,” in Ibid., 4:698.

18 “To John Adams from Francis Dana, 23 April 1782,” in The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, October 1781-April 1782, ed. Gregg L. Lint, Richard Alan Ryerson, Anne Decker Cecere, et al… (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 12:455-57.

19 “Livingston to Dana, 10 May 1782,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 5:412; Journals of the Continental Congress, 22:301.

20 A.V. Efimov, Iz istorii velikikh russkikh gepgraficheskikh otkrytii v severnom ledovitom i tikhom okeanakh XVII i pervaia polovina XVIII v (Moscow, 1950), 222.

21 “Dana to Livingston, 28 June 1782,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 5:529-32 and 780.

22 “Verac to Dana, [translation] 2 September 1781,” in Ibid., 4:685; “To John Adams from Henry Grand, 21 November 1781,” in The Adams Papers, 12:77; “To the American Peace Commissioners from Francis Dana, 14 January 1783,” in Ibid., 14:194-5; “Dana to Livingston, 18 November 1782,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 6:54; “Dana to Livingston, 25 February, 1783,” in Ibid., 6: 263.

23 “To John Adams from Francis Dana, 22 February 1783,” in The Adams Papers, 14:285-7.

24 “Dana’s Communication of his Mission to Count Ostermann, 7 March 1783,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 6: 275.

25 “Dana to Ostermann, 8 May 1783,” in Ibid., 6:411-15.

26 “Dana to Livingston, 9 May 1783,” in Ibid., 6:418.

27 “To John Adams from Francis Dana, 15 May 1783,” in The Adams Papers, 14:480-1.

28 Journals of the Continental Congress, May 21, 1783, Vol. 24, 350-1.

29 “Livingston to the President of Congress, 26 February, 1783,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 6:264.

30 “Dana to Livingston, 14 June 1783,” in Ibid., 6:494.

31 “Dana to Livingston, 27 July 1783,” in Ibid., 6:597-8.

32 Journals of the Continental Congress, 18:1166-73.

33 “Dana to Livingston, 8 August, 1783,” in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, 6:264.

34 “Dana to the President of Congress, 17 December 1783,” in Ibid., 6:739.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *