Book Review: American Phoenix

American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence, by Jane Hampton Cook


[Note: This book was provided for free by Thomas Nelson Publishers/Booksneeze in exchange for an honest review.]

At first glance, it might seem a bit puzzling that a Christian publisher would publish the sort of mid-brow historical work focusing on a somewhat obscure part of the life of an illustrious American in history, show a lot of attention to his wife (a vastly more obscure American) in order to provide interest to those interested in women’s studies, and then release the sort of book that fits in snugly besides similar works by such historians as David McCullough or Joseph Ellis and can easily be enjoyed by their wide reading audiences. This is, after all, a work of diplomatic and domestic history, focusing a great deal of attention on the same time period of Russian history that Leo Tolstoy immortalized in his slightly longer work War & Peace, and a work that shows a large amount of authorial speculation as well as close attention to the letters and diaries that illustrious personages of the time were so fond of writing and keeping. To be sure, this book does contain a close look at elements of Russian worship practice, as well as makes numerous references to fig leaves (as a metaphor for the sort of elegant dress that was required to move in elite circles in early 19th century Russia) as well as numerous punning references to Adams and his Eve.

Be that as it may, this book also has a lot of references that are not biblical in nature but that spring from a clear Hellenistic influence that seems stronger than the biblical one. For example, the concept of Plato’s Beard, the sort of oxymoron that is found when one speaks of government intelligence or jumbo shrimp, is one that is explored and mentioned often. Even more notable is the Hellenistic conception of the phoenix itself, a bird that is immolated and then rises reborn, a symbol that the author appropriates (following the example of other Hellenstic Christians) as a metaphor of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the end of Adams’ political career over the Embargo Act of 1808 and its resurrection through faithful service as the first American minister to Russia and his leading of the successful negotiations that led to the treaty of Ghent, and the peril and restoration of American forces during the War of 1812. It ought to be clearly understood that regardless of the publishing imprint on this book, that American Phoenix is a work of accessible and skillfully woven biographical history, not a work that is explicitly a work of faith. That said, this book does show characters who behave in a generally morally upright manner and who have a firm belief in divine providence that appears to be borne out by the course of their lives despite the inevitable ups and downs.

The structure of this book is mildly unconventional, but only mildly so. The book opens at a particularly dramatic point when John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa have been separated because she is still representing her husband and the United States in St. Petersburg while Adams is in Paris having successfully negotiated the Treaty of Ghent establishing status quo antebellum between the United States and Great Britain and awaiting his next assignment in those dark ages before e-mails and instant communication and where his wife, unbeknownst to him, is seeking to reunite with him despite the dangers of spring travel in the turmoil of the period between the first abdication of Napoleon and his ultimate defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena. After this introduction there is a long jump back six years to the time of the Adams’ arrival in St. Petersburg and the course of their negotiations and family life and elegant court parties and flirtations and the political and geopolitical concerns of the life and then the work works its way to the conclusion of the War of 1812 with a short epilogue that gives the futures of the Adams family.

One thing that makes this work particularly enjoyable to read is its vivid attention to characters. The book spends the time discussing the character and personality and behavior of people like John Armstrong and French Ambassador to Russia Caulaincourt and Russian Emperor Alexander (and his relatives). Unsurprisingly, though, the vast majority of attention is paid to John Quincy Adams and his English-born wife Louisa, both of whom shine as sympathetic characters. John Quincy Adams struck me as immensely easy to understand and personally relate to in his scholarly nature, his love of books, his moral rectitude combined with a tender heart that sometimes shone despite his extreme commitment to duty and propriety and honesty. Even his occasionally awkward moments as well as his odd and quirky interests strike the reader (if one is a similarly quirky and awkward reader, at least) as endearing. Louisa, likewise, is shown as a capable and intelligent woman, albeit one whose life was marred by poor health, a somewhat anxious and fretful nature, and deep depression springing from her frequent miscarriages, the loss of a dear and sweet daughter at a tender age, and long separation from her family. In the hands of a less sympathetic writer, Louisa could easily have appeared as a shrew or a nag, but in the hands of Cook, she appears to be a genuine soul as well with immense capabilities and internal strength to deal with her difficult life.

American Phoenix is clearly a work of its time, given that it spends almost as much time talking about Louisa Adams’ toilette and the flirtations of her sister Kitty (one of the many nods this historical work explicitly pays to the writing of Jane Austen) as it does about the more momentous diplomatic work of her husband. It is simply shocking to modern sensibilities to realize that the fate of treaties and of relations between nations could depend upon such matters as the elegance of one’s finery, one’s attendance at royal and elite social functions, and one’s knowledge of the right door to exit after an obscure religious festival. This book manages to convey the contrast between elite life and the grim and unpleasant life of the commoners of Russia, Prussia, and other places in the course of this work. Likewise, this work shows the economic appeal of free trade with America and the financial issues that influenced the decisons of nations, even apart from their political ideologies or personalities. These concerns with women and business and the life of commoners show this history as a work of the present day, whereas previous generations would have focused more clearly on elite matters of high politics and personality. Nevertheless, for those who are interested in these matters, or at least can tolerate the sometimes embarassingly open discussion of women’s health issues that take place in these pages, this book richly rewards those readers who come to it with some awareness of early 19th century history, diplomacy, biblical and Greco-Roman cultural references, and a love of Jane Austen novels. That audience should be wide, and appreciative of this work.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History, International Relations, Love & Marriage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: American Phoenix

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