In 1780, the United States sent Francis Dana as envoy to Russia in order to establish diplomatic relations. The mission failed, as did another attempt to establish a United States representative in 1794. When Russia recognized the United States in October 1803, Czar Alexander I accepted Levett Harris as U.S. representative at St. Petersburg. Harris was a Philadelphia Quaker, who served as American consul from 1803 until 1816. Among other tasks, he helped merchants and their ship personnel understand and comply with Russian trade laws.
The official diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States began in 1807, with the appointment of John Quincy Adams as the first U.S. ambassador to Russia, who arrived at St. Petersburg in 1809 with his wife, Louisa C. Adams. Harris was an important American in St. Petersburg and well-liked by the Czar and his foreign minister. He spent part of the winter and spring of 1814 in England, but returned to Russia in order to serve an appointment as U.S. chargé d'affaires, while John Quincy Adams traveled to Ghent for the War of 1812 peace negotiations. Although Harris hoped to spend the 1814-1815 winter in the United States or France, Adams' absence for the ongoing peace talks prevented him from leaving his post.
Levett Harris later attempted to become U.S. minister to Russia, but failed to obtain the position, partly on account of charges of official misconduct. His reputation suffered from multiple accusations of corruption. In 1819, Harris sued American merchant William D. Lewis for making the libelous claim that he had taken advantage of his post in Russia by accepting bribes to permit illicit ships and cargo through customs.
The American Philosophical Society elected Levett Harris into their membership in 1821. Harris' nephew, John Harris Pugsley (ca. 1789-1833) officially changed his name to John Levett Harris in 1810, and followed his uncle as consul to St. Petersburg. He served from 1816 to 1819.