When John Adams was living near Paris in April 1785, serving as an American diplomat, he received a letter announcing that he’d been appointed the first ambassador from the United States to Great Britain. Adams had lobbied to get that job but now he wasn’t so sure he wanted it. He worried that the British might resent the representative of a country born in a revolt against British rule. “It is not to be expected,” Adams wrote, “that I should be cherished and beloved.”
He visited the British ambassador to France to ask for advice. The ambassador warned him that people would stare at him wherever he went. “I told him I trembled at the thought of going there,” Adams wrote in his diary. “I was afraid they would gaze with evil eyes.”
The ambassador informed Adams that when he arrived in London, the British minister of foreign affairs, Lord Carmarthen, would arrange an introduction to King George III. That news made Adams very nervous. Meeting the king would be, to say the least, awkward. Not only was Adams among the leaders of a revolution against royal rule, he was also on the committee of five men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, a pugnacious document that denounced the king as a tyrant and included a long list of His Majesty’s sins: “He has dissolved Representative Houses….He has obstructed the Administration of Justice….He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
Adams suspected that King George might not be charmed by that sort of rhetoric.
Despite his trepidations, Adams, then 49, accepted his new position, and in May 1785, he traveled from Paris to London with his wife, Abigail, and their 19-year-old daughter. Along the way, he read Notes on the State of Virginia, a book recently written, printed and presented to him by his friend Thomas Jefferson. The Adams family arrived in London on May 26, and rented rooms in the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly, which the new ambassador described as “too public and too noisy for pleasure.”
Local newspapers noted Adams’ arrival with amusement. “An ambassador from America! Good heavens what a sound!” the Public Advertiser mocked. “Tis hard to say which can excite indignation most, the insolence of those who appoint the Character, or the meanness of those who receive it.”
Lord Carmarthen, the foreign minister, was friendlier, and he informed Adams that he’d arranged for an audience with King George on June 1. Adams hoped that he could simply present his credentials to the king and slip silently away, but Lord Carmarthen informed him that it was customary for new ambassadors to deliver a short speech to the king—a speech that should be “as complimentary as possible.” Adams conferred with other diplomats and learned that this was, alas, true. So he drafted a speech. He wasn’t a naturally diplomatic fellow but he tried to make his statement as cordial as possible. He memorized it and practiced delivering it. He knew this would be a historic moment and he hoped to rise to the occasion.
It was raining when Adams rode to St. James’s Palace in Lord Carmarthen’s coach. Inside the palace, the two men walked upstairs to an elegant room just outside the king’s chambers. “While I stood in this place, where it seems all ministers stand upon such occasions,” Adams wrote in a letter to his boss, John Jay, America’s secretary of foreign affairs, “the room was very full of ministers of state, lords, and bishops, and all sorts of courtiers.”
Adams glanced around and noticed that everyone was staring at him. It was just as he’d feared: These British grandees gawked as if he were some strange zoological specimen. They saw a balding, potbellied American revolutionary who was visibly nervous and embarrassed by their unwanted attention. “I was the focus of all eyes,” he told Jay. “I was relieved, however, from the embarrassment of it by the Swedish and Dutch ministers, who came to me, and entertained me in a very agreeable conversation.”
A few minutes later, Lord Carmarthen led Adams into the king’s chamber. As etiquette dictated, Adams bowed to the king three times—once upon entering, again halfway across the room and finally when he reached the king’s throne. He presented his credentials and began his speech by conveying his countrymen’s best wishes for the king’s health and happiness.
“I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow citizens in having the distinguished honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty’s royal presence in a diplomatic character,” Adams continued. “And I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence and affection—or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”
When Adams finished, the king praised the ambassador’s friendly remarks. Then he admitted that he wasn’t happy to lose his American colonies. “I will be very frank with you,” he said. “I was the last to consent to the separation. But the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
With the formalities finished, the king asked Adams if he’d come to London from France. When Adams said yes, the monarch laughed. “There is an opinion among some people,” the king said, smiling, “that you are not the most attached of all your countrymen to the manners of France.”
The king apparently had good sources of information about his former colonists: Adams was indeed less enamored of France than Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin.
“That opinion, sir, is not mistaken,” Adams replied. But he didn’t want the king to conclude that he was an Anglophile. “I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country.”
“An honest man will never have any other,” the king replied.
At that, the king signaled that the meeting was over and Adams walked backwards out of the room, an absurd maneuver required by courtly etiquette.
The American revolutionary found that he was surprisingly moved by the brief encounter, and he believed that his former enemy was equally moved. “The King listened to every word I said with dignity but with an apparent emotion,” Adams wrote the next day in his report to Jay. “Whether it was the nature of the interview, or whether it was my visible agitation, for I felt more than I could or did express, that touched him, I cannot say. But he was much affected, and answered me with more tremor than I had spoken with.”
It was the beginning of a long, beautiful friendship between the two nations, although, if truth be told, there were some unpleasant incidents around 1812—but let’s say no more about that.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.