The meeting of former rebel John Adams and the monarch he denounced as a tyrant is one of the more curious events in American diplomacy. I am sure that neither man ever expected to meet the other, nor did either look forward to the meeting when it came, but both did their duty for their countries. Here is John Adams’ report written on June 2, 1785 to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay:
During my interview with the Marquis of Carmarthen, he told me that it was customary for every foreign minister, at his first presentation to the King, to make his Majesty some compliments conformable to the spirit of his letter of credence; and when Sir Clement Cottrell Dormer, the master of the ceremonies, came to inform me that he should accompany me to the secretary of state and to Court, he said that every foreign minister whom he had attended to the Queen had always made a harangue to her Majesty, and he understood, tho he had not been present, that they always harangued the King.
On Tuesday evening the Baron de Lynden called upon me, and said he came from the Baron de Nolken, and they had been conversing upon the singular situation I was in, and they agreed in opinion that it was indispensable that I should make a speech, and that that speech should be as complimentary as possible. All this was conformable to the advice lately given by the Count de Vergennes2 to Mr. Jefferson; so that, finding it was a custom established at both these great Courts, and that this Court and the foreign ministers expected it, I thought I could not avoid it, altho my first thought and inclination had been to deliver my credentials silently and retire.
At one, on Wednesday, the master of ceremonies called at my house, and went with me to the secretary of state’s office, in Cleveland Row, where the Marquis of Carmarthen received me, and introduced me to his under secretary, Mr. Fraser, who has been, as his Lordship told me, uninterruptedly in that office, through all the changes in administration for thirty years, having first been appointed by the Earl of Holderness. After a short conversation upon the subject of importing my effects from Holland and France free of duty, which Mr. Fraser himself introduced, Lord Carmarthen invited me to go with him in his coach to Court. When we arrived in the antechamber, the æil de bœuf of St. James’s, the master of the ceremonies met me and attended me, while the secretary of state went to take the commands of the King. While I stood in this place, where it seems all ministers stand upon such occasions, always attended by the master of ceremonies, the room very full of ministers of state, lords, and bishops, and all sorts of courtiers, as well as the next room, which is the King’s bedchamber, you may well suppose I was the focus of all eyes.
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 during the whole time. Some other gentlemen, whom I had seen before, came to make their compliments too, until the Marquis of Carmarthen returned and desired me to go with him to his Majesty. I went with his Lordship through the levee room into the King’s closet. The door was shut, and I was left with his Majesty and the secretary of state alone. I made the three reverences—one at the door, another about half way, and a third before the presence—according to the usage established at this and all the northern Courts of Europe, and then addrest myself to his Majesty in the following words:
“Sir:—The United States of America have appointed me their minister plenipotentiary to your Majesty, and have directed me to deliver to your Majesty this letter, which contains the evidence of it. It is in obedience to their express commands, that I have the honor to assure your Majesty of their unanimous disposition and desire to cultivate the most friendly and liberal intercourse between your Majesty’s subjects and their citizens, and of their best wishes for your Majesty’s health and happiness, and for that of your royal family. The appointment of a minister from the United States to your Majesty’s Court will form an epoch in the history of England and of America. 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; 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, tho separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.
“I beg your Majesty’s permission to add, that, altho I have some time before been entrusted by my country, it was never in my whole life in a manner so agreeable to myself.”
The King listened to every word I said, with dignity, but with an apparent emotion. Whether it was the nature of the interview, or whether it was my visible agitation, for I felt more than I did or could express, that touched him, I can not say. But he was much affected, and answered me with more tremor than I had spoken with, and said:
“Sir:—The circumstances of this audience are so extraordinary, the language you have now held is so extremely proper, and the feelings you have discovered so justly adapted to the occasion, that I must say that I not only receive with pleasure the assurance of the friendly dispositions of the United States, but that I am very glad the choice has fallen upon you to be their minister. I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. 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. The moment I see such sentiments and language as yours prevail, and a disposition to give to this country the preference, that moment I shall say, let the circumstances of language, religion, and blood have their natural and full effect.”
I dare not say that these were the King’s precise words, and, it is even possible, that I may have in some particular mistaken his meaning; for, altho his pronunciation is as distinct as I ever heard, he hesitated some time between his periods, and between the members of the same period. He was indeed much affected, and I confess I was not less so, and, therefore, I can not be certain that I was so cool and attentive, heard so clearly, and understood so perfectly, as to be confident of all his words or sense; and, I think, that all which he said to me should at present be kept secret in America, unless his Majesty, or his secretary of state, who alone was present, should judge proper to report it. This I do say, that the foregoing is his Majesty’s meaning as I then understood it, and his own words as nearly as I can recollect them.
The King then asked me whether I came last from France, and upon my answering in the affimative, he put on an air of familiarity, and, smiling, or rather laughing, said, “there is an opinion among some people that you are not the most attached of all your countrymen to the manners of France.” I was surprized at this, because I thought it an indiscretion and a departure from the dignity. I was a little embarrassed, but determined not to deny the truth on one hand, nor leave him to infer from it any attachment to England on the other. I threw off as much gravity as I could, and assumed an air of gayety and a tone of decision as far as was decent, and said, “that opinion, sir, is not mistaken; I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country.” The King replied, as quick as lightning, “an honest man will never have any other.”
The King then said a word or two to the secretary of state, which, being between them, I did not hear, and then turned round and bowed to me, as is customary with all kings and princes when they give the signal to retire. I retreated, stepping backward, as is the etiquette, and, making my last reverence at the door of the chamber, I went my way. The master of the ceremonies joined me the moment of my coming out of the King’s closet, and accompanied me through the apartments down to my carriage, several stages of servants, gentlemen-porters, and under-porters, roaring out like thunder, as I went along, “Mr Adams’ servants, Mr. Adams’ carriage, etc.” I have been thus minute, as it may be useful to others hereafter to know.
The conversation with the King, Congress will form their own judgment of. I may expect from it a residence less painful than I once expected, as so marked an attention from the King will silence many grumblers; but we can infer nothing from all this concerning the success of my mission.