An Unforgettable Royal Audience: John Adams meets King George III on June 1, 1785

“I pray, Mr Adams, that the United States does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy.”
-HM King George III of Great Britain to then-US Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St James, the Honourable Mr John Adams, at the occasion of Adams’ audience with the King on 1 June, 1785.

This scene from the superb 2008 HBO miniseries “John Adams” (based off of historian David McCullough’s 2001 best-selling biography by the same name) shows the above-mentioned meeting between HM King George III and then-US Minister to Great Britain (and future Vice President and President) John Adams.

The American war for independence against Britain having concluded with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, this royal audience in June 1785 was a moment of great historical importance. It marked the first meeting between a British Sovereign and an official envoy of the newly independent United States of America. As such, the audience was a highly anticipated meeting among the European ambassadors and British courtiers at St James Palace, the King’s principal residence and site of most official Court functions. For Adams, a Federalist and former British subject who was among the more conservative of American statesman, the meeting was a highly emotional one, and he recalled it vividly in a letter to his wife Abigail, who would have her own audience with the King’s consort, Queen Charlotte, only days later.

Royal protocol required all those entering the King’s presence to make three reverences (profound bows from the waist). The reverences were to be done in a strict choreographed manner denoting the person’s respect and honour toward the majesty of the monarch’s person: once, upon entering the room where the Sovereign was; then once more after advancing halfway across the room, facing the Sovereign; and then a final reverence immediately before the Throne, in front of the Sovereign. At the conclusion of the audience, backing away from the Throne, the reverences were to be repeated so that one never turned one’s back on the monarch. For Americans unused to such formality, especially those of low church Unitarian leanings like Adams, this process of bowing to an earthly king might have seemed a rather jarring one, but Adams managed quite well by all accounts. Today, the protocol of ‘reverencing’ the monarch is still observed by many Muslim monarchies, such as in Saudi Arabia, while in Britain the protocol for meeting Her Majesty The Queen is much more relaxed than it used to be. When meeting The Queen, ladies are expected to curtsy, and gentlemen to bow their heads only once.

HBO is to be commended for sticking almost perfectly to the verbatim exchange between the King and Adams; while the King’s reply was somewhat longer, as was Adams’ initial address, there is nothing incorrect here; a few minor points were simply omitted from the scene for time’s sake.

Allan Ramsay's 1762 portrait of then-23 year old King George III in coronation robes. He was crowned on 22 September 1761.

Allan Ramsay’s 1762 portrait of then-23 year old King George III (1738-1820) in coronation robes. He was crowned on 22 September 1761. George III reigned from 1760-1820, the third-longest reigning monarch in British history after his granddaughter Queen Victoria and her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth II.

John Adams painted while serving as the second President of the United States (1797-1801) by portraitist Asher B. Durand. Adams served as the United States' first Vice President (1789-1797), Minister to Great Britain (1785-1788), Minister to The Netherlands (1782-1788), and Massachusetts Delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1775-1778). He was also a lawyer.

John Adams painted while serving as the second President of the United States (1797-1801) by portraitist Asher B. Durand. Adams served as the United States’ first Vice President (1789-1797), Minister to Great Britain (1785-1788), Minister to The Netherlands (1782-1788), and Massachusetts Delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1775-1778). He was also a lawyer.

After their initial audience, the King and Adams became friendly, and Adams was invited to free use of the King’s personal library, which now fills one of the front halls of the British Museum. The royal library includes a large collection of American books, fossils and other artifacts. It’s a pity that they didn’t form this friendship a decade earlier, in 1775, a pivotal year which saw King George declare before Parliament that the American colonies were in a state of rebellion. Had Adams and the King been able to negotiate as well then as they did in 1785, perhaps the War for Independence could have been avoided, and the American colonists been permitted direct representation in Parliament, or Dominion status.

News of the King’s speech to Parliament removing the colonies from his royal protection sent shockwaves through New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Most Americans were deeply traumatised to have been declared traitors to the King, as most saw themselves as petitioning him against Parliamentary abuse for a restoration of their legitimate rights as Englishmen. As a result of this psychological estrangement from the King, the American delegates would resolve at the Second Continental Congress to move toward declaring their independence from Great Britain. This culminated in the July 1776 issuing of the Declaration of Independence, written principally by Virginia aristocrat, polymath, and planter Thomas Jefferson (who would later become Secretary of State under President Washington, Vice President under John Adams and the third President of the United States).

The US National Archives notes here that

On July 4, 1776, John Adams, delegate to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts, voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the British King unfit to be ruler of a free people. The King had proclaimed the rebellious colonists to be traitors. Could Adams possibly have imagined that, after eight years of warfare, he would stand before that same King, as a respected diplomat on the world stage, presenting his credentials as the first United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain?

On June 1, 1785, King George formally received John Adams, representative of the fledgling nation that had dealt the British Empire a bitter defeat. The meeting, as Adams recounted in this official account, was marked by the pomp and ceremony required by the occasion of a royal audience. But beneath the pageantry, Adams described a strong undercurrent of emotion as the King and his former subject—who once reviled each other as bitter enemies—met face to face, as statesmen.

In his address to both Houses of Parliament on 27 October 1775, the King (in)famously declared the American colonies to be in a state of treason and rebellion against him and his lawful authority manifested through Parliament. Less than a year later, in July 1776, John Adams was one of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress who affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence denouncing the same King as a tyrant.

At this same link as above you may read Adams’ letter recounting his audience with the King to then-US Secretary of State John Jay. The Beehive, official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society — which retains principal access to the Adams Family papers — notes here that

On June 1, 1785, John Adams entered the Court of St. James for a private audience with King George III. He made three bows and presented himself as the first minister of the newly independent United States. After a moving exchange of formalities, the king mentioned the rumor that Adams was not particularly fond of France. Adams found the perfect reply that neither praised nor insulted France or England. “I must avow to your Majesty, I have no Attachments but to my own Country.” To which the King replied “An honest Man will never have any other.” After the encounter, Adams confidently reported to Congress, that he had been treated precisely as all other foreign ministers were.

Ten years later John Quincy Adams, sent by Congress on a special errand over from The Hague, was led through the same procedures of etiquette for his audience. He recorded his experience in his diary. When asked by King George if it was his father who was currently governor of Massachusetts (that was Samuel Adams), Adams, no doubt with a bit of pride, replied, “No Sir, he is Vice-President of the United States.”

Portrait of King George III in 1799 or 1800 (aged 61 or 62) by British Court Painter Sir William Beechey.

Portrait of King George III in 1799 or 1800 (aged 61 or 62) by British Court Painter Sir William Beechey.

Painted here in her youth, HM Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg--Strelitz (1744-1818), consort of George III from 1760-1818, was the second-longest serving royal consort in British history after Queen Elizabeth II's still-living husband HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen was an amateur botanist who devoted considerable energies to restoring the Kew Gardens and gardens of St James' Palace, the centre of the Royal Court. She and the King were devoted to each other; George III never took a mistress. Their Majesties had 15 children, of which 13 survived to adulthood.

Painted here in her youth, HM Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg–Strelitz (1744-1818), consort of George III from 1760-1818, was the second-longest serving royal consort in British history after Queen Elizabeth II’s still-living husband HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen was an amateur botanist who devoted considerable energies to restoring the Kew Gardens and gardens of St James’ Palace, the centre of the Royal Court. She and the King were devoted to each other; George III never took a mistress. Their Majesties had 15 children, of which 13 survived to adulthood.

Eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825-1829, United States Representative for Massachusetts from 1833-1848, US Minister to Prussia (1797-1801) during his father's presidency, US Minister to The Netherlands (1794-1797), US Minister to Russia (1809-1814), US Minister to Great Britain (1814-1817), Senator for Massachusetts (1803-1808), and US Secretary of State (1817-1825).

Eldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825-1829, United States Representative for Massachusetts from 1833-1848, US Minister to Prussia (1797-1801) during his father’s presidency, US Minister to The Netherlands (1794-1797), US Minister to Russia (1809-1814), US Minister to Great Britain (1814-1817), Senator for Massachusetts (1803-1808), and US Secretary of State (1817-1825). A tireless opponent of slavery, Adams died on the House floor in February 1848 after railing against the system.

What did John Adams’ “Dearest Friend” and loyal, clever wife Abigail Adams have to say about her husband’s first audience with the King, and her own presentation at Court to George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte?

Abigail Smith Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe, who painted one of her husband as well.

Abigail Smith Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blythe, who painted one of her husband as well.

Gilbert Stuart painting of Abigail Adams (1744-1818) while serving as First Lady (1797-1801). The redoubtable Abigail Smith married lawyer John Adams in 1764 when she was 19 and he 29. They had six children, and, lifelong dearest friends and deeply in love, referred to each other in their voluminous correspondence as

Gilbert Stuart painting of Abigail Adams (1744-1818) while serving as First Lady (1797-1801). The redoubtable Abigail Smith married lawyer John Adams in 1764 when she was 19 and he 29. They had six children, and, lifelong dearest friends and deeply in love, referred to each other in their voluminous correspondence as “Dearest Friend”. She accompanied her husband to France and Great Britain. When she died at 73 in 1818, John was disconsolate.

Here is a letter from Abigail to her sister Mary Smith Cranch, dated to 24 June 1785 from Westminster, London:

The Tory venom has begun to spit itself forth in the publick papers as I expected, bursting with envy that an American Minister should be received here with the same marks of attention politeness and civility which is shewn to the Ministers of any other power. When a minister delivers his credentials to the king, it is always in his private { 188 } closet attended only by the minister for Foreign affairs, which is called a private audience, and the Minister presented makes some little address to his Majesty, and the same ceremony to the Queen, whose replie was in these Words, “Sir I thank you for your civility to me and my family, and I am glad to see you in this Country,” then very politely inquired whether he had got a house yet? The answer of his Majesty was much longer, but I am not at liberty to say more respecting it; than that it was civil and polite, and that his Majesty said he was glad the Choice of his Country had fallen upon him.

HM Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom (1744-1818), consort to George III, painted in her older age, c. 1800. (c) National Trust, Hatchlands; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

HM Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom (1744-1818), consort to George III, painted in her older age, c. 1800. (c) National Trust, Hatchlands; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Several days later, on a Friday morning immediately following her audience with Queen Charlotte, King George III’s wife, Abigail Adams wrote the following to her sister (in the interests of historical accuracy I have left her spelling unaltered):

fryday morning

Congratulate me my dear sister it is over. I was too much fatigued to write a line last evening. At two a clock we went to the circle which is in the drawing room of the Queen. We past through several appartments lined as usual with Spectatirs upon these occasions. Upon entering the anti Chamber, the Baron de Linden the Dutch Minister who has been often here came and spoke with me. A Count Sarsfield a French nobleman with whom I was acquainted paid his compliments. As I passt into the drawing room Lord Carmathan and { 190 } Sir Clement Cotterel Dormer were presented to me.7 Tho they had been several times here I had never seen them before. The sweedish the polish ministers8 made their compliments and several other Gentleman, but not a single Lady did I know, untill the Countess of Effingham came who was very civil. There were 3 young Ladies daughters of the Marquiss of Lothan9 who were to be presented at the same time and two Brides. We were placed in a circle round the drawing room which was very full, I believe 200 person present. Only think of the task the Royal family have, to go round to every person, and find small talk enough to speak to all of them. Tho they very prudently speak in a whisper, so that only the person who stands next you can hear what is said. The King enters the room and goes round to the right, the Queen and princesses to the left. The Lord in waiting presents you to the King and the Lady in waiting does the same to her Majesty. The King is a personable Man, but my dear sister he has a certain Countenance which you and I have often remarked, a red face and white eye brows, the Queen has a similar countanance and the numerous Royal family confirm the observation. Persons are not placed according to their rank in the drawing room, but tranciently, and when the King comes in he takes persons as they stand. When he came to me, Lord Onslow10 said, Mrs. Adams, upon which I drew of my right hand Glove, and his Majesty saluted my left cheek, then asked me if I had taken a walk to day. I could have told his Majesty that I had been all the morning prepareing to wait upon him, but I replied, no Sire. Why dont you love walking says he? I answerd that I was rather indolent in that respect. He then Bow’d and past on. It was more than two hours after this before it came to my turn to be presented to the Queen. The circle was so large that the company were four hours standing. The Queen was evidently embarrased when I was presented to her. I had dissagreeable feelings too. She however said Mrs. Adams have you got into your house, pray how do you like the Situation of it? Whilst the princess Royal11 looked compasionate, and asked me if I was not much fatigued, and observed that it was a very full drawing room. Her sister who came next princess Augusta, after having asked your neice if she was ever in England before, and her answering yes, inquird of me how long ago, and supposed it was when she was very young. And all this is said with much affability, and the ease and freedom of old acquaintance. The manner in which they make their tour round the room, is first the Queen, the Lady in waiting behind her holding up her train, next to her the princess royal after her princess Augusta and their Lady in waiting behind them.
They are pretty rather than Beautifull, well shaped with fair complexions and a tincture of the kings countanance. The two sisters look much alike. They were both drest in lilack and silver silk with a silver netting upon the coat, and their heads full of diamond pins. The Queen was in purple and silver. She is not well shaped or handsome. As [to] the Ladies of the Court, Rank and title may compensate for want of personal Charms, but they are in general very plain ill shaped and ugly, but dont you tell any body that I say so.

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