Minister to Great Britain

Author: Sean Lawler Publish Date: September 2, 2014

In 1785, Adams was assigned to be the first minister from the United States to Great Britain. John was thrilled that he had been selected by Congress for such an important mission. With the retirement of Benjamin Franklin, Adams was now the senior delegate in Europe. While the decision to send Adams on such an important mission had not been unanimous with the members of Congress, John was nevertheless determined to show that he could serve admirably in the role. Perhaps his biggest test came on June 1, when he was scheduled to meet King George III. This was the same bloody tyrant who the Declaration of Independence alleged had “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” Indeed, it was the same king who omitted John Adams’ name from the list of pardoned delegates that Admiral Lord Howe held in his possession less than then years before. And now, John Adams was to face this man alone.

Joined by Lord Carmarthen, John took a carriage to St. James’s Palace. Adams was then led through a hallway, where government officials looked on in cold silence, to the formal reception room of the Hanoverian King. Entering the room, Adams approached the King making three bows before he was finally addressed by the British monarch. It seemed like an eternity before the silence was finally broken. “The United States of America,” John Adams started “have appointed me their minister plenipotentiary to Your Majesty.” John continued:

“I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow citizens, in having this 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, though 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 although I have some time before been instructed by my country, it was never in my whole life in a manner so agreeable to myself.”
~ John Adams

Adams could hardly bring himself to finish his greeting. But if Adams appeared affected by the encounter, King George was even more so. In response to Adams, King George replied:

“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 that the choice has fallen upon you to be the minister. I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it 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 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.”
~ King George III

To be sure, the meeting was exceedingly awkward for both Adams and the King. To lighten the mood, King George joked “There is an opinion among some people that you are not the most attached of all your countrymen to the manners of France.” To which Adams replied “I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country.” King George smiled ever so slightly and remarked “An honest man will never have any other.” At this point, King George gave Adams a nod, which signaled the end of the meeting. Taking his leave, Adams made his way for the door, never turning his back on the King, and bowing three times before exiting the room.

Photo of king george the third
King George III (in coronation robes), 1761-1762. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The King was far more amiable than Adams had expected. But the British public, and in particular the press, was not. Newspapers ridiculed Adams for not having the salary to support the grandiloquent lifestyle becoming of a foreign ambassador. The Public Advertiser mocked Adams for looking “pretty fat and flourishing” given his limited budget. The London Gazette expressed outrage that a plain character, such as Adams, had been appointed to this dignified role. But worst of all, Adams’ country was ridiculed as not having a chance at survival. The Public Advertiser sarcastically commented “An ambassador from America! Good heavens what a sound!”

John Adams could not stand the press, with its unfair criticisms of public officials. When John was to assume the vice presidency in 1789, the personal attacks on Adams only increased. But it was in London that Adams got his first taste of the cruelty and unfairness exhibited by a free press. This bad taste lingered with him, and going forward, he would always have a healthy mistrust of the media.