1786 Two Hundred Years Ago

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Diplomatic coups were scarce that season. Thomas Jefferson had temporarily left his duties at the Court of Versailles to join John Adams, America’s first minister to the Court of St. James’s. Adams had summoned him to help in concluding several treaties, but soon after Jefferson’s arrival in London on March 11, the negotiations ground to a halt. Tripoli’s ambassador informed the Americans that sixty thousand guineas would be required to prevent Tripoli and Tunis from seizing American vessels and enslaving sailors, a sum the struggling states could hardly afford. The possibility of reaching a trade agreement with Britain seemed equally remote, and the commercial treaty under way with Portugal was being delayed. Overworked, underpaid, and dispirited, Jefferson and Adams decided it was time for a holiday and set out for a fortnight’s tour of English countryseats.

The diplomats’ responses to what they saw contrasted nearly as greatly as their appearances. Jefferson, the reedy aristocrat, strode about the estates with Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening in hand, making careful marginal notes. He concerned himself with aesthetics and mechanical matters, such as the operation of a sluice and the design of an Archimedes screw, which raised water. The Chiswick gardens were too artificial, he wrote, lacking the naturalness that should characterize even the most formal garden. Hampton Court seemed “old-fashioned,” the buildings at Moor Park proved delightful, and the trees at Esher Place displayed “a most lovely mixture of concave and convex.” Jefferson scrutinized everything, bearing Monticello in mind: “My enquiries were directed chiefly to such practical things,” he later wrote, “as might enable me to estimate the expence of making and maintaining a garden in that style.”

Short, plump Adams, on the other hand, was occupied with thoughts of the relevance of history and the making of great minds. In Worcester, where Cromwell defeated Charles II in the English Civil War, Adams was outraged to discover that the locals were ignorant of their town’s heritage. He exhorted them to “tell your neighbors and your Children that this is holy Ground.…All England should come in Pilgrimage to this Hill, once a Year.” At Shakespeare’s birthplace Adams mused upon what might have turned the mind of one born in a cottage “as small and mean as you can conceive” to “Letters and the Drama.” He also enjoyed a simple appreciation of the estates he saw, calling them “superb,” “great and elegant,” and “beautifull.” But as a New England farmer, he could hardly restrain himself from moralizing. “It will be long, I hope,” he wrote, “before Ridings, Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Gardens and ornamented Farms grow so much in Fashion in America.”

Their tour concluded, the men returned to London and their cares as foreign ministers. Although they signed a treaty with Portugal, that country ultimately repudiated it. Jefferson soon departed for Paris, where he pondered what he had observed of U.S.-British relations: “I think the king, ministers, and nation are more bitterly hostile to us at present that at any period of the late war.” Adams remained in London to dodge the barbs of the press, which printed gossipy stuff, most of it true, about the impecuniousness of the American minister, whose wife was obliged to go to market herself.

•March 1: At the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in Boston, Revolutionary War veterans found the Ohio Company of Associates to purchase and settle land “north westerly of the River Ohio.”