The Fragile Memory

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On March 17,1786, Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, met his former sovereign. The occasion was George Ill’s levee, and it produced one of the most durable chestnuts in American history. The original, indeed the only source for what is supposed to have happened is Jefferson’s Autobiography , published thirty-five years after the event. Accepted as canon by successive generations of scholars, it has nonetheless received at intervals more than an ordinary number of embellishments. Like barnacles attached to the hull of a merchantman, they threaten to overwhelm the vessel—and the truth.

Eleven days earlier, Jefferson, minister plenipotentiary of the United States to the Court of Versailles, hastily left Paris for London, responding to an urgent summons from John Adams, American minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James’s. Jefferson arrived late on the evening of Saturday the eleventh and hurried at once to Adams’ house in Grosvenor Square.

Adams had not called Jefferson to London to face him off against his old enemy the king but in hopes of making a commercial treaty with Portugal and—far more important in Adams’ eyes—of working out some sort of settlement with the piratical Barbary states, whose emissary was then in the British capital.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was thinking of England. He and Adams held a joint commission from Congress, and Jefferson hoped to use it to force Britain to admit American vessels to her West Indian ports.

Adams already had proposed a commercial treaty based on what the Americans saw as “true reciprocity” and had long ago presented it to his Britannic Majesty’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, the Marquis of Carmarthen. For half a year the British had not deigned to answer and apparently were unmoved by the feeble threat of an American navigation act. At last Adams, desperate, presented on December 8 a formal demand “requiring” the evacuation of posts in the Old Northwest still held by the British in violation of the peace treaty. On February 28 he got his reply: Why should Britain honor her treaty obligations when America had blithely condoned the denial of justice to hundreds of British creditors holding millions of dollars of pre-war debts in America? A few days after this shower of ice water fell on Adams, Jefferson arrived on the scene. At the end of his rope, Adams fell in with his colleague’s plan. If worse came to worst, Jefferson would be a companion to share the burden of diplomatic failure he now knew to be inevitable.

The two Americans met with Carmarthen on Wednesday, March 15. Jefferson’s autobiographical account of his dealings with the foreign secretary is bitter. So much is to be expected. What is surprising is an astonishing misrecollection. The “distance and disinclination” that Carmarthen “betrayed in his conversation” at the meeting, “the vagueness and evasions of his answers to us, confirmed in me the belief of [the British] aversion to have anything to do with us.” Jefferson presented a “very summary form of treaty.” Carmarthen scorned it.

Such is the autobiographical version. Yet in their reports at the time, Adams and Jefferson apparently found nothing untoward or exceptionable in Carmarthen’s manner. And in their joint report to John Jay there is no mention of having made a treaty proposal to the foreign secretary. The reason is simplej There was none.

What Jefferson had in mind was an ill-considered and, indeed, revolutionary project for “an exchange of citizenship” which he had proposed to Adams nine months earlier. Adams had been carefully noncommittal, obviously hoping Jefferson would get over his hallucinatory idea. Yet the memory of it emerged in the Autobiography thirty-five years later, misplaced in time and space.

Not a major error, perhaps, but indicative of the grim tenacity with which Jefferson could cling to old enmities. Just how ingrained was his enmity against his sometime sovereign would soon be made manifest.

Jefferson’s attendance at the March 17 levee was arranged by John Adams as a matter of diplomatic protocol. The visitor was not only a distinguished American but also minister plenipotentiary of his government to a major European power, a public character that made it his duty, as Adams himself suggested, when in London to pay his respects at the British court and to the resident diplomatic corps. Describing the occasion, Jefferson wrote in the Autobiography :

“On my presentation as usual to the King and Queen at their levees, it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams & myself. I saw at once that the ulcérations in the narrow mind of that mulish being left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance.”