The Fragile Memory

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The “mulish being” was George III, of course, not Queen Charlotte; but the mere introduction of Her Majesty’s name is surprising. She certainly would not have been present at the king’s levee, an all-male affair; and if Jefferson was presented to her at all, it would have been at a “drawing room,” the Queen’s equivalent of a levee. Although Charlotte held two drawing rooms a week, there is no evidence whatsoever apart from the passage in the Autobiography that Jefferson was ever presented to her. His very full list of ceremonial visits—thirty-five in all—makes no mention of such an occasion; and his detailed notations of daily expenses in London has no entry relating to the customary tipping of doormen and palace servants at a drawing room. Moreover, John Adams, ever scrupulous in observing and recording such details, makes no reference to attending a drawing room with Jefferson; and it is certain that had a presentation taken place, Adams, the resident minister from the United States, would have been the visitor’s sponsor. It seems clear that Jefferson’s memory played him false here, a minor failing, to be sure, compared with other more serious lapses.

Seventy years after George Ill’s celebrated levee on March 17, 1786, Charles Francis Adams, editing the works of his illustrious grandfather, incorporated Jefferson’s autobiographical account into his commentary and made some baroque additions. The king “turned his back upon the American commissioners, a hint which, of course, was not lost upon the circle of his subjects in attendance.” The laws of the street traffic were then applied to the movement of planets. “Who,” the editor asks rhetorically, “can measure the extent of the influence which even so trifling an insult at this moment may have had in modifying the later opinions of the two men who were subjected to it? And in view of their subsequent career in the United States, who can fail to see how much those opinions have done to give America the impressions respecting Great Britain that have prevailed down to this day? Often has it happened that the caprices of men in the highest stations have produced more serious effects upon the welfare of millions than the most elaborate policy of the wisest statesmen.”

 
 

The Autobiography and the later Adams work furnish the raw material from which Dumas Malone subsequently fashioned his version of the meeting. George III treated Jefferson with “open discourtesy”; details were to be found in the “story that came down in the Adams family,” that is, “that the King turned his back on both of the Americans and that the surrounding courtiers took full notice of what he did.” The memory, we read, rankled in Jefferson’s mind.

Three years later, the memory of the reception, “certainly far less civil than that accorded Adams by George III the preceding year,” still rankled in the pages of Julian Boyd’s superb edition of Jefferson’s papers. In substantiation, the familiar passage from the Autobiography is quoted.

More recently, Page Smith in his excellent biography of John Adams builds upon both Jefferson’s Autobiography and Charles Francis Adams. Scrupulously following Jefferson, he writes that “when John tried to present his friend,” the king “turned his back” on the author of that “insolent and offensive” document, the Declaration of Independence. “It was an embarrassing moment for Adams,” Smith states. “He had presumed too much on the King’s friendly manner toward him and exposed Jefferson to a humiliating snub.”

With the late Professor Fawn Brodie, baroque becomes roccoco. George III caused “a sensation in the court when he ostentatiously turned his back” on both Jefferson and Adams. The “public humiliation” at the levee burned in Jefferson’s memory for the rest of his life. (The relevant index entry reads, “George III… insults T.J.”)

Obviously, literary license has worked considerable elaboration on the original account.

What actually happened when Thomas Jefferson was presented to George III at the levee on Friday, March 17, 1786?

Nothing.

At least, nothing untoward. No open discourtesy. No humiliating snub. No sensation.

Public rudeness played very little part in George Ill’s concept of the “king business.” His affability, courtesy, ability to put any man at ease, unending store of small talk, pleasantries, and jokes were celebrated. The rare snub delivered to rebuke a wayward politician and even unintended “cuts” were uncommon enough to reverberate through the drawing rooms and newspaper columns of London. Until his illness forced modification of long-established practice, the king scrupulously kept to a rigorous schedule. Levees were held on Wednesdays and Fridays of every week he was in London, and on Mondays as well when Parliament was sitting; the king obviously delighted in these opportunities to meet and converse with a wide range of his subjects, members of Parliament, gentlemen from the provinces, senior military officers and clergymen, diplomats accredited to his court, and distinguished foreigners.