The Fragile Memory


If the March 17 levee proceeded normally (and there is no reason apart from Jefferson to believe it did not), Adams, accompanied by Jefferson, arrived at St. James’s Palace between 11:00 AM and noon. There they mingled with other gentlemen in attendance, distributed the customary tips to doormen, and made their way to the crimson and gold presence chamber discreetly dominated by the chair of state at the far end. About noon, the king, attired in “levee clothes” and accompanied by one or two senior members of the household, made his entry. General conversation ceased, and gentlemen in attendance formed themselves into a large circle around the walls of the chamber. The royal progress began with the king speaking first to the gentleman on his right, who, after a brief exchange, was free to depart. (This informality must have seemed strange to Jefferson, schooled in the more rigid etiquette of Versailles.) The king then passed on (turned his back?) to the next. He was careful to speak to every person present, since he knew well the importance attached to his actions by all in attendance and by the political world at large. “Every gesture,” John Brooke writes in his biography of George III, “every expression of the king’s face, was noted by the political quidnuncs and its implications eagerly discussed.”

What was republican Jefferson’s state of mind as the royal personage approached? Tense? Nervous? Ill at ease? Contemptuous? What unspoken messages flashed between those two sets of blue eyes when first they engaged? What words were exchanged? These are questions never to be answered—for the record is silent.

Silent. Watchful courtiers, ministers, members of Parliament, provincial gentry, foreign diplomats, “political quidnuncs” of every description, newspaper pundits, writers of memoirs—all silent until Jefferson wrote his Autobiography thirty-five years later. Though more than common interest must have attached to the arch-rebel’s presentation to George III, the event occurred without recorded comment. The silence of one attendant at the levee above all is of special significance: John Adams, ever mindful of his own public character and dignity, ever watchful for the smallest measure of disrespect to himself and his country, punctilious to the point of absurdity in observing the niceties of diplomatic intercourse and protocol, would never have remained silent at any British ill-treatment of a minister of the United States, least of all of a colleague present at a levee under his own sponsorship. Had there been a violation of customary decorum and good manners at the expense of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams’ carriage wheels would have scorched the paving stones from St. James’s Palace to Grosvenor Square and his dispatch desk. But on Jefferson’s meeting with George III on March 17,1786, John Adams was silent. Only one conclusion is possible.

What of the Autobiography as a whole? It is a fragmentary, relatively informal memoir written for Jefferson’s “own more ready reference & for the information of my family.” It is the product of a seventyeight-year-old man nearing the end of a long and eventful life and recalling events three and a half decades earlier. No use was made of the voluminous personal and official papers he had amassed over the years. Is it surprising that the unaided memory of the ancient Jefferson showed forgetfulness and confusion? The fragile memory of the aged is part of nature’s unfathomable scheme and it does nothing to impugn earlier honors and high accomplishments. But the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson cannot stand as a statement of historical truth.

When the embellishments of subsequent historians and the slips of an old man’s memory are put aside, there remains, undoubted and unquestioned, the abiding hatred for the king. The revolutionary crises in America had fixed this deep emotion as a constant in Jefferson’s personality, but his experiences in England in 1786 provided an additional and powerful fillip. It came not from a royal snub but from a profound sense of failure and frustration in his official dealings there, his need to find a satisfactory explanation, and his determination to derive from it a moral lesson for the good of his country.


Nothing went right. The treaty of commerce and amity with the Portuguese was never ratified by Lisbon. Negotiations with the Barbary ambassador proved futile. Talks with representatives of the merchants holding pre-war debts in America came to naught. Time spent in “ceremony, returning visits &c.” was galling for Jefferson, time lost. Even a fortnight’s tour of country houses and gardens near London brought only faintly diluted disappointment. Chiswick’s dome had “an ill effect.” Stowe’s straight approach was “very ill.” Hampton Court was “old fashioned.” These were mere pinpricks, however, compared with Jefferson’s rage at British officialdom.

By .the end of April, Adams and Jefferson knew their efforts had failed. “There is no party, nor Individual here,” they wrote home, “in favour of a Treaty, but upon the principle that the United States will retaliate, if there is not one. All agree that if America will suffer England to pockett (that is their Expression) all her navigation England would be unwise not to avail herself of the advantage.”