Miss Adams In Love

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Three days later the Minister presented his secretary of legation, Colonel Smith, at the King’s Birthday Levee. They arrived at the palace in some style, in the Secretary’s own chariot (a two-seated carriage that was the eighteenth-century version of a sports car); Smith’s own coachman was at the reins, and there was a footman in livery. Determined to do credit to America, Colonel Smith was elegantly dressed in lead-colored satin with point-lace ruffles. He found George III “chatty and pleasant,” noting that the King seemed “to lengthen his speeches in proportion to the station which the Gentleman he addresses fills. By this System I found there were several smaller people in the room than myself; so much for U.S.” Adams observed that the King talked fifteen minutes with the Spanish minister about music, of which he was passionately fond, particularly that of Handel, which he said had given him the greatest happiness of his life. On the whole, Adams thought the conversation at court that day much superior to the chatter at the court of France. But Colonel Smith reported that there was a great deal of staring, and that if the courtiers’ eyes had been burning glasses, he would have been “most horribly singed.”

Mindful of the stares, the Adams ladies prepared carefully for their presentation at the Queen’s Drawing Room on June 9. On the advice of Mrs. Temple, they wore white gowns with huge hoops, Mrs. Adams’ festooned with lilac ribbons and Amelia’s with wreaths of flowers, and white plumes in their elaborately dressed and powdered hair. On arrival at St. James’s Palace, they took their places in a circle of two hundred people around the walls of the reception room. At two o’clock a bugle blew, and there entered the King and his attendants, who moved around the circle to the right, and then the Queen, followed by the eldest princesses and their attendants, who moved around the circle to the left, the royal ladies speaking to each person in a whisper, so that their pleasantries could not be overheard. The King reached Mrs. Adams before the Queen did. To her surprise, he looked “very jovial and good-humoured” when she was presented to him, and asked whether she had taken a walk that day. This was his unvarying remark to the Adams ladies at receptions during the summer. In the fall and winter, Amelia was to note with amusement, it was changed to “Do you get out much in this weather?”

Queen Charlotte took her time getting around to the Adams ladies. They had been standing nearly two hours when she came up, a small figure in purple and silver, stiff with diamonds. Her face with its pug nose and wide mouth seemed to Amelia “as hard and unfeeling as if carved out of an oak knot.” Her manner expressed very plainly her mortification at having to receive the Americans. To Abigail Adams she merely said, “Mrs. Adams, have you got into your house? Pray how do you like the situation?” To young Miss Adams she felt more free to express her contempt. She asked Amelia, unforgivably, for there was no possibility of an honest reply, whether she did not prefer England to America.

For Amelia the only joyful moment of the day was the moment she stepped into the carriage to return home. Afterward she relieved her feelings by writing John Quincy, “It is not in the power of the Smiles or Frowns of Her Majesty to affect me either by conferring pleasure or giveing Pain—I was wholy incapable of takeing the place She seemed to assign me when I was presented to Her. I suppose she assented to the assertions made by some Persons in this Country that there were no People who had so much impudence as the Americans—for there was not any People bred even at Courts who had so much confidence as the Americans—this was because they did not tremble, Cringe, and fear, in the Presence of Majesty.”

In her resentment she found a welcome ally in Colonel Smith. Though he had no reason to be displeased by the way the King had received him, he had been outraged by discovering the presence at court of Benedict Arnold, dressed in the uniform of a British general—“hiding the lines of a Traytor,” the Colonel wrote home, “under the smiles of a Courtier.” The Colonel assured Amelia that in future his own attendance at court would be as seldom as duty permitted.

Mrs. Adams considered that her family had been treated by the court with as much civility as could have been expected. It was indeed in marked contrast to the virulent attacks on the Adamses that summer in the newspapers—many of them doubtless inspired by Tory refugees who, she believed, were enraged that an American minister should be received with the same respect accorded other diplomats.