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Miss Adams In Love
Eighteenth-century equivalents of “Yankee go home!” greeted the Adams family when, in 1785, they arrived in London. Nevertheless, there were certain delightful compensations—especially for an eligible young lady
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
“An ambassador from America! Good heavens what a sound!” This was the welcome John Adams had received from the editor of the London Public Advertiser , who had been unable to decide “which can excite indignation most, the insolence of those who appoint the character, or the meanness of those who receive it.” Other newspapers reported that Mrs. Adams in her carriage looked like a farm woman in an old chaise going to market with fresh butter; that the Secretary of Legation could neither read nor write and was being sent to night school; and that the Adamses were starving because American money was worthless and tradesmen would not give them credit.
In the light of such insults, the matter of a suitable location for the first American legation in London assumed great importance. On June 9, the very day that Mrs. Adams and her daughter were presented at court, John Adams signed a lease on a three-story-and-dormer brick house at the corner of Duke and Brook streets in Grosvenor Square. They planned to move in as soon as their furniture arrived.
In the meantime, before they entered in earnest on their official duties, there were the delights of London in June. The Colonel in particular was enjoying them to the utmost. Having taken rooms in Leicester Square, he was moving, as one member of the American colony enviously noted, “entirely in the gay Circle”—a circle composed partly of titled Englishmen like the Earl of Effingham who were friendly to America, and partly of American tourists. Among the latter, the most congenial to him were fellow officers of the Revolution who were out to have a good time in the postwar world, though some of them overdid it, he confessed in a letter home to his friend General von Steuben: one evening he had encountered “Colonel Robinson of the Pennsylvania line at the theatre with the medal of the Cincinnati in his buttonhole, ridiculously sporting with a Cyprean nymph.”
Dashing about in his chariot to the excellent London chophouses, to the Royal Circus, or to an evening of amusement at Vauxhall Gardens, the Colonel was most often accompanied by an intense, thin-lipped, foreign-looking gentleman. He was Colonel Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan who, fired by the success of the American Revolution, was plotting to liberate South America from Spain. Smith had met him the year before in the United States, to which Miranda had fled from the West Indies as a deserter from the Spanish Army, and had become carried away by his schemes. Miranda had come to England to enlist the aid of the British but had found the climate unfavorable to revolutionaries. One reason was “the embarrassment and disgust” of the British over the loss of America and the expense of the late war. More important was the British government’s desire to avoid an open break with Spain. When Smith encountered Colonel Miranda in London, he was trying to raise money for a tour of the Continent which was to include the Prussian Review—Frederick the Great’s annual army maneuvers. At the same time Miranda was doing all he could to lull the suspicions of the Spanish minister, Bernardo del Campo.
All in all, the Secretary of the American legation found London “a very extensive and Gay theatre, the actors many, the Plott immense.” Yet he did not neglect his duty to his official family. He escorted the Adams ladies to the Handel Festival to hear The Messiah given by more than six hundred performers in Westminster Abbey before an audience of three thousand people, including all the members of the royal family. Mrs. Adams thought the music “sublime beyond description,” and the Colonel admitted that he “never in pursuit of amusement was so charmed and delighted” as at this gathering “to commemorate the existence of one Handel.” And then there was the theatre. It was hard to get a box (ladies never sat in the pit), especially when Mrs. Siddons was playing, but he took Amelia and her mother to a performance of Tancred .
Amelia was not much pleased with it; indeed she seemed indifferent to all the pleasures of the London season; her pretty face still wore the expression that her mother described as “pensive sedateness.” The letter from Royall Tyler that might have been waiting for her in London at the New England Coffee House, where the American ship captains deposited and picked up the mail, was not there. Instead, during those first weeks in London, she received a letter from a friend at home accusing him of instability and dissipation. She did not want to believe it; still less did she want to have to confess that her father had been right and she had been wrong. Without saying anything to anybody, she wrote Royall Tyler a long, frank letter, telling him exactly how she felt. Then there was nothing to do but wait, wait the two months and more before a reply could be expected.
The Adamses moved into the house on Grosvenor Square at the beginning of July. “It is a decent House,” Amelia reported to John Quincy, “a little out of repairs, but such a one as you would not blush to see our Foreign Minister in.” They learned about their neighbors from the real-estate agent who rented them the house and from whom they acquired some furnishings, as he was also an interior decorator.