February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
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
On the dusty journey in late May, 1785, from Paris to Calais, where they would cross the Channel to Dover, John and Abigail Adams and their nineteen-year-old daughter took turns reading Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia . It was an interesting book, doubly interesting because it had just been presented to them by the author in Paris. Yet very likely their attention wandered. Virginia was far away, London was coming closer by the mile, and they were journeying toward a great adventure.
John Adams, a plump, florid man nearing fifty, was on his way to take up his post as the first American minister to England. When lie went to lake leave at Versailles, the Comte de Vergennes, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, said to him that it was a great thing to be the first American representative “to the country you sprung from. It is a mark!” Adams knew that he was well suited for the post, for he had been representing America in Europe since 1778, first at the court of France, then in the Netherlands, and most recently as one of the three American commissioners in France along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But he was disturbed as to the effect in London of his reputation as “the Father of the American Revolution.” When the British ambassador to France told Adams that he would be stared at a good deal, Adams replied that he trembled at the thought of going to London, because he was afraid the English would stare with evil eyes. The shock of the American Revolution was still deeply felt, the wound to British pride still raw. How would he be received by George III?
Abigail Adams, a lively, black-eyed, sharp-featured liitle woman of forty, was also dreading the presentation at court. It would be her first, because in France only lhe families of ambassadors, not ministers, had to appear. The British ambassador had informed Adams that his wife and daughter would have to be presented to Queen Charlotte; moreover, it was etiquette for everybody to wear new clothes for the occasion, and “very rich ones.” Luckily Abigail would be able Io turn for advice on court dress to an American friend long in London, Mrs. John Temple, the daughter of Governor Bowdoin of Massachusetts. Mrs. Temple, who lived on fashionable Grosvenor Square, might also be counted on to help with house-hunting. Mrs. Adams had been in London before; she had spent several weeks there on her arrival from America a year ago, before going on to Paris. She knew that it would not be easy to find as charming a house as the one the Adamses had had outside Paris at Auteuil, with its acres of formal gardens.
She would miss Auteuil, she would miss friends like the Marquise de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Most of all she would miss her seventeen-year-old son John Quincy. After seven years in Europe with his father, he had decided to go home and enter Harvard and had left Paris a fortnight ago for Lorient to board a French packet for America. Two younger sons had I)CCn left behind with an aunt when Mrs. Adams had sailed for Europe with her only daughter. How the family had shrunk!
Young Miss Adams had been named Abigail and was usually called Nabby in the family, but she often signed her letters “Amelia” and, apparently, liked to be called that. She had her father’s blue eyes, round face, and fair complexion, but in temperament she resembled neither parent. Quiet and withdrawn, she seldom revealed her feelings other than by a deep blush or a demure half-smile when she was amused. At the time we make her acquaintance, her pretty face, framed by reddish hair and shadowed by her travelling hood, was markedly grave and thoughtful.
Glancing at the girl who sat beside her in the jolting carriage, Mrs. Adams became deeply troubled, “trembling for the fate of a dear and only daughter.” For two years Amelia had been desperately and stubbornly in love with a young Bostonian who had come to the Adamses’ home town of Braintree to practice law. His name was Royall Tyler, and he liked to drive a span of fine black horses and wear a fashionable scarlet coat that suited his dark good looks. Everywhere he went, according to one of his numerous female admirers, “he spread joy and hilarity.” Abigail found him charming; but when she wrote her husband that their daughter was falling in love with him, Adams became alarmed. He had known the boy when he was a law student of Francis Dana’s and considered him frivolous and dissipated. It was vain for Abigail to protest that Tyler seemed to be settling down, that he had given up “his dancing, singing and playing” and was spending his evenings with the Adams ladies, reading aloud to them, revealing a fine taste in literature and his own considerable talent as a poet. “You will tell me that you do not want a poet,” Abigail wrote her husband, “but if there is a mind otherwise well furnished, you would have no objection to its being a mere amusement?” Nevertheless, John Adams insisted that the young people be separated, at least for a time, and Amelia was sent oft to Boston in the spring of 1783.
Though all connection between them was broken off, they never wavered during the long months of separation. Tyler stood the test well. He devoted himself to his law practice and the following December was able to buy one of the finest houses in Braintree. At last John Adams consented to an engagement, but insisted that Amelia accompany her mother when Abigail left to join him in Europe in June of 1784.
There was an anguished parting, for both had a presentiment that they would never see each other again; the girl, usually so self-contained, was in tears when she went aboard ship. The only comfort was her father’s promise that if they were of the same mind at the end of a year, Royall could join her in Europe and they could be married. In the meantime, they could write to each other. From the time she arrived in Europe, thick packets of letters went back to Royall regularly; her greatest delight in the new sights and scenes of London and Paris, in the happy reunion with her father and brother, was in sharing them with him. And then, like any eighteen-year-old in love, she began to live for the mail; but months went by and there was no letter from Royall. It was well into the winter at Auteuil before she began to hear from him, and his notes were strangely brief and unsatisfactory. She suffered in silence—it was not in her nature to confide in her family—but her mother saw her dejection deepening during those last months at Auteuil and became so concerned that she herself wrote a friendly, gently chiding letter to Royall on May 9.
Abigail hoped that the London venture would lift Amelia out of her depression. There they would live more in the world than they had at suburban Auteuil, where, except for obligatory dinners with the other foreign ministers, they had gone little into society. In London they would live in the city; there would be the theatres and shopping, and the bliss of speaking English; and there would be a large American colony, which included a beloved young cousin, Charles Storer, to take John Quincy’s place as an escort. But first there would be the presentation at court—an ordeal to be sure, but still a diversion. Amelia had already become interested enough in it to write to her cousin for advice on what to wear.
A continuing diversion would be writing letters home to her brother John Quincy. On his departure from Paris he had extracted from his sister a promise to write him a day-by-day account of the life of the first official American family in London. “No sentiment!” he warned her sternly. Sentiment he could get from books; he wanted only a plain relation of facts. He wanted “all the minutiae. What did the king say? What the queen?”
Thanks to her promise, which she dutifully kept, Amelia will be our main narrator of the adventures of the Adams family in London. And as time goes on, the light-hearted tone of her first impressions of Europe returns, because Amelia—all unaware as she sits pensively in the carriage on the road to Calais—is journeying toward a new adventure of the heart.
“I’ll tell you what, I like the King better than the Queen,” Amelia wrote John Quincy.
Within two weeks after their arrival John Adams and his family were presented at court, and along with them the new secretary of legation. Colonel William Stephens Smith of New York, former aide to General Washington and veteran of seven years’ gallant service in the Revolution. None of the Adamses had met him before they encountered him in London. John Adams had heard with some dismay that he was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary order founded by officers of the Revolutionary War that smacked too much of aristocracy to please Adams. But when the Colonel called upon the new official family at their suite at the Bath Hotel on the evening they arrived, May 26, he assured the Adamses that he had never worn the badge of the society and that he had joined it out of respect for George Washington, its first president. The dashing young officer was a tall, erect man of thirty with a dark complexion, a long, high-bridged nose, and boyish blue eyes; and was so well-mannered and agreeable that, as Abigail Adams reported to Thomas Jefferson, they anticipated “much pleasure” in his society. Next day he accompanied the Minister on his first official visit to Lord Carmarthen, the British Foreign Secretary, and the presentations were arranged.
John Adams’ turn came first, at a private audience on June i. Face to face with George III, he saw before him a stout, middle-aged man with a red face and white eyebrows, who seemed almost as agitated as Adams himself. The King listened with obvious emotion while the American with a tremor in his voice addressed him in felicitous words, ending, “I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor, between people who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood!” And the King replied, “Sir, your words have been so proper upon this occasion, that I cannot but say I am gratified that you are the man chosen to be the Minister.”
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.
“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.
Lord Carmarthen lived around the corner, and up the street on the Grosvenor Square side were Lady Lacy Lincoln, Lord North (the former Prime Minister), the Duchess of Bedford, and a titled lady whose name the agent could not recall but “whose husband ran a Pen through his Nose the other day.” Lady Lacy Lincoln lived next door, and because her house stood closer to the street than the Adamses’ she could look from her side parlor-window into their front drawing-room windows. “She peeps at us,” Amelia wrote John Quincy, “and we cannot do less you know than return the compliment.”
Lady Lincoln peeped, but neither she nor any of the titled ladies and gentlemen on Grosvenor Square came to call. This caused no heartache to Miss Adams, who had a low opinion of British society. One evening the Dutch minister, D. W. Lynden van Blitterswyck, called about eight o’clock “and told us he had just come from breakfasting with the Dutchess of Bedford, to which he was invited for four o’clock —ridiculous beings these are. I was told the other day of an invitation which a Gentleman had to dine with the Duke and Dutchess of Devonshire at Eleven o’clock at Night .”
The Dutch minister, whom Amelia described as “an odd Womanish kind of a Man,” frequently dropped in at the American legation to take a cup of tea in the evening, but she did not much enjoy his visits, because “he is profuse in nothing but Compliments. … and his ruffles look as if he did not often pay for their washing.”
One evening in mid-July the Spanish minister, Del Campo, came to tea. Amelia noted that his eyes were “squint, very black, and sharp enough to be agreeable.” His sharp eyes were very probably looking for some connection between the American legation and Francisco de Miranda, whose intimacy with Colonel Smith had undoubtedly been reported to him. Miranda had anticipated such a visit and had been careful to avoid the Adamses. Years later, Adams heard that “his apology for avoiding my house was, that if he had been seen there, the Spanish ambassador might have been informed of it, and … procured from court an order for his arrest.” At the time, Adams did not even know that Miranda was in London, much less that there could have been any suspicion in Del Campo’s sharp glance. Amelia merely concluded that the Spanish minister was “a very ugly Man.”
On the whole, Adams thought the diplomatic corps in London much inferior to those at Dutch and French courts. Only the French had ambassadorial rank. All the ministers came to call, but without their wives, and no invitations to the American ladies were forthcoming from this quarter in these early months in London when anti-American feeling, fanned by the newspapers, seemed to run higher than it had even during the Revolution. Amelia reported to her brother that “Your father says he observes a fear in every one of the Foreign Ministers of being known to have any intimacy with him least they should be mobbed.”
Into the social vacuum created at the American legation by the disdain of the British nobility and the timidity of the diplomatic corps stepped the large American colony in London.
A famous American-born London hostess gave the first dinner party in honor of the Adamses. She was Mrs. John Paradise, a Virginia heiress. As little Lucy Ludwell, she had been sent to England at the age of nine to be educated, and stayed on, marrying an Englishman partly of Greek descent and maintaining a salon at her house in Cavendish Square. Her specialty was her regular Sunday evening “musical rout,” to which the Adamses promptly received a blanket invitation.
On these evenings Amelia and her mother were accompanied only by Colonel Smith, because after the first dinner party at Cavendish Square John Adams refused to return. He never questioned Mrs. Paradise’s ardent Americanism, and he undoubtedly appreciated the efforts of her French chef, for he disliked British cooking, once warning his family that they would “all soon be sick with eating raw meat”; but Mrs. Paradise must have seemed to him, as she had to Dr. Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, a “tiresome silly woman.” Amelia’s pen failed when she attempted to describe her: “the only observation that I could make upon Mrs. P——when I first saw her was—that I had never seen anything like her before.” Fanny Burney pictured Lucy Paradise at one of her routs wearing an extravagantly high headdress of feathers, flowers, jewels, and gewgaws and a dress “trimmed with beads, silver, persian sashes, and all sorts of fine fancies; her face is thin and fiery, and her whole manner spoke a lady all alive.” In contrast to her lively and fiery face her voice was gentle and her manner deliberate, even when she went into one of her spectacular rages. With unruffled composure on one occasion she poured the contents of a scalding tea urn over a man who had offended her; on another, she calmly sailed across a ballroom and resoundingly slapped her daughter for dancing awkwardly.
John Paradise appeared to be as enthusiastic an American as his wife. He had called on the Adamses while they were still at the Bath Hotel, ingratiating himself with them by bringing old General Oglethorpe, first governor of Georgia, now eighty-eight but still, Amelia noted, “sprightly and chearfull.” After the family moved to Grosvenor Square, Paradise called two or three times a week.
Next to John Paradise the most frequent visitor at the legation was another celebrated member of the American colony—Patience Mehitabel Wright, an old lady from New Jersey who modeled in wax and ran a wax museum at her house in Cockspur Street. During the Revolution she had acted as a spy for Benjamin Franklin under the code name “Deborah.” Overcome with joy at the news of American independence, she wrote John Jay that “I now feel greatful for my life being spaired to see this happy day. I wish for nothing more than to finish the portrites in Wax Bustos of all you worthy heros .” She welcomed the Adamses literally with open arms and “a hearty buss,” as Abigail Adams wrote home, “from which we would all rather have been excused, for her appearance is quite the slattern.” Tall and straight as an Indian, she had a sallow face with high cheekbones, keen gray eyes, “the glance of a maniac,” and a powerful voice. She usually appeared at Grosvenor Square at breakfast time exclaiming that she had “Such a Budget!” of private information for the Minister’s ear alone. She had obviously enjoyed her role as spy too much to give it up; and sometimes, as Amelia noted, there was “no such thing as getting rid of her.”
Native American genius in the arts, on a more serious scale than Mrs. Wright’s, was evident in London at the studios of John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, and Mather Brown. Copley and West, both middle-aged men, were securely established; Stuart, a big Bohemian man considerably younger, was just beginning to be known; and Mather Brown (a descendant of Cotton Mather), a brash, ambitious boy in his early twenties, was just starting out. Except for Copley, who had already made his reputation in America when he arrived in England ten years before, this array of talent was largely due to West, a Pennsylvanian of humble origins who for more than a decade had held the post of historical painter to George III at a salary of a thousand pounds a year. Though he was far from being a painter of the first rank, his exalted position, his real ability as a teacher, and his unfailing kindness to his fellow countrymen drew to his studio every aspiring American artist who could afford the trip to England.
John Trumbull, son of Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, was painting in West’s studio his Battle of Bunker’s Hill , a picture that affected the Adams ladies profoundly, depicting as it did the death of their friend General Warren, and awakening in Abigail Adams memories of that hot June day in 1775 when she had stood on a hill near Braintree with eight-year-old John Quincy and seen the flash and smoke of the battle and heard the roar of the cannon. She could hardly describe her sensations when she first beheld the painting: “My whole frame contracted, my blood shivered, and I felt a faintness at my heart.” Amelia was “frozen —it is enough to make one’s hair to stand on end.”
Soon after the Adamses moved into the house on Grosvenor Square they also were immortalized on canvas. Amelia wrote John Quincy that “a rage for Painting has taken possession of the whole family—one of our rooms has been occupied by a Gentleman of this profession for near a fortnight—and we have the extreme felicity of looking at ourselves upon Canvass.” The artist was not John Singleton Copley, though Copley and his beautiful wife, “Sukie,” were intimate friends of the family—but young Mather Brown. Copley’s portraits were very expensive; Adams had sat for him on a short visit to London two years before, but Copley had kept the painting to exhibit. Mather Brown, Amelia reported, “was very sollicitous to have a likeness of Pappa—thinking it would be an advantage to him—and Pappa consented. He has taken the best likeness I have yet seen of him—and you may suppose is very Proud, when so many have failed before him.
“Mamma has set for hers—and I followed the example.” Brown achieved “a good likeness of Mamma” and “it is said he has taken an admirable likeness of my Ladyship—the Honble Miss Adams you know—it is a very tasty picture I can assure you whether a likeness or not. Pappa is much pleased with it and says he has got my character—a Mixture of Drollery and Modesty.”
In the portrait Amelia is wearing a huge Gainsborough hat. Her blue eyes are humorous and her lips are barely curved in a tremulous half-smile. It is the face of a young woman who is falling in love. Her letters home to her brother were beginning to contain frequent references to Colonel Smith—“Monsieur Ie Colonel”—who was also painted by Mather Brown about this time, looking blithe and handsome in his satin coat and ruffles.
As time went on, Abigail saw the pleasure the Colonel’s company gave Amelia, and she rejoiced, because she had at last received a letter from her sister Mary Cranch that convinced her that the engagement to Royall Tyler ought to be broken off. In it, Mrs. Cranch, at whose house Tyler was boarding, wrote that Tyler was refusing to deliver letters that Amelia had written to her friends in his care; in short, he was behaving dishonorably.
Saying nothing to Amelia, Abigail decided to prod the Colonel. “I don’t think he was conscious of his own feelings,” she reported to John Quincy, “until I thot it my duty to hint carelessly of her being under engagements in America—this led him to know himself and to request an explanation from her which she gave him with the utmost frankness, upon which he immediately asked leave of absence and went to the Prussian Review determined never more to think upon the subject.”
Having got the Colonel to declare himself, Mrs. Adams then revealed to Amelia the contents of Sister Cranch’s letter. The girl listened quietly and then unhesitatingly declared that she would break the engagement. When her mother, somewhat taken aback, asked her, “Have you well considered what you are about?” she replied, “I have well considered and am determined”; and as proof that it was no hasty decision, produced a copy of the letter she had written Tyler in May requesting an explanation of his neglect, to which she had had no reply. After this interview with her mother, she asked the advice of her father, who told her (according to Abigail) that if she had sufficient reason to doubt Tyler’s honor and veracity, “he had rather follow her to her grave than see her united with him.”
From a locked box in her room, Amelia took Tyler’s miniature and his few letters and made a bundle of them to which she affixed a note:
Sir: Herewith you receive your letters and miniature with my desire that you return mine to Uncle Cranch and my hopes that you are as well satisfied with the affair as is A.A.
Amelia’s cold little note, the last letter she ever wrote Royall Tyler, was dated August 11, 1785. That same day, Abigail received a letter from Colonel Smith written from Harwich on his way to board the Channel packet for Holland in company with Colonel Miranda. He informed her that following the Prussian Review he intended to return to London by way of Paris. This was totally unexpected both to her and to John Adams, who had requested his Secretary to return to London “as soon as may be,” but Abigail gave no hint of disapproval in her prompt reply. Advising the Colonel to keep a journal on his travels, “for I promise myself much entertainment from it upon your return,” she offered him introductions to several old friends in Paris.
Another person in London was also much interested in the continental tour of the two colonels. The Spanish minister had furnished Miranda with a letter of introduction to Spain’s minister to Prussia. But he had offset this letter by a dispatch in cipher to the Spanish legation in Berlin; and in anticipation of the Paris visit he had persuaded the Comte de Vergennes to issue orders for Miranda’s arrest if he should venture to cross the northern frontier of France.
Colonel Smith had hardly arrived in Holland before John Adams was wishing for his return. The first real crisis had arisen at the legation. In the third week of August, 1785, reports began circulating in London that the Algerians were capturing American ships.
For centuries Algiers and the other Barbary States on the coast of North Africa—Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli—had been preying on the Mediterranean commerce of any nation that did not buy them off. The British had done so, and as long as American ships were under British sovereignty they had been safe; but they were safe no longer.
Adams, all too aware of the inability of his weak young nation either to make war on the pirates or to pay the tribute they would demand, thought he saw a ray of hope in the arrival in London of a minister from Tripoli, one Abdurrahman, who seemed to be friendly to America and might be helpful in persuading the other Barbary powers to make a treaty. Amelia encountered the Tripolitan at court and was “absolutely frightened.” At first she mistook him for the Mohawk Indian chief Joseph Brant, who was in London at the time being considerably feted and admired, appearing at the Queen’s Drawing Room in his native dress “with that pretty plaything his Tommy Hawk in his hand.” The minister from Tripoli seemed almost as strange, in his turban and robes and sandals. He was accompanied by two pages, and Amelia thought she had never seen “such a dirty set of creatures.”
She was vastly entertained by her father’s account of his first visit to this phenomenon, how “by a little Italian and French with some Langua Franca they got into Conversation—and understood each other wondrously. There were two pages present and a servant brought two long Pipes—one for Pappa and the other for Monsieur Ia T’fcrke—with two cups of Coffee. Pappa took both and resting the bowl of the Pipe upon the floor while the stem was in his mouth smoaked away —taking a sip of Coffee and a Whif at his pipe—the Ambassador did the same—at last one of the Secretaries cried out in ecstasy to Pappa—Monsieur vous etes un veritable Turk.” The visit was returned, but all that resulted from these efforts at sociability was a hint from the Tripolitan that a treaty with the Barbary States might cost as much as 200,000 guineas.
Throughout that fall of 1785, lights burned late in the Minister’s study in the ell of the house on Grosvenor Square. The negotiations with the Barbary States required an immense amount of writing: instructions to be written and rewritten, copied and recopied; dispatches ciphered and deciphered. Everything had to be done in secrecy, for fear of British intervention. For several days John Adams’ eyes became so inflamed that he could do nothing. At first Charles Storer helped, but he left for America early in September, and after that the burden fell on Amelia, for there was no one else. In Paris Mr. Jefferson was plentifully supplied with attachés, but Adams had only Colonel Smith, and Colonel Smith was noticeably absent.
They heard from him in the middle of September, a letter from Berlin to John Adams saying that as soon as the military reviews at Berlin and Potsdam were over, about September 20, he would immediately return to London—via Paris. Though he shuddered “at the idea of trespassing too far upon your indulgence,” he knew Adams would make every allowance when he considered that his Secretary has “passed the period of ridiculous dissipation” and was “in pursuit of knowledge and improvement.” The same mail brought a letter to Mrs. Adams asking her to be his advocate if John Adams thought his absence was too long. “What will you tell him?—can you say with Stern that it is a quiet Journey of the heart in pursuit of those affections which make us love each other and the world better than we do, or will you say he is flying from——? hush madam—not a lisp.” But he would not dictate to her; whatever she said and whatever she did, he would subscribe to it; and he added, “I hope both as a young Politician and as a Soldier (casting a veil upon everything else as much as possible) to be richly paid for this excurtion.”
This was the last letter they received from him on his journey. Weeks went by, and John Adams may well have reflected that the legation was paying a high price for the Colonel’s search for knowledge and improvement; Abigail had thought it best not to mention any other motive. On November 3, Amelia wrote in her diary, “I think the Secretary must be out of his senses to remain so long from his duty.” By the end of November the prolonged absence was the cause of considerable gossip in diplomatic circles in London. An attaché of one of the foreign countries told Amelia that he “had not been in his own country for ten years—that he wished ardently to go only for five weeks—if he could do as Colln S.” Embarrassment was succeeded by alarm. On November 24 Abigail wrote a frantic letter to Thomas Jefferson: “We are now daily more and more anxious because we cannot account for Col S’s long absence but by sickness or some disaster and even then we ought to have heard from him or of him.”
Instead of the expected letters from Colonel Smith, there arrived on November 29 unexpected letters from Royall Tyler. One was addressed to Mrs. Adams, thanking her for her letter of May 9—“whilst the human Mind is ever most anxious for what it holds most Dear, I shall have my apprehensions and feel grateful to those who are kind enow to quiet them.” Another was to John Adams, saying that he had refrained from writing until he could offer proof that his “pecuniary circumstances” would enable him to support Amelia. That time had now come, and he would leave the matter to Adams’ judgment—in Tyler’s own opinion, “I should never suppose myself sufficiently prosperous or affluent to render her Life comfortable and Happy.”
Six days later, the Colonel returned. It was the evening of December 5. The Adams ladies had been to the Drury Lane Theatre to see Miss Mercy Farren, a comedienne very much in favor with them all; they were fond of quoting an observation by a visiting American that she was the only woman in England who knew she had eyes. They got home around eleven and had just sat down in the drawing room to tell John Adams about the evening when, according to Amelia, “Colln Smith puts his Head into the room and exclaimd dare I see you Sir—to Pappa—and well he might have some fears of his reception for his long absence.”
For this contingency the Colonel had prepared by bringing with him his friend Colonel David Humphreys, secretary of legation in Paris. “Colln S. told Papa he had brought his friend as a peace offering-he was all too grown to style him a Lamb.” The two young men were gay and talkative and full of news from Paris. Mr. Jefferson had a fine new house but complained constantly about his salary, said he was two thousand dollars in debt and would be ruined. The Algerian negotiators had departed but those to Morocco had not yet gone. The Baron de Staël was soon to be married to Mademoiselle Necker.
Next morning was time enough to report to John Adams on the prolonged journey. After the Prussian Review, the Colonel had not been able to resist the temptation to continue on to Leipzig, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. As he undoubtedly explained to Adams and did explain in a letter to John Jay, he had studied the climate of opinion in the countries he visited and concluded that the governments of Europe believed that George III would sow such dissension in the American Confederation that it would fall, like the ancient Greek republics, and England would regain her lost colonies. But the governments of Europe were themselves none too stable. Liberty was in the air.
In his letter to Jay, the Colonel got down to particulars: “From what I can collect, the inhabitants of South America begin to feel uneasy and look around for liberation from the Spanish yoke, and perhaps will take advantage of the first European commotion and try their strength; provided they can meet with the countenance and protection of a naval power—for no other can rid them.” If these Miranda-inspired sentiments were communicated to Adams, they were probably not taken very seriously. Years later, when Adams heard for the first time that Miranda had been attempting to enlist British aid in a plot to revolutionize South America, he was inclined to laugh. He considered Miranda to be as “delirious” as Don Quixote and his project “as visionary, though far less innocent, than that of his countryman Gonzalez, of an excursion to the moon in a car drawn by geese trained and disciplined for the purpose.”
The journal that Abigail had advised the Colonel to keep, and from which she anticipated so much pleasure, was not forthcoming. It had been handed over to Miranda when the two friends parted in Vienna, along with a loan from Smith of 230 to enable Miranda to continue on to Constantinople. In any case, there were portions of the journal that would not have made suitable reading for ladies. Miranda was a libertine and it appears that the Colonel sometimes joined him in his amorous adventures, though not always: one evening in Prague, Smith recorded in his journal that they had gone to a brothel together “but its appearance was so vulgar I retired—Miranda stayed.” A notation in the journal that might have interested John Adams concerned the Prussian Review. Military men from England as well as the Continent were there, including the Duke of York, son of George III. The journal shows that the close connection between the American diplomat and the Venezuelan conspirator had not gone unnoticed: one page contains on the margin an indignant note scrawled by Miranda to the effect that certain English officers had stigmatized them as “rebels.”
Having made his peace with John Adams, the Colonel took pains to assure his friend Mrs. Adams that he would respect Amelia’s engagement to Tyler; that “nothing should ever pass from him inconsistent with the Strickest Honour and the laws of hospitality.” But in the next few weeks, something happened between the two. Abigail wrote John Quincy, “some explanation from her perhaps, I shall never learn, but I perceived all at once upon a Day, a dejection dispelled, a Brightness of countenance, and a lightness of Heart” on the part of Amelia, “and in the evening the Gentleman asked permission to attend us to the Theater with Col. Humphries.”
When they returned, John Adams had gone to bed, but Colonel Smith asked a private audience of Abigail and handed her “with much emotion” a bundle of documents which he asked her to read and pass on to her husband. They were “votes of congress and commissions, with the amplest testimonials from the Generals under whom he had served of his Brave and good conduct.” Accompanying the documents was a letter in which he made “mention of his family situation” and asked permission to “gain the confidence of her daughter and to lay a proper foundation for a future connection.” Delighted, Abigail consulted John Adams. He seems to have been kept somewhat in the dark; only a few days before, he had sent a friendly letter to Royall Tyler. But his daughter’s happiness was very near his heart. He gave his approval.
After that, Amelia, who her mother thought “must feel a calmness and serenity in her present connection which she never before experienced,” began to enjoy London.
She went to her first court ball. The ballroom was huge, but Amelia pronounced it not half so elegant as Concert Hall in Boston. Only a dozen or so of those in attendance were selected to dance in addition to the prince and princesses. A little before nine the Prince of Wales “came staggering in—I don’t mean he was in Liquor but his manner was careless”—and good-humoredly chatted with the ladies who were to dance. At nine, their Majesties entered followed by the Princess Royal, and the company rose. The King and Queen went round the circle, the King “Laughing and grinning” and addressing Del Campo and other favorites with the “What what what what!” that usually peppered his remarks to his intimates. After the opening minuets there were country dances, in one of which the Prince of Wales fell flat on his back. Amelia began to refer to him as the “Prince of Whales,” commenting that “he is very fat and looks stuffd,” adding slyly, “report says that it is not with all honourable virtues.” Gossip about his liaison with Mrs. Fitzherbert was agitating all London.
“Scandal is the forte of this nation,” Abigail commented when a new play called The School for Scandal opened at Covent Garden Theatre. The theatre was brilliant that spring, and the Adamses enjoyed it to the utmost. One evening they went to the vaudeville at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where tight-rope walkers and acrobats shared the billing with some remarkable animal acts—a “learned pig,” dogs that danced, a duck that sang, and a little rabbit that beat a drum.
Sadler’s Wells was a great attraction for the American tourists, along with St. Paul’s Cathedral, the zoo at the Tower of London—and George III himself. It was essential to be able to report on these wonders after they got home to America. “The People of our country,” Amelia reminded John Quincy, “have a Wonderfull liking to those who can say ‘I have been in St. Paul’s Church. I have seen the Lions, Tigers, etc. in the Tower. I have seen the King and what is more have had the extreme honour of being saluted by him.’”
Thomas Jefferson came over for a seven weeks’ visit in mid-March, his first and only visit to London. Adams had summoned him (sending Colonel Smith off to Paris in a snowstorm in late February) for discussions on two important topics—negotiations with the Tripolitan minister and the prospects of a treaty with Portugal, on which Adams had had some encouraging conferences with the Portuguese minister in London, the Chevalier de Pinto. Madame de Pinto had even called at Grosvenor Square and made some friendly overtures to Mrs. Adams. The treaty with Portugal seemed to Jefferson more important than negotiations with the Tripolitan, and it appeared at the time to be more successful. A treaty was drawn up and signed, but it was not ratified in Lisbon.
Jefferson had also hoped that his visit to London might be helpful in promoting a treaty with England. But when he was presented to the King and Queen he was received so coldly that he saw nothing could be hoped for from the British court. He considered it “impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams and myself.” It was in marked contrast to the reception Adams had received at his first audience with George III. Was it possible that the King had been turned against Adams by his favorite, Bernardo del Campo? To a European diplomat such as Del Campo, it would probably have seemed inconceivable that Adams had not known of the connection between Colonel Smith and Miranda.
Though Jefferson’s visit accomplished little or nothing in diplomacy, there were pleasurable moments. He went to see the learned pig and to the theatre, where Mrs. Siddons was shining in great splendor; he dined with the Paradises, and often at Grosvenor Square. He sat for a Mather Brown portrait, which he presented to Adams. At the end of his visit the two American ministers made a tour together of the British countryside in all the glory of spring—the first real vacation Adams had had during all his years in Europe.
Abigail Adams was busy with plans for the wedding of Amelia and the Colonel, which had been set for June 12. She had been disturbed by the Colonel’s insistence on an early marriage, though she made excuses for him on the ground that “a soldier is always more expeditious in his courtships than other men.” She had wanted them to postpone the marriage to the following year because “we can’t do for them what we should be glad to.” It had become all too plain that the Colonel’s fashionable flat, his chariot, his liveried servants, his European tour, were extravagances not based on an income that would enable him to support a wife comfortably. The Adamses made the best of it. John Adams sent home a recommendation that Smith be made America’s consul general to Britain. A house was found for the couple in Wimpole Street, not far away, and it was arranged that they should dine every evening at Grosvenor Square.
It was a quiet wedding on a Sunday evening in the drawing room of the legation, with only five guests-Mr, and Mrs. John Singleton Copley and their daughter and two friends of Colonel Smith’s—because by June most of the American tourists and a large part of the American colony had left. The ceremony had to be performed by a clergyman of the Church of England rather than by Dr. Richard Price, the dissenting clergyman whose meetings the Adamses had attended. It was some consolation that they could engage the Bishop of St. Asaph, who had always been a friend to America. “Think of being married by a Bishop!” Abigail wrote home. But he was “a most amiable man,” and won her heart by saying after the ceremony, “I have never married a couple with more pleasure because I never saw a fairer prospect of happiness.”
Amelia and the Colonel were handsome and happy and very much in love. Who could tell how ill-matched they were? She was sensitive and withdrawn, born to be a quiet and humorous observer of the world about her. He was happiest when striding about the stage of life taking part in wars and quasi-wars and revolutions. Deprived by peace of his trade of soldiering, his only trade, he was to embark on a shaky career of political appointments and land speculations, dragging his wife and his children (there were eventually three) back and forth between London and New York, delighting in seeing Amelia, or “Emmy” as he liked to call her, painted by Copley in London with pearls in her powdered hair, and driven about New York in a coach-and-four. His obsession with the schemes of Miranda, culminating in his active part in launching Miranda’s ill-fated attempt to revolutionize Venezuela in 1806, led him to ruin. Amelia spent her last years in a lonely farmhouse in the wilds of western New York State—an innocent victim, in the words of her brother, John Quincy Adams, of “fortune’s treacherous game.”
On the night before the wedding, “an evil Spright” sent Royall Tyler to Abigail Adams in a dream. Letters had come describing his wild grief at the loss of Amelia, so heart-rending that even Sister Cranch, who had continued to justify herself with accusations against him, was moved to pity. He gave up his law practice and went into seclusion at his mother’s house on Long Island, where he began to write a play called The Contrast . It was produced in New York on April 16, 1787, the second play and the first comedy written by a native American to be produced professionally. The contrast was that between the British and the American character; a comic American in the play named Jonathan gave to the world the figure of “Brother Jonathan,” the first of many stage Yankees. Perhaps this play and a subsequent book called A Yankey in London were inspired by Amelia’s letters, for Tyler never went abroad. Eventually he resumed his law practice, moved to Vermont, married a young cousin of the Adamses, and in time became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont, universally loved and respected.
But all this was far in the future on that warm June evening in 1786 when the wheels of the wedding carriage rolled away from Grosvenor Square.