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The Fragile Memory

July 2024
12min read

What really happened when Thomas Jefferson met George III

On March 17,1786, Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, met his former sovereign. The occasion was George Ill’s levee, and it produced one of the most durable chestnuts in American history. The original, indeed the only source for what is supposed to have happened is Jefferson’s Autobiography , published thirty-five years after the event. Accepted as canon by successive generations of scholars, it has nonetheless received at intervals more than an ordinary number of embellishments. Like barnacles attached to the hull of a merchantman, they threaten to overwhelm the vessel—and the truth.

Eleven days earlier, Jefferson, minister plenipotentiary of the United States to the Court of Versailles, hastily left Paris for London, responding to an urgent summons from John Adams, American minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James’s. Jefferson arrived late on the evening of Saturday the eleventh and hurried at once to Adams’ house in Grosvenor Square.

Adams had not called Jefferson to London to face him off against his old enemy the king but in hopes of making a commercial treaty with Portugal and—far more important in Adams’ eyes—of working out some sort of settlement with the piratical Barbary states, whose emissary was then in the British capital.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was thinking of England. He and Adams held a joint commission from Congress, and Jefferson hoped to use it to force Britain to admit American vessels to her West Indian ports.

Adams already had proposed a commercial treaty based on what the Americans saw as “true reciprocity” and had long ago presented it to his Britannic Majesty’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, the Marquis of Carmarthen. For half a year the British had not deigned to answer and apparently were unmoved by the feeble threat of an American navigation act. At last Adams, desperate, presented on December 8 a formal demand “requiring” the evacuation of posts in the Old Northwest still held by the British in violation of the peace treaty. On February 28 he got his reply: Why should Britain honor her treaty obligations when America had blithely condoned the denial of justice to hundreds of British creditors holding millions of dollars of pre-war debts in America? A few days after this shower of ice water fell on Adams, Jefferson arrived on the scene. At the end of his rope, Adams fell in with his colleague’s plan. If worse came to worst, Jefferson would be a companion to share the burden of diplomatic failure he now knew to be inevitable.

The two Americans met with Carmarthen on Wednesday, March 15. Jefferson’s autobiographical account of his dealings with the foreign secretary is bitter. So much is to be expected. What is surprising is an astonishing misrecollection. The “distance and disinclination” that Carmarthen “betrayed in his conversation” at the meeting, “the vagueness and evasions of his answers to us, confirmed in me the belief of [the British] aversion to have anything to do with us.” Jefferson presented a “very summary form of treaty.” Carmarthen scorned it.

Such is the autobiographical version. Yet in their reports at the time, Adams and Jefferson apparently found nothing untoward or exceptionable in Carmarthen’s manner. And in their joint report to John Jay there is no mention of having made a treaty proposal to the foreign secretary. The reason is simplej There was none.

What Jefferson had in mind was an ill-considered and, indeed, revolutionary project for “an exchange of citizenship” which he had proposed to Adams nine months earlier. Adams had been carefully noncommittal, obviously hoping Jefferson would get over his hallucinatory idea. Yet the memory of it emerged in the Autobiography thirty-five years later, misplaced in time and space.

Not a major error, perhaps, but indicative of the grim tenacity with which Jefferson could cling to old enmities. Just how ingrained was his enmity against his sometime sovereign would soon be made manifest.

Jefferson’s attendance at the March 17 levee was arranged by John Adams as a matter of diplomatic protocol. The visitor was not only a distinguished American but also minister plenipotentiary of his government to a major European power, a public character that made it his duty, as Adams himself suggested, when in London to pay his respects at the British court and to the resident diplomatic corps. Describing the occasion, Jefferson wrote in the Autobiography :

“On my presentation as usual to the King and Queen at their levees, it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams & myself. I saw at once that the ulcérations in the narrow mind of that mulish being left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance.”

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?


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.

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.”

On the eve of his departure from London for Paris, Jefferson set out a theme in a letter to James Madison that he was to develop more fully in correspondence with friends and American officials in the weeks ahead, but the basic assumptions—facts, as he stated them—never varied: “With this nation nothing is done; and it is now decided that they intend to do nothing with us. The king is against a change of measures; his ministers are against it, some from principle, others from attachment to their places, and the merchants and people are against it. … This political speculation fosters the warmest feeling of the king’s heart, that is, his hatred to us. If ever he should be forced to make any terms with us, it will be by events which he does not foresee. He takes no pains at present to hide his aversion.”

People, ministry, and king hated the United States, and the king most of all. The king! There was the culprit! “With respect to a commercial treaty with this country,” Jefferson wrote to his friend, Richard Henry Lee, “be assured that the government … has it not in contemplation at present to make any.… When we see that through all the changes of ministry which have taken place during the present reign, there has never been a change of system with respect to America, we cannot reasonably doubt that this is the system of the king himself. His obstinacy of character we know; his hostility we have known, and it is embittered by ill success. If ever this nation, during his life, enters into arrangements with us, it must be in consequence of events of which they do not at present see a possibility.”

Returned to Paris, Jefferson developed the theme of hate in a turbulent stream of letters to friends and associates at home and abroad. Britain “hates us,” he told John Page; “their ministers hate us, and their king more than all other men.” Hostility was “much more deeply rooted at present than during the war.” The same sentiments were sent to William Carmichael, the American representative at Madrid, and to William Temple Franklin. War itself, Jefferson wrote, could not be ruled out as a possibility. “Each country is left to do justice to itself and to the other according to its own ideas,” he told David Ross. Commercial regulations would now come through duties and prohibitions, “and perhaps by canons and mortars; in which event we must abandon the ocean where we are weak … and measure with them on land where they alone can lose.”

In an eloquent passage in his biography of John Adams, Page Smith writes that there was in Jefferson “an ultimate area, a kind of interior arctic region—remote and lonely and cold.” In truth, the ice was penultimate, a frozen crust covering a seething and molten core of hatred for Britain and, above all, her king.

Today, in light of the monumental labors of Sir Lewis Namier and his followers, it is clear that Jefferson profoundly misunderstood the position and the power of the monarch in the eighteenth-century British Constitution—as much in 1786 as a decade earlier. He minimized, too, his own country’s contributions to Anglo-American difficulties of the time. The lesson he read—and preached—to his countrymen—that only by a higher degree of union and efficiency in their government could they hope to achieve the goals of American foreign policy—was eminently right. And it may safely be assumed that his sentiments, powerfully expressed and widely disseminated, gave impetus to the movement toward the formation of a new Constitution. His argument finally rested, however, not on the crying American need to reform herself but on British and especially royal malice. In its formulation, Jefferson was taken captive by his own rhetoric. Thirty-five years later his misreading of the British political scene (where the preoccupation was not hatred of America but the legitimate pursuit of the national interest) emerged in a highly simplified story uncritically accepted by historians ever since.

In the end, of course, the errors and misrecollections Jefferson exhibited in the Autobiography do nothing to diminish a career of high and brilliant accomplishment; but a burden of major responsibility attaches to those later writers who transformed them into a spurious reality. In his commentary on George Ill’s treatment of Jefferson at the levee in March, 1786, Charles Francis Adams may have been indulging in a certain amount of his own rhetoric; but even if he was only partially correct in suggesting that serious effects upon the welfare of nations arise from the “caprices” of important personages, it is vital to have the facts, all the facts, straight. It must be remembered, too, that his dictum cuts two ways.

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