J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

John Adams Visits the King’s Closet

One of the signal events of the fourth episode in H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries is Adams’s first meeting with King George III as the U.S. of A.’s minister plenipotentiary (i.e., ambassador, though the country wasn’t yet using that term) to Great Britain.

From the U.S. National Archives, here is Adams’s official report to Congress’s Secretary of State, John Jay, on that nerve-straining conversation.

...Lord Carmarthen invited [me] to go with him in his Coach to Court. When we arrived in the Anti-Chamber, the Oeil de Beuf of St. James’s, the Master of the Ceremonies met me, and attended me, while the Secretary of State went to take the Commands of the King. While I stood in this Place where it seems all Ministers stand upon such occasions, always attended by the Master of Ceremonies, the Room very full of Ministers of State, Bishops & all other sorts of Courtiers, as well as the next Room which is the King’s bed Chamber, you may well suppose that I was the Focus of all Eyes.

I was relieved, however, from the Embarrassment of it by the Swedish and Dutch Ministers, who came to me & entertained me in a very agreeable Conversation during the whole Time. Some other Gentlemen whom I had seen before, came to make their Compliments to me, until the Marquis of Carmarthen returned & desired me to go with him to his Majesty. I went with his Lordship thro’ the Levee Room into the King’s Closet, the Door was shut, and I was left with his Majesty and the Secretary of State alone. I made the three Reverences, one at the Door, another about half way & the third before the Presence, according to the Usage established at this and all the Northern Courts of Europe. . . .

The King list’ned to every Word I said with Dignity, but with an apparent Emotion—whether it was the Nature of the Interview, or whether it was my visible Agitation, for I felt more than I did or could express, that touched him, I cannot say, but he was much affected, and answered me with more Tremor than I had spoken with...
Adams had memorized his speech and wrote it out again for the report. He also tried to record the king’s reply exactly, but admitted that “although his pronunciation is as distinct as I ever heard, he hesitated sometimes between his periods, and between members of the same period. He was, indeed, much affected, and I was not less so, and therefore I cannot be certain that I was so attentive, heard so clearly, and understood so perfectly, as to be confident of all his words or sense.”

As far as my memory serves, the miniseries script reproduced the two men’s remarks as Adams reported them. His report was widely (if imperfectly) reprinted in the early 1800s, so here is a look at what the men said to each other.

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