John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers of the USA. After US independence was achieved, he served in a number of positions, including as the US Minister to Britain, a crucial role at the time. Here, Steve Strathmann looks at how Adams fared while in London.

 

After the American Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century, Anglo-American relations saw many highs and lows. While the United Kingdom and the United States only went to war once during this period (War of 1812), tensions were always close to the surface. This situation made the position of United States Minister to the Court of St. James’ one of the most important in the US State Department. Among the many men who held this post (including five future presidents), three members of the Adams family served in London at points during or after times of war. John, his son John Quincy and his grandson Charles Francis all faced challenges during their terms, but each contributed to the slow but steady strengthening of bonds between the British and their former American colonies. This first of three articles will deal with the first American minister to London, John Adams.

A portrait of John Adams, circa 1792. By John Trumbull.

A portrait of John Adams, circa 1792. By John Trumbull.

Meeting George III

At the time of his appointment to London in 1785, John Adams had been in Europe for about three years. During that period, he had served as ambassador to the Netherlands (a post he would continue to hold while in England) and served on the committee that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war with Britain.

He presented his credentials to King George III on June 1, 1785. In his speech to the king, Adams stated that he hoped that he could help restore the “good old nature and good old humor between people who... have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”

John Adams later reported that George III seemed very affected by the meeting. In his response, the king stated that he was the last person to agree to the breakup between Great Britain and the American colonies. On the other hand, since it was now fact he “would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

 

Public Reception of Minister Adams

The choice of Adams as the chief American representative in Britain was widely scorned by the London press. This was no surprise, given Adams’ roles in promoting American independence and negotiating the treaty which achieved that end. According to historian Joseph J. Ellis, the press reaction to Adams was “much like the Vatican would have greeted the appointment of Martin Luther”. Adams took the way that some people acted towards him during his term as showing guilt and shame, as opposed to anger. He wrote in his diary after one awkward party in March 1786: “They feel that they have behaved ill, and that I am sensible of it.”

John’s wife, Abigail, had joined him in Europe. She helped fortify him against the attacks, but also had to deal with slights of her own. For example, the wife of an MP once asked her, “But surely you prefer this country to America?” John Adams’ official relations with British authorities were more cordial than with the press and some of the public, but that didn’t necessarily show up in any kind of diplomatic results.

 

Diplomatic Standoff

John Adams’ primary goals while in London were to settle violations of the Treaty of Paris and arrange a trade agreement between the two nations. Among the violations, British troops continued to occupy posts along the Great Lakes. When this was brought up to Foreign Minister Lord Carmarthen, he countered that prewar debts owed by American farmers to British creditors had yet to be paid, also a treaty violation. This is one example of the stalemate on treaty issues that Adams was unable to break during his tenure.

Adams also made no progress on a trade agreement with the British. The trade balance was firmly in London’s favor at this time. They felt no need to make concessions on items such as opening their West Indies ports to American ships. Unfortunately for Adams, he had just as many problems dealing with his own government as with Lord Carmarthen and the British.

This was because of the rules set forth under the Articles of Confederation. Congress had no power over foreign trade, so it could not help in arranging any trade agreement with Great Britain. The military was so weak under this system that it could do nothing about British forces on the Great Lakes even if it wanted to. Congress also proved slow in providing instructions to its ambassadors. In fact, when Adams requested to be relieved of his European posts in order to return home on January 24, 1787, Congress didn’t approve his request until October 5. Due to the slow pace of communications across the Atlantic Ocean, Adams didn’t receive this news until mid-December, almost a year after sending his request.

 

Progress Elsewhere

Though John Adams may have struggled in his negotiations with the British, this period was not unproductive for him. He, along with Thomas Jefferson, did finalize deals with several other nations. Prussia signed the only trade agreement that the Americans were able to complete during Adams’ term on August 8, 1786. A treaty with Morocco was signed in early 1787, in which the United States agreed to pay for the protection of American shipping. They also secured additional loans for the United States from the Dutch.

John Adams also made his thoughts known back home over the future of the United States government. The weakness of the Confederation Congress had led many to call for changes to, or an entire replacement of, the Articles of Confederation. Adams’ contribution to this debate was A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, which he had published in London and shipped to America. In this book, Adams argued for a bicameral legislature (as opposed to the single Confederation Congress) and an executive branch empowered to carry out the laws and defend the nation. The book was well received in the States, and James Madison wrote that it would be “a powerful engine in forming the public opinion.”

 

Return to America

John Adams made so little headway during his three years in London that his post would remain vacant for the next four years. In his final meeting with George III, the king assured him that when the Americans met their treaty obligations, his government would as well. After Adams left London on March 30, 1788, the Westminster Evening Post reported that he “settled all his concerns with great honor; and whatever his political tenets may have been, he was much respected and esteemed in this country.”

No one knew at the time, but this would not be the last time an Adams would represent his nation in the Court of St. James. In 1815, following another Anglo-American war, John Quincy Adams would assume his father’s former position in the diplomatic corps.

 

Read more about John Adams and why Independence Day may not actually be on July 4. Click here now!

References

Butterfield, L.H. et al., eds. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Belkamp Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Ellis, Joseph J. First Family: Abigail Adams & John. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Madison, James. Volume 1 of Letters and Other Writings of James Madison. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1865. Accessed June 21, 2014. http://books.google.com/.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

United States Department of State. “The United Kingdom-Countries-Office of the Historian.” http://history.state.gov/countries/united-kingdom. Accessed June 15, 2014.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

King George IV of England was king for only ten years until his death in 1830, but he made a lasting impression. So much so that some have dubbed him England’s worst king. Georgie Broad explains why…

 

Upon the death of King George IV of England in 1830, The Times newspaper said of him “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than the deceased king”. Hardly very complimentary, but it was a truth that was felt by the majority of English citizens during his reign and echoed by many historians today. Throughout his tempestuous and turbulent reign, George IV earned a great many enemies and was the butt of many libelous jibes and quips. But just how devastating was his rule, and should he really go down in history as one of the most dismal monarchs in British history?

Mistresses and Marriage

George’s life was not terribly rich in good relationships. He had a strained and poor relationship with his father, King George III, and these rocky relations carried on throughout his life. Even his “extra-curricular” interactions with his mistresses were dysfunctional, and they earned him a lot of unwanted attention. George IV’s father strove to cultivate an era of, as Dr. Steve Parissien puts it, “sexual respectability”, and to reinforce more traditional family values throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s. George IV was able to almost totally subvert his father’s moralistic hard work all by himself… With a little help from his litany of mistresses…

George IV acquired his first mistress at the humble age of seventeen, and was secretly (and illegally) married to one Mrs. Fitzherbert, a staunch Roman Catholic, before he married his wife Caroline of Brunswick. Through these various trysts with other women, George IV ended up fathering a considerable number of children. George did not always keep his mistresses under the radar, and allegedly connected with actresses and members of the aristocracy. This string of affairs led to something of an uncertain and tacky image of the king being created, one that did not sit well with a great many English people at the time. It also stood in stark contrast to the ideals that his father lay out before him.

After much persuasion, and due to the fact he desperately wanted to settle his debts, George married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick in 1795; however the marriage was a train wreck from its beginning to its rather prompt end after the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte. George may have had problems, but he wasn’t the only one. Caroline rarely washed, was unfit, and so physically repulsive that George turned to copious amounts of alcohol to cope with the idea of marrying her. He was so drunk on their wedding night that he collapsed and remained in that temporary resting place until the next morning. These bad feelings about Caroline were not just confined to the king. Parliament and government disliked her too – to the extent that they offered her £50,000 to stay out of the country, which she hastily ignored before settling in London. Even so, when she was accused of having affairs, she was popular enough with various civilians that they greeted her and her carriage upon its arrival at the House of Lords.

So it seems then that among the dignitaries the marriage was not very popular, although the English people sat a little more on the fence. Alas for George, his problems didn’t confine themselves solely to the women in his life.

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     A cartoon of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, reflecting popular opinion of the couple.          

A cartoon of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, reflecting popular opinion of the couple.

 

Regency and Rule

George IV did not walk right into his kingship. When his father was overcome by a recurrent illness, George IV stepped into the position of Prince Regent, something that allowed him rule of the country… in theory. During his regency and rule, George remained fairly disengaged with politics, instead preferring to leave such proceedings to governors and ministers. In doing so, the new ruler was taking a much less active role in government and the ruling of the country than his father before him. This once again proved quite a jarring difference between the new ruler and his father throughout the minds of the English people, and contributed to a social malaise in the country. In terms of representation throughout the United Kingdom, George IV visited Ireland and Scotland on state visits for the first time in many years. This of course promoted a sense of unity among the United Kingdom; however, in England, George IV was still leaving a lot to be desired.

Instead of looking toward the ruling of the country, George turned his attention to matters of style and culture, echoes of which can still be found in architecture today. Despite the fact that the majority of citizens disliked George IV’s reckless spending, his extravagant coronation was popular throughout the country, and helped him on his reign-long development of the more dramatic, theatrical and pageant-like side of monarchy that we can still see in the international aristocracy today. But his careless and excessive spending did not always strike such a chord in the nation…

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   The regal and wonderful coronation of George IV.

The regal and wonderful coronation of George IV.

Drinking, Debt and Dining

The aforementioned debt that drove George to marry Caroline was beyond extensive. Before he became king, his debts reached heights of £630,000 in 1795, which equates to around £55,111,000 today, according to Michael De La Noy in his Pocket Biography of the King. Although various grants were available to help George IV out of his debts, the situation did little to ameliorate his public image. He instead created an image of a lavish and wasteful big spender to add to his womanizing ways, which often left the English public cold, especially due to the less than plentiful economic position of the country at the time.

One of the main things that George liked to spend his money on was drink and good food, a trend that persisted for the entirety of his reign. Toward the end of his rule, his health deteriorated so badly that he didn’t like to make many, if any, public appearances due to the public reactions to his weight though. Not only did these health problems lead to a rapid and irreversible deterioration in George IV’s public image, but it also had severe repercussions on his health. With the litany of health problems that dogged the latter years of the monarch’s life, from gout to suspected mental instability, the king didn’t so much as go out with a royal and regal bang, but instead something of an underwhelming fizzle.

 

A famous caricature by James Gillray showing George IV in his later, less flattering years

A famous caricature by James Gillray showing George IV in his later, less flattering years

Legacy

Nowadays, we often praise and venerate Georgian style, from clothes to architecture and customs; however the monarch who created many of these trends has gone down in history as one of the worst that Britain has known. Positive reviews can be found of George IV, for example those of the Duke of Wellington, crediting him as “the most accomplished man of his age”, although you need to look through a lot of negative reactions first, including another from the Duke of Wellington detailing how George IV was in fact “the worst man he ever fell in with his whole life”. Contradictory, critical and downright cruel most of the time, accounts from during and many years after the reign of George IV have perpetuated an image of a useless, lazy, and unfit king; being petulant, easily swayed and irresponsible to boot. In that light, we must re-examine George IV and ask ourselves: is it fair to go as far as dubbing him the worst King of England?

 

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Image sources

http://www.historic-uk.com/assets/Images/carolinesecretaryvalet.jpg?1390900293

http://www.georgianindex.net/coronation/CoronationService.jpg

http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/3518/3640/1600/Gillray_Voluptuary_051126.0.jpg