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"If Others Will Not Be Active, I Must Drive": George III and the American Revolution
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Figure 1
Johann Zoffany, George III (1771). Reproduced by permission of The Royal Collection ©2003, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
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"A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." This was the language in which the Declaration of Independence blamed George III for the American Revolution. John Adams later admitted that it contained "expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant." Adams, reminiscing at the age of eighty-eight, thought it "too personal . . . too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document." He confessed that he had "never believed George to be a tyrant" or to be guilty of the "cruel" acts committed in the name of the king. In his autobiography, Adams was also critical of Benjamin Franklin who "often and indeed always appeared to me to have personal Animosity and very severe Resentment against the King. In all his conversations and in all his Writings, when he could naturally and sometimes when he could not, he mentioned the King with great Asperity."

Adams had subsequently met George III when he was presented as the first ambassador for the United States at St. James's Palace, less than two years after the conclusion of peace, in June 1785. It was an emotional encounter between an outspoken advocate of independence and a king who had considered abdicating rather than accepting the loss of America. Adams recounted afterward that he had introduced himself by saying that the meeting "will form an epoch in the history of England and America." He told the king that he thought himself more fortunate than his fellow citizens in having the distinguished honor to be first to stand the royal presence in a diplomatic role. He said that he hoped to be instrumental in restoring "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." George III was "much affected, and answered me with more tremor than I had spoken with."

The king, assuming "an air of familiarity, and, smiling, or rather laughing," jested with Adams that "there is an opinion among some people that you are not the most attached of all your countrymen to the manners of France." Adams was "surprised" and "embarrassed," thinking it "an indiscretion and a departure from dignity," but he nevertheless "threw off as much gravity" as he could and replied in a similar vein, "I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country." George III responded "as quick as lightning" that "an honest man will never have any other." The king then "turned and bowed, as is customary with all kings and princes when they give the signal to retire." Adams "retreated, stepping backward," in observance of royal protocol, making his "last reverence at the door of the chamber." A court official accompanied him to his carriage, via the royal apartments, through "several stages of servants, gentlemen-porters and under-porters" who roared "out like thunder Mr. Adams's servants, Mr. Adams's carriage." Adams was satisfied that his "Mission was treated by his Majesty with all the Respect, and . . .with all the Kindness, which could have been expected or reasonably desired, and with much more, I confess, than was in fact expected by me."

In March the following year, Thomas Jefferson met a very different royal reception. Adams, triumphant with his wife at becoming "favorites at court" and "holding frequent conferences with His Majesty," had arranged for the presentation of Jefferson during his visit from France. The usual attendance of the royal family, government ministers and foreign ambassadors at court was, according to one newspaper report, "very thin." Jefferson wrote nothing of the episode at the time, other than an entry in his account book that simply recorded that he paid the "porters at St. James on my being presented." Writing thirty-five years later in his autobiography, he was more forthcoming about his...

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