Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter X - The Court of St. James

NOT yet, Abigail! The treaty of peace was signed on the 21st of January, 1783; but Congress refused to John Adams the leisure he had so amply earned, and so ardently desired. A treaty of commerce must be established between Great Britain and the United States, and he, with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, must make it. The faithful patriot accepted the new charge without hesitation, but this time his body rebelled. He fell dangerously ill of a fever, brought on by anxiety and over-work. For some days his life hung in the balance: but he could not die then. His work was not done. Barely recovered, while still weak and suffering, he hastened to London, to take up the new task. This accomplished, another waited him. Orders came for him to go at once to Holland, to obtain a loan for the new Republic. This, he felt, might well be the last straw for him; yet he did not falter.

"It was winter. My health was very delicate. A journey and voyage to Holland at that season would very probably put an end to my labors. I scarcely saw a possibility of surviving it. Nevertheless, no man knows what he can bear till he tries. A few moment's reflection determined me; for although I had little hope of getting the money, having experienced so many difficulties before, yet making the attempt and doing all in my power would discharge my own conscience, and ought to satisfy my responsibility to the public."

Here follows a detailed account of the trip, which I exercise much self-control not to quote. He adds:

"I had ridden on horseback often to Congress, over roads and across ferries, of which the present generation have no idea; and once, in 1777, in the dead of winter, from Braintree to Baltimore, five hundred miles, upon a trotting horse, as Dean Swift boasted that he had done or could do. I had been three days in the Gulf Stream, in 1778, in a furious hurricane and a storm of thunder and lightning, which struck down our men upon deck, and cracked our mainmast; when the oldest officers and stoutest seamen stood aghast, at their last prayers, dreading every moment that a butt would start, and all perish. I had crossed the Atlantic, in 1779, in a leaky ship, with perhaps four hundred men on board, who were scarcely able, with two large pumps going all the twenty-four hours, to keep water from filling the hold, in hourly danger, for twenty days together, of foundering at sea. I had passed the mountains in Spain, in the winter, among ice and snow, partly on mule-back and partly on foot; yet I never suffered so much in any of these situations as in that jaunt from Bath to Amsterdam, in January, 1784. Nor did any of those adventures ever do such lasting injuries to my health. I never got over it till my return home, in 1788."

Still the tasks multiplied; still the Hills of Difficulty rose before the devoted statesman. Finally, in the summer of 1784, seeing his return home indefinitely postponed, he dismissed his anxieties and summoned his faithful Portia to his side. She sailed on the 20th of June, on the ship Active.

It was her first voyage, and she did not enjoy it. There are no more letters to her "dearest friend"; the faithful pair were not to be separated again for any length of time; but she writes a little every day to her sister, Mrs. Cranch, and does full justice to the discomforts of life in a small sailing vessel.

"Of this I am very sure, that no lady would ever wish a second time to try the sea, were the objects of her pursuit within the reach of a land journey. I have had frequent occasion, since I came on board, to recollect an observation of my best friend's, 'that no being in nature was so disagreeable as a lady at sea,' and this recollection has in a great measure reconciled me to the thought of being at sea without him; for one would not wish, my dear sister, to be thought of in that light by those, to whom we would wish to appear in our best array. The decency and decorum of the most delicate female must in some measure yield to the necessities of nature; and, if you have no female capable of rendering you the least assistance, you will feel grateful to any one who will feel for you, and relieve or compassionate your sufferings."

She was woefully seasick at first, poor lady. After a time she felt better and writes: "The ship has gradually become less irksome to me. If our cook was but tolerably clean, I could relish my food. But he is a great, dirty, lazy negro, with no more knowledge of cookery than a savage, nor any kind of order in the distribution of his dishes; but on they come, higgledy-piggledy, with a leg of pork all bristly; a quarter of an hour after, a pudding, or perhaps, a pair of roast fowls, first of all, and then will follow one by one a piece of beef, and when dinner is nearly completed, a plate of potatoes. Such a fellow is a real imposition upon the passengers. But gentlemen know but little about the matter, and if they can get enough to eat five times a day, all goes well. We ladies have not eaten, upon our whole passage, more than just enough to satisfy nature, or to keep body and soul together."

Her first impression of England was more exciting than agreeable. Driving to London in a post chaise, "from Chatham we proceeded on our way as fast as possible, wishing to pass Blackheath before dark. Upon this road, a gentleman alone in a chaise passed us, and very soon a coach before us stopped, and there was a hue and cry, 'A robbery, a robbery!' The man in the chaise was the person robbed, and this in open day with carriages constantly passing. We were not a little alarmed, and everyone was concealing his money. Every place we passed and every post chaise we met was crying out, 'A robbery!' Where the thing is so common, I was surprised to see such an alarm. The robber was pursued and taken in about two miles, and we saw the poor wretch, ghastly and horrible, brought along on foot: his horse ridden by a person who took him, who also had his pistol. He looked like a youth of twenty only, attempting to lift his hat, and looked despair. You can form some idea of my feelings when they told him, 'Ay, you have but a short time; the assize sits next month; and then, my lad, you swing.' Though every robber may deserve death, yet to exult over the wretched is what our country is not accustomed to. Long may it be free from such villanies, and long may it preserve a commiseration for the wretched."

At last she found herself in London, at Osborne's new family hotel, "Adelphi," where rooms had been engaged for her. Mr. Adams was at the Hague, detained by public business; Portia must be patient as she might.

"Here we have," she writes, "a handsome drawing-room, genteelly furnished, and a large lodging-room. We are furnished with a cook, chambermaid, waiter, etc., for three guineas a week; but in this is not included a mouthful of victuals or drink, all of which is to be paid for separately."

There was now little leisure for writing, for callers came thick and fast. Mr. This, Mrs. That, Dr. the Other, all thronged to pay their respects. Many of these were former friends and neighbors of the Tory persuasion, living in more or less willing exile. "I hardly know how to think myself out of my own country, I see so many Americans about me." She knows that her sister will desire news of the fashions.

"I am not a little surprised to find dress, unless upon public occasion, so little regarded here. The gentlemen are very plainly dressed, and the ladies much less so than with us. 'Tis true, you must put a hoop on and have your hair dressed, but a common straw hat, no cap, with only a ribbon upon the crown, is thought sufficient to go into company. Muslins are much in taste; no silks but lutestrings worn; but send not to London for any article you want; you may purchase any thing you can name much lower in Boston. . . . Our country, alas! our country! they are extravagant to astonishment in entertainments compared with what Mr. Smith and Mr. Storer tell me of this. You will not find at a gentleman's table more than two dishes of meat, though invited several days beforehand. . . . At my lodgings I am as quiet as at any place in Boston; nor do I feel as if it could be any other place than Boston; Dr. Clark visits us every day; says he cannot feel at home anywhere else; declares he has not seen a handsome woman since he came into the city; that every old woman looks like Mrs. H——, and every young one like—like the D—l.[204] They paint here nearly as much as in France, but with more art. The head-dress disfigures them in the eye of an American. I have seen many ladies, but not one elegant one since I came; there is not to me that neatness in their appearance, which you see in our ladies.

"The American ladies are much admired here by the gentlemen, I am told, and in truth I wonder not at it. O, my country, my country! preserve, preserve the little purity and simplicity of manners you yet possess. Believe me, they are jewels of inestimable value; the softness, peculiarly characteristic of our sex, and which is so pleasing to the gentlemen, is wholly laid aside here for the masculine attire and manners of Amazonians."

A few days later, she describes one of the numerous dinners to which she was invited.

"After we had dined, which was in company with five American gentlemen, we retired to the drawing room, and there I talked off the lady's reserve, and she appeared agreeable. Her dress pleased me, and answered to the universal neatness of the apartments, furniture, and entertainment. It was a delicate blue and white copper-plate calico, with a blue lutestring skirt, flounced; a muslin apron and handkerchief, which are much more worn than gauze; her hair, a fine black, dressed without powder, with a fashionable cap, and straw ribbons upon her head and breast, with a green morocco slipper. Our dinner consisted of fried fish of a small kind, a boiled ham, a fillet of veal, a pair of roast ducks, an almond pudding, currants and gooseberries, which in this country are very fine. Painted muslin is much worn here; a straw hat with a deep crown, lined, and a white, green, or any colored ribbon you choose."

The visitors came and went, and Mrs. Adams received them graciously, and returned their visits, and wrote to sisters and nieces; but all the time her heart was in Holland, and she found the days long and weary that kept her friend from her. At last,—at long, long last—the Great Day came. On August 7th, Mr. Adams writes in his diary:

"Arrived at the Adelphi Buildings (London) and met my wife and daughter, after a separation of four years and a half; indeed, after a separation of ten years, excepting a few visits. Set off the next day for Paris."

September, 1784, found the Adamses settled at Auteuil, four miles from Paris, in much contentment, after the long years of separation. Mrs. Adams writes to her sister, Mrs. Cranch:

"The house is much larger than we have need[206] of: upon occasion, forty beds may be made in it. I fancy it must be very cold in winter. There are few houses with the privilege which this enjoys, that of having the saloon, as it is called, the apartment where we receive company, upon the first floor. This room is very elegant, and about a third larger than General Warren's hall. . . . But with an expense of thirty thousand livres in looking-glasses there is no table in the house better than an oak board, nor a carpet belonging to the house. The floors I abhor, made of red tiles in the shape of Mrs. Quincy's floor-cloth tiles. These floors will by no means bear water, so that the method of cleaning them is to have them waxed, and then a manservant with foot brushes drives round your room dancing here and there like a Merry Andrew. This is calculated to take from your foot every atom of dirt, and leave the room in a few moments as he found it. The dining-rooms, of which you make no other use, are laid with small stones, like the red tiles for shape and size. The servants' apartments are generally upon the first floor, and the stairs which you commonly have to ascend to get into the family apartments are so dirty, that I have been obliged to hold up my clothes, as though I was passing through a cow-yard."

She finds living in Paris very expensive; moreover, some of the expenses seem to her republican mind unreasonable. "There is now a Court mourning, and every foreign minister, with his family, must go into mourning for a Prince of eight years old, whose father is an ally to the King of France. This mourning is ordered by the Court, and is to be worn for eleven days only. Poor Mr. Jefferson had to hie away for a tailor to get a whole black silk suit made up in two days; and at the end of eleven days, should another death happen, he will be obliged to have a new suit of mourning, of cloth, because that is the season when silk must be left off. We may groan and scold, but these are expenses which cannot be avoided; for fashion is the deity everyone worships in this country, and, from the highest to the lowest, you must submit."

In a letter to her niece, Betsey Cranch, she describes the house in greater detail, and dwells with delight on the beauty of the garden. "But Paris, you must not ask me how I like it, because I am going to tell you of the pretty little apartment next to this in which I am writing. Why, my dear, you cannot turn yourself in it without being multiplied twenty times; now that I do not like, for being rather clumsy, and by no means an elegant figure, I hate to have it so often repeated to me. This room is about ten or twelve feet large, is eight-cornered and panelled with looking-glasses; a red and white India patch, with pretty borders encompasses it; low back stuffed chairs with garlands of flowers encircling them, adorn this little chamber; festoons of flowers are round all the glasses; a lustre hangs from the ceiling adorned with flowers; a beautiful sofa is placed in a kind of alcove, with pillows and cushions in abundance, the use of which I have not yet investigated; in the top of this alcove, over the sofa in the ceiling is another glass; here is a beautiful chimney piece, with an elegant painting of rural life in a country farm-house, lads and lasses jovial and happy. This little apartment opens into your cousin's bed-chamber; it has a most pleasing view of the garden, and it is that view which always brings my dear Betsey to my mind, and makes me long for her to enjoy the delights of it with me."

Mrs. Adams certainly did not like Paris. "They tell me I am no judge, for that I have not seen it yet. One thing I know, and that is that I have smelt it. . . . It is the very dirtiest place I ever saw. . . . Boston cannot boast so elegant public buildings; but, in every other respect, it is as much superior in my eyes to Paris, as London is to Boston."

It is hard to choose among these sprightly letters, so full of color and gayety. Here is an account of the Marquise de Lafayette, written to Mrs. Cranch:

"The Marquise met me at the door, and with the freedom of an old acquaintance, and the rapture peculiar to the ladies of this nation, caught me by the hand and gave me a salute upon each cheek, most heartily rejoiced to see me. You would have supposed I had been some long absent friend, whom she dearly loved. She presented me to her mother and sister, who were present with her, all sitting together in her bed-room, quite en famille. One of the ladies was knitting. The Marquise herself was in a chintz gown. She is a middle-sized lady, sprightly and agreeable; and professes herself strongly attached to Americans. She supports an amiable character, is fond of her children, and very attentive to them, which is not the general character of ladies of high rank in Europe. In a few days, she returned my visit, upon which we sent her a card of invitation to dine. She came; we had a large company. There is not a lady in our country, who would have gone abroad to dine so little dressed; and one of our fine American ladies, who sat by me, whispered to me, 'Good Heavens! how awfully she is dressed.' I could not forbear returning the whisper, which I most sincerely despised, by replying that the lady's rank sets her above the little formalities of dress. She had on a Brown Florence gown and petticoat,—which is the only silk, excepting satins, which are worn here in winter—a plain double gauze handkerchief, a pretty cap with a white ribbon in it, and looked very neat. The rouge, 'tis true, was not so artfully laid on, as upon the faces of the American ladies who were present. Whilst they were glittering with diamonds, watch-chains, girdle-buckles, etc., the Marquise was nowise ruffled by her own different appearance. A really well-bred French lady has the most ease in her manners, that you can possibly conceive of. It is studied by them as an art, and they render it nature. It requires some time, you know, before any fashion quite new becomes familiar to us. The dress of the French ladies has the most taste and variety in it, of any I have yet seen; but these are topics I must reserve to amuse my young acquaintance with. I have seen none, however, who carry the extravagance of dress to such a height as the Americans who are here, some of whom, I have reason to think, live at an expense double what is allowed to the American ministers. They must however, abide the consequences."

The months spent in France proved interesting enough. When in May, 1785, Mr. Adams was appointed United States Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, his wife had some things to regret, though more to anticipate. "Delightful and blooming garden, how much I shall regret your loss! . . . It will not be easy to find in the midst of a city so charming a scene."

But Paris was soon forgotten in the excitement of the London season. London was very full this May and June. The Adamses had hard work to find a house, but were finally established in lodgings "at the moderate price of a guinea per day, for two rooms and two chambers at the Bath Hotel, Westminster, Piccadilly."

The first great event was the presentation to Royalty, first of Mr. Adams in private, then of the family, in public. Mrs. Adams notes rather ruefully that "one is obliged here to attend the circles of the Queen, which are held in summer once a fortnight, but once a week the rest of the year; and what renders it exceedingly expensive is, that you cannot go twice the same season in the same dress, and a Court dress you cannot make use of anywhere else." This was hard indeed for people of moderate means and simple tastes; but as usual, Mrs. Adams was mistress of the emergency.

"I directed my mantuamaker to let my dress be elegant, but plain as I could possibly appear, with decency; accordingly, it is white lutestring, covered and full trimmed with white crape, festooned with lilac ribbon and mock point lace, over a hoop of enormous extent; there is only a narrow train of about three yards in length to the gown waist, which is put into a ribbon upon the left side, the Queen only having her train borne. Ruffle cuffs for married ladies, treble lace ruffles, a very dress cap with long lace lappets, two white plumes, and a blonde lace handkerchief. This is my rigging. I should have mentioned two pearl pins in my hair, ear-rings and necklace of the same kind."

On the day of the festivities she writes: "My head is dressed for St. James's, and in my opinion, looks very tasty. Whilst my daughter's is undergoing the same operation, I set myself down composedly to write you a few lines. 'Well,' methinks I hear Betsey and Lucy say, 'what is cousin's dress?' White, my dear girls, like your aunt's, only differently trimmed and ornamented; her train being wholly of white crape, and trimmed with white ribbon; the petticoat, which is the most showy part of the dress, covered and drawn up in what are called festoons, with light wreaths of beautiful flowers; the sleeves white crape, drawn over the silk, with a row of lace round the sleeve near the shoulder, another half way down the arm, and a third upon the top of the ruffle, a little flower stuck between; a kind of hat-cap, with three large feathers and a bunch of flowers; a wreath of flowers upon the hair. Thus equipped, we go in our own carriage, and Mr. Adams and Colonel Smith in his. But I must quit my pen to put myself in order for the ceremony, which begins at two o'clock. When I return, I will relate to you my reception; but do not let it circulate, as there may be persons eager to catch at every thing, and as much given to misrepresentation as here. I would gladly be excused the ceremony."

The next day she thus continues: "Congratulate me, my dear sister, it is over. I was too much fatigued to write a line last evening. At two o'clock we went to the circle, which is in the drawing-room of the Queen. We passed through several apartments, lined as usual with spectators upon these occasions. . . . We were placed in a circle round the drawing-room, which was very full. I believe two hundred persons present. Only think of the task! The royal family have to go round to every person, and find small talk enough to speak to all of them, though they very prudently speak in a whisper, so that only the person who stands next you can hear what is said. The King enters the room, and goes round to the right; the Queen and Princesses to the left. The lord-in-waiting presents you to the King; and the lady-in-waiting does the same to her Majesty. The King is a personable man, but, my dear sister, he has a certain countenance, which you and I have often remarked; a red face and white eyebrows. The Queen has a similar countenance, and the numerous royal family confirm the observation. Persons are not placed according to their rank in the drawing-room, but promiscuously; and when the King comes in, he takes persons as they stand. When he came to me, Lord Onslow said, 'Mrs. Adams'; upon which I drew off my right-hand glove, and his Majesty saluted my left cheek; then asked me if I had taken a walk today. I could have told his Majesty that I had been all the morning preparing to wait upon him; but I replied, 'No, Sire.' 'Why, don't you love walking?' says he. I answered, that I was rather indolent in that respect. He then bowed and passed on. It was more than two hours after this before it came to my turn to be presented to the Queen. The circle was so large that the company were four hours standing. The Queen was evidently embarrassed when I was presented to her. I had disagreeable feelings, too. She, however, said, 'Mrs. Adams, have you got into your house? Pray, how do you like the situation of it?' Whilst the Princess Royal looked compassionate, and asked me if I was not much fatigued; and observed, that it was a very full drawing-room. Her sister, who came next, Princess Augusta, after having asked your niece if she was ever in England before, and her answering, 'Yes,' inquired of me how long ago, and supposed it was when she was very young. And all this is said with much affability, and the ease and freedom of old acquaintance. The manner in which they make their tour round the room is, first, the Queen, the lady-in-waiting behind her, holding up her train; next to her, the Princess Royal; after her, Princess Augusta, and their lady-in-waiting behind them. They are pretty, rather than beautiful, well shaped, with fair complexions, and a tincture of the King's countenance. The two sisters look much alike; they were both dressed in black and silver silk, with a silver netting upon the coat, and their heads full of diamond pins. The[216] Queen was in purple and silver. She is not well shaped nor handsome. As to the ladies of the Court, rank and title may compensate for want of personal charms; but they are, in general, very plain, ill-shaped, and ugly; but don't tell anybody that I say so."

Mrs. Adams did not enjoy Court occasions. "I know," she says to Sister Mary, "I am looked down upon with a sovereign pride, and the smile of royalty is bestowed as a mighty boon. As such, however, I cannot receive it. I know it is due to my country, and I consider myself as complimenting the power before which I appear as much as I am complimented by being noticed by it. With these ideas, you may be sure my countenance will never wear that suppliant appearance, which begs for notice. Consequently I never expect to be a Court favorite. Nor would I ever again set my foot there, if the etiquette of my country did not require it. But, whilst I am in a public character, I must submit to the penalty; for such I shall ever esteem it."

In the same letter she describes one of the Queen's 'drawing-rooms.'

"The company were very brilliant, and her Majesty was stiff with diamonds; the three eldest Princesses and the Prince of Wales were present. His Highness looked much better than when I saw him before. He is a stout, well-made man, and would look very well if he had not sacrificed so much to Bacchus. The Princess Elizabeth I never saw before. She is about fifteen; a short, clumsy miss, and would not be thought handsome if she was not a princess. The whole family have one complexion, and all are inclined to be corpulent. I should know them in any part of the world. Notwithstanding the English boast so much of their beauties, I do not think they have really so much of it as you will find amongst the same proportion of people in America."

Mrs. Siddons was then in her glory, and Abigail did not fail to see her, and to describe her to the sisterhood at home. This time it is Sister Shaw who hears how "the first piece I saw her in was Shakespeare's 'Othello.' She was interesting beyond any actress I had ever seen; but I lost much of the pleasure of the play, from the sooty appearance of the Moor. Perhaps it may be early prejudice; but I could not separate the African color from the man, nor prevent that disgust and horror which filled my mind every time I saw him touch the gentle Desdemona; nor did I wonder that Brabantio thought some love potion or some witchcraft had been practised to make his daughter fall in love with what she scarcely dared look upon.

"I have been more pleased with her since, in several other characters, particularly in Matilda in 'The Carmelite,' a play which I send you for your amusement. Much of Shakespeare's language is so uncouth that it sounds very harsh. He has beauties which are not equalled; but I should suppose they might be rendered much more agreeable for the stage by alterations. I saw Mrs. Siddons a few evenings ago in 'Macbeth,' a play, you recollect, full of horror. She supported her part with great propriety; but she is too great to be put in so detestable a character. . . . You must make as much interest here to get a box when she plays, as to get a place at Court; and they are usually obtained in the same way. It would be very difficult to find the thing in this country which money will not purchase, provided you can bribe high enough.

"What adds much to the merit of Mrs. Siddons, is her virtuous character; slander itself never having slurred it. She is married to a man who bears a good character; but his name and importance are wholly swallowed up in her fame. She is the mother of five children; but from her looks you would not imagine her more than twenty-five years old. She is happy in having a brother who is one of the best tragic actors upon the stage, and always plays the capital parts with her; so that both her husband and the virtuous part of the audience can see them in the tenderest scenes without once fearing for their reputation."

To Thomas Jefferson she wrote on June 6, 1785:

"I went last week to hear the music (Handel's) in Westminster. 'The Messiah' was performed. It was sublime beyond description. I most sincerely wished for your presence, as your favorite passion would have received the highest gratification. I should have sometimes fancied myself amongst a higher order of Beings if it had not been for a very troublesome female, who was unfortunately seated behind me; and whose volubility not all the powers of music could still."

Mrs. Adams was certainly an admirable correspondent; the long years of separation from her "dearest friend" had taught her how letters were longed for by those at home; and she writes without stint to sisters, nieces and friends. Here are two letters to Betsey and Lucy Cranch, describing the gayeties of London:

"I believe I once promised to give you an account[220] of that kind of visiting called a ladies' rout. There are two kinds; one where a lady sets apart a particular day in the week to see company. These are held only five months in the year, it being quite out of fashion to be seen in London during the summer. When a lady returns from the country she goes round and leaves a card with all her acquaintances, and then sends them an invitation to attend her routs during the season. The other kind is where a lady sends to you for certain evenings, and the cards are always addressed in her own name, both to gentlemen and ladies. The rooms are all set open, and card-tables set in each room, the lady of the house receiving her company at the door of the drawing-room, where a set number of courtesies are given and received with as much order as is necessary for a soldier who goes through the different evolutions of his exercise. The visitor then proceeds into the room without appearing to notice any other person, and takes her seat at the card table.

Nor can the muse her aid impart,
Unskilled in all the terms of art,
Nor in harmonious numbers put
The deal, the shuffle, and the cut;
Go, Tom, and light the ladies up,
It must be one before we sup.

"At these parties it is usual for each lady to play a rubber, as it is termed, when you must lose or win a few guineas. To give each a fair chance, the lady then rises and gives her seat to another set. It is no unusual thing to have your rooms so crowded that not more than half the company can sit at once, yet this is called society and polite life. They treat their company with coffee, tea, lemonade, orgeat and cake. I know of but one agreeable circumstance attending these parties, which is, that you may go away when you please without disturbing anybody. I was early in the winter invited to Madame de Pinto's, the Portuguese minister's. I went accordingly. There were about two hundred persons present. I knew not a single lady but by sight, having met them at Court; and it is an established rule, that though you were to meet as often as three nights in the week, never to speak together, or know each other, unless particularly introduced. I was, however, at no loss for conversation, Madame de Pinto being very polite, and the Foreign Ministers being the most of them present, who had dined with us, and to whom I had been early introduced. It being Sunday evening, I declined playing cards; indeed, I always get excused when I can. And Heavens forbid I should catch the manner living as they rise.

". . . At eight o'clock we returned home in order to dress ourselves for the ball at the French ambassador's, to which we had received an invitation a fortnight before. He has been absent ever since our arrival here, till three weeks ago. He has a levee every Sunday evening, at which there are usually several hundred persons. The Hotel de France is beautifully situated, fronting St. James's Park, one end of the house standing upon Hyde Park. It is a most superb building. About half past nine, we went and found some company collected. Many very brilliant ladies of the first distinction were present. The dancing commenced about ten, and the rooms soon filled. The room which he had built for this purpose is large enough for five or six hundred persons. It is most elegantly decorated, hung with a gold tissue, ornamented with twelve brilliant cut lustres, each contained twenty-four candles. At one end there are two large arches; these were adorned with wreaths and bunches of artificial flowers upon the walls; in the alcoves were cornucopiae, loaded with oranges, sweetmeats, etc. Coffee, tea, lemonade, orgeat, etc., were taken here by every person who chose to go for them. There were covered seats all round the room for those who did not choose to dance. In the other rooms, card-tables, and a large faro-table, were set: this is a new kind of game, which is much practised here. Many of the company who did not dance, retired here to amuse themselves. . . ."

This was Betsey's letter: Lucy was to hear about the dresses:

"To amuse you then, my dear niece, I will give you an account of the dress of the ladies at the ball of the Comte d'Adhémar; as your cousin tells me that she some time ago gave you a history of the birthday and ball at Court, this may serve as a counterpart. Though, should I attempt to compare the apartments, St. James's would fall as much short of the French Ambassador's as the Court of his Britannic Majesty does of the splendor and magnificence of that of his Most Christian Majesty. I am sure I never saw an assembly room in America, which did not exceed that at St. James's in point of elegance and decoration; and, as to its fair visitors, not all their blaze of diamonds, set off with Parisian rouge, can match the blooming health, the sparkling eye, and modest deportment of the dear girls of my native land. As to the dancing, the space they had to move in gave them no opportunity to display the grace of a minuet, and the full dress of long court-trains and enormous hoops, you well know were not favorable for country dances, so that I saw them at every disadvantage; not so the other evening. They were much more properly clad:—silk waists, gauze or white or painted tiffany coats decorated with ribbon, beads, or flowers, as fancy directed, were chiefly worn by the young ladies. Hats turned up at the sides with diamond loops and buttons of steel, large bows of ribbons and wreaths of flowers, displayed themselves to much advantage upon the heads of some of the prettiest girls England can boast. The light from the lustres is more favorable to beauty than daylight, and the color acquired by dancing, more becoming than rouge, as fancy dresses are more favorable to youth than the formality of a uniform. There was as great a variety of pretty dresses, borrowed wholly from France, as I have ever seen; and amongst the rest, some with sapphire-blue satin waists, spangled with silver, and laced down the back and seams with silver stripes; white satin petticoats trimmed with black and blue velvet ribbon; an odd kind of head-dress, which they term the 'helmet of Minerva.' I did not observe the bird of wisdom, however, nor do I know whether those who wore the dress had suitable pretensions to it. 'And pray,' say you, 'how were my aunt and cousin dressed?' If it will gratify you to know, you shall hear. Your aunt then wore a full-dress court cap without the lappets, in which was a wreath of white flowers, and blue sheafs, two black and blue flat feathers (which cost her half a guinea a-piece, but that you need not tell of), three pearl pins, bought for Court, and a pair of pearl ear-rings, the cost of them—no matter what; no less than diamonds, however. A sapphire blue demi-saison with a satin stripe, sack and petticoat trimmed with a broad black lace; crape flounce, etc.; leaves made of blue ribbon, and trimmed with white floss; wreaths of black velvet ribbon spotted with steel beads, which are much in fashion, and brought to such perfection as to resemble diamonds; white ribbon also in the Vandyke style, made up the trimming, which looked very elegant; a full dress handkerchief, and a bouquet of roses. 'Full gay, I think, for my aunt.' That is true, Lucy, but nobody is old in Europe. I was seated next the Duchess of Bedford, who had a scarlet satin sack and coat, with a cushion full of diamonds, for hair she has none, and is but seventy-six, neither. Well, now for your cousin; a small, white Leghorn hat, bound with pink satin ribbon;[226] a steel buckle and band which turned up at the side, and confined a large pink bow; large bow of the same kind of ribbon behind; a wreath of full-blown roses round the crown, and another of buds and roses withinside the hat, which being placed at the back of the hair brought the roses to the edge; you see it clearly; one red and black feather with two white ones, completed the head-dress. A gown and coat of Chambéri gauze, with a red satin stripe over a pink waist, and coat flounced with crape, trimmed with broad point and pink ribbon; wreaths of roses across the coat; gauze sleeves and ruffles."

Mrs. Adams was very fond of her nieces, and they must have their share of London finery. In July, 1786, she writes to "my dear girls":

"I bought me a blue sarcenet coat not long since; after making it up I found it was hardly wide enough to wear over a straw coat, but I thought it was no matter; I could send it to one of my nieces. When I went to put it up, I thought, I wished I had another. 'It is easily got,' said I. 'Ned, bring the carriage to the door and drive me to Thornton's, the petticoat shop.' 'Here, Madam, is a very nice pink coat, made too of the widest sarcenet.' 'Well, put it up.' So back I drove, and now, my dear girls, there is a coat for each of you. Settle between yourselves which shall have the blue and which the pink, pay no regard to the direction, only when you put them on, remember your aunt wishes they were better for your sakes."

Sarcenet was in those days "a fine soft silk," the word being "probably derived from 'Saracen.'"[20]

It is pleasant to fancy the delight of the nieces when the box from London arrived. How they shook out the shining folds and tried the coats on before the glass, and cried, "Dear, kind Aunt Abby!"

Though London claimed most of their time, there were pleasant jaunts now and then for the Adamses, to this or that famous place. They went to Windsor, to Bath (which Abigail disliked heartily), to Portsmouth. Mr. Adams' diary gives glimpses of some of these excursions:

"April, 1786. Edgehill and Worcester were curious and interesting to us, as scenes where freemen had fought for their rights. The people in the neighborhood appeared so ignorant and careless at Worcester, that I was provoked, and asked, 'And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbors and your children that this is holy ground; much holier than that on which your churches stand. All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill once a year.'

"This animated them, and they seemed much pleased with it. Perhaps their awkwardness before might arise from their uncertainty of our sentiments concerning the civil wars."

A trip like this must have been a great refreshment to Mrs. Adams; she did not like London. She tells her friend, Mrs. Warren:

"I have resided in this country nearly two years, and, in that time, I have made some few acquaintances whom I esteem, and shall leave with regret; but the customs and manners of a metropolis are unfriendly to that social intercourse which I have ever been accustomed to. Amusement and diversion may always be purchased at the theatres and places of public resort, so that little pains are taken to cultivate that benevolence and interchange of kindness which sweetens life, in lieu of which mere visits of form are substituted to keep up the union. Not only the wrinkled brow of age is grasping at the card-table, and even tricking with mean avarice, but the virgin bloom of innocence and beauty is withered at the same vigils. I do not think I should draw a false picture of the nobility and gentry of this metropolis, if I were to assert that money and pleasure are the sole objects of their ardent pursuit; public virtue, and, indeed, all virtue, is exposed to sale, and as to principle, where is it to be found, either in the present administration or opposition? Luxury, dissipation, and vice, have a natural tendency to extirpate every generous principle, and leave the heart susceptible of the most malignant vices."

I think she longed for home throughout the three years of her stay in London. It was not her own place. She met many famous people, and was glad to meet them, but their ways were not her ways. Besides this, her reception at Court, as well as her husband's, had been as cold as policy and bare civility would allow. How could it be otherwise? How could George III, honest creature that he was, pretend to be glad to see the Minister of his own lost dominion? It was perhaps too much to expect of him, and Queen Charlotte was of no more heroic mold than he, of no more tact or innate courtesy, and behaved accordingly. Abigail Adams was too proud to allude to this at the time; there is no hint of it in the letters from London. It was not till long after this that in a letter to her daughter she shows something of the bitterness that still remained in her heart. It was when the French Revolution seemed to threaten disaster to the throne of England.

"Humiliation for Charlotte," she says, "is no sorrow for me. She richly deserves her full portion for the contempt and scorn which she took pains to discover."

Those must have been grave affronts indeed that made so deep and abiding an impression on a heart so good and kind.

The stay in London brought her two great joys: the happy marriage of her daughter Abigail to Colonel W. S. Smith, the young secretary of the American Legation, and the birth of her first grandson. But when all was said, it was a glad day that brought Mr. Adams' decision to petition Congress for leave to return home; and a far gladder one for Mrs. Adams, when she set foot once more, in May 1788, on the shore of the country she so deeply loved.


Return to the Abigail Adams and Her Times Summary Return to the Laura E. Richards Library

© 2022 AmericanLiterature.com