After the resolution of the Revolutionary War, John Adams and (later) Thomas Jefferson were diplomatic agents in London. John Adams had been there a while and had previously met the King, apparently amiably.

I happen to be reading American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis, where on page 75 it is stated:

When Jefferson visited Adams in England in the spring of 1786, the two former revolutionaries were presented at court and George III ostentatiously turned his back on the both. Neither man ever forgot the insult or the friend standing next to him when it happened.

I recently read John Adams by David McCullough where the same incident is stated differently (on page 355):

When Adams presented Jefferson at the King's levee at St. James's on March 15, George III could not have been "more ungracious" in his "notice of Mr. Adams and myself," according to an account later provided by Jefferson. Later still a grandson of Adams's would take this to mean the King had turned his back on them, and the story would become rooted in history. But almost certainly no such incident occurred. Jefferson said nothing to the effect at the time. Nor did any of the numerous ministers, courtiers, members of Parliament, and other diplomats present who were ever watchful for the slightest sign of royal disapproval or anything the least out of the ordinary. Nothing untoward was reported or hinted at in the newspapers, and importantly, nothing was ever said or written by James Adams, who, of all men, would have been enraged by any disrespect shown a minister of the United States being presented under his sponsorship.

Ellis footnotes the version he reports rather extensively, including a letter from Adams to Jefferson not too long after the event and in their respective autobiographies.

So, any further insight on what happened? Did it actually happen? Did King George III turn his back on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?

  • 1
    Based on the info you've gathered, I'd say George III did.
    – Russell
    Commented Mar 27, 2012 at 8:58
  • 1
    King George III was by all accounts (as the Brits would put it) a bit of a prat. This would certianly have been in character for him.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 20:07
  • Incredible trivia, thanks for sharing that, I may use that in the book I write. Commented Feb 28, 2013 at 7:04

2 Answers 2


This letter from John Adams to John Jay makes no mention of any "back turning" incident.

This website talks about how King George III eventually accepted John Adams, and claims that King George III acted in the following manner:

He behaved with dignity during the interview, though he showed that he was affected by it, and assured the minister that as he ‘had been the last to consent to the separation,’ so he ‘would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power’.

The idea that King George III would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States is taken from The works of John Adams, second president of the United States pp. 255-257, which is straight from the horse's mouth.

However, this website states that Thomas Jefferson

attended a levee of George III and his queen. The king turned his back. Jefferson said, "It was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams and myself. I saw at once that the ulcerations in the narrow mind of that mulish king left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance."

But the above website doesn't cite where it gets the account of the information.

So, your reading of the event never occurring seems to be in line with reality. There is no compelling and convincing evidence (that I could find) to believe that the event actually did happen.


Ellis is a "popular" historian or, in other words, a story teller who seeks to amuse rather than to inform, -- such is my clear impression from reading his other works. The harangue against George III in the Declaration of American Independence was only one of many diplomatic outrages that Jefferson committed in his life. If anybody doubts the paternal affection which George III felt for his American subjects, he should consider the conciliatory gestures of his Majesty in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, or the King's pressure on the House of Lords to assure repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. On the other hand, Jefferson's rejection as President of the Monroe-Pinckney treaty led us into the War of 1812. If George III had turned his back to him, as Ellis' yarn would have us believe, Jefferson would have deserved the affront. But the event never happened, because Jefferson was accompanied by Adams, for whom George III had high regard.

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