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Adams, Jefferson hit the road in England

After the revolution, the to American statesmen ventured into the mother countryside, and liked what they saw.

October 25, 2009|Susan Spano

LONDON — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were American patriots, co-framers of the Declaration of Independence, our second and third presidents. Sometimes friends, sometimes rivals, they lived in tandem through our nation's difficult birth: Jefferson, the sophisticated Virginia planter, Adams, the Massachusetts yeoman farmer.

What is less well-known is that they once went tooting around the English countryside together in a hired coach.

David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning Adams biography, the basis for last year's HBO "John Adams" miniseries, briefly mentions their trip. But the passage captured my imagination, and I recently decided to follow their route. As it turns out, the itinerary they devised offers as fine an introduction to England as any offered by modern tour companies.

In early April 1786, they set off on a six-day tour west from London along the Thames River Valley, then north toward Birmingham before circling back to the capital. Of course, I couldn't re-create their itinerary exactly. Some of the places they saw are long gone, in private hands or utterly transformed, like touristy Stratford-upon-Avon, which I'd seen before and therefore skipped.

But others -- Blenheim Palace and the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, for instance -- remain open to visitors who follow in the great Americans' footsteps, which help to explain their times, very different characters and complex relationship.

My retracing of the trip started in Mayfair, one of London's most distinguished neighborhoods, where Adams lived from 1785 to 1788 in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Before the war, Benjamin Franklin had served as an agent of the Pennsylvania colony in the English capital, but Adams was the first U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

He moved to England from France, where he had helped Franklin and John Jay negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris, in which the British crown recognized the colonies' independence. His new goal was to forge trade agreements with England, a difficult mission with tensions persisting between the defeated mother country and her erstwhile one-time territories across the Atlantic.

At one point in his London tenure, Adams wrote in his diary, "This people cannot look me in the face. . . . They feel that they have behaved ill, and that I am sensible of it."

To house the embassy and his family, Adams rented a dignified stone house on the northeast corner of Mayfair's Grosvenor Square, still a peaceful urban oasis where nannies push prams and men in pinstriped suits read the Financial Times.

Strolling here, I found many reminders of the relationship between Great Britain and the U.S., including a Sept. 11 Memorial Garden, a bronze statue of President Franklin Roosevelt and a D-day plaque engraved with the order of the day, issued by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 6, 1944. "Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force," it says. "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade. . . .The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."

The area remains a diplomatic center, home to the embassies of Canada, Argentina and the U.S., housed in a huge, severe, modern building on the west side of the square. It was designed in 1960 by Eero Saarinen (he of St. Louis' Gateway Arch and the main terminal at Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C., suburbs) and widely reviled by traditionalists. Because the U.S. Embassy is often the scene of protests, it is surrounded by a forbidding security cordon.

Fortunately, its stately old predecessor, where Adams entertained Jefferson and celebrated the wedding of his daughter Nabby to Col. William Smith, still stands across the square, bearing another touching plaque that says, "John Adams and Abigail Adams, his wife, through character and personality, did much to create understanding between the two English-speaking countries."

After paying my respects at the Adams house, I wandered through Mayfair looking for other American connections, which abound. During World War II, U.S. servicemen frequented Mount Street Gardens, tucked in the neighborhood just south of Grosvenor Square and nearby Grosvenor Chapel, an Anglican church.

The park, lined with benches donated by Americans, overlooks the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception where Joseph Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, worshiped while serving as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1937 to 1940.

Berkeley Square Gardens, another fine Mayfair greensward now decorated with a gazebo, formerly displayed an equestrian statue, cast in lead, of occasionally irrational King George III, who led England through the war with its American colonies. But the monument was removed in 1827, purportedly because the horse's legs buckled under the weight of the rider.

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