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From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 50-52.



JOHN ADAMS [1735-1826]

ADAMS, JOHN, an eminent American statesman and publicist; second President of the United States; born at Braintree (now Quincy), Mass., October 19, 1735; died there, July 4, 1826. In the days preceding the outbreak of the Revolution, he frequently defended in the public prints the right of the colonies to throw off the English yoke. His most important contribution to the literature of the science of government is his “Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States” (1787). The “Familiar Letters” of John Adams and his wife are of great value for the history of the American Revolution.


(From his Diary, June 7, 1778, with his later comments in brackets.)

WENT to Versailles, in company with Mr. Lee, Mr. Izard and his lady, Mr. Lloyd and his lady, and Mr. François. Saw the grand procession of the Knights du Saint-Esprit, or du Cordon Bleu. At nine o’clock at night, went to the grand couvert, and saw the King, Queen, and royal family, at supper; had a fine seat and situation close by the royal family, and had a distinct and full view of the royal pair.

[Our objects were to see the ceremonies of the knights, and in the evening the public supper of the royal family. The kneelings, the bows, and the courtesies of the knights, the dresses and decorations, the King seated on his throne, his investiture of a new created knight with the badges and ornaments of the order, and his Majesty’s profound and reverential bow before the altar as he retired, were novelties and curiosities to me, but surprised me much less than the patience and perseverance with which they all kneeled, for two hours together upon the hard marble of which the floor of the chapel was made. The distinction of the blue ribbon was very dearly purchased at the price of enduring this painful operation four times in a year. The Count de Vergennes confessed to me that he was almost dead with the pain of it. And 51 the only insinuation I ever heard, that the King was in any degree touched by the philosophy of the age, was, that he never discovered so much impatience, under any of the occurrences of his life, as in going through these ceremonies of religion, to which so many hours of his life were condemned by the Catholic Church.

The Queen was attended by her ladies to the gallery opposite to the altar, placed in the centre of the seat, and there left alone by the other ladies, who all retired. She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. I leave this enterprise to Mr. Burke. But in his description, he is more of the orator than of the philosopher. Her dress was everything that art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen millions of livres; and I always thought her Majesty much beholden to her dress. Mr. Burke saw her probably but once. I have seen her fifty times perhaps, and in all the varieties of her dresses. She had a fine complexion, indicating perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. But I have seen beauties much superior, both in countenance and form, in France, England, and America.

After the ceremonies of this institution are over, there is a collection for the poor; and that this closing scene may be as elegant as any of the former, a young lady of some of the first families in France is appointed to present the box to the knights. Her dress must be as rich and elegant, in proportion, as the Queen’s, and her hair, motions, and curtsies must have as much dignity and grace as those of the knights. It was a curious entertainment to observe the easy air, the graceful bow, and the conscious dignity of the knight, in presenting his contribution; and the corresponding ease, grace, and dignity of the lady, in receiving it, were not less charming. Every muscle, nerve, and fibre of both seemed perfectly disciplined to perform its functions. The elevation of the arm, the bend of the elbow, and every finger in the hand of the knight, in putting his louis d’ors into the box appeared to be perfectly studied, because it was perfectly natural. How much devotion there was in all this I know not, but it was a consummate school to teach the rising generation the perfection of the French air, and external politeness and good-breeding. I have seen nothing to be compared to it in any other country. . . .

At nine o’clock we went and saw the King, Queen, and royal family, at the grand couvert. Whether M. François, a gentleman who undertook upon this occasion to conduct us, had contrived 52 a plot to gratify the curiosity of the spectators, or whether the royal family had a fancy to see the raw American at their leisure, or whether they were willing to gratify him with a convenient seat, in which he might see all the royal family, and all the splendors of the place, I know not; but the scheme could not have been carried into execution, certainly, without the orders of the King. I was selected, and summoned indeed, from all my company, and ordered to a seat close beside the royal family. The seats on both sides of the hall, arranged like the seats in a theatre, were all full of ladies of the first rank and fashion in the kingdom, and there was no room or place for me but in the midst of them. It was not easy to make room for one more person. However, room was made, and I was situated between two ladies, with rows and ranks of ladies above and below me, and on the right hand and on the left, and ladies only. My dress was a decent French dress, becoming the station I held, but not to be compared with the gold, and diamonds, and embroidery, about me. I could neither speak nor understand the language in a manner to support a conversation, but I had soon the satisfaction to find it was a silent meeting, and that nobody spoke a word but the royal family to each other, and they said very little. The eyes of all the assembly were turned upon me, and I felt sufficiently humble and mortified, for I was not a proper object for the criticisms of such a company. I found myself gazed at, as we in America used to gaze at the sachems who came to make speeches to us in Congress; but I thought it very hard if I could not command as much power of face as one of the chiefs of the Six Nations, and therefore determined that I would assume a cheerful countenance, enjoy the scene around me, and observe it as coolly as an astronomer contemplates the stars. Inscriptions of Fructus Belli were seen on the ceiling and all about the walls of the room, among paintings of the trophies of war; probably done by the order of Louis XIV., who confessed in his dying hour, as his successor and exemplar Napoleon will probably do, that he had been too fond of war. The King was the royal carver for himself and all his family. His Majesty ate like a king, and made a royal supper of solid beef, and other things in proportion. The Queen took a large spoonful of soup, and displayed her fine person and graceful manners, in alternately looking at the company in various parts of the hall, and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste.]

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