Thomas Jefferson & Emmanuel Macron: Foreign Dignitaries, Then & Now

By Kaleena Fraga

On Tuesday night, the Trump White House welcomed Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife Brigitte to the Trump Administration’s first official State Dinner. The Macrons were greeted with all the pomp and circumstance that has come to be expected of state dinners. It’s quite a contrast to how some foreign dignitaries were treated during the early years of the country.

When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he was determined to represent himself as a republican in dress and manner–not like his political foes, the Federalists, whom he suspected were all aristocratic monarchists.

But Jefferson’s simple republican ways ran up against traditional procedure of greeting foreign guests. When the British Minister to the United States (this in a time where American presidents received envoys from foreign nations, rather then meet with other leaders face to face) Anthony Merry, presented himself for the first time at the White House he had quite a shock. Merry had dressed up for the occasion–wearing a blue dress coat with a gold braid, his white breeches and silk stockings, and a plumed hat, with his sword at his side. Accompanied by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, Merry was shocked to find that the president had not jeffersoncome to formally greet him–in fact, he was no where to be found. Madison and Merry more or less ran into Jefferson while wandering the halls of the White House looking for him. From there, Merry’s sense of insult deepened. Jefferson wore simple clothing–slippers, breeches, and woolen stockings.

Merry was shocked, and felt that Jefferson’s dress and appearance was not only an insult to him, but to the Crown. And it got worse. At dinner that night–where the Merrys assumed they would be guests of honor–Jefferson, a widower, took the arm of Dolley Madison, not Elizabeth Merry (despite Dolley’s insistence that he should “take Mrs. Merry” instead). Then, because Jefferson favored a “pell-mell” style of seating–that is, random seating, not by rank–the Merrys found themselves fighting for a seat. As Merry tried to take a seat next to the Spanish ambassador, an ambitious Congressman barreled ahead of him to take it for himself.

Utterly dismayed, the Merrys boycotted all future White House events.

According to Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this sat perfectly well with the nation’s third president. “We say to them, no,” Jefferson wrote, referring to those, like the Merrys, who preferred the time-honed tradition of formal dress and dinners, “the principle of society with us, as well as of our political constitution, is the equal rights of all: and if there be an occasion where this equality ought to prevail preeminently, it is in social circles collected for conviviality.”

Of course, Jefferson, a Francophile who distrusted the British, would probably be more thrilled to host the Macrons at the White House than he ever was to host the Merrys.

Let’s Take a Break and Talk Jefferson

By Kaleena Fraga

Politics lately have been exhausting. So let’s take a break and talk about Thomas Jefferson and his oddities.

monticello
Somewhere in this estate is a floor with a groove

Jefferson liked to wake himself up in the morning by sticking his feet in cold water. He thought this would keep him healthy. Jon Meacham, in his Jefferson biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, notes that this habit “wore a groove on the floor next to the alcove where he slept.” Since Jefferson lived to be 83 at a time when most men died before 40, maybe he was onto something.

Jefferson kept several mockingbirds as pets. His favorite was called “Dick.” The bird would perch on his shoulder, follow him up the stairs, and sit on his couch while Jefferson napped. Lucia Stanton, a Jefferson scholar, noted that the bird’s name was somewhat disappointing, given Jefferson’s tendency to give his horses more noble names (some highlights: “Allycrocker”, “Peggy Waffington”, “Remus and Romulus”, “Zanga”, Polly Peacham”)

An agrarian at heart, who saw this as the future of the new United States, Jefferson once committed international espionage in order to introduce a superior crop to American soil. As the Minister to France, he saw that Italian rice outsold American rice. Since he believed that, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it’s [sic] culture,” Jefferson went to Italy and literally put handfuls of the rice in his pockets to bring back to the United States. At the time, such an act was punishable by death.

A less fun fact about Jefferson concerns Sally Hemings. Many know of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings–if it can be called that, since, as he had all the power and she had none, there really wasn’t a question of consent on her part–but there’s another, fascinating layer to this. Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died when she was 33. He was 39. Martha asked that he never marry again, and Jefferson didn’t. He began his infamous relationship with Hemings instead–Martha’s half sister.