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 come 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.