Diplomatic protocol. These days it's all written down and governed by rules and long-standing conventions. But in 1801, when he became President, Jefferson wondered whether the new Republican system of government didn't call for a new, more democratic model of diplomatic behavior. Monticello's Gaye Wilson—with help from Monticello guide Dianne Pierce and Monticello Teacher Institute participant Kristi Robinson—relates how Jefferson once tested the limits of protocol and describes some of the straining effects it had on diplomatic relations at home and abroad.
Gaye Wilson: In his report to London, he described how shocked he was to find the president in clothing, "indicative of utter slovenliness."
Dianne Pierce: Hi, I'm Diane Pierce and I am a guide at Monticello.
Kristi Robinson: I am Kristi Robinson and I am an elementary school teacher.
Dianne Pierce: Welcome to our podcast "In the Course of Human Events." We have an amazing story today. It says so much about Jefferson and all of the things that had to be invented in the early American Republic.
Gaye Wilson: Hello. My name is Gaye Wilson. I'm a senior fellow with the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
Anthony Merry had been appointed Britain's new minister plenipotentiary to the United States. He arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, early November of 1803. And here he encounters his first problem: how to get to Washington City, as it was frequently called at that time, because Merry had a sizeable entourage. He was accompanied of course by his wife, but they had brought with them a maitre d', a French chef, a coachman with a groom, two footman, personal servants, and a lot of baggage.
And things became even more complicated when Mrs. Merry came down with a fever, which was brought on by a mosquito attack. It took them six days sailing to get from Norfolk to Alexandria. They had a short little jaunt overland to get to their final destination. And then his next problem, where are they going to live? Washington City was somewhat of a misnomer for this rather rustic little village that was being put together there along the Potomac that was going to be, of course, the national capital. Merry wrote to a friend in London that living conditions in Washington were "perfectly savage." So, things not off to the best start.
Dianne Pierce: Well, I think you have to have a little sympathy for Anthony Merry coming from London, one of the greatest cities in the world, to this just rough and rude new city on the Potomac. People described it as a mosquito swamp. So, I have a little bit of sympathy for him.
Kristi Robinson: Just a little bit though.
Dianne Pierce: Just a little . . .
Kristi Robinson: In my mind I picture it like what we see today with rock stars showing up at the airport and they have this huge entourage. And he shows up to . . . just not much fanfare. They were just coming into a completely different world, I think, than what they expected.
Gaye Wilson: But Merry, being very punctual, promptly advised Secretary of State Madison of his arrival in Washington and his wish to present his papers to the president. And he felt this occasion called for full diplomatic regalia: a dark blue formal dress coat trimmed with black velvet, gold braid, white knee breeches, white silk stockings, formal shoes with very elegant buckles. And then to this, he would add a large plumed hat and a dress sword.
So James Madison is escorting him then to the president's house, President Jefferson.
But things began a bit awkwardly. There was no one in the room where Madison apparently thought this presentation would take place. Madison then started down a narrow little passageway to Jefferson's private study, Merry followed. But then suddenly the president entered the other end of the passage and Merry had to back out, holding papers, the big plumed hat, managing his dress sword. Despite this little embarrassment, Merry delivered his short prepared address to Jefferson, along with his papers. And apparently there was a cordial exchange or at least Jefferson thought their meeting was cordial, as he found Merry, he said, "a reasonable and good man."
Merry was not quite so complimentary in his report to the foreign office in London. He described how shocked he was to find the president, "not merely in undress, but actually standing in slippers down at the heels. And his clothing, "it was indicative of utter slovenliness and indifference to appearances, and in the state of negligence actually studied." Merry concluded, "this whole scene was prepared and intended as an insult," not to just him personally, but to the sovereign he represented.
In personal letters, Merry went on to describe how startled he was when during this initial meeting, Jefferson sat down and proceeded to toss one of those "down at the heel" slippers up into the air and catch it on his toe. Well, Merry didn't stop there, he continued to spread his outrage among any in Washington who would listen. And, of course, those most eager to listen were of the opposition Federalist party, those who so bitterly opposed Jefferson. They were delighted.
Dianne Pierce: This certainly was painted as a blot on his reputation in the press. So naturally the Federalists are gonna’ love it.
Kristi Robinson: People comment on Jefferson's shoes throughout his presidency, his shoes are talked about over and over again. But you know men's clothing was to show their wealth and their rank. So, I think for Merry, he just doesn't know what to make of Jefferson at all, because he's not showing his wealth and he's not showing his rank by the way he presents himself.
Dianne Pierce: I do think him sitting while Merry is still standing--and he had to sit in order to do the little trick with his slipper--is very interesting because there was a lot of protocol around who got to sit and who got to stand.
Gaye Wilson: It was just three days later, that Merry and his wife were invited to dinner at the president's house, which Merry assumed was in his honor. But when dinner was announced, Jefferson escorted, Dolley Madison to table, even though she was quietly protesting, "Take Mrs. Merry! Take Mrs. Merry!" But apparently unknown to Merry, there were no place cards. The seating was pell-mell, everyone grab a seat. Well, Merry, after realizing this, was aiming for the vacant chair alongside the Spanish minister's wife, when he said suddenly this upstart Congressman slid in ahead of him and took the chair and his host President Jefferson did nothing.
Merry was so offended that as soon as the dinner ended, he called for his carriage. It was only a few days later that a similar scene played out at a dinner hosted by the Madisons. Merry let it be known that, from henceforth, he would not accept dinner invitations from either the president or the secretary of state.
Dianne Pierce: This idea of pell-mell, which you can just picture the chaos of everyone descending into the dining room at the same moment. And that's not at all what Merry was used to. There was a strict hierarchy of who led whom to their place.
Kristi Robinson: I kind of put myself in Dolley Madison's shoes because I think she isn't quite into this. She kind of whispers to him, you know, “Take Mrs. Merry!” And he knows how things are, quote, unquote, supposed to go. So, he knows that this is going to upset Anthony Merry, I would think.
Dianne Pierce: People remarked over and over and over again about the elegance of Jefferson's table and the fineness of the food and the wine. And so, in his dress and his manner, he's choosing to be very egalitarian, as he's seeing it, and he's making this statement about American simplicity. But at the same time, he's perfectly capable of, and always does put on a very elegant, European-style meal. And so, he's walking a line, it seems to me.
Kristi Robinson: Yes, I completely agree with you. He shows this kind of informal attitude in a lot of ways, it's not just the clothing. He wants to be a man of the people.
Dianne Pierce: But I also think he's trying to show that Americans, at the end of the day, are not uncivilized. We're not you know, back-woodsmen who don't know our salad fork from our oyster fork, or whatever. And it's interesting, Margaret Bayard Smith, who was an observer of Washington society, and of Jefferson in particular, said that in his entertainments he combined "republican simplicity with epicurean delicacy," which is just the perfect statement of what he was trying to accomplish.
I also think really important to think about who is doing the work to prepare these elegant French dinners. He did hire a French chef, Honore Julien. But Jefferson made very sure to have two of his enslaved servants from Monticello, Edith Hern Fossett and Fanny Gillette Hern, brought to the president's house in Washington and trained in the intricacies of French cooking. And so, it is interesting to think about the length that Jefferson went to get the very finest chefs and then make sure that they are passing along that knowledge to his enslaved workers as well.
Gaye Wilson: Jefferson and Madison had some concerns that they may have pushed this affair a little too far, and both were very quickly writing to their man in London, James Monroe. Now Jefferson encouraged Monroe to counter any "misrepresentations" that he might hear. Monroe didn't approve of the derogatory remarks about the United States that he felt were made deliberately within his hearing, but he believed that the better course was to ignore them, refusing to acknowledge any inferiority, either as a nation or as an individual. And at that time, certainly, Britain did have more weighty concerns. There were the wars in Europe, the constant fear of a Napoleonic invasion, hostility on the high seas. And, perhaps, this was the reason that there was never an official response to Merry's dilemma.
Dianne Pierce: I think the Jefferson and Madison reaction to all of this has to go back to 1786, when Jefferson was in France as the minister plenipotentiary, and he goes to England to visit Adams, and they are presented at court and the king basically just ignored them. And it was very pointed. Again, this is not something that was done. You don't get presented at court and then get ignored. So, Jefferson was keenly aware of it and commented on it. And he certainly never forgot that and felt that it was an insult to his own country in the same way that Merry thinks that his country and king are being insulted by Jefferson. So there's a little bit of tit for tat I think in this as well.
Gaye Wilson: So, then we can ask: was Anthony Merry the right man for the job? Some did not think so. Certainly, Anthony Merry did not fit the profile recommended by Edward Thornton, the British charge, who had served under the administrations of Washington, Adams, and now the Jefferson administration. Thornton suggested to the London foreign office that the US minister should be someone of high rank, perhaps even titled, because they were going to be moving in a very unpredictable society, where gentlemanly decorum might not be followed. So, it needed to be someone self-assured enough to go with whatever the situation might present.
And Merry's position in British society is certainly not titled. He came from the commercial class. His father and even his grandfather had both been wine merchants dealing primarily in the Spanish wine trade. Anthony Merry joined the family business. And then he used his "slender fortune" to secure a position in the foreign office. He was assigned as the British council general to Mallorca. Then he was moved on to Madrid, as the consul. He was made secretary to the minister first in Madrid and on to Paris. And his reputation was one of being very meticulous though a bit somber in personality. It seemed to be a running joke in many of the embassies where he had served that, despite his name, he did not add to the amusement of the embassy. And more than once he was described as a dour, diminutive man.
Now his appointment to the United States then was his first assignment as a full minister. What was he stepping into? Jefferson had entered the presidency determined to change the protocol in the executive office. He had been critical of Washington's formal receptions, large state formal dinners, the addresses to Congress. Jefferson felt these formalities reflected too much the British model. So upon taking office in March of 1801, Jefferson had done away with the formal receptions, the state dinners. He introduced an open door policy at the president's house. He held small informal dinner parties. So his reception of Anthony Merry did not seem planned just to humble this new British minister.
And in fact, Jefferson had received callers at the president's house in very casual clothing. Though, he might appear dressed in a very fashionable black suit, silk stockings, his hair dressed and powdered. So Jefferson kept them guessing. But certainly he did seem to have the goal of making the presidential office appear much more egalitarian.
Kristi Robinson: Edward Thornton was the plenipotentiary before Merry. What's interesting to me is that Merry met with Thornton when he first arrived. And, so I asked myself, was there no point in there that Thornton could have warned Merry that, “Hey, the new guy is a little eccentric?” It just seems like Merry goes into this not having a clue of what he's walking into.
Dianne Pierce: Jefferson made a point, even at his inauguration, of walking down the street in his street clothes. So even from that moment he's making a bit of a statement about there's a new sheriff in town that things are going to be different.
Kristi Robinson: Augustus John Foster, the British legation secretary under Merry, he concluded that Jefferson's whole pell-mell thing was all about Jefferson playing a game to appeal to the common majority so that he could retain power.
I think when I read and learn about events like this, my reaction is always. “Wow, it's always been like this.” Like, you know, I, I think sometimes we picture that time period is being very civil and the reality is that a lot of the things we see in politics now have been there from the beginning. And so, I think this is one of those situations where for me as a teacher, I can show that to students and they can see a lot of the mudslinging has been always happening. And I think that's just part of human nature too. I mean, humans love gossip. They love to talk about others. And of course, political rivals, you really want to gossip about them.
Dianne Pierce: Yeah, I think that's really true. And there's still just this insatiable interest in what's going on in the White House down to the smallest details. And this idea that it reflects on the nature of the presidency-- what condition their slippers are in is sort of equivalent to what kind of dog do they have and what does that say about their character? Which is in way exactly what Jefferson was hoping would happen because I think he was trying to do this out of an ideology. And he wasn't trying to say anything particular, I think, about himself as much as he was about his new country.
Gaye Wilson: Well, after the uproar caused by Merry's initial interview, then the two dinners that followed, Madison and Jefferson got busy and they drew up what they called their "Rules of Etiquette." And the rules explained that in the United States, all were to be equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office. And then the memorandum went on to outline how this was going to be observed and included the practice of pell-mell seating.
Dianne Pierce: It does seem that they sort of threw that together. It wasn't a law. It wasn't adopted by anyone. It was just a series of suggestions, I guess, of behaviors. I don't know if those kinds of things still continue today. If there are other kinds of memoranda about behavior in diplomatic circles, but it does seem, it does seem sort of hastily pulled together just to smooth the waters and, and say, well, this is, this is all codified. This is how we do it.
This idea of Republican simplicity plays out back at Monticello when he's in retirement. We are told by many people that dinner at Monticello was a very informal affair. He had children at dinner, which was highly unusual. He would be reading in a chair by the fireplace in the dining room when people would come in to dinner. So clearly this idea of pell-mell seating and of informality of manner was not something he did just as president, it was a lifestyle choice. It was something that he seems to have believed in. He liked elegance of food and fine wines, and he liked really high-level conversation, but there were other parts of elegant life that just didn't interest him. Again, that Republican simplicity and the European-style elegance.
Gaye Wilson: As Merry was one to follow the rules, if this memorandum had been presented to him upon his arrival, would things have been different? If Merry had been more confident, if Jefferson less adamant about displaying his democratic protocol, could the worsening relations between United States and Britain, which of course ultimately ended in the war of 1812, could these have been in any way averted? Perhaps. But many historians who have studied this particular period very closely, really think more, perhaps not.
Ultimately, Merry was recalled. He left Washington in 1806, but he did not forget quickly. Later, when he'd been reassigned as the British minister in Copenhagen, he was still telling the story of his "abuse" in America and of his presentation to a president who sat casually dressed, tossing a worn out slipper in the air and catching it on his toe.
Dianne Pierce: I think the irony is that he could have taken the complete opposite approach because he was more a man of the people, if you will. He could've felt a certain kinship to what Jefferson was trying to communicate, this idea that everyone is on equal footing. And I mean, my goodness, he had benefited from equal footing to, to rise to the rank that he was able to. But class was, was a very, very strong distinguishing feature of British society. And Americans had the idea that that could be eliminated, particularly Jefferson.
Kristi Robinson: It also makes me think about how does Merry see our voting, and choosing our leader? Because if he sees that as being an inferior way to rule, then maybe he would see the president of the United States as being below the king, and then also below him a little bit.
Dianne Pierce: Yeah, I think that's a great point. And again, this, this form of democracy was so new and I think we have to remember that everyone was trying to figure out what this was going to look like and what it would mean for society.
Kristi Robinson: Thank you, Dianne. It was such a pleasure talking about the Merry affair.
Dianne Pierce: Thank you Christie for doing this with me, and we thank Gaye Wilson as well for all of her terrific research. And thank you all for listening.
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Narrated by Gayle Wilson
Hosted by Dianne Pierce and Kristi Robinson
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn