Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thomas Jefferson and the lady's hand

Readers of this blog know that I am no great fan of Thomas Jefferson, and, while recognizing his contributions to this country, feel that his many faults are all too politely overlooked or explained away.

One of my favorite bits of Jefferson-lore I dub The Great Hand Scandal. Like so many things Jefferson did, it sounds right in theory, but not in actual practice. And, as always with Jefferson, there is a sneaky purpose beneath it all. You won’t find much, if anything, about this in Jefferson biographies, and it takes up space in this blog much to say, not for the last time, how silly we all are about the little things in life. Also, just in case there is a heaven, and Jefferson reads blogs, I can push his buttons.

First, a little backdrop. Back in 1803, Washington, D.C., was a very, very small town, populated mostly, as far as whites were concerned, by government men and their families. Being a brand new city created whole cloth out of field’s and wetlands, it had few conveniences of any kind that one might find in Boston, New York, or particularly, Philadelphia.

Still, as the president lived there (that would be TJ) and the diplomats of foreign states also resided there (although one in particular pretty much commuted from Philly) society dinners were still considered very important. TJ actually set a mean table for Washington, and often invited ten congressman or senators at a time to feast.

1803 was also a time of great stress between the world powers. France and England, only recently at peace, were already at it again (courtesy of Napoleon). Napoleon had just raised money for his war by selling what was then called Louisiana (covering quite a few of present States) causing us problems with Spain, which was still a power even if already under Napoleon’s thumb.

I’ll throw only three names at you. France was represented by Louis Pichon; Spain by Don Carlos Martinez Yrujo, one of my favorite Jeffersonian era characters, and England by a new representative of its government, Anthony Merry. Both Pichon and Yrujo had American wives and had lived here for some time. Merry’s wife, however, was very much a nineteenth century British woman, and we know what that means – propiety and class consciousness.

Truth be known, Yrujo, who had been in America for quite a while and had been fairly close with TJ, lived in Philly in order to enjoy the good things in life. He had for a while, though, become more than a little put out with American’s lack of formality and sense of class. The Louisiana sale had also occurred on his watch, and wrankled.

Yrujo was quite happy that Merry would be joining them as he hoped the British gentleman would be an ally in the war of diplomatic precedence. The two would be the only foreign representatives present who had full ministerial rank from their governments and thought they deserved special treatment, even in social courtesies. They would get that show of respect in almost any other country.

To TJ, the opposite was true. He had already, as part of his Democratic-Republican revolution decided that the president was merely a man (he wasn’t wrong about everything), and had made an effort to curb the pretensions that made him seem special, precisely the opposite of what had occurred under his predecessors, Washington and Adams. In truth, he would be more of a dictator than almost any other president. For now, he intended to use Merry to teach the British and the whole diplomatic class a lesson, and also to let British know that they did not have a special relationship with America compared to France.

One of the social innovations Jefferson started was that meals at the Executive Mansion were conducted pell mell, with everyone pretty much taking care of themselves in terms of seating and eating. Jefferson would appear in completely informal attire, including his famous backless slippers. This was a little hard for some foreign dignitaries to accept, used as they were to formality and rules of rank and precedence (i.e., seating should be done according to rank).

To this end, Jefferson and his cabinet (including Secretary of State and future president, James Madison), drew up a revolutionary code of etiquette for the foreign ministers and American cabinet as if in a Dr. Seuss story. This included a rule that all members of foreign ministries would be treated alike, regardless of rank, titles, etc. For Pichon, this was great as it would put him on equal footing with Yrujo and Merry. Yrujo, not surprisingly, was scandalized by such behavior.

When Merry appeared at the Executive Mansion to give his credentials, he was shocked to find TJ in his slippers. But that was nothing to what followed. First, unlike his predecessor, who only was required to call upon the Secretary of State, Merry had to call on all of the ministers. Irritating, but not fatal. Then, his diplomatic credentials were temporarily yanked, although that was due to an embarrassing indiscretion of Yrujo that I won’t digress with here.

Next, Jefferson did something quite provocative. He invited Merry to dinner and also invited Pichon. That might not seem strange, as they were both diplomats, but you have to remember that the two countries were at war. The rule was that diplomats of warring states would not be present together unless all of the foreign diplomats had to be present for something, and even then, pains were taken to keep them apart. It made sense. Diplomats shouldn’t be clinking glasses when their fellow citizens are shooting at each other.

Jefferson, who had been our minister in France for a number of years, was well aware of this. Yet Jefferson insisted Pichon show up for Merry’s welcome dinner. Pichon was delighted because he knew that Merry was going to be embarrassed under Jefferson’s new seating rules. He rushed back from a visit to Baltimore he was required to be at in order to attend the dinner with his wife.

It was great fun for Pichon and maybe Jefferson and Madison too. When time came for dinner, TJ took Dolly Madison’s hand and sat her on his right. Mrs. Yrujo, an American, took her customary seat on his left. As everyone started to seat themselves pell mell, Merry tried to seat himself next to Yrujo’s wife but was cut off by a congressman. Merry was shocked, at a dinner in his honor, that men of lesser rank than he were allowed closer to the head of the table.

Although this may seem petty to you, keep in mind that governments, including ours, still hold to very formal rules of protocol, and that at the time, all of the diplomats were either shocked or delighted by the situation. Merry also noted to his superior back in London his surprise at finding Britain’s enemy’s representative, Pichon, present to see his humiliation.

Dinners following that one, at the cabinet members’ homes seemed more formal, as these lesser ministers were more uncomfortable with the new rules. However, when it came Madison’s turn, he took it a step further, as one would expect from Jefferson’s loyal lieutenant. This time, Merry’s wife found herself without one of the gentleman to take her hand and lead her to dinner, so that – humiliation upon humiliation – her own husband had to take her hand and lead her in.

This was not without purpose. Merry, who was the choice of our government to represent Britain, had made known that he considered the Jefferson hand affair an insult to his country. Madison was showing him that the new rules weren’t going anywhere and that Britain’s representative had to lump them.

Merry fought back. Yrujo had found his partner. They made a pact that when they entertained the American cabinet at dinner, they would take their own wives hands (gasp) and ignore the American wives. Hah. That would show them.

Things got worse. The cabinet actually had a meeting about this little problem and decided from now on TJ would take the hand of the nearest women to him and that there would be no precedence at all. Thereafter, Merry refused several invitations from cabinet members. On New Year's Day, both Mrs. Merry and Mrs Yrujo refused to attend on the president, and Yrujo made sure that everyone knew his wife was feeling just peachy and not ill. The newspapers jumped in and Mrs. Merry and the cabinet wives were busy trading insults, and . . .

HOLD EVERYTHING . . . . (a Dick Tracy cartoon reference, for the uninitiated).

Things had gotten out of hand. Merry actually advised his boss back in London that unless ordered to do so, he and the missus would not be attending any dinner. This was a bit of a problem, as that was the way a foreign minister got anything accomplished. Yrujo joined him in the boycott.

Jefferson was furious and explained his position in a long letter to James Monroe (who was a diplomat himself and a future president) including these remarks:

“It has excited generally emotions of great contempt and indignation (in which the members of the legislature participate sensibly) that the agents of foreign nations should assume to dictate to us what shall be the laws of our society . . . . [Mrs. Merry] is a virago [a warlike woman], and in the short course of a few weeks has established a degree of dislike among all classes which one would have thought impossible in so short a time . . . If [Merry’s] wife perserveres she must eat her soup at home, and we shall endeavor to draw him into society as if she did not exist.” (brackets were mine; the parentheses, Jefferson’s).

At the same time as this was going on, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome came visiting with his stunning American wife, who was also the niece of a Senator and the Secretary of the Navy. Jefferson fell all over him, which, given the war, made Merry even more unhappy (actually, it also infuriated Bonaparte).

Eventually, Madison apologized to Merry, at least to the extent of saying that the new rules should have been explained to him when he arrived, but it was too late. Jefferson and Madison had made enemies of Yrujo and Merry.

Although it is hard to say, this matter probably influenced Yrujo and Merry to at least entertain Aaron Burr in his unfilled plans to decapitate the Western territories from the United States and was, more importantly, possibly the re-ignition of U.S. antagonism with Great Britain that resulted in the War of 1812.

Naturally, it is very difficult to say precisely what roll the Great Hand Scandal had in leading to these events. The events are related here mostly because it is amusing to see grown men and women caught up in who took whose hand and where they all sat at dinner. However, there is no doubt that it caused the administration’s contacts at the time, Yrujo and Merry, to despise them, and tempers and positions changed. In fact, Jefferson even changed out of his slippers to greet the envoy replacing Pichon.

Overall, not very diplomatic, TJ. But, then again, you are overrated.


  1. Anonymous1:51 PM

    Oh, bogswabble! What a load of horse-hoey. How can you make a reach like this had a THING to do with the war of 1812, you cretin. And don't try to bait me with your spurious insults of the great Jefferson. I know what you're about, and I ain't drawn in that easily. By the by, Jerome Bonaparte's wife was from a prestigious Baltimore family, and their house is preserved here, and there is a Bonaparte Street,named in their honor.

  2. Take off the rose colored forefather glasses, Bear. Jefferson was a decent writer who sounded much better than he was. I did not claim there was a direct connection between these events and the War of 1812, but I do claim that Jefferson and Madison's bungling diplomacy beginning at this time was a contributing factor. However, as the last line of your comment was informative, all is forgiven.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .