Since you asked … the American idea was born at approximately 5 p.m. on Friday, December 2, 1803, the moment Thomas Jefferson sprang the so-called pell-mell on the new British ambassador, Anthony Merry, at dinner in the White House. Oh, this was no inadvertent faux pas. This was faux pas aforethought. Jefferson obviously loved the prospect of dumbfounding the great Brit and leaving him speechless, furious, seething, so burned up that smoke would start coming out of his ears. And all that the pell-mell did.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

Jefferson had already tenderized the ambassador three days earlier. Merry was the first foreign diplomat to take up residence in Washington. Accompanied by Secretary of State James Madison, he shows up at the White House wearing a hat with a swooping plume, a ceremonial sword, gold braid, shoes with gleaming buckles—in short, the whole aristocratic European ambassadorial getup—for his formal introduction to the president of the United States. He is immediately baffled. Jefferson doesn’t come to greet him in the grand reception hall. Instead, Merry and Madison have to go looking for him … Bango! All at once they bump into the American head of state in some tiny tunnel-like entryway to his study. What with three men and a sword in it all at once, the space is so congested that Merry has to back himself and his sword out of it just to have room to shake hands. When he shakes hands, he’s stunned, appalled: The president of the United States is a very Hogarth of utter slovenliness from his head … to his torso, clad in a casual workaday outfit thrown together with a complete indifference to appearances and a negligence so perfectly gross, it has to have been actually studied … down to his feet, which are stuffed, or mostly stuffed, into a pair of down-at-the-heels slippers, literally slippers and literally worn down at the heels in a way that is sheer Gin Lane. “Utter slovenliness,” “negligence actually studied,” “indifference to appearances,” and “down at the heels” were Merry’s own words in the first of what would become a regular jeremiad of complaints and supplications to Lord Hawkesbury, the foreign secretary, all but coming right out and begging him to break off relations with the United States to protest such pointed insults toward His Majesty’s representative. Merry was ready to bail out … and his wife, a notably not-shy woman née Elizabeth Death (yes), even more so.

The introductory insult was on November 29. Merry and his wife were invited to dinner at the White House on the fateful day, December 2. Merry accepted … warily … under the impression that he and his wife would be the guests of honor and that this would be Jefferson’s opportunity to make up for his lapse in protocol. The Merrys arrived at 4:30. Along with the other guests, they were assembled for a reception in a drawing room across the hall from the dining room. The Merrys were left flabbergasted and aghast when Jefferson ignored Mrs. Merry and gave his arm to Dolley Madison, who often served as White House hostess for the widowed president. James Madison gave his arm to an already furious Mrs. Merry. The dining room seems to have had a single large, round table. Jefferson took a seat and gave Dolley Madison the ladies’ seat of honor on his right. James Madison didn’t give Elizabeth Death Merry the seat on the president’s other side, however. That went to the Spanish ambassador’s wife. The already insulted Mrs. Merry, guest of honor presumptive, took it like a kick in the shin when Madison showed her to an obviously back- of-the-pack seat.

Meantime, her husband’s dignity was taking an even worse beating. He was part of an undifferentiated haunch-to-paunch herd of the titled, the untitled, the eminences, and the not-muches entering the doorway. They had no choice but to take their seats pell- mell … any seat—first come, first served. Literally pell-mell referred to a confused, disorderly crowd in a headlong rush, and that was exactly what it felt like to His Majesty’s Ambassador Merry. An outrageous insult was now in progress, but he had only two choices: take a seat or make a scene. So he headed for a chair next to the Spanish ambassador’s wife. But before he could get to it, some crude savage who bore the title “Congressman” lunged past him and took it for himself.

Foreign dignitaries, even the Spanish ambassador, were flashing loaded glances at each other—these Americanssavages!—and muttering behind the backs of their hands. Merry and his wife vowed never to dine at the White House again—and never did. They did accept an invitation from Secretary of State Madison, who had been the good guy in Jefferson’s good-guy/bad-guy team—only to get pell-melled all over again chez Madison. For a time, at least, they refused all invitations from Jefferson’s Cabinet members, too. In due course they officially protested their treatment. But Jefferson had such an aristocratic bearing and presence, was from such a prominent family—in America they didn’t come any better than the Randolphs of Virginia—was so filthy land-rich, so learned—he spoke Latin as well as French and could read classical Greek as easily as Plato and Aristotle ever did—was so sophisticated and urbane, in fact so cosmopolitan—he had been ambassador to France at the court of Louis XVI—no one could very well write him off as one of … “these Americans.”

In addition to being seven or eight other species of the genus Genius, Jefferson proved to be a psychological genius at least a century before all the -ology adjectives entered the English language. He realized that you could write every conceivable radical new freedom into a constitution—freedom of the press and freedom from the heavy hand of an official state religion were very radical notions 218 years ago—and install a democracy with foolproof guarantees, and that still wouldn’t be enough to save Americans from the plight of the masses of Europe. After a thousand years or more of rule by kings who were believed to possess divine rights and by hereditary aristocrats believed to possess demigodly rights at least, ordinary citizens in Europe had been irreparably damaged psychologically and would never recover from it. They had lived their lives as if the fix were in, as if there would forever be a certain class of people above them who were predestined to dominate government, industry, all influential forms of intellectual life, and, needless to say, society.

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Tom Wolfe is a novelist and journalist.

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