“When I hear another express an opinion, which is not mine, I say to myself, He has a right to his opinion, as I to mine; why should I question it? His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote to bring all men by force of argument, to one opinion?” – Thomas Jefferson to his favorite grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 28, 1808
Thomas Jefferson had no Secret Service protection. He walked to his inauguration. He rode his horse alone around Washington, D.C., during his eight years as President. No attempts were made on his life.
The recent breakdown in Secret Service protection of President Barack Obama has alarmed the American people. Several individuals have gotten over the White House fence and even into the building itself. On one recent occasion, the President rode in an elevator with a man who had a gun on his person. We are fortunate that there has not been a serious assassination attempt on President Obama. The head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, resigned in early October in the face of these disturbing incidents.
The U.S. Secret Service was created in July 1865 to combat an epidemic of counterfeit currency. It was not until the 20th century that it began to protect national officers, including the President.
The first Presidential assassination attempt occurred on January 30, 1835, nine years after the death of Jefferson. An unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence approached President Jackson after he left a funeral held in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. His gun misfired. Jackson, 67, who was a soldier and a serial duelist, clubbed his attacker several times with his cane. Lawrence managed to pull out a second pistol. Fortunately it misfired when he pulled the trigger.
The first President to be assassinated was Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. After that James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were assassinated in office, though many more attempts were made on sitting Presidents.
Jefferson never feared assassination, and he passed his entire, sometimes controversial life, without a security detail. He did, however, receive his share of hate mail. During his second term, when he chose to respond to British and French hostilities on the high seas with a total economic embargo, his popularity was seriously damaged. One citizen wrote, “You have sat aside and trampled on our most dearest rights bought by the blood of our ancestors.” Another exploded with, “You red-headed son of a bitch.” Jefferson’s response was more bemused than alarmed. “They are almost universally the productions of the most ill-tempered & rascally part of the country,” he wrote to his closest friend James Madison, “often evidently written from tavern scenes of drunkenness.”
There may be several reasons why no attempts were made on Jefferson’s life. First, as the Andrew Jackson incident proves, guns were relatively primitive in Jefferson’s day. Each gun fired a single bullet only, and then took a considerable time to reload. Second, the President was not as well known then as he is now, in the age of hypermedia. Most citizens of Jefferson’s time had no idea what the President looked like, and they would have had a very hard time picking him out of a crowd. Most Americans lived their entire lives then without any contact with the national government of the United States. Not only was all politics local then, but life was profoundly local in every way.
Most important, perhaps, is the fact that we were a republic then and we are a quasi-monarchical nation now. We are closer to Rome in the age of Augustus than we are to the illusory republic of the Founding Fathers. Augustus pretended that the Roman republic still existed, paying a kind of sentimental-cynical lip service to old republic forms, while ruling the emerging Roman Empire as an uncrowned monarch. So little was at stake in Jefferson’s time that it would have been unlikely for a citizen to fixate on any national figure. Jefferson defined his role in the most restrictive and unambitious way. His goal was to reduce the national debt, reduce the size of the army and navy, eliminate internal federal taxes, and return as much sovereignty as possible to the individual states. Not much to decry in terms of Presidential authority.
Thomas Jefferson was a cheerful stoic, who didn’t take himself too seriously, and who had a confident, serene, and undramatic view of his life as.as statesman. It would have been uncharacteristic of him to think about personal security. His daughter Maria was more concerned about the loneliness and craftiness of the White House than she was about security issues.
To read the full text of Jefferson’s superb letter to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, click here.
» Jefferson’s English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo and the Republican Revolution. by Burton Spivak.
» To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson: Letters to a President. Edited by Jack McLaughlin.
» Jefferson and the Press: Crucible of Liberty. By Jerry W. Knudson.