President Trump wants a big military parade, the kind one saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the kind one sees today in North Korea.
It might be useful to compare that notion with the republican dignity of the third president Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson broke with the habit of his two predecessors and sent his annual messages by courier to Congress. He believed that appearing in person before Congress smacked of monarchy, European court culture, and a false aggrandizement of what an American president should represent in a free society. He walked to the capitol in Washington to deliver his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801. He wore plain gentlemen’s clothes, eschewed all pompous ceremonial rituals, and delivered his address so nearly inaudibly and with such meekness that those who gathered to hear his vision of America had to go out on the street afterwards to buy printed copies of the speech. When he finished his address, Jefferson walked back to the boarding house where he was staying, and took his seat at the foot of the table, farthest from the fire, in his accustomed way.
Jefferson met White House visitors in plain, sometimes slightly shabby, clothes. In fact, he caused an international incident when he greeted the British Minister Anthony Merry in his house slippers, his linen “none too clean,” wearing an ill-fitting great coat.
Jefferson rode his horse freely and without a military escort around the District of Columbia, often stopping at greengrocers to inspect their fresh vegetables. He corresponded with average Americans in a frank and thoughtful manner. He called the presidency “splendid misery,” and on the eve of his voluntary retirement after two terms, he wrote, “Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”
Jefferson understood political theater, but rather than use his office to puff himself up or compensate for a lack of understanding of the constitutional process, he carefully shaped his public life to remind himself and those around him that while he was perhaps the first citizen of the country (for a limited time), he was not king, dictator, or high priest. To his postmaster general Gideon Granger, Jefferson wrote, “our general government may be reduced to a very simple organization, & a very unexpensive one; a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.”
That’s what it means to live in a republic.
Jefferson knew how much discipline it takes to maintain a free society. He knew that “the tendency of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” He understood that the genius of America is undermined whenever our leaders forget that sovereignty resides in the people, not in their own persons or their short tenures as stewards of the people’s will.