The resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson is the most visible fallout from the Sept. 19 incident involving Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran who managed to jump the White House fence, sprint across the lawn, open the (unlocked!) front door, and get all the way to the so-called Green Room, deep within the iconic mansion.
Her departure may tamp down some of the outrage over the lapses in security. (Pierson’s resignation was preceded by the news that an armed man was allowed to share an elevator with the president at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta last month). What may linger is the disquieting reminder of the apparent contradiction between our democratic ideals and the need to keep the head of state safe.
A little history: In the early years of the republic, the chief executive was ridiculously, perilously accessible. European visitors found it baffling that ordinary people – the so-called rabble – could accost the president, even insult him.
This openness reflected the idea that in a democracy, the president is merely one of us. And to many from the Old World, the accessibility of the president captured the radicalism of the “democratic experiment” underway in the U.S.
Although the earliest presidents – George Washington and John Adams especially – tried to keep their distance from the populace, even they had limited success. But Thomas Jefferson, who rode to office in 1800 on the votes of common people, ostentatiously demolished the barriers separating him from ordinary Americans.
In Jefferson’s era, no security detail kept watch over the president. He ventured alone onto the muddy streets of Washington, chatting with passers-by, though not everyone recognized him.
And foreign visitors expressed amazement that when they knocked on the door of the presidential mansion, the president himself occasionally answered, sometimes dressed in the 19th-century equivalent of pajamas. Jefferson also took pains to open the White House to the public, particularly on special occasions: secular holidays such as New Year’s or July 4.
His successors continued what one newspaper described in 1818 as the “Republican custom” of allowing access to any and all. That year, about 3,000 visitors thronged the White House when James Monroe rededicated the building. No one was frisked; no one was submitted to a security screening.
Yet Monroe was the first president to take security seriously. He built an iron fence around the perimeter of the White House; he even had a semblance of a plainclothes security detail. He ended Jefferson’s practice of allowing strangers to roam unattended. He may even have deployed sharpshooters on the roof during big receptions. Nonetheless, the White House remained remarkably porous and the president generally accessible.
Andrew Jackson took that accessibility to new levels, beginning on the day he was inaugurated, March 4, 1829. After he delivered a short speech, thousands of well-wishers followed him back to the White House and promptly trashed the place. Jackson fled, and the White House staff managed to expel the mob by moving the booze onto the lawn.
Washington’s elite recoiled in horror. As recounted by Jackson biographer Robert Remini, Doyenne Margaret Bayard Smith wrote, “What a pity, what a pity! No arrangements had been made 1 / 8and 3 / 8 no police officers placed on duty and the whole house inundated by the rabble mob.”
Even so, Jackson continued to dismay the kept the more genteel inhabitants of Washington by keeping the White House open to all.
“Such a crowd & such a motley crowd,” sniffed military engineer Alfred Mordecai. “From the vice president to an intoxicated canal labourer in a dirty red plaid cloak … It is a striking picture of democracy, and truth to tell, it strikes me with disgust.”
Jackson didn’t care. He continued to welcome “all the refuse that Washington could turn forth from its workshops and stables,” as one commentator observed. The open-doors policy endured even after an assassination attempt in 1835.
Jackson’s successors did more in the way of security, but even that was laughably limited. John Tyler, who inherited the presidency after the death of the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison, quickly became the most hated man in Washington after it turned out he was really a Democrat. The death threats led to a small security detail, nothing more.
And Abraham Lincoln? He had been haunted by rumors of assassination plots before ascending to the office, and letters containing death threats arrived on an almost daily basis during the Civil War. Yet he refused to erect a barrier between himself and the citizenry, preferring to keep the White House remarkably open to the public.
“It would never do,” he wrote, “for a President to have guards with drawn sabers at his door, as if he fancied he were, or were trying to be, or were assuming to be, an emperor.” And so, though there was a minor security detail at the White House, it remained ineffectual, and it wasn’t unusual for Lincoln and his wife to encounter total strangers wandering the building.
Outside the White House, Lincoln traveled practically unprotected. Even though he presided over the creation of the Secret Service, its mission was to protect the currency from counterfeiters. (The mandate to guard the president was added in the 20th century).
We know how that story ended. And although we can lament that Lincoln (or for that matter, Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley) might have been spared had there been better security, it’s worth waxing nostalgic about the fundamental, unmediated quality of our democracy that had to be abandoned as we made our presidents safer.
There’s nothing to be done about this; the head of state must be protected. But some of our most famous leaders – Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln – might question whether a democracy can remain truly healthy, never mind fully function, if the chief executive is kept so separate from the people who elect him.
Stephen Mihm, an associate history professor at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View.