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The Election of 1800 famously torched (for a time) the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, however, continued to attend dinners at the President’s House during Jefferson’s tenure. That said, John Quincy Adams wasn’t always impressed by his host and his penchant for hyperbole. In this episode of our shorter podcast series, Mountaintop History, Monticello Guide Kyle Chattleton shares some of Quincy Adams's own reflections on dining with the President.
The Election of 1800 featured a bitter contest between the then-Vice President, Thomas Jefferson and the then-President John Adams. So bitter, that it resulted in the collapse of their friendship.
Thomas Jefferson ultimately won the election, becoming the third President of the United States. And while he wouldn’t speak with Adams for many years, he hosted a number of dinners at the President’s House with John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, in attendance.
The dinners, and Quincy Adams’ memories of them, reveal not only what it was like to dine at the President’s House in Washington, D.C., but also tell us a bit about what Quincy thought about his father’s political rival. On January 11th, 1805, for example, Quincy tells us in his diary that he dined at the President’s House. He wrote, “the President appeared to have his mind absorbed by some other object, for he was less attentive to his company than usual.” That didn’t mean that Jefferson couldn’t entertain his visitors with outrageous stories. “His itch for telling prodigies, however, is unabated. Speaking of the cold, he said he had seen Fahrenheit’s thermometer, in Paris, at twenty degrees below zero; and that, not for a single day, but that for six weeks together it stood thereabouts. ‘Never once in the whole time,’ said he, ‘so high as zero, which is fifty degrees below the freezing point.’ These were his own words. He knows better than all this; but he loves to excite wonder.”
During these dinners, Quincy was probably served the finest wine, various meats, and food inspired by French cuisine, including macaroni & cheese. Proper etiquette was not always followed, with seating being arranged somewhat randomly rather than according to rank. This led to a dispute between President Jefferson and the British Ambassador, Anthony Merry, which became the talk of political newspapers.
Quincy’s last meal at the President’s, at least according to his diary, was on November 25th, 1807, and like many other dinners, science and engineering were some of the topics of conversation. Many guests were in attendance, including the inventor Robert Fulton, who used the opportunity to talk about one of his new gadgets, a torpedo. Fulton, in Quincy’s words, “was very anxious to make an experiment of his torpedoes before both Houses of Congress.”
Almost exactly three years earlier, Jefferson told Quincy another incredible story at dinner on November 23rd, 1804. Quincy wrote, “as to [the Spanish language], it was so easy that he had learned it, with the help of a Don Quixote […] and a grammar [book], in the course of a passage to Europe, on which he was but nineteen days at sea. But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.”
This has been another edition of Mountaintop History, a collaboration between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. To learn more, and to plan your next visit, go to Monticello.org