Although Thomas Jefferson went to great lengths to separate his public and private lives, the periodic dinners he held at the President's House in Washington illustrate a superb talent for using a contrived domestic setting as a tool to gain political ends.
In a penetrating study of political life in Washington during the Jeffersonian period, author James S. Young described the dinners as one of Jefferson's "power techniques." The only President to give dinners extensively, Jefferson abolished the aristocratic levees that were a hallmark of the Federalist administrations. Considering political distinctions to be important, Jefferson rarely mixed Federalists with Republicans, nor did he invite Cabinet members along with Congressmen. Just as the guest list was planned, so a great deal of attention was given to physical surroundings. To encourage conviviality and discourage a feeling of inequality, a round table was used; to ensure privacy, a dumbwaiter was used in place of servants. A French chef, imported wines, and Jefferson's informal wardrobe completed the picture. Politics were subtly removed as a topic of conversation, and everyone was invited to participate freely in verbal exchanges.
Historian Claude Bowers also found Jefferson's dinners to be useful instruments for "conciliating political opponents." Bowers further noted that when Congress was out of session, Jefferson invited members of the local community to share his hospitality. They were not disappointed, for frugality was never in evidence at the President's House. Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's head of household, estimated that he spent fifty dollars a day on food and wine.
Among other modern historians, Dumas Malone emphasized the political nature of dinner parties in examining Jefferson's first term as President. Malone pointed out that Jefferson described these dinners as his "winter campaign," as they made life extremely burdensome for him. Occupying a large part of his day, the meals were usually served at three-thirty and lasted until between six and eight o'clock in the evening.
These writers, of course, based their interpretations of Jefferson's dinners on contemporary records, many of which were written by Federalists. Notable accounts include a letter from William Plumer, a Federalist from New Hampshire, written to his wife in December 1802. He wrote that he was in a party of "about ten members of Congress" who "dined with the President." They "sat down to the table at four, rose at six, and walked immediately into another room, and drank coffee." Giving Jefferson a rare compliment, Plumer noted that he "had a very good dinner, with a profusion of fruits and sweetmeats. The wine was the best I ever drank, particularly the champagne, which was indeed delicious." But he could not resist aiming a thrust at the President, stating that "I wish his French politics were as good as his French wines; but to me, at least, they have by no means so exquisite a flavor." By remarking that Jefferson never mixed members of different political parties at his dinners, Plumer made a point that has been taken up by modern historians.
A second Federalist who survived Jefferson's cuisine was the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, one of the Ohio Company's leaders. In February 1802, he described a dinner to which he had been invited along with nine other guests. Giving us a rare glimpse of one of Jefferson's menus, Cutler stated that the main course consisted of "Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef" and "a pie called macaroni." For dessert there was "Ice-cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes; a dish somewhat like a pudding — inside white as milk or curd, very porous and light, covered with cream-sauce — very fine." In addition to all of this, Jefferson served "other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines, and good." Cutler noted that the "President" was "social," but commented that the meal was "not as elegant as when we dined before."
A third Federalist who was a frequent guest at Jefferson's table was John Quincy Adams. In the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, eight separate references are made to dinners at the President's House between 1803 and 1807. In November 1803, Adams and his wife joined "Mr. Madison, his lady, and her sister," along with "Mr. Eppes and Mr. Randolph, Mr. Jefferson's two sons-in-law and both members of the House of Representatives" and nine other guests. Adams recorded that he "came home at about six." The next month, he dined again with Jefferson.
Jefferson and John Quincy Adams dined together once more in November 1804. In addition to Adams, the guest list included Robert and Mrs. Smith, a Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, a Miss Jenifer and Miss Mouchette, a Mr. Brent, Eppes and Randolph, and Jefferson's secretary, William Burwell. The main subjects of conversation were wine and the decline of the French Revolution, Adams commenting that Jefferson's "genius is of the old French school. It conceives better than it combines."
Six weeks later, John Quincy Adams again partook of both Jefferson's wine and his genius in company with his wife, General Samuel Smith, Robert Smith, and William Smith, a Mr. Williams and his two daughters, a Mrs. Hall, a Mrs. Hewes, and Aaron Burr. To entertain his guests, Jefferson told several outrageous stories. The most amusing one, according to Adams, concerned a cold spell in France when the thermometer did not rise above twenty degrees below zero for six weeks.
Almost a year later, Adams dined with Jefferson and the Tunisian ambassador and his two secretaries. Among the guests were "Mr. S. Smith, President of the Senate, Dr. Logan and Dr. Mitchell, Mr. John Randolph, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Dawson, of the House of Representatives, ... Mr. Coles, his secretary, and Dr. Davis, who acted as interpreter." Although dinner was to be served precisely at sunset in order to observe the strictures of Ramadan, the ambassador arrived late and smoked and took snuff before dining.
After a lapse of another year, Adams dined again with the President and a "company" which "consisted altogether of federal members of Congress." Adams found Jefferson "less cheerful in his manners than usual," but stated that he "told some of his customary star[tl]ing stories." The most memorable of Jefferson's tales concerned preparations for his trip to France. Before he sailed, "he had some ripe pears sewed up in tow bags." Upon returning "six years afterwards he found them in a perfect state of preservation — self-candied." Later in the same year, Adams dined with the President and "a company consisting chiefly of members of Congress." Included were "Messrs. Mitchell, Van Cortlandt, Verplanck, Van Allen, Johnson, Key, Magruder, Taylor, Calhoun, Butler, Thompson, and Eppes." Conversation revolved around wines, the Epicurean philosophy, inventions, and agriculture. Three weeks later, Adams made his final reference to dining at the President's House. The guest list included Adams and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Erskine, Mr. Foster, Mr. and Mrs. Blount, Mr. Barlow, and Mr. Fulton. Among the topics discussed were Anglo-American relations and the effectiveness of torpedoes.
The lone Republican commentator on Jefferson's dinners was Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, a Senator from New York. "Dr. Mitchill's Letters from Washington: 1801-1813" included an observation that the President had "generally a company of eight or ten persons to dine with him every day." The dinners were "neat and plentiful, and no healths are drunk at table, nor are any toasts or sentiments given after dinner." The rules of the house included a maxim to "drink as you please, and converse at your ease."
Most of the remaining comments on the dinners were supplied by three ladies, two of whom were contemporaries of Jefferson. In her well-known The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Margaret Bayard Smith noted that Jefferson usually entertained approximately a dozen guests, thus allowing free play for general conversation. In her Social Life in the Early Republic, Anne H. Wharton observed that Jefferson went out of his way to ignore diplomatic etiquette at state dinners and thus outraged the European ambassadors, especially Anthony Merry of England. A more recent commentator, Esther Singleton, remarked on Jefferson's extravagance in buying wines in The Story of the White House. But in a set of statistics more recently used by James S. Young, Singleton discovered that Jefferson purchased less wine each year that he lived at the President's House after 1803 until he spent almost nothing on his cellar in 1808 and 1809. From this she concluded that he had tired of entertaining on a large scale.
The only other original sources relating to dinners at the President's House were written by Britons. For "Caviar Along the Potomac: Sir Augustus John Foster's 'Notes on the United States, 1804-1812,'" written by Margaret B. Tinkcom for The William and Mary Quarterly, Tinkcom drew on Foster's reminiscences about Jefferson's democratic form of hospitality. Foster recalled that, while seated at the President's table, a Congressman from Philadelphia, whose normal occupation was that of a butcher, observed "a leg of mutton of a miserable lean description." The Congressman "could not help ... expressing the feelings of his profession and exclaiming that at his stall no such leg of mutton should ever have found a place." Invited to dine on another occasion, the Congressman "took his son the young butcher with him who was a great country lout." He approached Jefferson and "told him he had heard one of his guests had been taken ill and could not come and therefore he had brought his son with him who was very anxious to see him and would not be in the way as there was, he knew, a spare plate." Another of Foster's anecdotes concerned an "eccentric Member from the south, a printer and publisher," who answered an invitation from the President by stating, "I won't dine with you because you won't dine with me." Concerning his own experiences, Foster noted that "President Jefferson's wines were in general very indifferent though he had a great variety of them, including some native juice of the grape from the Ohio, and some Nebioule from Piedmont." Jefferson told Foster the "he had often had the bad luck to have his barrels tapped and water mixed with the wine, and sometimes even salt water."
A remaining topic that relates to the dinners at the President's House, but which is primarily of a political and diplomatic orientation, is Jefferson's dispute with Anthony Merry, Britain's ambassador, over proper etiquette at state dinners. Although this subject has been mentioned above, it is perhaps proper to treat it in more detail. In a letter written to William Short in January 1804, Jefferson stated that Merry and Yrujo, the Spanish ambassador, wished "to be first conducted to dinner & placed at the head of the table above all other persons citizens or foreigners." Asserting that he desired to stress the principle of "equal rights of all," Jefferson gave only "private dinners (for of public ones we have none)." The controversy generated by this novel theory of etiquette has been reported extensively in all of the modern histories of Jefferson's presidency.
- M. T. Paul, April 15, 1974; revised Anna Berkes, July 2008
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902