During his tenure as President of the United States, at the many social gatherings that he hosted, Thomas Jefferson promoted a style of dinner etiquette that was much more informal than the style exercised by his two predecessors.
In 1788 Jefferson consoled a French diplomat disillusioned by his initial experience of the new American republic: "I am sorry that your first impressions have been disturbed by matters of etiquette, where surely they should least have been expected to occur." Such matters, he said, "are the most insusceptible of determination, because they have no foundation in reason," adding that it "would have been better ... in a new country to have excluded etiquette altogether."
In March 1801, when he took up residence in the President's House, Jefferson seized his chance to banish etiquette at the highest executive level and to reorganize the social mechanism of the national capital on a rational plan. His principles were those he had always championed: equality, freedom from any form of tyranny, and a suitable republican simplicity. "[W]e have suppressed all those public forms & ceremonies which tended to familiarize the public eye to the harbingers of another form of government," he reported in 1802.
First to go was the presidential levee, the weekly focal point for society in the capital in the two previous administrations. Jefferson replaced it with a series of small, informal dinners, but retained the established custom of open house on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. To ensure that the American public should never mistake its president for a king, he adopted a purposeful informality in his own behavior as chief executive: shaking hands instead of bowing, riding without an attendant servant, issuing his dinner invitations in his own name rather than as president, and dressing informally for official receptions. As one foreign visitor observed, "It was the object of Mr. Jefferson to preserve, in every trifle, that simplicity which he deemed the most appropriate characteristic of a republic. ... He wisely judged, that in this matter, as in most others, example was better than precept, and set about new-ordering the manners of the city."
The new Jeffersonian order became most famous for the policy of "pell-mell," especially as applied to a moment charged with significance for those conscious of their rank – the procession of dinner guests to their appointed places at the table. Defying custom of long standing, especially in diplomatic circles, Jefferson declared, "At public ceremonies to which the government invites the presence of foreign ministers & their families, a convenient seat or station, will be provided for them with any other strangers invited, & the families of the national ministers, each taking place as they arrive, & without any precedence."
The deprivation of his precedence in the pell-mell passage to the dinner table was too much for British minister Anthony Merry. Bolstered by his large and equally offended wife and another sensitive diplomat, Merry withdrew from official Washington society. The ensuing social tempest came close to clouding the course of American foreign and domestic policy, but Jefferson stood firmly behind the principle at the root of pell-mell: "When brought together in society all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office."
Many American observers concluded that Jefferson had been too systematic in his application of republican principles to social forms. His two Republican successors pursued the Jeffersonian political course but tempered the leveling social practices of the first Republican administration. The Madisons instituted a weekly "drawing room" and introduced more formality into official dinner parties.
There was, however, one practice abolished by Jefferson that was restored by neither James Madison nor James Monroe – the ancient and universal custom of drinking healths at the dinner table. The tradition of capping a meal with a session of toast-drinking was firmly entrenched in the early American republic. Increase Mather and other seventeenth-century Puritans had fulminated against the practice. Post-war patriots had recommended throwing out offensive English customs, including health-drinking, to complete the revolution. Yet the habit of raising a glass to drink the health of fellow guests, absent friends, and political figures and principles seems to have been almost universal at the tables of upper-class Americans.
George Washington had two sides to his toast-drinking character – one ceremonious and one convivial. The chevalier de Chastellux found him at his most unceremonious in camp in 1780. After dinner and removal of the cloth, "apples and a great quantity of nuts were served, which General Washington usually continues eating for two hours, toasting and conversing all the time." Half an hour later came supper and more bottles of Bordeaux and Madeira. Chastellux, at first worried about his ability to keep up the drinking pace, found that "I accommodated myself very well to the English mode of toasting: you have very small glasses, you pour out yourself the quantity of wine you choose, without being pressed to take more, and the toast is only a sort of check in the conversation, to remind each individual that he forms part of the company and that the whole form only one society."
When Washington laid aside his military uniform for executive attire, his table was transformed. Senator William Maclay reported on a presidential dinner in 1790: "It was the most solemn dinner ever I sat at. Not a health drank; scarce a word said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President, filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of 'health, sir,' and 'health, madam,' and 'thank-you, sir,' and 'thank-you, madam,' never had I heard before. ... The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence almost."
Chastellux had complained about this particular rite when he first encountered it in Philadelphia: "I find it an absurd, and truly barbarous practice, the first time you drink, ... to call out successively to each individual, to let him know you drink his health. The actor in this ridiculous comedy is sometimes ready to die with thirst, whilst he is obliged to inquire the names, or catch the eyes of five and twenty or thirty persons. ... They call to you from one end of the table to the other; Sir, will you permit me to drink a glass of wine with you? This proposal is always accepted. ... The bottle is then passed to you, and you must look your enemy in the face, for I can give no other name to the man who exercises such an empire over my will; you wait till he likewise has poured out his wine, and taken his glass; you then drink mournfully with him, as a recruit imitates the corporal in his exercise. But to do justice to the Americans, they themselves feel the ridicule of these customs borrowed from Old England."
It was probably the compulsory nature of health-drinking that most offended Jefferson. Without the least tincture of puritanism, he would nevertheless have found himself in agreement with one point in Increase Mather's Testimony Against Prophane Customs. In a protracted tirade against health-drinking, Mather described it as "an unjust and Tyrannical Invasion on the Liberty which belongs to every one." Enlightened American hosts like Washington no longer compelled their guests to down measured quantities of Madeira, and Washington told J. P. Brissot de Warville in 1788 that "people no longer forced drinks on their guests or made it a point of honor to send them home drunk." Yet there was still a widespread attitude of intolerance to abstinence in society, and travelers in Virginia found the "barbecue law" in force, according to which the only excuse for refusing a round was unconsciousness.
Jefferson told his grandson that one of his greatest pleasures was the "easy flow of after dinner conversation" around the table. Wine was an indispensable ingredient in this phase of a presidential repast, but the amount was a matter of individual choice, and political topics were conscientiously avoided. Here was yet another reason to banish the drinking of toasts, which, as Chastellux had noted in 1780, "have a marked connection with politics." By never mixing Federalists and Republicans at his table Jefferson evidently hoped to maintain the social harmony he so prized. By the prohibition of toasts he could prevent awkward scenes like one at a dinner given by Supreme Court Judge William Paterson, at which the host and most of the guests were staunch Federalists: "As usual when the wine was circulating after dinner, toasts were given; a young lady totally ignorant of politics, having heard the eloquence of Mr. Giles [firebrand Republican William Branch Giles], highly extolled, in the simplicity of her heart, when called upon for a toast gave 'Mr. Giles.' Judge P. looked astounded, and almost angrily exclaimed, while he struck the table violently with his hand, 'You had better give the devil next!'" Three guests at Jefferson's presidential dinners expressed their relief and pleasure at the disappearance of the rite of drinking toasts. Charles Willson Peale confided to his diary: "We had a very elegant dinner at the Presidents, and what pleased me much, not a single toast was given or called for, or Politicks touched on, but subjects of Natural History, and improvements of the conveniences of Life. Manners of different nations described, or other agreable conversation animated the whole company."
The scientific congressman Samuel Mitchill wrote that "the dinners are neat and plentiful, and no healths are drunk at table, nor are any toasts or sentiments given after dinner. You drink as you please, and converse at your ease. In this way every guest feels inclined to drink to the digestive or the social point, and no further."
Benjamin H. Latrobe, after his first dinner at the President's House, wrote the following account to his wife: "Having employed my morning in my business I went to dine with the President. His two daughters, Mr. and Mrs. Madison, Mr. Lincoln (Attorney General), Dr. Thornton, a Mr. Carter from Virginia, and Captain [Meriwether] Lewis (the President's Secretary) were the party. The dinner was excellent, cooked rather in the French style (larded venison), the dessert was profuse and extremely elegant, and the knicknacs, after withdrawing the cloths, profuse and numberless. Wine in great variety, from sherry to champagne, and a few decanters of rare Spanish wine, presents from Chevalier D'Yrujo. The conversation, of which Mr. Madison was the principal leader, was incomparably pleasant, and though Mr. Jefferson said little at dinner besides attending to the filling of plates, which he did with great ease and grace for a philosopher, he became very talkative as soon as the cloth was removed. The ladies stayed till five, and half an hour afterwards the gentlemen followed them to the tea table, where a most agreeable and spirited conversation was kept until seven, when everybody withdrew. It is a long time since I have been present at so elegant a mental treat. Literature, wit, and a little business, with a great deal of miscellaneous remarks on agriculture and building, filled every minute. There is a degree of ease in Mr. Jefferson's company that every one seems to feel and to enjoy. At dinner Mrs. Randolph was asked by Mr. Carter to drink a glass of wine with him, and did so. Mr. Jefferson told her she was acting against the health law. She said she was not acquainted with it, that it must have passed during her absence. He replied that three laws governed his table – no healths, no politics, no restraint. I enjoyed the benefit of the law, and drank for the first time at such a party only one glass of wine, and, though I sat by the President, he did not invite me to drink another."
John Quincy Adams was the first president to break the health law ordained by Jefferson, at a farewell dinner in 1825 for the Marquis de Lafayette after his triumphal American tour. While Jefferson may not have approved the practice, he certainly would have raised his glass to the sentiments expressed. Adams proposed a toast to February 22 and September 6, birthdays of Washington and Lafayette. The marquis responded: "To the fourth of July, the birthday of liberty in both hemispheres."
- Lucia Stanton, 4/13/86. Originally published as "Observing the Health Law," in Spring Dinner at Monticello, April 13, 1986, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation), 1-9.
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902