You are here

Dining at the President's House

Although Jefferson went to great lengths to keep his public and private lives separate, 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, The Washington Community, 1800-1828[2], James S. Young described the dinners as one of Jefferson's "power techniques".[3] The only President to give dinners extensively, he had abolished the aristocratic levees which 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.[4] 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 insure 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 province of conversation, and everyone was invited to participate freely in verbal exchanges.[5]

Another recent historian, Claude Bowers, also found the dinners to be useful instruments for "conciliating political opponents" in Jefferson in Power. [6] But, he noted that when Congress was out of session, Jefferson invited members of the local community to share his hospitality.[7] They were not disappointed, for frugality was never in evidence at the President's House. Etienne Lemaire, Jefferson's head of household, estimated that he spent fifty dollars a day on food and wine.[8]

Among other modern historians, Dumas Malone has emphasized the political nature of the dinners in Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805. [9] He pointed out that Jefferson described them as his "winter campaign," as they made life extremely burdensome for him. Occupying a large part of his day, they were usually served at three-thirty and lasted until between six and eight o'clock in the evening.[10]

These writers, of course, based their interpretations of Jefferson's dinners on contemporary accounts, many of which were written by Federalists. In Life of William Plumer, edited by William Plumer, Jr, [11] is included a letter from the senior Plumer, a Federalist from New Hampshire, to his wife. 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 which has been taken up by modern historians.[12]

A second Federalist who survived Jefferson's cuisine was the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, one of the Ohio Company's leaders. In a letter which was published in volume two of the Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D., edited by William P. and Julia P Cutler, [13] 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, cutlet 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 creamsauce - very fine." In addition to all of this, Jefferson served "other jimcracks, a 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." [14]

A third Federalist who was a frequent guest at Jefferson's table was John Quincy Adams. In volume one of the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, edited by Charles Francis Adams and published in twelve volumes, [15] there are eight separate references to dinners at the President's House. 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." [16] The next month he again dined with Jefferson. [17]

It was in November of 1804 that Jefferson and John Quincy Adams dined together once more. In addition to Adams, the guest list included Robert and Mrs. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, Miss Jennifer and Miss Mouchette, Mr. Brent, Eppes and Randolph, and Mr. 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." [18]

Six weeks later, John Quincy Adams again partook of both Jefferson's wine and his genius in company with his wife, Samuel, Robert and William Smith, a Mr. Williams and his two daughters, a Mrs. Hall, a Mrs. Hewes and Aaron Burr. Delighting in Adams, Jefferson told several outrageous stories. The most amusing one concerned a cold spell in France when the thermometer did not rise above twenty degrees below zero for six weeks. [19]

Almost a year later, Adams dined with Jefferson and the Tunisian ambassador and his two secretaries. Among the guests were: Samuel Smith of the Senate, Dr. Logan, Dr. Mitchell, Randolph, Nicholson, Mr. Dawson, Mr. Coles and Mr. Davis. 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. [20]

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 than usual," but stated that he "told some of his customary startling 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." [21] Later in the same year, Adams dined with the President and "a company consisting chiefly of members of Congress." Included were "Messrs. Mitchill, Van Cortlandt, Verplanck, Van Allen, Johnson, Key, Magruder, Taylor, Calhoun, Butler, Thompson, and Eppes." Conversation revolved around wines, the Epicurean philosophy, inventions and agriculture. [22] 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. [23]

The lone Republican commentator on Jefferson's dinners was Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, a Senator from New York. In Dr. Mitchill's Letters from Washington: 1801-1813 [24] is included an observation the the President had "generally a company of eight of ten persons to dine with him everyday." The dinners were "neat and plentiful, and no healths are drunk at the table, nor are any toast or sentiments given after dinner." The rules of the house included a maxim that "You drink as you please, and converse at your ease."[25]

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,[26] Margaret Bayard Smith noted that Jefferson usually entertained approximately a dozen guests, thus allowing free play for general conversation.[27] In her Social Life in the Early Republic, [28] 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.[29] A more recent commentator, Esther Singleton, remarked on Jefferson's extravagance in buying wines in volume one of The Story of the White House. [30] But in a set of statistics more recently used by James S. Young, she 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.[31]

The only other original sources relating to dinners at the President's House were written by Britons. In "Caviar Along the Potomac: Sir Augustus John Foster's 'Notes on the United States, 1804-1812,'" which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly[32] and was written by Margaret B. Tinkcom, Foster reminisced about Jefferson's democratic form of hospitality. 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." He "could not help forgetting the legislator for a few moments," and expressed "the feelings of his profession." He exclaimed that "at his stall no such leg of mutton should ever have found a place." Invited to dine on another occasion, "he 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." [33]

Another of Foster's anecdotes concerned an "eccentric member from the South." A "Printer and Publisher," he wrote an answer to an invitation from the President, stating that "I won't dine with you because you won't dine with me." [34]

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 back Luck to have his Barrels tapped and Water mixed with the Wine, and sometimes even Salt Water..." [35]

A remaining topic which relates to the dinners at the President's House, but which is primarily 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 referred to previously in Social Life in the Early Republic, it is perhaps proper to treat it in more detail. In a letter which he wrote to William Short on January 23, 1804 and which was reprinted in the American Historical Review of July 1928, Jefferson stated that Merry and Yrujo, the Spanish ambassador, wished "to be first conducted to dinner and placed at the head of the table above all other persons, citizens or foreigners..." Asserting that he desired to stress the principal of "equal rights for all," he gave only "private dinners (for of public dinners we have none)." [36] 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


  1. Young, James S. The Washington Community, 1800-1828. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1966.
  2. Ibid, 167.
  3. Ibid, 168-169
  4. Ibid, 170.
  5. Bowers, Claude G. Jefferson in Power. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1936.
  6. Ibid, 46.
  7. Ibid, 47.
  8. Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.
  9. Ibid, 370.
  10. William Plumer, Jr., ed. Life of William Plumer Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Company, 1857.
  11. Ibid, 245-246.
  12. William P. and Julia P. Cutler. Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888.
  13. Ibid, 71-72.
  14. Charles Francis Adams, ed. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874-77.
  15. Ibid, 272.
  16. Ibid, 281.
  17. Ibid, 316-317.
  18. Ibid, 330-331.
  19. Ibid, 378.
  20. Ibid, 457-58.
  21. Ibid, 472-473.
  22. Ibid, 480-81.
  23. Mitchill, Samuel L.. Dr. Mitchill's Letters from Washington: 1801-1813. New York: Harper, 1879.
  24. Ibid, 744.
  25. Smith, First Forty Years.
  26. Ibid, 29.
  27. Wharton, Anne H. Social Life in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1903.
  28. Ibid, [need page ref].
  29. Singleton, Esther. The Story of the White House. New York: The McClure Company, 1907.
  30. Ibid, 42.
  31. Tinkcom, Margaret B. "Caviar Along the Potomac: Sir Augustus John Foster's 'Notes on the United States, 1804-1812,'". WMQ January, 1951.
  32. Ibid, 80.
  33. Ibid, 80.
  34. Ibid, 104.
  35. American Historical Review, 33(July 1928): 833.


Login or register to participate in our online community.