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The story of the "senatorial saucer" is based on a supposed breakfast meeting between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In 1872, Moncure Daniel Conway told the story as follows:
There is a tradition that Jefferson coming home from France, called Washington to account at the breakfast-table for having agreed to a second, and, as Jefferson thought, unnecessary legislative Chamber.
"Why," asked Washington, "did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?"
"To cool it," answered Jefferson, "my throat is not made of brass."
"Even so," rejoined Washington, "we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."1
The story received widespread circulation when it appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in January 1884.2 Since then, the tale of the "senatorial saucer" has been repeated many times, usually prefaced by "the story goes ...," or some similar phrase.
To date, no evidence has surfaced that such a conversation between Jefferson and Washington actually took place. On the other hand, there is no definitive proof that this story is not true. One possible indication that it is apocryphal is the fact that, to all appearances, Jefferson was not against the idea of a bicameral legislature. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789, "... for good legislation two houses are necessary...."3
- Anna Berkes, 2/11/08; revised Nancy Verell, 5/1/16
- 1. Moncure D. Conway, Republican Superstitions as Illustrated in the Political History of America (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1872), 47-48.
- 2. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "The Birth of a Nation," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 68, no. 4 (1884): 242. Text available online at Cornell University's Making of America Collection.
- 3. Jefferson to Lafayette, May 6, 1789, in PTJ, 15:98. Transcription available at Founders Online.