Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Fatigues of His Table: The Politics of Presidential Dining during the Jefferson Administration

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Fatigues of His Table: The Politics of Presidential Dining during the Jefferson Administration

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson gave dinner parties: pleasant, personable affairs with good food and imported wines. He gave them as master of Monticello, as a Virginian representative to the second Continental Congress, as minister to France, as secretary of state, and, most decidedly, he gave them as president of the United States. Breaking away midafternoon from his writing desk, often clothed in the careless manner of Virginian aristocracy, Jefferson welcomed to the executive mansion an array of politicians, foreign ministers, and local gentry, guiding a dozen or more to the table, up to five times a week, during seven of the eight congressional seasons of his administration.

Jefferson's presidential dinner records, now on deposit in Boston's Massachusetts Historical Society, begin with the opening day of the Second Session of the Eighth Congress and end two days after the inauguration of his successor, James Madison. On the first page, an anonymous annotation reads "Supposed list of persons Entertained during T.J.'s 2^sup d^ term," but the collection actually runs from November 5, 1804, through March 6, 1809, covering the last five years of Jefferson's eight-year administration. Although period diaries and memoirs clearly indicate that the president began his round of dinners at the start of his first term, any dinner lists kept prior to November 5, 1804, have not been located.1

Jefferson's presidential dinner records have not received much scrutiny. The list would seem to contain little mystery, nothing more than a running inventory of guests who dined at the presidential table. No philosophy here, no radical thoughts on education or the institution of slavery; merely a tabulation of congressmen already known and of visitors who are often of but passing interest. Noble Cunningham briefly referenced the lists to demonstrate Jefferson's break with John Randolph. James Bear and Lucia Stanton footnoted the records in connection with Jefferson's presidential expenses. Catherine Allgor, in Parlor Politics, acknowledged the lists in her conversation on Jefferson's apparent phobias.2

Yet the dinners deserve closer inspection. As Bear and Stanton demonstrated in Jefferson's Memorandum Books, the president revealed, within seemingly commonplace record keeping, his habits, his personality, and his political and private lifestyle. In a similar way, Jefferson's presidential dinner records give us more than a "Supposed list of persons Entertained." Over a five-year period, every dinner at the executive mansion appears to have been catalogued-dinners with a single associate, dinners with a few friends or the cabinet, dinners for locals, dinners for visitors to the city, and dinner after dinner for Congress. Correctly deciphered, this extensive list of names and dates provides not only an intimate picture of those seated at the president's table but also insights on the political culture of early Washington and an opportunity to test some recent historical investigations. Moreover, the records reveal a man who firmly believed his dinners to be the proper republican platform for exerting influence and promoting political harmony during a period in American history when such presidential power was less than assured. It is the intent of this article to analyze the methodology behind the records so they can be interpreted accurately. This, in turn, will offer an opportunity to discuss Thomas Jefferson's unique form of social lobbying and its place in Washington politics.3

Photocopied and pieced together, the microfilmed guest lists produce seven large sheets. When these sheets are laid out, columns of names appear, broken up every fourteen names or so by abbreviated dates in chronological order. Other names run down large undated columns, these interspersed with a variety of letters, numbers, check marks, and slashes. The handwriting is legible. Not surprisingly, the material becomes more organized and systematic in appearance as it moves through the years, peaking during the 1807-1808 congressional session, and then deteriorates in style during Jefferson's last year in office. …

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