Had you been invited to Monticello or to the White House to dine with Mr. Jefferson, you would have found a round table so that there would be no one at its head. It was no accident that you would be seated “pell-mell” without an assigned seat – in a careful attempt to avoid the parade of rank and hierarchy so typical of the European monarchy to which he so strenuously objected. Jefferson intentionally and with great care cultivated a casual atmosphere as a host, as an emblem of the country he wanted America to become.
When Jefferson wanted to have a vibrant conversation at his dinner table between political rivals, he restricted the number of people to four. To keep confusing and misleading clips of conversations from leaking out and becoming the subject of gossip and public speculation, the food was set on dumbwaiters beside each guest rather than delivered by servants.
He was known to feature unique conversation-starters. For example, at one dinner he set a jar of Mississippi River water in the middle of the table that had been brought to him by Meriwether Lewis. He asked his guests if they had been, then went on to talk about the area, its people and features.
The famous “dinner table bargain” struck between James Madison and Alexander Hamilton over dinner with Mr. Jefferson was but one of many Jeffersonian dinners that changed the course of history. Coming to Washington with differences of opinion natural to a vast new land, early legislators lived and ate in boarding houses that became entrenched voting blocks. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that these men came to work “in a spirit of avowed misunderstanding, without the smallest wish to agree.” (Sound familiar?) Jefferson’s solution was to invite diverse groups of legislators for good food, good wine and good conversation.
Jefferson engineered conversations at dinner that helped people discover their common humanity. Village Square special guest Clay Jenkinson – host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour – describes his approach, speaking as Jefferson: “… we’re not talking about diplomacy, tax differentials, we’re not talking about federalists and republicans squabbling in Congress – we’re talking about ideas, we’re talking about the enlightenment, we’re talking about the true purposes of life and suddenly people are relaxing…”
Everyone came away from these meals warmed by fine wine but not intoxicated, delighted by fine cuisine but not sated, pleased that they had had attention called to them by the President of the United States. Pleased that there had not been some sort of stuffy diplomatic talk or political wrangling of any sort.
Jefferson’s dinners are credited with saving our early republic. We think it’s a tradition we’d benefit from reviving.