Raab in Forbes: The Dinner Invitations of Thomas Jefferson

As published at http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2017/02/15/this-rare-historical-document-shows-how-thomas-jefferson-invited-people-to-dinner-at-the-white-house


This Rare Historical Document Shows How Thomas Jefferson Invited People To Dinner At The White House

Thomas Jefferson, more than George Washington or John Adams before, and perhaps more than any other subsequent President, used invitations to dinner at the White House to advance his agenda, get to know Members of Congress, and make official Washington more social.  The conversations were typically not business or government related.  He wanted people to get to know each other.   And he was diligent in his approach, even keeping lists later in his Presidency to make sure he had gotten to the right people enough times.

Tales of the finest wines, cheeses and desserts flowed from attendees.  A few of these accounts survive, which is how we know details of these dinners.

Manasseh Cutler wrote of one in his journal, “Dined at the President’s… Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni, which ap­peared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable…. 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 a cream sauce – very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wines and good. President social. We drank tea and viewed again the great cheese.”

Today, Presidents might dispatch their social secretaries or send an email from one staff member to another.  But Jefferson had neither of things at his disposal.  So how did Jefferson invite people in the early days of his Presidency?  A handful of documents from his first term survive that show us.  One, pictured here, was recently sold by my firm, The Raab Collection.


First, he saw the need for regular dinners, so he created a printed form.  This is the first printed White House dinner form to be used by a President, which tells you a lot about what Jefferson was up to.  Then, he settled on his list of invitees and gave it to his aide. His aide wrote the date and time and the name of the person and after that went by foot to Congress to hand-deliver the President’s invitation.

Perhaps the most surprising and interesting part of this historical trail is the identity of one secret aide, whose name does not appear on an invitation but whose handwriting gives him away.  For a period, Jefferson used none other than the great explorer Meriwether Lewis, who lived with the President in the White House.  Just one year later, Lewis would begin his trek across the country with William Clark in the great expedition that would reach the Pacific Ocean.

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