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Dinner-Table Bargains: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Senses of Taste
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Dinner-Table Bargains
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Senses of Taste

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sat at the table together in late spring 1790, while James Hemings—Jefferson’s enslaved cook and Sally Hemings’s older brother—prepared the meal “which was to save the Union” (Jefferson, Writings [W] 1: 275). The North and the South had been unable to come to an agreement on the issue of states’ debts, and Jefferson, seeking “to find some temperament for the present fever,” had invited the opposing sides to a “little dinner” at his house (Jefferson, Papers [PTJ] 17: 206, 27: 782). As he later recalled in his autobiographical Anas, “I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise” (W 1: 275). The “compromise” worked out over the meal—that the South would support the federal assumption of states’ debts in exchange for the promise of relocating the nation’s capital from its temporary home in New York City to the shores of the Potomac—would become known as the Dinner-Table Bargain, what historian Jacob Cooke has called “one of the most important bargains in American history” (523). However, scant evidence for the famous dinner, other than Jefferson’s retroactive account, can be found. Madison makes no note of the meal in his journals or letters, and if James Hemings ever recalled aspects of its preparation—for he could write and read well—his account was certainly not preserved. Several twentieth-century analyses of the congressional record have determined that the North had already obtained sufficient votes to support debt assumption by the time that the dinner supposedly took place.1 In light of this research, it is almost certain that the Dinner-Table Bargain, as described in the Anas, did not take place in the way Jefferson so precisely recalled.

That Jefferson insisted on a version of events that set the bargain at the table attests to his belief in the act of eating as emblematic of his republican [End Page 403] ideals. Early in his tenure as minister to France, in 1785, Jefferson acknowledged the “pleasures of the table” as a set of experiences, both gustatory and aesthetic, that could “unite good taste with temperance” (PTJ 8: 569). Anticipating the formulation of the great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who in The Physiology of Taste (1835) distinguishes between the “pleasure of eating [as] the actual and direct sensation of satisfying a need” and the “pleasures of the table [as] a reflected sensation which is born from the various circumstances of place, time, things, and people who make up the surroundings of the meal” (182), Jefferson identifies the pleasures of the table as an essential means of cultivating the French quality of bon goût.2 But when circumstances—namely, the fracturing of aristocratic rule that would culminate in the French Revolution—required that Jefferson author a declaration of culinary independence, he sought to infuse the good taste of the French with additional aspects of a distinctly American sensibility.3 He began to cultivate, in his garden in Paris, a variety of indigenous American ingredients “for the use of [his] own table” (PTJ 12: 135).4 He also developed a serving style “after the American manner,” in which plates were placed directly on the table and guests served themselves, reflecting the virtuous simplicity of the republican citizenry (W 1: 156). His use of a round or oval table and his insistence on seating his guests “pell-mell” were intended both to express the egalitarianism inherent in the nation’s founding and to foster the respectful exchange of ideas that would sustain its future growth.5 The “good taste and abundance” for which Jefferson’s table would soon become renowned—what I will term Jefferson’s republican taste—was thus on full display during the dinner that purportedly resulted in the famous compromise (qtd. in Fowler 19).6 But the more complex bargain brokered at that table, and at every meal that Jefferson served, was a more internal affair: an attempt to reconcile a sense of taste that expressed the ideals of...