Today's Reading

INTRODUCTION

At the President's Table

PART ONE 
1. In the Dining Room Where It Happened (How the Sausage Gets Made) 

It is hard to remain enemies when you've broken bread together.
—New Testament

On the evening of June 20, 1790, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison arrived at a modest house on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan for a secret dinner. As their host, Thomas Jefferson, ushered the rivals into his drawing room, Hamilton, President  George Washington's Treasury  secretary, and Madison, a shrewd Virginia congressman, could barely look at each other. Ignoring the tension, Jefferson poured each a glass of Hermitage, a fine white wine the French called doux et iquoreux (sweet and liquory). As they settled in, mouthwatering aromas—of capon and chestnuts simmered in cream, root vegetables roasted in olive oil, beef braised in red wine and herbs—suffused the room. In the kitchen, James Hemings, a slave chef who had trained under some of Paris's finest cooks, was conjuring a sumptuous meal designed to open the antagonists' minds and lull them into a state of amenable pliability.

Jefferson was Washington's secretary of state, a former ambassador to France, and a skilled host who understood how to use food and drink to build political consensus. In most societies the dining table is considered a neutral place where conversations can be had, grievances aired, laughter shared, and alliances built outside the usual conventions. It is a strategy as old as mankind. "Breaking bread" is an ancient phrase that refers to the primal activity of humans eating food with others. Everyone must eat to survive, after all, and social dining helps to define us as human beings; we seem to need to converse over food, even when we disagree with each other.

The stakes could not have been higher that night in New York. Washington's presidency was just a year old, and American democracy was more hopeful experiment than fully functioning political system. Many special interest groups were vying to shape the structure of government. The quarrel between Hamilton—a Federalist aligned with northern states—and Madison—a Virginia slaveholder who personified southern Democratic-Republicans—revolved around "two of the most irritating questions that ever can be raised," Hamilton said: how to pay off America's Revolutionary War debts and where to build a new federal city. These arguments seem obscure today but were so divisive in 1790 that the Republic was tipping toward an existential crisis.

Jefferson was quietly aligned with Madison, a fellow Democratic- Republican from Virginia, but he was also a pragmatist who feared the men's rift could lead to "a dissolution of our union at this incipient stage [which] I should deem...the most unfortunate of all consequences."

This was not hyperbole. The day before, he had spotted the usually sharp Hamilton lingering in front of Washington's house on Broadway looking "sombre, haggard, and dejected beyond description." The Treasury secretary confided that he was about to tender his resignation. Taken aback, Jefferson asked Hamilton to pause and "dine with me" before taking such a rash step.

"I thought it impossible," Jefferson wrote, "that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by mutual sacrifice of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union." Affecting a carefree air, Jefferson meticulously planned the evening. (The only record of this dinner comes from his notes, which were likely written with an eye to posterity. This account is based on a reconstruction by the historian Charles A. Cerami.)

As Hamilton and Madison polished off their glasses of Hermitage, Jefferson ushered them into the dining room, where they encountered their first surprise: the offer to sit wherever they pleased rather than at assigned seats, as traditional British etiquette dictated. Further, they were seated at a round rather than rectangular table, to avoid any implied hierarchy. These details were part of Jefferson's effort to construct a more egalitarian, "American" code of conduct. Finally, in place of human waiters the food was served by "dumbwaiters," a set of squat rectangular shelves next to each diner, which held the meal's four courses. (As the men finished each plate, they placed their dirty dishes on the dumbwaiter and retrieved the next course.) Imported from France, the dumbwaiters were the latest in gastrotechnology, and a symbol of Jefferson's worldliness. The devices made "the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary," explained the pundit Margaret Bayard Smith. "When he...wished to enjoy a free and unrestricted flow of conversation... [Jefferson used dumbwaiters] believing...that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation...by these mute but not inattentive listeners."
...

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Today's Reading

INTRODUCTION

At the President's Table

PART ONE 
1. In the Dining Room Where It Happened (How the Sausage Gets Made) 

It is hard to remain enemies when you've broken bread together.
—New Testament

On the evening of June 20, 1790, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison arrived at a modest house on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan for a secret dinner. As their host, Thomas Jefferson, ushered the rivals into his drawing room, Hamilton, President  George Washington's Treasury  secretary, and Madison, a shrewd Virginia congressman, could barely look at each other. Ignoring the tension, Jefferson poured each a glass of Hermitage, a fine white wine the French called doux et iquoreux (sweet and liquory). As they settled in, mouthwatering aromas—of capon and chestnuts simmered in cream, root vegetables roasted in olive oil, beef braised in red wine and herbs—suffused the room. In the kitchen, James Hemings, a slave chef who had trained under some of Paris's finest cooks, was conjuring a sumptuous meal designed to open the antagonists' minds and lull them into a state of amenable pliability.

Jefferson was Washington's secretary of state, a former ambassador to France, and a skilled host who understood how to use food and drink to build political consensus. In most societies the dining table is considered a neutral place where conversations can be had, grievances aired, laughter shared, and alliances built outside the usual conventions. It is a strategy as old as mankind. "Breaking bread" is an ancient phrase that refers to the primal activity of humans eating food with others. Everyone must eat to survive, after all, and social dining helps to define us as human beings; we seem to need to converse over food, even when we disagree with each other.

The stakes could not have been higher that night in New York. Washington's presidency was just a year old, and American democracy was more hopeful experiment than fully functioning political system. Many special interest groups were vying to shape the structure of government. The quarrel between Hamilton—a Federalist aligned with northern states—and Madison—a Virginia slaveholder who personified southern Democratic-Republicans—revolved around "two of the most irritating questions that ever can be raised," Hamilton said: how to pay off America's Revolutionary War debts and where to build a new federal city. These arguments seem obscure today but were so divisive in 1790 that the Republic was tipping toward an existential crisis.

Jefferson was quietly aligned with Madison, a fellow Democratic- Republican from Virginia, but he was also a pragmatist who feared the men's rift could lead to "a dissolution of our union at this incipient stage [which] I should deem...the most unfortunate of all consequences."

This was not hyperbole. The day before, he had spotted the usually sharp Hamilton lingering in front of Washington's house on Broadway looking "sombre, haggard, and dejected beyond description." The Treasury secretary confided that he was about to tender his resignation. Taken aback, Jefferson asked Hamilton to pause and "dine with me" before taking such a rash step.

"I thought it impossible," Jefferson wrote, "that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by mutual sacrifice of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union." Affecting a carefree air, Jefferson meticulously planned the evening. (The only record of this dinner comes from his notes, which were likely written with an eye to posterity. This account is based on a reconstruction by the historian Charles A. Cerami.)

As Hamilton and Madison polished off their glasses of Hermitage, Jefferson ushered them into the dining room, where they encountered their first surprise: the offer to sit wherever they pleased rather than at assigned seats, as traditional British etiquette dictated. Further, they were seated at a round rather than rectangular table, to avoid any implied hierarchy. These details were part of Jefferson's effort to construct a more egalitarian, "American" code of conduct. Finally, in place of human waiters the food was served by "dumbwaiters," a set of squat rectangular shelves next to each diner, which held the meal's four courses. (As the men finished each plate, they placed their dirty dishes on the dumbwaiter and retrieved the next course.) Imported from France, the dumbwaiters were the latest in gastrotechnology, and a symbol of Jefferson's worldliness. The devices made "the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary," explained the pundit Margaret Bayard Smith. "When he...wished to enjoy a free and unrestricted flow of conversation... [Jefferson used dumbwaiters] believing...that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation...by these mute but not inattentive listeners."
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...