What is a Jeffersonian Dinner?

The tradition of Jeffersonian Dinners began at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in the 1700s. Jefferson thrived on surrounding himself with a host of thought leaders and used his dinner table as a venue for the free-flowing exchange of ideas. Dinner at Monticello was an occasion for lively, lingering conversation, not the stifled small talk that is common at most dinner parties.  At Jefferson’s table, the everyone engaged in a single conversation, often controversial or philosophical topic.  In an age where information traveled slowly, Jefferson sought to bring into his home (both at Monticello and the Whitehouse) diverse opinions, keen observation, and discerning thought on issues of the day.

Perhaps the most salient of these dinner gatherings occurred on June 20, 1790 when Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, invited Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to dinner to discuss how to pay off the Revolutionary War debts of the various states.  Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson all had radically different ideas of how the United States should be structured and what the balance between the role of the Federal and State Governments should be (the 10th Amendment would not be drafted for three more years).  Over the course of several hours and many glasses of wine, these men hammered out the Compromise of 1790.  This resulted in moving the capital from New York City to Philadelphia while a new national capital over then next ten years in an area carved out of and separate from three southern states. Finally creating a new national bank that would assume the war debts of all the states. 

Jefferson later shared that, “it ended in Mr. Madison’s acquiescence in a proposition that the question should be again brought before the house by way of amendment from the Senate, that he would not vote for it, nor entirely withdraw his opposition, yet he would not be strenuous, but leave it to its fate. It was observed, I forget by which of them, that as the pill would be a bitter one to the Southern states, something should be done to soothe them; and the removal of the seat of government to the Potomac was a just measure, and would probably be a popular one with them, and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.”  *

In the spirit of these open, frank, and challenging conversations, we wish to invite you to join us for a controversial discussion over a nice meal and a glass of wine.

How does a Jeffersonian Dinner Work?

  • We will eat good food and enjoy fine beer and wine.
  • We will be a small, intimate group with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and knowledge on the topic to be discussed but no one at the table is an expert on the subject under discussion because there are no experts on our questions.
  • We will have a single conversation on the topic, everyone will have the opportunity to participate and everyone’s views will be heard.  Our intent is to spark dialog not to definitively and expertly answer the questions poised.
  •  When one of us speaks, everyone will listen.  Our goal is to engage 8-14 brains in thinking about the topic.  We want to bridge our differences, embrace our differences, and leverage our worldviews to think about the issue in a unique manner.

Consider political scientist Robert Putnam’s distinction between bonding and bridging social relationships.  Bonding is the connectedness between people who are like each other; bridging is connectedness between people across differences, between people who don’t necessarily have preexisting relationships.  Come join us and build some bridges in the Jeffersonian tradition.

A Little History 

With the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process for emancipation of slaves.  The law immediately prohibited the importation of slaves.  A slaveholder from another state could reside in Pennsylvania with his personal slaves for up to six months, but if those slaves were held in Pennsylvania beyond that deadline, the law gave the slaves the power to free themselves.  A 1788 amendment to this law certain closed loopholes, including prohibiting a non-resident slaveholder from rotating his slaves in and out of the state to prevent them from establishing the six-month Pennsylvania residency required to qualify for freedom.  Washington argued his residence in Philadelphia was only due to it being the temporary seat of the federal government from 1790 to 1799.  Washington further held that he remained a resident of Virginia, and thus was not bound by Pennsylvania laws regarding slavery. Attorney General Edmund Randolph advised Washington that in order to prevent his slaves from achieving state mandated manumission, Washington must send them out of the state periodically to interrupt their residency. Washington followed this advice and was never challenged although this was a direct violation of the 1788 amendment.

In May of 1796, Oney Judge, a household slave of Martha Washington, living in the Presidential Residence at 524–30 Market Street in Philadelphia, fled while traveling between New Jersey and Philadelphia during one of these rotations out of the city to prevent her achieving six-month’s residency in Pennsylvania and consequent manumission.  Washington used every means possible to apprehend Oney, including sending federal marshals to New Hampshire.  Although Oney was never captured, the Custis household maintained that she and all her decedents remained their property in perpetuity and should be returned.*

Our discussion topic is:

  • Should the President be subject to local and state laws outside their state of residence?
  • Did Washington’s disregard for the state laws of Pennsylvania constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as spelled out in Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution? 
  • Should Congress have rebuked, or event impeached, Washington for his actions?
  • If Congress had rebuked Washington demanding that he abide by state law, how could this have impacted the way future presidents have viewed Executive Authority?

* Dunbar, Erica A, 2017, Never Caught: The Washington’s’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,  ISBN 9781501126390

**  Ellis, Joseph J. (2000), Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. ISBN 0-375-40544-5

Download brochure

Additional Topics for future Jeffersonian Dinners can be found here.

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