In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a look at how George Washington threw a dinner party. As the first American president, Washington forged his own path regarding how much interaction to have with his public, his advisors and his Congress. The new republic was still small, so it was easy for Washington to have meaningful interaction with the leaders of the day at his own table. And on Thursday evenings, the brightest minds in the nation came to dine with him.
At the time of Washington’s presidency, the nation’s capitol was still in New York City, so these dinners were never held in the White House. Instead, the president and his family lived in executive mansions in lower Manhattan, close to where the other governmental seats were located. And while Washington entertained foreign dignitaries and other heads of state at public receptions on Tuesdays and Martha Washington regularly invited guests to their home on Fridays, Thursday evenings were reserved for formal dinners with congressional leaders, their wives and close personal friends of the Washingtons.
By all accounts, these dinners were elaborate affairs. They started promptly at 4 p.m., as the president refused to wait for latecomers. Parties numbering up to two dozen people might gather at the table, which was set with the Washington family silver and china. Martha sat at the middle of one side of the long table, with the president across from her, and a secretary at either end to help with both conversation and roast carving. And there were quite a few roasts to carve: While the dinners would only have been three courses, there would be upwards of 20 different dishes in a course, all of which were brought to the table at the same time.
Guests dined on a wide array of the finest dishes New York had to offer. In the late 1700s, most of the island of Manhattan was still quite wild. Game like venison, rabbit and duck were hunted on the island, and oysters abounded in the Hudson River. Jellies, dried fruits and nuts were served alongside, although you wouldn’t have seen potato or tomato dishes–those foods were still regarded as unfit for humans to eat. Wine was drunk with dinner, although Washington was said to enjoy a tankard of ale more than a glass of claret.
After eating, Washington would raise a toast to the assembly, and then the ladies would retire to Martha’s drawing room for coffee and civilized conversation. The gentlemen would remain in the dining room, lingering over cigars and wine, but not for long: The president only stayed another quarter hour or so before he, too, left for the drawing room. One of his personal secretaries would stay on in the dining room to preside over political chats for another hour or so, until the company left and the Washingtons’ Thursday supper was history, at least for another week.