J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Searching for the “Senatorial Saucer” Source

Yesterday I quoted the story of the “senatorial saucer” as it appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1884.

However, that wasn’t the first appearance of the story, nor an accurate reflection of its earlier appearance. Back in 1871 the German-born law professor Francis Lieber had put the tale in writing in a letter to Rep. James A. Garfield. Here’s that passage from The Life and Letters of Francis Lieber, published in 1882:
The student had heard [law professor Edouard] Laboulaye lecture in Paris just before the war. When Laboulaye spoke of the bicameral system, recommending it, he concluded his remarks with relating that [Thomas] Jefferson one day visited [George] Washington, and, full as Jefferson was of French views, he zealously attacked the system of two Houses.

Washington replied that Jefferson was much better informed than himself on such topics, but that he would adhere to the experience of England and America. “You yourself,” said the General, “have proved the excellence of two houses this very moment.”

“I,” said Jefferson; “how is that, General?”

“You have,” replied the heroic sage, ”turned your hot tea from the cup into the saucer, to get it cool. It is the same thing we desire of the two houses.”

There is not the least doubt in my mind that Laboulaye told this, but whence has he the delectable anecdote? I should give much to know.
As a proud tea drinker, I note that the earliest form of this story is about tea, not coffee as in the Harper’s version.

Lieber kept seeking information until his death in 1872. The following year, a number of periodicals, including the 1 Feb 1873 College Courant, ran this item:
A Berlin correspondent writes to the Christian Union: “A while ago the late Dr. Lieber published a card calling for the origin of an anecdote of Washington, which one of the Professor’s law students had heard from Laboulaye. . . . Your correspondent remembers telling this anecdote to Laboulaye, at his table, several years ago, and my authority for it was the late Judge [David] Daggett, who told it with inimitable gusto in his law lectures to the senior class in Yale College. His authority was probably the former Senator Hillhouse, of New Haven; and any survivor of the Daggett or the Hillhouse family should be able to verify so good an anecdote of Washington, and to put it on record beyond a question.”
It’s notable that the College Courant was published across the street from Yale. The Hillhouse and Daggett families remained in New Haven. Yet that magazine never published a follow-up with the confirmation of the anecdote Lieber had sought, nor have I found it anywhere else.

So the oral transmission of the story goes back like this:
  • Francis Lieber (1798/1800-1872)
  • an unnamed student 
  • Edouard Laboulaye (1811-1883)
  • unnamed correspondent in Berlin
  • David Daggett (1764-1851, shown above)
Why did the correspondent suggest the story came from “Senator Hillhouse”? James Hillhouse (1754-1832) represented Connecticut in Congress from 1791 through 1810. He was thus at the capital as a Federalist during Washington’s administration. He and Daggett later knew each other through Yale and the New Haven bar.

But the trail really stops with Daggett telling the story in his lectures. Only supposition leads on to Hillhouse. And Daggett didn’t serve in Congress until President Washington was long dead, so the story’s provenance stops short of the men involved in the conversation.

It’s worth noting that the “senatorial saucer” anecdote contrasts the wisdom of Washington with the “zealous,” francophile, and slightly hypocritical Jefferson. In other words, it reflects and reinforces how Federalists viewed those two men.

Given how little evidence there is of Jefferson actually objecting to bicameral legislatures, this legend seems dubious. Perhaps it’s a useful understanding of the Senate, but not one we should confidently ascribe to Washington himself.

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