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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Friday, September 23, 2016

Cooling Down a Washington Quotation

When I was at Mount Vernon earlier this month, my eye fell on these coffee cups in the gift shop.

Over George Washington’s signature they say (within quotation marks), “Decision making, like coffee, needs a cooling process.”

These cups were shelved with lots of other paraphernalia displaying Washington quotes, such as:
But the words about coffee didn’t sound like Washington.

And indeed, I haven’t found them in any published edition of Washington’s papers, in the material now available at Founders Online, in the Library of Congress’s online papers, or at the Washington Papers project. In fact, Google Books doesn’t find the quotation in any book at all, though it does appear on internet quotation sites.

The phrase “decision making” didn’t really take off until the mid-1900s. The phrase “cooling process” made it into a 1799 issue of The Critical Review, just within Washington’s lifetime, but it’s not in Washington’s own writings.

The source of this ersatz quotation is probably the legend of the “senatorial saucer” which recounted a supposed conversation between Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As printed in Harper’s magazine in 1884, that story quoted the first President explaining the need for a Senate this way:
“Why,” asked Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?”

“To cool it,” answered Jefferson, “my throat is not made of brass.”

“Even so,” rejoined Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”
However, Monticello’s website points out that Jefferson was in France when the Constitutional Convention discussed and decided on a bicameral legislature, and his writings show he supported the idea before he returned. Back in 1776 he had mapped out a bicameral legislature for Virginia. Monticello therefore has the story filed under “Legends.”

Mount Vernon likewise has a webpage devoted to “Spurious Quotations” of Washington. I believe the line about decision-making and coffee should be on it, but perhaps the coffee cups have to sell out first.

TOMORROW: The search for the source of the senatorial saucer.


AdamC1776 said...

Marketing tends win out over historical accuracy

Paul Dussault said...

Imagining such contemporary content marketing platitude coming out of Washington's mouth is priceless. Thanks for the laugh.

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

Washington would never have been curious about Jefferson pouring coffee or tea into a saucer, if they ever sat down together to take it. It was a common custom throughout the Anglo-American world. Boswell mentions taking a dish of tea with and without Johnson many times in his writings. Seeing Jefferson doing it would not be surprising.

Bill Caughlan said...

As an NPS employee whose job it is to approve items for sale, I run across this kind of thing all the time. It seems 9 times out of 10 I have to reject items with "quotations" simply because I find they are not. A lot of 19th c. folks liked to put words in the mouths of the Founders.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't interpret Washington's question in the story as a sign that he was mystified by the habit of pouring tea into a dish or saucer. Rather, he was playing the Socratic trick of asking a seemingly innocent question in order to set Jefferson up for a "gotcha." At least, according to the story.

J. L. Bell said...

In the case of this coffee cup, the “quotation” appears to be of 20th- or even 21st-century origin, though the story that inspired it is older.