A famous (though perhaps fictional) simile often quoted to point out the differences between the House and Senate involves an argument between George Washington, who favored having two chambers of Congress and Thomas Jefferson, who believed a second chamber to be unnecessary. The story goes that the two Founders were arguing the issue while drinking coffee. Suddenly, Washington asked Jefferson, "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" "To cool it," replied Jefferson. "Even so," said Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

(from here)

What is the source for this? The official page offers the same tale and a general reference to a book I don't have. Does anyone know more?

  • 3
    Note - saucers in the 18th and 19th century were shallow bowls rather than the plate-with-a-divot we're used to in modern saucer design. (It's why the phrase "feed the cat a saucer of milk" makes sense.) Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 15:12
  • @RISwampYankee: But how does one drink coffee from this thing?! Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 15:52
  • Run a google image search for "18th century saucer." They're similar in shape to the drinking bowls of yore. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 17:54
  • @RISwampYankee: I am not sure I get it. I don't think anyone ever drank coffee from a drinking bowl. Wine, yes - but coffee? Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 18:31
  • 2
    In France, they still drink coffee from bowls: culinarytraditions.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/caf-au-lait Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 18:40

4 Answers 4


"To date, no evidence has surfaced that such a conversation actually took place. The earliest known appearance of this story is in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1884 (the transcription above is from this source).[1] It was repeated by M.D. Conway in his Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph, first published in 1888.[2] Since then, the story has appeared many times in print, usually prefaced by the phrase, "the story goes..." or something similar."

The Monticello website goes on to mention that Jefferson wrote to Lafayette advocating a bicameral government.

Also note that (1) Jefferson was in France at the time of the constitutional convention, and wouldn't have been involved in the discussion of unicameral/bicameral legislature. Although the conversation could have taken place on his return, by that point Jefferson was too busy embezzling government funds to pay authors to write articles attacking Hamilton, and (2) the story really isn't in character for Washington. Washington was quite embarassed by his lack of education and would have been very unlikely to try to go toe to toe with one of the more educated men in America at the time. It seems to me that Washington would have been far more likely to suggest that another of his friends have the conversation with Jefferson.

Update: Washington on his education. I've included one cite below. Unlike Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton, Washington did not have a college education.

There can be no doubt that Washington felt his lack of education very keenly as he came to act upon a larger sphere than as a Virginia planter. "I am sensible," he wrote a friend, of his letters, "that the narrations are just, and that truth and honesty will appear in my writings; of which, therefore, I shall not be ashamed, though criticism may censure my style." When his secretary suggested to him that he should write his own life, he replied, "In a former letter I informed you, my dear Humphreys, that if I had talents for it, I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to Commentaries. A consciousness of a defective education, and a certainty of the want of time, unfit me for such an undertaking." On being pressed by a French comrade-in-arms to pay France a visit, he declined, saying, "Remember, my good friend, that I am unacquainted with your language, that I am too far advanced in years to acquire a knowledge of it, and that, to converse through the medium of an interpreter upon common occasions, especially with the Ladies, must appear so extremely awkward, insipid, and uncouth, that I can scarce bear it in idea."

Read more: http://www.infoplease.com/t/history/true-washington/adulthood.html#ixzz2GuQ0Sd34

Here is another assertion on the same theme

The fact that Washington did not receive the same formal education that his brothers had received from England was a source of irritation and embarrassment for Washington. However, Washington eventually received a surveyor’s license from the College of William and Mary. The exact details of how long Washington attended the school or what the requirements were for the license are unclear. BiographyYourDictionary

The topic is also mentioned in Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution", but since I'm listening to that as an audiobook, it is more difficult to cite.

My surmise that Washington is more likely to have requested that someone else initiate the conversation is developed based on Washington's work to gain approval of the constitution, described (somewhat diffusely) in "Triumvirate". Washington felt that his reputation would be diminished if he campaigned actively for the Constitution, but he wrote private letters to people he perceived as thought leaders, urging them to make their opinions known.

  • This is very illuminating, but I do feel you're going out on a bit of a limb at the end of the answer. Perhaps you could add a source? +1 anyway Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 19:56
  • I added a source to the Phillip Freneau incident where Jefferson hired Freneau as the State Department's translator of French (despite the fact that Freneau did not know French and Jefferson did all the French translation). Freneau's duties as an employee of the State department were actually to manage Jefferson's slander campaign against the head of the Treasury department, Alexander Hamilton. I'm assuming that is where you felt I was out on a limb?
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 9:46
  • Actually, no. I was referring to the point where you said that Washington was embarassed by his lack of education and wouldn't have been likely to argue with Jefferson. I wanted to seem a source for that. Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 10:21
  • Updated - hope that suffices.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 11:07

I had doubts of the reference when I used it for my book:

I decide it was likely genuine. As I note in my reference, drinking tea from a saucer dates it to the appropriate time period. By 1869, "to pour tea or coffee into a saucer... are acts of awkwardness never seen in polite society." So if invented, someone got some very specific details correct.


Historian J. L. Bell has done some research on this

tl:dr He believes this is a spurious quotation. My ego leads me to quote the following from Bell, which states far more clearly the concept I tried to articulate in my other answer(s).

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.


I have had an interest in this reported conversation between the two "fathers" because it involves handleless cups which were standard tea and coffee cups in their time. (handles came later). Hot liquid was poured from the pot into the cup, and then into the bowl (which we now refer to as a saucer) to cool before drinking. One drank from this shallow bowl. I have a small collection of these handleless cups. Orientals still use handless cups.
It is quiet fun to be connected with one's history in these domestic but significant ways.

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