This is a presidential misquote two-fer, featuring a conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that is not documented to have every happened. It’s repeated often, usually when one part or the other is complaining about the Senate slowing down legislation and fulfilling its role as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
The exchange claims to recount a discussion of Jefferson and Washington discussing the bicameral legislature, the Great Compromise between big and small states that led us to a House of Representatives. Whether we live in Rhode Island or Alaska or California, we’re proportionally represented in the lower chamber but by the same number of senators in the upper chamber.
The exchange, which takes various forms, goes something like this: “An oft-quoted story about the ‘coolness’ of the Senate involves George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the Constitutional Convention. Upon his return, Jefferson visited Washington and asked why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. ‘Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?’ asked Washington. ‘To cool it,’ said Jefferson. ‘Even so,’ responded Washington, ‘we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.’”
That version of the story (sometimes it’s coffee) is actually from the US Senate’s official website!
According to the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, quote: “The earliest known written version of this story appears in an 1871 letter from constitutional law professor Francis Lieber to Ohio Representative and later President James A. Garfield. Lieber recounted a story he had heard about Thomas Jefferson’s visit to Mount Vernon where Jefferson disagreed with Gen. George Washington over the need for a bicameral legislature.”
According to Monticello, Jefferson’s home, the first appearance of the tale is Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in January of 1884, and both references would be a century after the discussion was supposed to have taken place. While the story is certainly not malicious, and people should at least preface it by saying something like “So the story goes,” or “An oft-repeated metaphor” as Sen. Byrd did.
It certainly doesn’t cast poor Jefferson in a very good light, either. Jefferson was familiar with government, and he supported the bicameral legislature, writing the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789 that “for good legislation two houses are necessary…” He would also have been able to ask his good friend and protégé, John Madison such questions, as he was the Father of the Constitution.
Besides, who, exactly, pours tea or coffee into a saucer to cool it? You blow on a hot beverage to cool it. Hmm. Hot air. That might have made a better metaphor for the Senate.
You can see a sample of the George and Martha Washington’s china pattern above. If you want to try pouring the scalding-hot beverage of your choice into a saucer and seeing if you get anything other than third-degree burns, purchase your own set from any number of the presidential libraries and historic sites.