senatorial saucer (1872)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Nov 10 04:13:42 UTC 2008

>From the Sunday NYT Magazine:

Ask  a long-serving member of the United States Senate — like, say,
Patrick Leahy of Vermont — to reflect on the Senate's role in our
constitutional government, and he will almost invariably tell you a
story from our nation's founding that may or may not be apocryphal. It
concerns an exchange that supposedly took place between Thomas
Jefferson and George Washington in 1787, the year of the
constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Jefferson, who had been
serving as America's ambassador to France during the convention, asked
Washington over breakfast upon his return why he and the other framers
created a Senate — in addition to the previously planned House of
Representatives and presidency — in his absence.
"Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" Washington reportedly replied.
"To cool it," Jefferson answered.
"Even so," Washington said, "we pour our legislation into the
senatorial saucer to cool it."

I can only find this story from 1872, in an article that helpfully
provides a provenance:

New York Observer and Chronicle, Mar. 14, 1872, p. 88
Dr. Lieber has a new story of Washington, coming to him from France
through Laboulaye, that if not true deserves to be. Jefferson one day
visited Washington, and full as Jefferson was of French views and
ideas of politics and everything else, he zealously attacked the
system of two houses of Congress. General Washington replied that
Jefferson was much better informed than himself upon such topics, but
that he himself would adhere to the experience of English and American
history. "You, yourself," said the general, "have proved the
excellence of two houses, this very moment." "I?" said Jefferson, "how
is that?" "You have," replied the heroic sage, "poured your hot tea
from the cup into the saucer to cool it. It is the same thing we
desire of the two houses."

(Édouard de Laboulaye was a French jurist who had the original idea of
presenting the U.S. with the Statue of Liberty. Francis Lieber was a
US political philosopher who worked closely with Laboulaye.)

The story also appears in the _Boston Investigator_, May 15, 1872, p.
8. And in this book from the same year, the story is told with the
phrase "senatorial saucer":

Moncure D. Conway, _Republican Superstitions_ 1872, p. 48
There is a tradition that Jefferson coming home from France, called
Washington to account at the breakfast-table for having agreed to a
second, and, as Jefferson thought, unnecessary legislative Chamber. '
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.'

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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