A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 07, 2009
“The Senate is the saucer into which we pour legislation to cool” (Senatorial saucer)

The “Senatorial saucer” conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is part of U.S. Senate legend. Jefferson had returned from France and was breakfasting with Washington. Jefferson asked Washington why he agreed to have a Senate.

“Why,” said Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?”

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

“Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The first evidence of this story appears in 1871. There were only a few witnesses to this conversation (if it took place), so the story might or might not be apocryphal. Some versions involve coffee, while other versions involve tea.

The United States Senate was also called the “world’s greatest deliberative body” in the 19th century.


Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
Senatorial Saucer
The following story about a meeting between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington has been repeated many times:

...there existed a variety of opinions as to a Legislature of one or two houses. It is said that when Jefferson returned from France he was breakfasting with Washington, and asked him why he agreed to a Senate.

“Why,” said Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?”

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

“Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”


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). 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. Since then, the story has appeared many times in print, usually prefaced by the phrase, “the story goes...” or something similar.

There is no definitive proof that this story is not true. However, one possible indication that it is apocryphal is the fact that, to all appearances, Jefferson was not against the idea of a bicameral legislature. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789, “...for good legislation two houses are necessary...”

United States Senate
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 coffee into your saucer?” asked Washington. “To cool it,” said Jefferson. “Even so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

THOMAS (Library of Congress)
THE SENATE AS A SAUCER—(Senate - April 24, 2006)
[Page: S3408] GPO’s PDF
--- Mr. BYRD. Mr. President, an oft-repeated metaphor compares the U.S. Senate to a saucer in which a hot liquid is poured to cool. 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, and Washington’s response:

“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.”


The Washington-Jefferson dialogue drew further attention in the writings of the late 19th century American historian Moncure D. Conway, who altered the language and the beverage:

There is a tradition that on his return from France, Jefferson called Washington to account at the breakfast table for having agreed to a second chamber.

“Why,” asked Washington, “did you pour that coffee into the saucer? Why did you do that?”

“To cool it,” answered Jefferson.

“Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”


Francis Lieber never discovered the source of this delicious anecdote, but whether or not the incident really occurred, the story has been widely embraced because it conveys the essence—the essence--yes, the essence—of the U.S. Senate. What is the essence? It is a deliberative body. It is a deliberative body sheltered from shifting public opinion by longer and staggered terms, and originally by being elected via the State legislatures. It serves as a counterbalance to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The saucer story explains, in simple terms, the significance of the Senate, from its origins through its evolution into the most powerful upper body of any national legislature in the world. Do you get that? Think about that.

14 March 1872, New York (NY) Observer and Chronicle, pg. 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 U.S. political philosopher who worked closely with Laboulaye—ed.)

Google Books
Republican Superstitions as Illustrated in the Political History of America
By Moncure Daniel Conway
Moncure Daniel Conway
London: H.S. King
1872
Pp. 47-48
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.’

Google Books
14 February 1873, Cincinnati (OH) Daily Gazette, pg. 2:
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. Washington and Jefferson being at tea together, the latter was arguing against two houses, and demanded of Washington some good reason for a Senate. ‘You, yourself, Mr. Jefferson,’ said Washington, ‘have just given me the argument. Finding your tea too hot, you poured it from the cup into the saucer to cool it. We need a second chamber to cool off the first.’ Your correspondent remembers telling this anecdore to Laboulaye, at his table, several years ago, and my authority for it was the late Judge 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.”

Google Books
How to Teach According to Temperament and Mental Development or:
Phrenology in the school-room and the family

By Nelson Sizer
New York, NY: S.R. Wells and Co
1877
Pp. 278-279:
Fifty years ago people poured their tea into the saucer to cool, and drank from that. It is said that Jefferson, while he was Secretary of State, was dining with Washington, and they were discussing the
propriety of having a Senate as a branch of the National Legislature. Jefferson asked Washington why a Senate was necessary ? At the same time he poured some tea into a saucer, and Washington, with his long finger, pointed at it and said, “You have answered the question by pouring that hot tea from the cup into the saucer. Let the House of Representatives pass a bill in its haste, and pour it into the Senate to cool it.”

9 November 1883, New York (NY) Herald, ‘The Coming Reorganization of the Senate,” pg. 3:
It was Washington’s idea that debate in the Senate should never be restricted by rule. In a conversation with Jefferson, who at that time was Secretary of State, Washington said of the House, by reason of its larger number, could never be a deliberative body, and necessarily its rules would cut off debate. The Senate he compared to a saucer, into which the heated contents of the cup might be poured from time to time to cool. They were at that moment drinking tea, and Mr. Jefferson was in the act of pouring some into his saucer when Washington made the comparison.

Making of America
January 1884, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine ‘The Birth of a Nation” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, pg. 242, col. 2:
It is said that when Jefferson returned from France he was breakfasting with Washington, and asked him why he agreed to a Senate.

“Why,” said Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?”

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

“Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”

2 March 1890, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 24:
ABOUT THE SENATE.
[From the Richmond State.]
Senates even under a republican government are overhung more or less with the atmosphere of a House of Lords. It is reasoned that their dignity, conservatism and tendency to oppose all progress and all reforms will be a proper check upon the energy, enthusiasm and occasional radicalism of the popular branch of legislative government. It is evident that some such idea was sprouting in the mind of the Father of his Country when, while breakfasting one morning with Jefferson, and being asked by that very democratic statesman why he had agreed to the establishment of the Senate, gravely replied, “Why did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?” (This was before mankind became so polite as to be ready to torture itself before the idol of fashion.) “To cool it,” said Jefferson. “My throat is not made of brass.” “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the Senatorial sauce to cool it.” Unfortunately the Father of his Country, wise and great as he was, could not foresee that it would often stay in the saucer till it got so cold that its good properties would be lost altogether.
COOLAVIN.

4 January 1891, Galveston (TX) Daily News, “Function of the Senate,” pg. 8, col. 3:
An anecdote once related of Washington and Jefferson not only shows that this father of the democratic party was not in love with the institution of an upper house, but also tells in the words of Washington how the founders intended to serve the interest of the people in procuring stable government when they provided for a senate. Jefferson had just returned from France and was breakfasting with Washington. In the course of conversation the great philosopher asked the great patriot and soldier why he ever consented to such an undemocratic institution as the senate. “Why,” said Washington, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer before drinking it?” “To cool it,” Jefferson replied; “my throat is not made of brass.” “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” Both know and recognized the danger of over-legislation. The senate was intended as a brake upon the machine. When the brake ceases to work it becomes useless. Further, the senate is in theory specially representative of the several states. In passing such a measure as the force bill it would be acting in a manner glaringly out of character.

The Senate today (Canadian Senate)
Google Books
“His [Sir John A. Macdonald’s] view of the necessity for a second chamber may be expressed briefly by the story told of Washington, which Sir John was fond of relating. It is said that on his return from France Jefferson called Washington to account for having agreed to a second chamber. ‘Of what use is the Senate?’ he asked, as he stood before the fire with a cup of tea in his hand, pouring the tea into his saucer as he spoke. ‘You have answered your own question,’ replied Washington. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?!’ ‘To cool it,’ quoth Jefferson. ‘Even so,’ said Washington, ‘the Senate is the saucer into which we pour legislation to cool.’ ” (J. Pope, Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Sir John Alexander Macdonald [Ottawa, 1894], vol. II, p. 233)

U.S. Department of State - Foreign Press Centers
Government 101—The U.S. System of Checks and Balances
James Thurber, Director for Congressional & Political Studies, American University
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
June 17, 2003
(...)
So the Senate has all these people that moderate, and you’ve heard this expression: “The Senate is like a saucer that receives the hot ire of the House of Representatives, and it cools it as it did with the Contract with America.” Only two Senators signed up for the Contract. Only two items out of the Contract passed the Senate. It absorbed that heat like a pillow.

Patterico’s Pontifications
George Washington noted that the House was like a cup of coffee… it stays hot; and the Senate is like a saucer that some coffee has gotten on… it’s never stays warm for long.
Comment by Juan — 8/9/2008 @ 3:09 pm

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Monday, December 07, 2009 • Permalink