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Dinner with George

Oct 26, 2006

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Our first president was never the life of the party. Couldn't stand small talk. And some say he didn't even like to be touched.

One famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story is that at cocktail hour during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton dared a delegate to go up to Washington, put his hand on his shoulder and ask, "How you doing, George?" Washington lifts the delegate's hand off him, and gives him a mighty staredown.

Yet in 1798 alone, a year after Washington's retirement from the presidency, more than 650 guests dined at Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation along the Potomac River. True, that was an unusually large number. Some years, Washington and his wife, Martha, only entertained about 230 guests.

So what gives? A bon vivant or a cold fish? Thomas Jefferson declared that Washington had "neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words." John Adams personally "always marveled at Washington's gift of silence," says historian Joseph Ellis, author of the 2004 Washington biography, His Excellency. Were these remarks just part of a smear campaign by the other founding fathers, jealous of Washington's good looks, wealth and unmatched abilities with a horse?

Nah, says Ellis. Washington was never gregarious. He just couldn't say no.

A good many of Washington's hundreds of yearly dinner guests were uninvited. But the rules of Virginian hospitality, combined with Washington's own deep sense of duty, dictated that if travelers showed up on your doorstep, you had to feed them and even offer a room for the night.

In Washington's case, though, the travelers weren't just passing through.

He was seen as the greatest man in the world, says Ellis, and "everybody wants to make the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon."

Including Washington's mother, who asked if she could move in. He warned her off, saying his home was like a "tavern .... Scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south, or from south to north do not spend a day or two."

And he didn't just offer up a cold mutton sandwich. Well, he may have if you were poor. But if you were respectable looking, you were given a seat at Washington's daily 3 p.m. dinner. Amariah Frost, a visitor in 1797, recalled a "very good" spread, set with "a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowles, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts, etc., etc."

The elaborate Mount Vernon meals were typical for Washington's level of society, says Mary Thompson, a researcher at Mount Vernon who's written about the president's famed hospitality.

"They weren't doing anything special for these people," she says, except to make sure there was enough to go around.

Occasionally, Washington enjoyed the dinners, but sure, says Thompson, a lot of times, they were just "awkward."

"Some of the guests are so awed, they can hardly talk," she says. Nor did Washington always attempt to break the ice.

"He didn't feel the need to hold up his end of the conversation," Ellis adds. "A lot of people who visited him said, 'He's a great man, but he didn't say anything.'"

During one particularly tedious dinner with some senators, Washington allegedly drummed his knife and fork on the table to fill the silence.

This hospitality had a cost. Washington spent a lot of money on entertaining. What's more, the house was so crowded that he claimed he could only have a romantic dinner with Martha about once a decade. Yet he felt strongly enough about the tradition to recruit nieces and nephews to help out as he and Martha became too frail.

"It's part of the obligation, it's like having your portrait painted when you're a famous person, you have to do it 100 times," says Ellis. "He complained about it all the time, but he said, 'This is the price we pay for fame.'"

For his part, if Ellis could go back in time, he wouldn't make a social call on Washington. He'd go see John Adams instead.

"Adams, he would talk your ear off," Ellis says. "But Washington, you'd just sit there with him, sipping his beer."

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