The Most Important Dinner Party in American History

Hidden History: The Most Important Dinner Party in American History

Robert Watson

On a warm evening in June 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was leaving George Washington’s home in New York City when he bumped into Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was waiting to see the President. Although they had long been adversaries and were rivals in Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson invited Hamilton to join him for dinner. It was a dinner that would change history.

Among the disagreements between the two men was the fight over the forthcoming location of the capital city and what to do about the Revolutionary War debt. Hamilton wanted a stronger Treasury and the federal government to pay the $25 million debt, then a considerable amount, especially for cash-strapped states. Federal debt assumption would empower the government and help establish international credit.

However, having paid its debt and not wanting to subsidize northern states like Massachusetts, Virginia opposed Hamilton’s plan. Southern papers even called for dissolving the union rather than paying the debt. Moreover, debt assumption would strengthen the federal government at the expense of states like Virginia, whose leaders preferred that power be vested in the states.

When Jefferson encountered Hamilton at Washington’s home, he described him as “somber, haggard, and dejected beyond comparison.” Hamilton was frustrated by the contentious tone in Congress and narrow defeat of his debt plan two months earlier, largely on account of Jefferson, Madison, and the Virginia delegation. The bitter debate effected relations in Congress, soldiers who were owed money, and alliances with creditors like Holland and France.

At the same time, Jefferson and Madison were frustrated because, of the 16 locations for the capital city under consideration, most were in the North. Congress seemed to be leaning toward Philadelphia and the Virginians were desperate to have it in their beloved state, leading John Adams to snap that Virginia must be “where all geese are swans.”

So, Jefferson invited his ally Madison and enemy Hamilton to his home for “a friendly discussion on the subject.” Over dinner on June 20 Hamilton convinced Jefferson and Madison to support federal debt assumption by offering Virginia as the location for the capital and a reduction in Virginia’s tax obligations to the debt. Hamilton knew New England would support the deal because of their debts.

The Virginians, however, were duped. Hamilton, through his friendship with Washington, knew that the capital would end up in Virginia anyway. Washington wanted the capital by his home on the banks of the Potomac where he owned tracts of land, which Adams later estimated “increased in value 1,000%” once the decision to build the capital city there was announced.

After the dinner Madison convinced four southern congressmen (who also owned property by the Potomac) to switch their support for the deal. One month after the dinner party, Congress passed the bill for a capital city and Washington signed it. Five days later the bill for debt assumption passed by one vote. The next year, in 1791, the capital was named for Washington and the main avenue was named in honor of Pennsylvania to appease Philadelphians whose city wasn’t selected. One year later, angered over defeats at the hands of Hamilton, Jefferson resigned from the Cabinet, but would go on to be the first president to serve a full term in the new capital city he helped plan.

Over two centuries after Jefferson’s famous dinner party, here we are with states and parties again bickering over federal funds for the states and the debt. It might help if, like their predecessors, politicians today would sit down and break bread together!

 

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