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The Cantankerous Mr. Maclay
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
In August he was surprised to receive an invitation to dine with the President. He accepted, feeling secure in his knowledge that “all the dinners he can now give or ever could will make no difference in my conduct.” The result was a vignette indelibly engraved in the history of the time. Senate adjourned early. At a little after four I called on Mr. [Richard] Bassett of the Delaware State. We went to the President’s to dinner. … It was a great dinner, and the best of the kind I ever was at. The room, however, was disagreeably warm. First was the soup; fish roasted and boiled; meats, gammon, fowls, etc. This was the dinner. The middle of the table was garnished in the usual tasty way, with small images, flowers (artificial), etc. The dessert was, first apple-pies, pudding, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc.; then watermelons … apples, peaches, nuts. It was the most solemn dinner ever I sat at. Not a health drank; scarce a word said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President, filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual by name round the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of “health, sir,” and “health, madam,” and “thank you, sir,” and “thank you, madam,” never had I heard before. Indeed, I had liked to have been thrown out in the hurry; but I got a little wine in my glass, and passed the ceremony. The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence almost. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies. I expected the men would now begin, but the same stillness remained. The President told of a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing a river called the Brunks. He smiled, and everybody else laughed. He now and then said a sentence or two on some common subject, and what he said was not amiss. Mr. Jay tried to make a laugh by mentioning the circumstance of the Duchess of Devonshire leaving no stone unturned to carry Fox’s election. There was a Mr. Smith, who mentioned how Homer described Aeneas leaving his wife and carrying his father out of flaming Troy. He had heard somebody (I suppose) witty on the occasion; but if he had ever read it he would have said Virgil . The President kept a fork in his hand, when the cloth was taken away, I thought for the purpose of picking nuts. He ate no nuts, however, but played with the fork, striking on the edge of the table with it. We did not sit long after the ladies retired. The President rose, went upstairs to drink coffee; the company followed. I took my hat and came home.
He dined with the President five more times. On January 14, 1790: It was a great dinner—all in the taste of high life. I considered it as a part of my duty as a Senator to submit to it, and am glad it is over. The President is a cold, formal man; but I must declare that he treated me with great attention. I was the first person with whom he drank a glass of wine. I was often spoken to by him. Yet he knows how rigid a republican I am. I can not think that he considers it worth while to soften me. It is not worth his while. I am not an object if he should gain me, and I trust he cannot do it by any improper means.
On March 4: It was a dinner of dignity. All the Senators were present, and the Vice President. I looked often around the company to find the happiest faces. … The President seemed to bear in his countenance a settled aspect of melancholy. No cheering ray of convivial sunshine broke through the cloudy gloom of settled seriousness. At every interval of eating or drinking he played on the table with a fork or knife, like a drumstick. Next to him, on his right, sat Bonny Johnny Adams, ever and anon mantling his visage with the most unmeaning simper that ever dimpled the face of folly.
Maclay devoted much space in his journal to John Adams. He gives a mocking, merciless characterization that has perplexed biographers and corresponds only in part with what is known of Adams from his other contemporaries and from his writings. Maclay had admired Adams before he met him. But from the first of the session to its end Maclay detested and opposed him.
The friction began when the Vice President, fresh from the Court of St. James’s, wearing a sword while he presided over the Senate, moved that a committee be appointed to recommend what titles should be given to officials of government. Antagonism was heightened when he proposed that the resolution be sent to the Honorable Speaker of the House. (The messenger was to make one bow to the chair on entering the door of the House, another on delivering it at the table into the hands of the Speaker, and two more as he departed.) Antagonism was compounded when to add to the weight and authority of government Adams persistently raised questions of ceremony and pageantry. The Senate’s first three weeks were occupied almost solely by what Maclay called “this idolatrous business.”