The first-ever American Independence celebration, held on July 4, 1777 in Philadelphia, was, by all accounts, a raucous affair. The day was marked by a jubilant parade and a joyous crowd waving the red, white and blue, while the night began with a great dinner for the new nation’s notables and ended with a “grand exhibition of fireworks.”
Culinary historians and diehard Fourth of July fans alike have long wondered what exactly was on this menu at America’s first birthday party. A tradition of eating turtle soup accompanied by poached salmon, peas and new potatoes on the day would later emerge in New England, but there’s no historical evidence that those dishes were what John and Abigail Adams actually ate the day the Declaration of Independence was signed (which is what that menu is purported to replicate.) What is known at the very least is that the next year’s celebration involved a great many toasts. On this day, and every Fourth of July thereafter, countless glasses of beer, cider, whiskey and port would be raised high “in honour of our country, and the heroes who have fallen in their pious efforts to defend her,” as explained by Founding Father John Adams in a letter to his daughter.
The joyous tone would be much the same when the author of the Declaration himself, Thomas Jefferson, became President in 1801. “The only birthday I ever commemorate is that of our Independence Day,” Jefferson explained, and, indeed, the parties he threw in Washington on the Fourth of July were the biggest events of the year, and also the first ever Fourth of July celebrations ever held in the Executive Mansion.
Center stage at these parties was the food. In addition to his eloquent writing and principled statecraft, during his time in office Jefferson was known for “taking good care of his table.” He held intimate dinner parties almost every night, inviting ten to 12 people to his famous oval table to talk politics and enjoy a good meal. When not using food to curry favor and craft policy, Jefferson spent his free time investigating almost everything edible. He was famously fond of French food, wrote endlessly on his love of gardening and enjoyed serving his guests new-fangled macaroni and cheese, a dish that, before Jefferson, was previously unheard of in the United States.
Jefferson’s culinary fascination extended to drinkables as well and on the proper beverage pairings, this Founding Father had many strong opinions. Although he did brew beer at his home in Monticello, Jefferson did not enjoy whiskey (or “ardent spirits in any form” for that matter) and believed that the early American fondness for sweet port and Madeira wines was “artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain.” Such tastes in alcohol were seemingly affronts to the democratic principles that Jefferson so vehemently espoused.
The drink that Jefferson thought much more appropriate for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was wine. Good wine and lots of it. This passion Jefferson acquired, alongside his affection for French cuisine, while serving as Minister to France in the 1780s; after spending four years in Paris, Jefferson came back with no fewer than 680 bottles of French and Italian wines in his luggage.
On the early American political scene, Jefferson quickly became the unofficial “Sommelier-in-Chief.” In his frequent orders of European wine Jefferson would often select and purchase bottles of Bordeaux for George Washington. His correspondence with Presidents Adams, Madison and Monroe was peppered with not just political advice but also recommendations for the best vintages to serve at state dinners.
Believing firmly that “in nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines,” Jefferson wanted the common people to drink more good wine as well. He lobbied endlessly to reduce the tariffs on cheap wine imports and was “anxious to introduce here these fine wines in place of the Alcoholic wines of Spain and Portugal.” And it wasn’t just a matter of taste: if Americans started drinking wine with a lower alcohol content, maybe they’d cause less mayhem. (Early Americans consumed anywhere from two to four times as much alcohol in a year as modern Americans do.)
While President, Jefferson personally curated the White House wine cellar and spent some $7500 on wine, almost $120,000 in today’s currency, during his first term in office. Present at all of his Presidential dinner parties, wine was often a main focus of dinner conversation as well, although not everyone was interested in hearing about the subject; after dining with Jefferson in 1807, John Quincy Adams noted in his diary, “there was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying.”
It makes sense then that when Jefferson hosted his Independence Day celebrations between 1801 and 1809, the refreshments he chose to serve included a myriad of fine wines.
In the years after his Presidency, Jefferson stopped attending large Fourth of July festivities, but continued to enjoy his three to four glasses of “light and high flavored wines” every night at dinner, fine indulgences that had become “a necessary of life” for him. He tried too to grow his own grapes and make his own wines on his lands in Monticello, but, due to Virginia’s climate and disease, these efforts ended in failure. It seems that just as clearly as Jefferson saw that all men are created equal, a discerning palate like his also knew the same couldn’t be said for wines—even if they were his own.