Presidential Plateau: Putting French Gentility Center Stage

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Nicole Mahoney 

About six months after his inauguration and a month after news of the storming of the Bastille reached the United States, President George Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris in Paris, asking him to send “mirrors for a table, with neat and fashionable but not expensive ornaments for them.”[1] Morris had been in France since early 1789 on personal business and Washington often asked him to go shopping on his behalf in Paris.[2] The “mirrors for a table” that he requested from Morris were called a plateau or surtout de table and embellished the most distinguished tables in France and some other parts of Europe. Placed down the center of the dining table, a plateau provided a reflective stage for ceramic figurines, flowers, or candelabra during an elegant meal. The plateau that Morris sent to Washington from France originally included seven sections and extended more than twelve feet when assembled (Figure 1). For the accompanying ornaments, Morris selected three unglazed biscuit porcelain figural groupings (Figure 2), twelve single figures representing the arts and sciences, and two vases from Dihl and Guérhard’s factory to place on the plateau.[3]

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Figure 1: Plateau. France, circa 1789. Mount Vernon Collections. Object number: W-105/A-E.
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Figure 2: Venus and Two Cupids. France, 1790. Biscuit porcelain. Mount Vernon Collections. Object number: W-2133.

In selecting his plateau, Washington requested that Morris “avoid extravagance,” since it “would not comport with my own inclination, nor with the example which ought to be set.”[4] But Morris far exceeded the President’s budget. He defended his spending for a reason beyond deflecting the President’s disapproval, explaining to Washington: “I would have sent you a Number of pretty Trifles for very little prime Cost, but […] your Table would have been in the Style of a petite Maitresse of this City, which most assuredly is not the Style you wish.” Morris warned Washington that if he dressed his table with cheap ceramics, he risked being likened to a Parisian petite-maîtresse, a young woman known for her pretentiousness, artificiality, and affected manners. Certainly, that was not the display that the President or Morris hoped to exhibit on behalf of the new United States.

In the same letter to Washington accompanying the costly French plateau, Morris justified his more expensive purchases as necessary to legitimize the early republic: “I think it of very great Importance to fix the Taste of our Country properly, and I think your Example will go very far in that Respect.” His comments to Washington about French table ornaments also serve as a metaphor for his wishes for the new nation. Morris warned of ongoing expenditures for inexpensive goods that “want continual Renovation” and “where a Taste of this kind prevails, each Generation has to provide for itself.” But investment in things “substantially good and majestically plain; made to endure” lead to “a vast Accumulation of real Wealth in the Space of half a Century.”[5] By avoiding kitsch and fads in presidential entertaining, Washington could convey permanence and timelessness across generations to his guests and his country. Morris hoped to convince Washington that a clear and firm aesthetic vision—and by extension a political vision—for the United States would help to avoid not only “continual Renovation” but also continual revolution.

The correspondence between Washington and Morris—and their disagreement about the style and cost of presidential entertaining—underscores the symbolic weight of the plateau. The plateau and formal entertaining in general signified to foreign and domestic guests the values of the young nation and how those who led it hoped to present themselves to the world. Washington sought to communicate through his table centerpieces a style grand enough to impress his guests, yet solemn enough to avoid accusations of ostentation. He made one facet of his dining room clear: it would be French. To acquire additional pieces for his dining room, Washington purchased from the departing French minister, the Comte de Moustier, twelve armchairs, six side chairs, a silk damask upholstered sofa, and three matching silk damask curtains in addition to a 309-piece French porcelain table service (Figure 3). Historian Amy Henderson writes: “Buying the Moustier suite was never simply about investing in good-quality furniture; it was an investment in a way of life organized around fashionable modes of distinction and the public demonstration of taste.”[6]

Even during the Franco-American political turmoil of the 1790s, Washington and elite Americans deliberately fashioned their tables, their polite sociability, and their political culture after those of the French ancien régime. They socialized at salons, bowed at levées, dined around plateaux, and sat on French chairs. A plateau in the center of a dining table surrounded by French chairs heralded the intentions of its owners and guests to conduct themselves, their households, and by extension the new nation, according to Enlightenment-era French gentility and politesse. The use of French plateaux by elite Americans embodied associations with an admired, cosmopolitan European metropolis and established the dining room as a place of refined sociability. To be sure, the leaders of the early republic intended to perform the aristocratic French gentility of the ancien régime—that of hereditary monarchs and feudal nobles—on American stages while tapering ties to the increasingly volatile Jacobins.[7] Adopted by Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike, ancien régime French sociability and its accoutrements stand to call into question long-held assumptions about republican simplicity and show how material culture and its attendant behaviors may contradict political rhetoric and upend standard political categories.

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Figure 3:An interpretation of presidential dining as depicted in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon.

Washington’s plateau from Morris and others like it in the homes of American elites during the early republic served as more than sumptuous dining room centerpieces.[8] The dining table in the early republic was a showplace for private wealth, a theater for etiquette, and an arena for social power. It defined the ways in which political leaders and their families interacted with each other. American gentry adhered to French sociability as the hallmark of a civilized society and they were critical of a host’s decorum. After a dinner party in New York in 1793, South Carolinian Margaret Izard Manigault recorded in her diary: “the elegant surtout, or Plateau, was paraded—It was a handsome supper, but did not strike me as being very sumptuous or magnificent as I had been led to expect that it would.”[9] Perhaps the ideal of French sociability was never fully realized in American dining rooms, but a plateau on the table proclaimed a formal social and cultural aesthetic that Americans wielded to distinguish and define the early republic.

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Surtout de Table (Table Centerpiece) (France); Made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire; cast and gilt bronze with hand engraving, cut glass, silvered-mirrored glass. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. This surtout de table once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte’s stepson Prince Eugène de Beauharnais.

 


Nicole Mahoney (@nlmahoney14) is a PhD candidate in early American history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her dissertation “Liberty, Gentility, and Dangerous Liaisons: French Culture and Polite Society in the Early Republic, 1780-1800” analyzes the import and importation of French sociability, print culture, and cultural capital after the Revolutionary War. She is at work on an article about French-language periodical printing in the early republic. 

Title image: In 1817, President James Monroe ordered a large gilded bronze plateau for the White House dining room made in the prominent Parisian shop of Jean-François Denière and François Matelin. It is thirteen and a half feet long and more than two feet wide. White House Historical Association.

Further reading:

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Cleves, Rachel Hope. The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Furstenberg, François. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

Henderson, Amy. “Material Matters: Reading the Chairs of the Republican Court.” Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 2 (2015): 287-294.

Kelly, Catherine E. Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Shields, David S. Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Endnotes:

[1] Morris served as an unofficial envoy to Great Britain under instructions from Washington (communicated to him in this letter of 13 October 1789) and later served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France from 1792 until his recall in 1794. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris,” 13 October 1789, Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 176–179.

[2] Morris initially traveled to France to manage a number of business affairs, namely settling Robert Morris’s tobacco contract with the Farmers General and negotiating a highly speculative enterprise to purchase American debt from France. In a second letter to Morris on 13 October 1789, Washington also references a watch and twelve wine coolers that Morris was helping him to purchase in Paris. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris,” 13 October 1789, Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 179–183.

[3] This figural group featuring Venus and two cupids is the only one of the three still extant. Morris’s letter to Washington that accompanied the plateau and ornaments included instructions for their cleaning as well as display: “When the whole Surtout is to be used for large Companies the large Group will be in the Middle the two smaller ones at the two Ends the Vases in the Spaces between the three and the Figures distributed along the Edges or rather along the Side.” “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris,” 24 January 1790, Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 48–58.

[4]From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris,” 13 October 1789, Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 176–179.

[5]To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris,” 24 January 1790, Founders Online, National Archives. Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 48–58.

[6] Amy Henderson, “Material Matters: Reading the Chairs of the Republican Court,” Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 2 (2015): 291.

[7] As the French Revolution degenerated into violent factionalism and civil war during the early 1790s, American conservative northeasterners reacted in profound terror. Rachel Hope Cleves, The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[8] Certainly, the most fashionable tables in federal-era Philadelphia were decorated with a plateau. An 1805 estate inventory of the late William Bingham’s personal property lists one large plateau with seventeen marble figures. “Catalogue of the principal articles of Furniture and Plate,” United States Gazette, 16 November 1805.

[9] Joined by her mother and her husband, Manigault had attended a dinner party at the home of Hannah Cornell Le Roy in New York. Vingt-et-un is a card game similar to blackjack. Margaret Izard Manigault papers (Accession 0502), diary, 19 December 1793. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

One thought on “Presidential Plateau: Putting French Gentility Center Stage

  1. Very interesting about the table settings . I never knew how much influence the French had on our founding fathers. Well done.

    Like

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