by Sarah Cone, Managing Partner, Social Impact Capital
A Jeffersonian dinner party is a specific style of a dinner party that was invented by Thomas Jefferson. President John Adams (to whom Thomas Jefferson was Vice President) said “a dinner party is worth a thousand meetings,” and we agree, so we co-host lots of them at Social Impact Capital. These dinners are an interesting source of education for us and for the guests around the table, all of whom tend to be engaged citizens. We love these dinners, as we get to speak to people who, in Jefferson’s own words, are “eager to share and debate the varied ideas that […] shape the fortunes and spur the development of [our] rapidly-growing young nation.”
Thomas Jefferson’s era was a time of great political polarization, equal to our present era. The chart below shows the changes of ideological sentiments and held by conservative Republican and liberal Democratic senators/ representatives over time, going back to 1900. As you can see, we are similarly more politically extreme and divided as legislators were in the 1900s.
Jefferson, of course, was pre-1900, but aside from historical anecdotes, there’s reason to believe that Jefferson’s era was roughly equal to ours in terms of political polarization. The chart below shows political polarization going back to 1790.
Despite a similarity, there is one important difference between Jefferson’s era of polarization and our own era of polarization: they got stuff done anyway. Their version of polarization produced the enduring document that is the American Constitution.
Thus, there’s some precedent that political polarization can produce world-class governance, if you can only figure out a way to still work together. Jefferson’s primary strategy for this was to constantly host a very specific style of dinner party at his Monticello home; over time, these dinner parties provided a forum for contentious ideas to be discussed civilly, and provided the social underpinnings necessary to write and execute on the American Constitution.
There was no full or adequate description online about what a Jeffersonian dinner party is, and why they matter, so we wrote our own. We also use slightly different rules than Jefferson, adapted for modern times, and slightly different rules than other hosts of Jeffersonian-style dinners.
How to Host a SIC-Style Jeffersonian Dinner Party
- A Jefferson. There’s always a skilled moderator who is nicknamed (“a Jefferson”). He’s responsible for keeping the conversation interesting, hovering between a panel discussion and a fun dinner party.
- Agenda & Bios. A week before the dinner party, a 1–2 page agenda is circulated, with questions, so people can think over some of the specific topics that will be discussed. Along with the agenda, short attendee bios should be included, so everyone has at least a general sense of the identities and interests of their dinner companions.
- Cocktails. We have a rather lengthy cocktail hour, where you can talk to anyone about anything you want, since the dinner is more structured.
- Confidentiality. Everyone should please be very respectful that conversation is completely, entirely confidential. You’re allowed to mention the topic and the attendees in public (it’s not a secret or a conspiracy) but there should be absolutely no public or private discussion of what was said at the dinner so that everyone feels free to speak as close to the truth as they possibly can. No photographs of the dinner or attendees should be taken, although it’s fine to photograph the room. Enforcing this rule is all-important.
- One Conversation. All participants should sit at a single table, and unlike the typical dinner party, guests are not encouraged to engage in one-on-one dialogues with their partners on either side. Instead, everything that is said should be directed to the entire group, as Thomas Jefferson himself ordained.
- Personal Question. To launch the conversation at a Jeffersonian Dinner, a pre-announced question is used to elicit personal feelings, stories, and experiences relevant to the evening’s theme.
- Conversational Rules. Our 3rd President had distinct ideas about how he wanted the conversation to “go.” The conversation shouldn’t be “general,” (in the 18th century’s phrase) which implies that everyone listens to whomever is speaking without interruption. The only other rule we know is that there could be no ad hominem argument, or even what one thought one knew of another diner’s views: you had to respond to what he or she actually said. The “Jefferson” is responsible for making sure the conversation unfolds this way, but all guests should be notified of the rules beforehand.
Further resources on Jeffersonian dinners: