HAIL TO THE CHIEF: The presidential connection of cacao with Thomas Jefferson

JFK sipping coffee at NATO summit 1961

Thomas Jefferson was a lover of coffee, but who would know that he owned a priceless possession that stored this addictive beverage. This afficiado considered coffee to ‘be the favorite drink of the civilize world.’ Jefferson owned a platinum silver coffee urn designed by J.L.A. Leguay in Paris France in 1789. (Monticello 2016) His urn symbolizes how cacao helped to create important legacies and partnerships. While serving in French embassy after the United States was founded in the 1780s he met with Benjamin Franklin at Café Procope a popular destination for scholars. Dinner tables at his Monticello Estate accommodated large crowds since his extended visited there often. (Stephenson 2014) At least one pound of coffee was consumed daily, and frequent orders were made to Bourbon

E. India. (Lucas 1994, 2016)

Jefferson Portrait by Sully 1821


The colorful story behind the purchase of the Leguay urn involved a mix up with a friend. Jefferson purchased a silver urn for French architect Charles Louis Clerisseau in gratitude for his help in designing the Virginia State Capital. (Monticello 2016) He paid 309 livres and kept the urn for himself, commissioning a replacement for Clerisseau. In June 1789 with similar dimensions to original. Jefferson’s Laguey urn was made from silver, and designed with an oval shape with dimensions of 13 ¼” x 6 x 7 3/8”. (Monticello 2016) It has elegant pedestal feet and winged handles. It has insignia symbolizing hospitality, and the Jefferson family coat of arms of a lion atop a shield of silver fret on blue. ‘Hatching’ ribbon adorn the seal, which is typical of Neoclassical style. (McMillan 2008, p.5)

Jefferson Urn made by J.L.A Leguay circa 1788

The Leguay urn helped to create important legacies with its use and purpose. Coffee urns which are hot dispensers of coffee were invented in 1760s. The urn contains an inner chamber that dispensed the coffee and outer jacket of hot water which kept the coffee warm. Coffee was dispensed through spigot jutting out of the vase. (Books 2016) Design of urns became more elaborate throughout the 18th century. The urn was important for its distributive quality in accommodating multiple guests, and its connection to France with the invention of the chocolatier a silverware teapot. (Coe 2013, p.158)The Urn helped make cacao important through its social purposes. Jefferson purchased the urn while he was serving as an ambassador to France. His exposure to coffee as a diplomat is reminiscent to Native American embassies visiting the Spanish court of Phillip II. Kelchi Natives with the chieftan seated in a hammock gave the king luxuriant gifts which included painted gourds and cacao beans. (Prescilla 2009, p.26)

The design and inscription of the Laguey Urn is an additional reason it helped to build legacies. The inscription of Jefferson’s family shield is similar to guild work by the Ancient Maya and Spanish colonists. Mayan nobles drank cacao from panted ceramic vessels that resembled tree gourds (Cresentia aujete). (Prescilla 2009, pp.12,24) In upper class Spanish colonial households drinking vessels were hollowed out coconut shaped goblets called coco cholatero decorated with carved motifs and sgraffito designs. Some were adorned with elegant silver rims and handles, and most had engravings of the owner’s name. (Prescilla 2009, p.32)

The design of the Laguey urn was similar to contemporary models made during that period. President John Adams who was Jefferson’s colleague purchased coffee urn while ambassador to England in 1785. The urn produced by the silverware company Sheffield has a neoclassical design of drum base and trophy handles popular during the late 18th century. The urn is monographed with John and his wife’s Abigail’s initials. Like Jefferson the urn was kept in their family for a long period of time time until purchased by the White House in the 1960s.

John Adams coffee made by Sheffield circa 1785

In conclusion, the J.L.A. Laguey urn of Thomas Jeffersn is a great example of how cacao and cacao vessels help to build lifelong partnerships and legacies. The urn is a symbol of prestige serving distinguished guest while Jefferson served as a diplomat and president. It serves as a showcase of French craftsmanship with silverware design, and it gives homage to the French chocolatiere as a dish of the French elite. Most importantly the urn represents family legacy with Jefferson’s coat of arms. Jefferson’s Laguey and coffee drinking habits show how important coffee is in shaping the American presidency with leaders before and after Jefferson having important meetings and instruments centered around coffee.





Books, Web. 2016. “INTRODUCTION OF COFFEE INTO NORTH AMERICA- Chapter 12.” Web-Books. http://www.web-books.com/Classics/ON/B0/B701/17MB701.html.

Coe, Sopie & Michael D. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3 ed. New York Thames & Hudson.

Lucas, Ann M. 1994, 2016. “Coffee.” Monticello Accessed February 17, 2016. https://http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/coffee.

McMillan, Joseph. 2008. “The Arms of Thomas Jefferson.” The American Herald (3):8.

Monticello. 2016. “Coffee Urn.” Monticello Accessed February 17, 2016. https://http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/coffee-urn.

Prescilla, Marciel E. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes: Ten Speed Press; 1st Revised edition.

Stephenson, Tristan. 2014. “Title.” Facebook, February 16, 2016. http://www.thecuriousbartender.com/ – !Thomas-Jefferson-Coffees-secret-Godfather/c8cv/F772B460-7708-434A-888D-874C4FD733E6.

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