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The Mammoth Cheese and Political Activism


You might remember that a couple months ago the White House hosted Big Block of Cheese Day. This event was meant to commemorate the day in 1837 when Andrew Jackson shared his 1,400 pound block of cheddar in the foyer of the White House with the common people so they could come and discuss issues while they munched on cheese (not to mention subsequent great episodes of The West Wing).

However, it turns out that Jackson’s cheese was not the first enormous wheel of cheese delivered to a president. In fact, the cheese Jackson received was in honor of a cheese delivered to Thomas Jefferson more than 30 years earlier. Jefferson’s cheese also caused a lot conversation: it was a political statement that pitted the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson’s party) against the Federalists.

Elder John Leland, the leader of a Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Mass., thought up the cheese in the summer of 1801. He asked the women of his church to help him make the cheese, and they enthusiastically took on the task. These baptists supported Jefferson because of his belief in religious tolerance and freedom to practice. At the time, New England was largely Federalist and Congregationalist, leading Leland and his people to fully support a president they thought would balance the cultural landscape.

In a letter the Committee of Cheshire wrote to Jefferson, they described how the cheesemaking process reflected Jefferson’s beliefs of tolerance and freedom:

“The Chees [sic] was produced by the personal labor of Freeborn Farmers, with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave. It was originally intended for the elective President of a free people, and with a principal view of casting a mite into the even scale of Federal Democracy.”

To further get their point across, the congregation stamped the words “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” into the cheese. This inscription really was a stroke of political genius. Not only were the baptists firmly making a point, but those same words also appear on Jefferson’s personal seal. Talk about writing to your audience!

A local newspaper reported that the cheese had been sourced from more than 900 “Republican” cows. Leland and his congregation used milk from their own cows and shunned any milk from cows owned by Federalist farmers. They had to create a makeshift press to handle the size of the cheese. How big a wheel of cheese can you make from milking 900 cows? According to a letter Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law, pretty darn big: the cheese was 4 feet 4.5 inches in diameter, 15 inches thick, and weighed 1230 pounds.

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., January 1, 1802

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., January 1, 1802 (Library of Congress)

John Leland officially presented the cheese to Jefferson on New Year’s Day in 1802. Leland praised Jefferson for his services as president and Jefferson in turn praised the cheese. Jefferson typically refused all gifts, so although he accepted the cheese, he later paid Leland $200 for his efforts.

Many Federalists derided the Baptists’ efforts and came up with the nickname “Mammoth Cheese” to describe the gift. At the time, Jefferson had undergone criticism for pouring money and resources into helping the scientist Charles Willson Peale find the bones and remains of woolly mammoths. Claiming something was “mammoth” was a way of stirring up this controversy and accusing Jefferson of putting his resources to poor use.

The incident itself is a weird and usually forgotten incident from Jefferson’s presidency, although it stirred up a lot of discussion at the time. What is really great about the whole thing, disregarding how significant it is in the scope of American history, is that the Baptists used cheese to make their statement. Not a letter, not wine or bread or tea, but cheese. Somehow, cheese and freedom went hand in hand for John Leland. So, from the beginning of the United States, cheese has been tied to patriotism. The next time you eat some, take pride in how American you are.

Also, let’s consider resurrecting the practice of sending a ton of cheese to the White House. Any volunteers?

Feature Photo Credit: Illustration by Eric Blegvad, The Complete Book of Cheese

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.