The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese
was a gift from the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts
to President Thomas Jefferson
in 1802. The cheese
was created by combining the milk
from every cow in the town, and made in a makeshift cheese press
to handle the cheese's size. Upon the cheese was inscribed the Jeffersonian motto, "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."
The town of Cheshire, Connecticut, like its namesake county in the United Kingdom, was renowned for the quality of its cheese. When Puritan settlers from the Connecticut town of Cheshire incorporated a new residence in Massachusetts under the same name, they continued to make the famous cheese. Given the political landscape of the time, there was a fear that the more Republican Jefferson, considered an "infidel of the French Revolutionary school," would harm the religious interests of the citizenry, and that "the altars of New England would be demolished, and all their religious institutions would be swept away by an inrushing and irresistible flood of French infidelity."
One pastor in Cheshire, Elder John Leland, opposed this line of thought. A beleaguered minority in Calvinist New England, the Baptists were perhaps the strongest advocates in the early republic of the separation of church and state. Leland had met Jefferson during his time in Virginia and the two grew to have a friendly relationship. Leland remembered this as he served in Cheshire, and campaigned strongly for Jefferson.
Making the cheese
Leland, believing that his efforts helped Jefferson win the Presidency, encouraged his townspeople to make a unique gesture to Jefferson. He urged each member of his congregation "who owned a cow to bring every quart of milk given on a given day, or all the curd it would make, to a great cider mill..." Leland also insisted that "no Federal cow" (a cow owned by a Federalist farmer) be allowed to offer any milk, "lest it should leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour."
The townspeople brought their milk and curd to the mill where a large hoop was placed on a cider press, resulting in a massive cheese press. The townspeople added their ingredients, sang a hymn over the press, and, after a time, the cheese was ready. As more ingredients than were necessary were presented, three smaller cheeses were created, but Leland dedicated the largest cheese to Jefferson, calling the cheese "the greatest cheese ever put to press in the New World or Old."
The final product weighed between 1200 and 1600 pounds, was four feet wide, and fifteen inches thick. Due to its size, it could not safely be transported on wheels, so the town hired a sleigh to bring it to Washington, D.C. during the snowy winter months. With Leland steering the sleigh, the three week, 500 mile trip became an event from town to town as word spread about the gift.
Delivery to the White House
The cheese was eventually presented to Jefferson on January 1 1802
. Leland considered the cheese an act of "profound respect...to the popular ratification of his election." While the cheese did serve to praise Jefferson, the town also made a political statement in its letter to Jefferson, noting that "the cheese was procured 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." Although the gift would draw criticisms of Jefferson and the people of Cheshire, Jefferson praised the act as "extraordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts...are practiced by [the citizens of Cheshire]." The President then cut a piece of the cheese to present to the town, and it was widely considered the greatest cheese presented at the White House
. Jefferson, who opposed this gift giving custom on principle, gave a $200 donation (over 50% of the actual market price) to Leland's congregation
as a gesture of gratitude.
The cheese would remain at the White House for over two years, having been featured in a public dinner for an Independence Day celebration in 1803, eventually being replaced by the "Mammoth Loaf," a large loaf of bread made by the United States Navy out of a barrel full of flour.
The story of the mammoth cheese inspired many future events. President Andrew Jackson
's supporters commissioned a similar cheese for consumption in 1837, as his supporters believed that "every honor which Jefferson had ever received should be paid him. This event later became the inspiration for a recurring event on the White House television drama The West Wing
, entitled "Big Block of Cheese Day
. The cheese inspired a critically acclaimed work of fiction, The Mammoth Cheese
, by Sheri Holman
in 2004 and published by the Grove Press
, which told the story about a small town cheesemaker convinced by her pastor to make a giant cheese for the President-elect. The cheese also became the subject of a children's picture book
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
, A Big Cheese for the White House
, by Candace Fleming
Today a cast concrete cheese press stands in Cheshire. A plaque dedicated to Leland is affixed to it.