The Mammoth Cheese
The Mammoth Cheese
Jefferson. Many Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that his election to the presidency in 1800 marked a revolution as profound as the Revolution of 1776. Jefferson’s inauguration meant not only a return to republican principles but also an affirmation of American character. Some sought to celebrate Jefferson’s election by presenting the president with evidence of American greatness. From Philadelphia two butchers sent Jefferson a veal shank, the largest ever produced by a calf. Though the veal had spoiled by the time it reached Washington, D.C., in October 1801, Jefferson admired its beauty and size, which he saw as further evidence to refute the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s theory that animals in the New World were smaller than those of Europe.
Elder Leland. In Massachusetts, Baptist leader John Leland inspired his congregation to celebrate Jefferson’s election in a similar way. Leland had been born in Massachusetts but had lived in Virginia in the 1780s. There he had run against James Madison for a seat in Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788, but he had withdrawn when Madison persuaded the Baptist minister that the Constitution would not threaten religious liberty. Jefferson’s and Madison’s firm support for religious freedom had made Leland and other Baptists enthusiastic supporters of the Republicans. Massachusetts, overwhelmingly Federalist and Congregationalist, was not a welcoming place for those political and religious dissenters.
Special Gift. Leland’s congregation sought to demonstrate their support for Jefferson by presenting him with the largest cheese ever manufactured. Nine hundred Republican cows (Leland assured the president that no Federalist cows had contributed) produced enough milk to make a block of cheese four feet across and fifteen inches thick weighing 1, 235 pounds. Leland put the cheese on a sleigh in December 1801 to begin its journey to Washington.
Republican Farmer. Jefferson received the cheese as evidence of the “ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution,” and he displayed it in a special room, dubbed the “mammoth room.” The mammoth cheese showed not only that American farmers could produce great quantities of foods, but that even in Federalist Massachusetts ordinary farmers welcomed the accession of Jefferson. One newspaper headline called it “The greatest Cheese in America, for the Greatest Man in America.” Jefferson gave Leland a $200 donation for his church and had him preach to the members of Congress during his stay in Washington. The president attended the session and heard Leland preach on the text, after which he commented, “And behold a greater than Solomon is here,” which flattered Jefferson even more than had the cheese.
Federalist Reaction. Manasseh Cutler, a Congregationalist minister and Federalist representative from Massachusetts, was disgusted by this spectacle. He called Leland “a poor, illiterate, clownish creature,” and of the sermon to Congress, Cutler wrote,
Such a farrago, bawled with stunning voice, horrid tone, frightful grimaces, and extravagant gestures, I believe was never heard by any decent auditory before. Shame or laughter appeared in every countenance. Such an outrage upon religion, the Sabbath, and common decency was extremely painful to every sober, thinking person present. But it answered to the much-wished for purpose of the Democrats, to see religion exhibited in the most ridiculous manner.
Aftermath. Cutler voiced the minority opinion on the matter. Jefferson continued to serve Leland’s cheese for the next three years, finally carving out the last of it at a New Year’s Day reception in 1805. By that time much of it had been discarded after mold had set in, and some Federalists went so far as to say that all of the mammoth cheese had actually been dumped into the Potomac River. The aroma of the ripe cheese filled the air at the president’s mansion for most of Jefferson’s first term.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, volume 4: Jefferson the President, 1801–1804 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).