The Big Cheese: Presidential Gifts of Mammoth Proportions

People in nineteenth century attire cutting into a large wheel of cheese
Perley's Reminiscences / Courtesy of the White House Historical Association

This blogpost originally appeared on January 17, 2017

American presidents have long received gifts from citizens, states, and foreign nations alike. Certainly the cheesiest gift of them all was given to Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802, joining cheese and democracy in the most perfectly delicious union.

The “Mammoth Cheese” was created for President Jefferson by members of the Cheshire Baptist Church from Cheshire, Massachusetts. The cheese weighed 1,235 pounds and milk from every cow in Cheshire—approximately 900 cows—was used to create this colossal cheese. According to the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser for December 30, 1801, the cheese arrived in Washington, D.C. “in a wagon drawn by six horses.”  The Mammoth Cheese was so awe-inspiring, that it marks the first use of the word “mammoth” as an adjective spurred by a nationwide fascination with mammoths following the discovery of large prehistoric bones in the new world.

Church leader John Leland was an abolitionist and activist for religious freedom—specifically the separation of religion and politics. Leland and Darius Brown, the engineer who adapted for use the cider press in which the cheese was crafted, presented the cheese to President Jefferson, remarking with pride that it was made entirely from the labor of free-born dairy farmers and their wives and daughters—no slave labor included. As a well-known preacher and activist, Leland actively supported Thomas Jefferson and in July 1801 when cheese production began, not one Federalist curd was accepted as a contribution. Moreover, during the election of 1800, all of Cheshire voted for Jefferson, with the exception of one rogue oppositional vote that was thrown out due to the assumption that it must have been a mistake. Thomas Jefferson was overwhelmed with appreciation for the men and women who created the cheese and invited Leland and Brown to take a piece back to Cheshire for the creators to enjoy. The cheese became a national sensation, responses varying from news reports to poetry.

An ode to democracy, Andrew Jackson was later gifted a similarly large wheel of cheese. In 1835 Thomas S. Meacham presented President Jackson with an even larger 1,400 pound wheel of cheese made by dairymen from Oswego County, New York. Meacham’s mammoth cheese was one of multiple large cheeses he gifted, including an approximately 800 pound wheel of cheese for Martin Van Buren. Meacham’s cheeses are reported to have been ornately decorated with paintings and mottos customized for the recipients. It was created with the intention of pomp and circumstance—perhaps after hearing about the last cheese’s success—arriving at the White House in a cart drawn by 24 horses compared to Leland’s 6 horses. Jackson’s cheese lived in the White House foyer for about two years and in celebration of George Washington’s Birthday in 1837, Jackson invited the public to freely enjoy this aging giant. It is rumored that the event was so crowded, that people who could not fit through the doors were climbing in through the windows. It took only two hours for the cheese to be devoured however, its smell would linger for months.

The cheeses have had a lasting impression and during President Obama’s administration, the White House has held two Big Block of Cheese Days in an effort to channel the accessible democratic discussion stimulated by Jackson’s open house cheese celebration. The cheese has become a symbolic tool to welcome American citizens to communicate with the president. The Obama administration instead utilized social media to communicate with the public (no large cheeses were harmed in the making of this campaign). posted a very punny celebrity-laden video about the initiative here