1802: The Mammoth Cheese

Ode to the Mammoth Cheese (1802)

On the first day of 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a gift of mythic proportions. Amid great fanfare, a “mammoth” Cheshire cheese was delivered to the President’s House by the itinerant Baptist preacher and political gadfly Elder John Leland (1754-1841). It measured more than four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference, and seventeen inches in height; once cured, it weighed 1,235 pounds. According to eyewitnesses, its crust was painted red and emblazoned with Jefferson’s favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

The prodigious cheese was made by the predominantly Baptist and staunchly Republican citizens of Cheshire, a small farming community in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. At the turn of the century, the Federalist party dominated New England politics…The religious dissenters created the cheese to celebrate Jefferson’s recent electoral victory over his Federalist rival, John Adams, and to commemorate his long-standing devotion to religious liberty….

On the same New Year’s Day… Jefferson…penned a missive to the Danbury Baptist Association. The president used the occasion to articulate his views on the constitutional relationship between church and state. More specifically, Jefferson had been under Federalist attack for refusing to issue executive proclamations setting aside days for national fasting and thanksgiving, and, even though the Baptists had not requested such a proclamation, he wanted to explain his policy on this delicate matter. With this controversy in mind, Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

The celebrated “wall of separation” metaphor, conceived by Jefferson in 1802, would, in the course of time, be accepted by many Americans as an authoritative expression of the First Amendment and adopted by courts as a virtual rule of constitutional law.

—Daniel Dreisbach: Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (2003)

The cheese was celebrated in a widely-published ode; here are a few verses:

Most Excellent—far fam’d and far fetch’d CHEESE!
Superior far in smell, taste, weight and size,
To any ever form’d ‘neath foreign skies,
And highly honour’d—thou wert made to please,
The man belov’d by all—but stop a nice,
Before he’s praised—I too must have a slice.

God bless the Cheese—and kindly bless the makers,
The givers—generous—good and sweet and fair,
And the receiver—great beyond compare,
All those who shall be happy as partakers;
0! may no traitor to his county’s cause
E’er have a bit of thee between his jaws.

Some folks may sneer, with envy in their smiles,
And with low wit at ridicule endeavour,
Their sense and breeding’s shewn by their behaviour,
Well—let them use Aristocratic wiles,
Do what they can—and say just what they please,
RATS love to nibble at good Cheshire Cheese.

When the cheese—transported by sleigh, sloop, and wagon—arrived on Dec. 29, Leland proudly stated to the slave-owning Jefferson that the cheese “was produced by the personal labor of freeborn farmers and with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave” (source).

The occasion marks the first time that the word “mammoth” was used as an adjective.

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