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Why Did a Preacher Give Thomas Jefferson a Giant Block of Cheese?!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 8, 2022 3:15 am

Why Did a Preacher Give Thomas Jefferson a Giant Block of Cheese?!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 8, 2022 3:15 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Thomas Jefferson is often known for championing religious freedom in our nation's infancy, but not many people know about how a preacher thanked him in the most unusual way.

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This is our American Stories, and up next, well, it's a story about our history. Today, Robbie brings us the story about a piece of history you've probably never heard before, and it comes from one of our favorite contributors, Clay Jenkinson. While a wise ruler, a priest, a four-foot block of cheese, and a giant loaf of bread baked by the Navy may sound like the makings of a fairy tale, it's actually a true story about our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Here's Clay Jenkinson to tell us more about it. Really, he regarded his election as the second American Revolution, and he meant it, that we'd had a revolution in 1776, and then we'd created and installed a government, but that government moved in the wrong direction towards monarchy and aristocracy and a strong central government, and we needed to restore the principles of 1776, so he reluctantly stood for the presidency in 1801. There was such anger against Jefferson in Federalist circles. People thought that he was a dangerous man. He spent too much time in France. He'd been infected by the radical principles of the French Revolution, that he was unreliable and that he might destroy the country.

The great majority of the American people wanted a restoration of the more democratic principles of 1776. One of the places where Jefferson was weak was in Massachusetts and Connecticut and New England basically, and so in 1801, after his installation as president, a minister up in the Cheshire Hills decided that he would make a great tribute to Thomas Jefferson by way of creating the world's largest cheese. The Reverend Leland decided that he would pay tribute to Jefferson by getting the people of his district to milk their cows and present all of that milk to create this cheese, and they did it. They claimed that they only milked Republican cows, never Federalist cows, and most of this was collected in a single day, but the resulting cheese was four feet in diameter, 15 inches thick, and it weighed over 1,200 pounds.

It weighed 1,235 pounds. And so the Reverend Leland had two interests in supporting Jefferson. One was to show the country and Jefferson that New England was not 100% Federalist, and the second was in praise of Jefferson's principles of separation of church and state. So Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty.

It was passed into law in 1786. At that time, it was the boldest statement in human history of the need to separate church and state and to protect religious sensibilities from any coercion by the larger public and certainly by the state or national government. And Leland was a Baptist in a state that was largely Presbyterian, and he and his sect would have been seen as upstarts, non-standard, possibly heretical, and deserving of state persecution, certainly of social shunning in this era.

And so these Baptists really counted on Jefferson as their champion because they would not have had a chance to establish their own market share in the world of Christianity had it not been for the tolerance that was being shown and the protection they were getting from people like Jefferson and also James Madison. So now they've built the world's largest cheese or what they think is the world's largest cheese, but they have to get it to President Jefferson. And there was no FedEx or UPS or adequate postal system at the time to send the cheese. So John Leland decided to deliver it himself. This was actually something of a logistical nightmare. First, he had to take it on a sleigh to get it to the Hudson River.

Once he got it to the Hudson, they went down in a sloop to New York City and on to Baltimore. And there they transferred this 1,235-pound cheese to a wagon, and they hauled it into Washington, D.C., into the new District of Columbia to the White House in time for one of Jefferson's two annual White House receptions. Jefferson only opened the White House to the public twice per year, once on the first of January and once on the fourth of July. Jefferson didn't quite know what to make of all of this. And while thankful for their gift, Jefferson wanted to make sure that everyone knew this was not a bribe.

What a bribe that would have been. So he actually gave a check of $200 to the congregation that Leland represented so that he would have paid for this cheese and not simply accepted it as a gift from friendly constituents. And then he served some of that cheese at his New Year's reception in 1801. It would be hard to eat that much cheese, and so we don't know exactly how long this cheese survived. Accounts vary, but certainly he served it again at the next year's reception on New Year's Day, 1803.

So it lasted for more than a year. And there are accounts from contemporary letters and diaries of guests coming to the White House to eat at Jefferson's famous White House dinner parties. And when Jefferson wasn't in the room asking one of the serving staff, you know, could I see the cheese?

Would you show me the cheese? And some people were allowed then to go and look at this monster. It wasn't refrigerated.

Washington is a very hot place, especially in the summer months. And the cheese, therefore, deteriorated. And we have accounts of their having to carve out chunks of it from the middle that had molded or gotten funny. But the sense we get from such historical records as still exist is that the cheese lasted a couple of years and was served on at least two New Year's receptions and maybe on other occasions, and that it was sort of wheeled out on a lazy Susan and made available on those occasions, because lifting a thousand pound or 1300 pound cheese would be almost impossible.

So they had to find a way to move it, and they didn't want to leave it simply in one place. The term mammoth cheese came from a Federalist newspaper referencing one of Jefferson's strange fascinations. Everyone knew that Jefferson had a special interest in the woolly mammoth and the mastodon, and that his friend Charles Willson Peale was digging up mastodon bones up in New England and displaying them at his museum in Philadelphia. So it soon became known that this was the mammoth cheese, which was a sort of playful, somewhat ironic, slightly irreverent tribute to Jefferson's scientific interests. And Leland became known as the mammoth priest for this stunt.

And he took a lot of ribbing all along the route from Massachusetts to Washington, DC and back, but it made him sort of famous. If giant cheese weren't enough, Jefferson would then receive a similarly odd gift from the Navy. Well, then the US Navy decided to create the world's largest loaf of bread. And they used a whole barrel of flour to make a prodigy of a loaf of bread. The thing about bread, as opposed to cheese, is that bread doesn't stand up very well over time. You can't preserve bread for a couple of receptions.

You have to serve it. Jefferson was not famous for his interest in the Navy. He actually created the Navy, but Jefferson starved the Navy of funds and not only made the War of 1812 inevitable, but made us nearly lose it once it came. The Navy, in producing the world's largest loaf of bread or this mammoth loaf of bread, may have had more strategic interests in mind. During a Senate-sponsored party to rally support for a naval war in the Mediterranean, a Navy baker just around noon wheeled in the mammoth loaf, said to be 12 feet in length, two feet in breadth, and of suitable height. Along with the loaf, they brought out the remnants of the mammoth cheese, an enormous side of roast beef, and quite a bit of alcohol. President Jefferson stepped up, pulled out his pocket knife, and cut the first slice of bread. From there, all we really know is that the party quickly devolved into a noisy drunken affair. Probably if you'd said to Thomas Jefferson at home, if he and Madison were sitting in Jefferson's library and having a glass of Bordeaux, and Madison then said, what about the cheese? Jefferson probably would have rolled his eyes and said, this is the sort of thing that happens in a democratic culture.

P.T. Barnum was right. The American people love stuff like this. They love carnival. They love freaks.

They love prodigies. They love fairs. And to this day, you go to the state fair in Iowa and you'll see a giant butter sculpture of Elvis Presley. We have the world's largest Holstein cow in North Dakota and Minnesota has the world's largest prairie chicken and the world's largest pelican and the world's largest walleye and so on. This is just some zany part of the American spirit. Indeed, and you've been listening to Clay Jenkinson tell the story of the mammoth cheese and the mammoth loaf, and great job as always to Robbie. Clay Jenkinson is the director of the Dakota Institute and cohost of public radio's Thomas Jefferson Hour. So he knows a little bit about the subject, the story of the mammoth cheese and the mammoth loaf here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 18:12:36 / 2023-02-17 18:16:32 / 4

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