In the summer of 1801, Elder John Leland persuaded the ladies of his Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachusetts, to manufacture a "mammoth cheese." He intended to present it to President Thomas Jefferson in honor of his republicanism and his support of religious liberty.1
Word of the cheese-making and its purpose soon appeared in print. That August, a Republican newspaper in Rhode Island reported that the cheese utilized the milk of 900 cows, was formed in a cider press that measured six feet in diameter, and had engraved on it the motto, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."2 Federalist papers responded with derision. One writer in the Hampshire Gazette employed Charles Willson Peale's scientific term "mammoth" to underscore how ludicrous he found the production of the enormous cheese.3 On January 26, 1802, after the cheese had been delivered, the Norwich Packet sarcastically reported that bakers in New York were "now preparing an oven of a magnitude sufficient to make a loaf of bread proportionate to the cheese," and that a glass manufacturer in Albany had "already blown a bottle of a size to contain one tun, which they intend to fill with ... [the] best American Porter." The article included that "Mr. Jefferson's convivial friends ... may not only have cheese, but bread, cheese, and porter."4
Late in November, Leland transported the cheese by sleigh or wagon from Massachusetts to the Hudson River, by sloop to New York and Baltimore, then by wagon to Washington, where it arrived on December 29, 1801. The Baptist elder presented the cheese to Jefferson in a small ceremony in the President's House on New Year's Day. He praised Jefferson for the "singular blessings that have been derived from the numerous services you have rendered to mankind in general." Leland further noted that the cheese "was produced 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."5 The president's accepting remarks praised the people of Cheshire for this "extraordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts which contribute so much to our daily comfort are practised by them."6 Jefferson later wrote privately to his son-in-law of the cheese: "the Mammoth cheese is arrived here and is to be presented this day. it is 4 f 4½ I. diameter, 15. I. thick, and weighed in August 1230. ℔. They were offered 1000. D. in New York for the use of it 12. days as a shew. it is an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution."7
Jefferson's policy to refuse gifts while in office led him on January 4, 1802, to pay Leland $200 for the cheese.8 Though no precise date can be given for the cheese's ultimate disposal, it appears to have been present at the President's House the following New Year's Day, and was reported to still be there as late as March of 1804 (at which point it was described as "very far from being good").9 Apocryphal accounts assert that the last of it was served at a presidential reception in 1805, or that it was dumped in the Potomac at some date unknown.
5. From the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, [December 30, 1801], in PTJ, 36:249-50. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also From the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, [January 1, 1802], in PTJ, 36:250-51. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. To the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, [January 1, 1802], in PTJ, 36:252. Transcription available at Founders Online.