Andrew Jackson’s Mammoth Cheese

Jackson’s cheese in the East Room of the White House (White House Historical Association)

Americans in the Early Republic did some strange things. One of those was sending presidents blocks of cheese. Not 16-oz. blocks like you find in grocery stores today, but ones that weighed hundreds of pounds.

For example, in 1801, a group of Cheshire, Massachusetts, women gave Thomas Jefferson a 1,200-lb. block of cheese “as ‘a mark of exalted esteem.'” Andrew Jackson also had the privilege of receiving not just one, but at least two, and perhaps three, blocks of cheese. The largest was a 1,400-lb. block given to him in 1835 and served on Washington’s Birthday in 1837, shortly before Jackson left office. Old Hickory supervised the large crowd that came to consume the cheese; in addition to average citizens, the crowd included some of the president’s political enemies [1].

What do we make of these gifts of “mammoth cheese,” which the White House is celebrating today as a chance to interact on social media with cabinet members and White House staff? Jeff Pasley’s essay on Jefferson’s cheese argues that this gift was fraught with political symbolism. Federalists lampooned the cheese as an indication of the Virginia president’s “hypocrisy and inner turpitude,” Pasley writes, while Jeffersonians accused their opponents of “[fearing] a ‘MAGGOT INSURRECTION.'” A Baptist Cheshire minister accompanied the cheese to Washington and delivered a speech that claimed that God had placed Jefferson in the presidency “‘to defend Republicanism and baffle all the arts of Aristocracy.'” Interestingly, on the day the cheese arrived, Jefferson sent his famed letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists that included the phrase, “wall of separation between Church & State,” which remains contentious to this day [2].AJ's Cheese

Jackson’s 1835 cheese was larger than Jefferson’s and has seemingly surpassed it in being remembered. It also had a political message. The cheese was wrapped in a banner that bore the inscription, “The Union, it must be preserved,” a reference to Jackson’s toast at the 1830 Jefferson Day banquet. To my knowledge, no one has analyzed Jackson’s cheese in the same way that Pasley has Jefferson’s, but I can imagine that there is a story there about Jacksonian political culture.

One thing that does seem clear: The West Wing episode referenced as inspiration for today’s event bears no relation to what happened in 1837. According to historian Robert Remini, Jackson did not hear the people’s grievances–he was simply getting rid of a huge amount of cheese. (Perhaps at the request of President-elect Martin Van Buren, although the smell lingered well into his administration, according to Mental Floss.) Whether today’s event turns out to be a good or bad idea, it is historically inaccurate.

One last observation: I find it intriguing that the White House completely ignores the Jefferson cheese and instead references the Jackson cheese instead, especially given Old Hickory’s marginalization within the Democratic party. Maybe Jackson’s image within the Democratic party isn’t quite as damaged as I thought, or maybe Aaron Sorkin is just that influential.

[1] You can read more about Jefferson’s “Mammoth Cheese” in Jeff Pasley’s essay, “The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic,” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, ed. Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (2004), 31-56 (quote from p. 31). Jefferson also endorsed the baking of a giant loaf of bread in 1804, but by that time, the cheese block was gone. The linked article on Jackson’s cheese appears to closely follow the story told in Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (1977-1984), 3:393-394.

[2] Pasley, “The Cheese and the Words,” 32, 34.

Why I Believe in a Strict Academic Integrity Policy

What’s old is new again. A decade ago, I was part of a campus community that was discussing academic integrity issues [1]. Today, I’m involved in a similar discussion on a different campus.

This conversation has prompted me to revisit my philosophy on academic integrity, which was influenced by three factors:

1. My religious background. As regular readers know, I grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian community. While I have moved away from that faith tradition, I can see its influence in the area of ethics.

2. Adult role models. When she was young, my sister spent the summer months with a babysitter, and I sometimes went as well when I couldn’t go to my cousin’s house. Because I was older, the babysitter and I would play games. One day, when we were playing Uno, she asked me to check on the children playing in the yard. When I came back to the door, I could see that she was looking at the cards in my hand. I never trusted her after that day.

3. My only “C” grade as an undergraduate. During my last semester as an undergradaute, I took a philosophy and religion course. During the final exam, I saw most of the other students cheating. I turned in my exam without saying anything to the professor. When I received a final course grade of “C,” I went to talk to him to understand why because I had a solid “B” going into the final. He told me that he graded the final exams in comparison to each other, and my final was the worst. I brought up the cheating, and he told me that I should have told him about the other students.

All three of these experiences shaped my perspective on academic integrity. I learned that there are times when clear-cut, black-and-white ethical judgments are needed; that dishonesty breaks the trust between people; and that students can be negatively affected by their peers’ academic dishonesty.

For all of these reasons, when I started teaching, I determined that I was going to take a hard-line stance against academic dishonesty. Midway through my first semester, I had my first two cases of plagiarism. One student stole another student’s paper out of the trash; the other student plagiarized from Encarta [2]. Despite the latter student’s 100% guilt, s/he appealed the “F” in the course all the way up to the university president. The student’s father even became involved and threatened to bring in a lawyer. Thankfully, the president supported my decision. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if someone in the university appeal system had overturned my decision.

Because of that experience, I exhaustively explain my academic integrity policy on the first day of class, in my course documents, and prior to the first writing assignment. It doesn’t seem to help–students still cheat and plagiarize. As research has shown, students make that choice for a variety of reasons.

So why worry about it? As Don McCabe noted upon his retirement, it bleeds over into other areas of their life. As I ask my students, would they trust a doctor or engineer who cheated her/his way through school? Do they want to compete for scholarships, playing time, or jobs with peers who cheat? While I have been influenced in various ways to enforce a strict academic integrity policy, I don’t do it for my sake; believe me, the headache and paperwork are stressful. Rather, I do it for the students’ sake. I am trying to protect them from themselves, and if I can’t do that, then hopefully I am protecting their peers.

[1]. Some earlier writing I did on academic integrity policies is still floating around the Internet. I wrote this piece while serving as editor of the Center for Academic Integrity‘s newsletter.

[2]. You see, kids, back in the 1990s, students could consult an encyclopedia called Encarta on a new-fangled technology called CD-ROMs.

New Film on the Battle of New Orleans

Would it be unprofessional for me to squee? Because I sure feel like it. According to this report, Andrew Jackson might finally return to the silver screen.

 

With a planned budget of $60 million to $65 million, the independently financed “Andrew Jackson and the Battle for New Orleans” is being targeted for a possible 2016 release, with shooting to begin as early as this summer. Envisioned by Ken Atchity as a sweeping action epic in the vein of 2000’s “The Patriot” and 1995’s Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” the film will be shot entirely within a 30-mile radius of New Orleans, he said.

There are two unfortunate pieces of news in this article. One, Braveheart?! Two, haven’t these filmmakers heard of a certain fascinating biography that takes a broader view of Jackson as a southerner?

Let’s hope Jean Lafitte, played by Johnny Depp, doesn’t make an appearance.

H/t Kevin McCann

January 8th at Andrew Jackson’s Home

Yesterday was a great day at The Hermitage. Erin Adams deserves special praise for pulling off a huge event, but all of the Hermitage staff did a great job in handling the logistics of the crowds and the cold temperatures.

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Gene Smith kicked off the day with his talk on the free black and slave contributions to the New Orleans campaign.

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Bill Brands gave the keynote talk at the traditional wreath-laying ceremony. (The ceremony took place at the tomb, but everything else, thankfully, was inside.)

 

 

After lunch, the U.S. Post Office unveiled a new stamp commemorating the Battle of New Orleans. We were also honored to have Judge Andrew Jackson VI present.

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The afternoon sessions included a panel of historians (Dan Feller, Don Hickey, Tom Kanon, and Gene Smith) who read contemporary accounts and reactions to the battle.

 

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Don Hickey concluded the day with his talk on the myths about the battle, which are many. (One that he didn’t include, but that I will, is Jackson’s alleged hatred of the British as his motivation at New Orleans. More on that at a later date.)

 

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In between sessions, we had the chance to talk to Andrew and Rachel Jackson (Dave McArdle and Melinda Gaines), as Dan Feller is doing here.

 

 

“The Hunters of Kentucky” was a popular song attached to Jackson during the 1820s (h/t Bil Kerrigan). It seems appropriate to end today’s commemoration with it.

Commemorating the Bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans

The bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans is one of the only historical anniversaries that I’ve really been excited about in my lifetime. While the Civil War sesquicentennial has received a lot of publicity, the War of 1812 bicentennial has languished in the background.

That’s unfortunate, but at least in Nashville and New Orleans, there has been a lot of attention given to the January 8 festivities. The Hermitage has a new exhibit opening this week, and I, along with a number of prominent historians, including Dan Feller, Don Hickey, Tom Kanon, and Gene Smith, will be participating in the events today. If you want to brave the cold, you should come out.

If you can’t come, then let me provide entertainment for you. Below you will find not one, not two, but three versions of the Johnny Horton song about Old Hickory and New Orleans. The first is the well-known appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The second is a purported live version recorded in Texas. The last is a duet by Jerry Reed and Glen Campbell. Enjoy!

The Immortal Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson with the Tennessee forces on the Hickory GroundsI wrote this piece on the Battle of New Orleans for We’re History, a new digital publication co-edited by Heather Cox Richardson and David Chappell. If you’re familiar with the battle, then you might not learn much new, but if you need a brief primer on why 8 January 1815 was important, then this is for you.

The British Perspective on the Battle of New Orleans

This editorial brings up a perspective that is often ignored: What did the British think about the Battle of New Orleans?

The writer, James Gill, makes the point that the British were involved in previous anniversaries, including descendants of Sir Edward Pakenham, the opposing British general who lost his life during the battle. But what about immediately after the battle? Was their concern focused internally, or on Europe, after decades of war with France and its allies, leaving the United States an afterthought? What about Britain’s opinion of Jackson following the battle? Or after the execution of Ambrister and Arbuthnot? Was there lingering resentment from across the Atlantic that influenced foreign relations during Jackson’s presidency?*

Seems like an article waiting to be written.

* American chargé d’affaires in London Aaron Vail reported in 1835 that Jackson was “decidedly the most popular President in England we ever had” in Britain. (John Belohlavek, “Let the Eagle Soar!”: The Foreign Policy of Andrew Jackson. [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985], 73.)

 

 

New Documentary on the Battle of New Orleans

"Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1814," mural by Ethel Magafan, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.Thursday marks the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans, so I’m running a series of posts commemorating the event this week.

First up is a new documentary on the battle. It’s straightforward, so don’t expect Ken Burns. But I thought it was solid, and I learned some things about the military side. Enjoy!

Jacksonian America: 2014 in Review

WordPress prepared a year-end report for this blog. It was a light year for me in terms of original content, but here are the highlights in case you are interested:

Total blog views: 35,741

Most active month in views: March (4,801)

Ten most-viewed posts:

  1. Andrew Jackson’s Profane Parrot (9,483)
  2. Debunking the Lincoln-Kennedy Federal Reserve Meme (2,047)
  3. Was Calvin Coolidge a Klansman? (764)
  4. What History Professors Do (674)
  5. The Man Who Wanted to Kill Andrew Jackson (543)
  6. What Does a History Course on Conspiracy Theories Look Like? (504)
  7. The Tension between Popular and Academic History (461)
  8. Andrew Jackson, Southerner: The Introduction (415)
  9. The Hermitage Podcast Series: The Corrupt Bargain (412)
  10. The Living Grandsons of President John Tyler (364)

Was Andrew Johnson the Worst U.S. President?

Hon. Andrew JohnsonThe National Constitution Center asked that question yesterday, the anniversary of Johnson’s birth in 1808. Nothing in the linked piece changed my mind. In fact, was there one decision that Johnson made while president that most would agree was a positive contribution? Nothing comes to mind, but I’m open to suggestions.

As they say where I’m from, “bless his heart.”

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