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.


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