Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was our third president in the United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809. In the 1800 election, Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, ran against John Adams, a Federalist. It was an incredibly acrimonious and partisan election. They had partisan press on both sides. In the most simplistic terms, Adams was accused of wanting monarch-like powers and an established religion, while Jefferson was accused of being too friendly with the French and being an atheist.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson won.

And in the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, the Baptist pastor (and abolitionist) Elder John Leland was relieved and pleased and wanted to show his pleasure with a gift to the new president. Kind of a thanks-for-the-religious-freedom gift.

Leland was especially thankful because Cheshire was in Berkshire County, which was a bit of a Federalist hotbed. Leland and his friends were a religious and political minority.

Living in such a pastoral area, they decided their gift to the president should be cheese. They modified a large cider press, lacking a cheese press that was large enough. They determined that they would, on one day, combine milk from every cow in town, which was approximately 900 cows. The cheese was produced by freeborn farmers, using no slave labor.

Oh yeah, they also did not use milk from any Federalist’s cows.

This was a really big cheese and I found a variety of dimensions and weights listed. I’m going to go with the description at which quotes a letter from Jefferson to his son-in-law. He wrote ” 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. ℔.”

The good folks of Cheshire then sent their cheese on its journey of three weeks and 500 miles. It traveled by sleigh, by barge, and by wagon. It was a media sensation, mocked by one side and celebrated by the other. It was presented to Jefferson at the President’s House on January 1, 1802.

Jefferson was appropriately appreciative. Because he was opposed to receiving gifts, he gave a $200 donation (more than 50% of the cheese’s market value) to Leland’s congregation in a gesture of gratitude.

Photograph of the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese monument in Cheshire, MA, USA. Photo by
Makeitalready via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Leland was given some cheese to take back and share with its creators, the bulk of it stayed at the President’s House. There are stories that the cheese was still there a year later, in 1803, and looked to have deteriorated, and even that it was still there in 1805, being served to guests. It is also said that after several years, the spoiled remains were tossed into the Potomac River.

This is an oft-told tale, apparently, for people who are interested in Jefferson. A simple story that actually tells a lot about the era in which it happened. And maybe a little about ours.