Friday, January 31, 2014

Mark Cheathem Explains the Mammoth Cheese

I will never forget the first upper-division course I taught at Messiah College.  The title of the course was "The Age of Jefferson and Jackson" (I have not taught it since, or at least I have not taught it by that title).  About midway through the semester, one of the students asked me what I knew about the "mammoth cheese" that Andrew Jackson received while he was president.  This was apparently a story that my predecessor in the position used to like to tell during her U.S. Survey course.  The question caught me off guard and the best I could do was say that I had "heard of" the cheese, but didn't know much about it. (Or at least that is how I remember it).

I am glad that folks like Mark Cheathem know a lot more about Jackson's mammoth cheese than I do. Here is a taste of his post on the subject at Jacksonian America:

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.
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.