Mammoth Cheese

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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The mammoth cheese [1] was a present given to President Thomas Jefferson. In the summer of 1801, Elder John Leland persuaded the ladies of his Baptist congregation in Cheshire, Massachusetts, to manufacture an enormous cheese.[2] He intended to present it to President Jefferson in honor of his republicanism and his support of religious liberty.

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." 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 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." The president's accepting remarks praised the people of Cheshire for this "extaordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts which contribute so much to our daily comfort are practised by them." In keeping with scientific character, Jefferson recorded the mammoth cheese's dimensions: 4 feet 4 1/2 inches in diameter, 15 inches thick and weighing in at 1,235 pounds.

Jefferson's policy to refuse gifts while in office led him on January 4, 1802, to pay Leland $200 for the cheese.[5] 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 may well have been there as late as March of 1804. 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.


  1. This article is based on J. Boehm, Monticello Research Report, October 1997.
  2. The best account of this incident is found in L.H. Butterfield, "The Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant," Proceedings American Antiquarian Society, 62(1953): 216-219. Malone, 4:106-108 supplies an abbreviated account.
  3. Peale, a Republican, was utilizing the term to popularize a specimen he was then mounting in his museum at Philadelphia. Malone, 4: 107.
  4. Norwich Packet, January 26, 1802.
  5. MB, 2:1062.

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