New Year’s Day for so many people means a fresh start, new beginnings, and a chance to revive all those goals you always put on the back burner throughout the years. For Thomas Jefferson in 1802 it meant receiving a giant wheel of cheese.
Elder John Leland from Massachusetts was a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency in 1800 after having gotten to know him in Virginia some years back. He persuaded the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts to send the new President a gift in “honor of his republicanism and his support of religious liberty” (http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mammoth-cheese, retrieved 1/1/2013). The idea of the gift turning into a gigantic wheel of cheese was announced by Leland from his pulpit in the summer of 1801. Preparations were quickly under way to determine the various materials and construction needed to make the cheese. A modified cider press was built in order to house the gift. From all around the area people arrived into town on July 20, 1801 with pails of curb from an estimated 900 cows. After it was completed the cheese was said to be between 1200 and 1400lbs, four feet in diameter, and nearly fifteen inches thick; also engraved in the cheese was a quote which stated “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
It took several weeks for the “Mammoth Cheese”, as one reporter named it, to reach the capital and news of the giant cheese spread throughout the Northern states and eventually the entire country. When it arrived in Washington D.C. it was presented to President Jefferson on January 1, 1802 and Leland praised him “for the singular blessings that have been derived from the numerous services you have rendered to mankind in general.” Jefferson cordially accepted the gift and thanked the people of Cheshire, even cutting the town off a slice. He even later penned that it was “extraordinary proof of the skill with which those domestic arts which contribute so much to our daily comfort are practised by them.”
Aside from an interest piece of random history about the President and cheese this story is actually connected to a large element of our nation’s identity. The cheese was presented by a preacher who was celebrating Jefferson for his beliefs on religious freedom because of our persecuted this denomination had been in the past. Jefferson did not tolerate a government or people bullying another sect for the way in which they worshipped and believed. Jefferson, on that very same day that he received the Mammoth Cheese, wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. A paragraph from that letter shaped the debate of religion and government in this country forever.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
Although this paragraph and the debate behind it is an interesting one to discuss what I find more fascinating is how a 1200lbs wheel of cheese shaped the debate of Church vs. State in this country for the last 200+ years.