February 19, 2011

Thomas Jefferson and the Giant Cheese

Here's a great little story about a big cheese, just in time for Presidents Day.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the U.S. in 1801, many people in New England were unhappy. To be specific, many Congregational ministers were unhappy. Jefferson was a big fan of separating church and state, and the Congregational ministers looked back fondly to the days when New England was a Puritan theocracy. Although the Congregational church was still the official state church of Massachusetts, with someone like Jefferson in office it seemed like even this privilege would soon be gone. Supposedly, when news of his election reached Massachusetts housewives hid their Bibles because they were afraid Jefferson would confiscate them.

However John Leland, the Baptist minister of the tiny town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, was overjoyed that Jefferon was the new president. As the practitioner of a minority faith in New England, Leland wanted to express his excitement in a big, big way.

At a Sunday service after the election, Leland presented his plan to the congregation. If each family contributed some milk, they could produce the world's largest wheel of cheese as a gift for President Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson: patriot, president, cheese lover!

The congregation embraced his idea, and contributed milk from 900 cows to produce a mammoth wheel of cheese that weighed over 1,200 lbs. Over the course of three weeks the cheese was slowly transported down the coast to the capital, accompanied by Pastor Leland, who preached to curious crowds along the way. By time it reached Baltimore, one local commentator claimed the ripening cheese was now strong enough to walk the rest of the way on its own.

The minister and his cheese reached Washington in December, where both were enthusiastically greeted by Jefferson. The cheese was eaten over the course of two years. Sadly, its spotlight was finally stolen by a giant loaf of bread baked by the U.S. Naval Academy. (No, really, that's true.)

In some ways this is just a quirky little story, but beyond the giant cheese there are some interesting facts:

  • The fear that the government is going to steal our Bibles is still used to this day by some conservative politicians! (If you haven't noticed, the government still hasn't confiscated all the Bibles in the country. I think we can relax.)
  • Jefferson, Leland and the people of Cheshire were all Republicans, which was the more liberal party of that era. (Leland's congregation said even their cows were Republican.) Jefferson defeated Massachusetts' own John Adams in the election, who represented the Federalist Party.
  • Although Thomas Jefferson was a religious liberal (who doubted the existence of God, angels and the human soul), he was a slave-owner, unlike John Adams. The various political threads we now consider liberal weren't always woven together the same way.
  • Congregationalists are now one of the more liberal religious denominations, while some Baptists (particularly the Southern Baptists) are quite conservative.
I wish I could sum this all up with a pithy remark, but I can't. Perhaps for this Presidents Day we should all just eat some local cheese and think about our country's weird political history. And ponder if cows can really have a political affiliation.

I got most of my information from the Acton Institute, with a little help from Wikipedia. You can see the monument Cheshire erected to honor their giant cheese here.


Brian said...

Great post! I'm sharing with a foodie friend of mine!

Anonymous said...

The "Parker House Roll" was alo invented here , a breakfast roll with a crease across the top. There is a story about a woman who planned to attend the beaux Arts Ball as Cleopatra; her costume consisted only of a rhinestone in her navel. En route in a taxi, the jewell popped out; she searched with help from the taxi driver but couldn't find it. "What will I do, naked, with no costume" she wailed. "Well, said the taxi driver, "when you get to the door, turn araund and back in. If anyone asks, tell them you came as a Parker House Roll!"