Today marks an interesting anniversary in U.S. history—the first known appearance of a huge loaf of bread at the White House, as a tribute to an equally giant, politically charged cheese wheel that symbolized the First Amendment.
The bread was made to honor “The Mammoth Cheese”—a 1,200-pound cheese wheel sent to Jefferson two years earlier as a political statement about religious freedom.
The Mammoth Cheese was conceived by Elder John Leland, a Jefferson supporter in the Federalist hotbed of Massachusetts. (Jefferson belonged to the rival Democratic-Republican party.)
Leland enlisted the ladies of his Baptist congregation to make the giant cheese. He reportedly barred milk from “Federalist cows” from being used in the cheesemaking process. Using milk from 900 Republican cows, they used a large cider press to form the cheese. Leland also carefully ensured that no slaves were used to make the cheese.
Leland’s followers were Baptists in the decidedly non-Baptist New England, and the cheese was seen as a symbol of religious freedom and diversity. The cheese was engraved with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
The Federalist newspapers weren’t amused by the stunt, and they called it “mammoth” as an insult.
The controversy of the word “mammoth” was linked to Jefferson and Charles Willson Peale, the painter and naturalist who had displayed mammoth bones found in America at his Philadelphia museum. Jefferson contributed to Peale’s mammoth research, which the Federalists thought was a waste of funds. Jefferson used the mammoth as a symbol to counter the claims of the French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who said that Europe had bigger animals than the Americas and that therefore Europe’s residents were superior to Americans. The American people sided with Jefferson on the “mammoth issue,” and his supporters started using the word to describe various things related to Jefferson.
The Mammoth Loaf arrived in March 1804 on Capitol Hill as the Mammoth Cheese was two years old and past its prime.
The loaf was placed in a Senate committee room, along with a large amount of roast beef, cider, and whiskey. There isn't convincing evidence that the Mammoth Cheese (or its remaining parts) were part of the feast. The cheese still existed somewhere in Washington, in a greatly diminished form.
The party continued at length, with Jefferson personally involved in the consumption and celebration of mammoth foods.
But the symbolism of the Mammoth Cheese was most poignant on New Year’s Day in 1802, when Leland and his followers personally delivered the cheese to Jefferson at the White House. Jefferson thanked the men at a ceremony and paid them $200 for the cheese.
The event may have inspired Jefferson to finish an important letter that very same day to a different group of New England Baptists.
The president wrote to a group in Connecticut about the “wall of separation” in response to a letter he received from the group several days earlier.
In what became known as the Danbury Baptist letter, Jefferson stated:
“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.”
Jefferson’s phrase “wall of separation” was cited by the Supreme Court as the justification for the separation of church and state implied in the First Amendment. Critics point to the fact that the concept of the “wall of separation” is Jefferson’s and doesn’t appear in the Constitution.
The success of Jefferson’s Mammoth Cheese was repeated in 1835, when a group of farmers in Oswego, New York, made an even bigger cheese and sent it to President Andrew Jackson.
Like Jefferson, Jackson waited two years to have a large party, when he invited people of all classes into the White House to 1837 to finish off the New York cheddar.
The great cheeses were also referenced in several episodes of the TV show The West Wing, when a fictional president granted White House access to people on “Big Block of Cheese Day,” in a tribute to the Jackson cheese.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.