A tale of two presidential big cheeses

The White House is doing its own version of Big Block of Cheese Day on Wednesday, where citizens get to ask the administration questions about almost anything on social media. But did you know there were not one, but two, historical “big cheeses” this media event is based on?

thomasjeffersonMany people familiar with the whole Big Block of Cheese Day concept believe that it came from an episode of “The West Wing,” where fictional White House staffers dealt with oddball citizens requests one day a year, as a continuation of the “big cheese” tradition.

Now, the Obama administration is taking the concept to a different level.

“This isn’t a new idea, the same can be said of President Andrew Jackson. On February 22, 1837, President Jackson hosted an open house featuring a 1,400-pound block of cheese that sat in the main foyer of the White House. This original ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’ opened the doors of the White House to thousands of citizens to interact with cabinet members and White House staff – and carve off a slice of the four foot by two foot thick slab of cheddar,” the White House said in an official statement.

Like all things in Hollywood, and many things in Washington, the idea is based on a real event (or events) and slightly adapted for mass-media consumption.

The first event giant cheese that showed up in Washington was during the time that Thomas Jefferson was President, and it is historically (and constitutionally) significant. This first “lost cheese” doesn’t get the publicity of the Jacksonian Chedder, but it was also the inspiration for the second cheese that appeared at the White House during the Jackson administration.

Jefferson was the lucky recipient of what was called the “Mammoth Cheese.” It was conceived by Elder John Leland, a Jefferson supporter in the Federalist hotbed of Massachusetts. (Jefferson belonged to the rival Democratic-Republican party.)

in 1801, Leland enlisted the ladies of his Baptist congregation to build the giant cheese. He reportedly barred milk from “Federalist cows” from being used in the cheese making 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.

The symbolism of the 1,200 pound Mammoth Cheese was most ripe 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 Jackson.

The president was given a 1,400-pound cheese wheel as a gift, and it sat in the White House for several years. Finally, Jackson allowed the public into the East Room to eat the cheese, which it consumed over several days in 1837. The odors lingered for days after the event.

But it was Jefferson, and not Jackson, who started the Big Cheese tradition at the White House. And it also was Jefferson who started a tradition of an open house of inaugural day where people could walk into the White House and ask questions.

That tradition ended in 1885 when President Grover Cleveland decided to have an inaugural parade instead of the open house.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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