The Big Cheese in Jacksonian America


The United States was irrevocably changed during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. ‘The Age of Jackson’ was a period of progress for some, but of great tragedy for many others. On the 22 February 1837, less than two weeks before the end of Jackson’s term in office, Congress and Senate found themselves forced to adjourn.

As many as ten thousand American citizens had flocked to the White House at the personal invitation of the President himself, and thousands of dollars of damage was inflicted upon the presidential mansion. The reason: Andrew Jackson had a giant block of cheese. The president obtained the two-ton block of cheddar as a gift from a New York dairy farmer, Thomas Meacham. Jackson had frequently opened up the doors of his home to the public. The ‘Great Cheese Levee’ was to be Jackson’s last public levee at the White House before he passed the presidency to his long-term friend Martin Van Buren. 

The circumstances surrounding this impromptu party are bizarre at best. Historians have a tendency to dismiss this story as merely a fun anecdote, a moment of relative political calm in contrast to the horrors of the Trail of Tears. It is intriguing that historians have been so quick to overlook an incident that so nicely encapsulates much of what we now refer to as ‘Jacksonian Democracy’. Jackson’s commitment to setting himself apart from his predecessors, his belief that he was a ‘man of the people’, and his desire to make politics accessible to the general public are all epitomised in this incident. 

Jackson had always made a marked attempt to set himself apart from the political ‘elite’ and emphasised how different his upbringing had been from previous Presidents. In an article in The Washington Globe, he invited the public to visit the White House. This article was written in undeniably Jacksonian rhetoric: he allied himself with the people, referring to them as his fellow citizens and friends. Jackson also made reference to Thomas Jefferson’s giant presidential cheese (yes, Jefferson also had a giant cheese) but in such a way as to consciously differentiate himself from his predecessor:
‘Mr Jefferson’s cheese was the banquet of the east wing in its unfinished state. The New York present will be served in the hall of the President’s mansion’. 

Jackson’s democratic rhetoric is also present in a letter Jackson wrote to a friend, wherein he invites his them to attend along with ‘any of your friends who may wish to accompany you’. Once again, the focus is on familiarity and democracy and does not imply the president has any kind of elite position. On the day of the event, the government closed early to allow key political figures to meet the ‘ordinary people’. The following quote from the New York Express offers an insight into the event:

'This is Washington’s Birthday… The President, the departments, the Senate, and we who are mightier than all—we the people…have celebrated…The President’s house was thrown open. The multitude swarmed in. The Senate of the United States adjourned'.

Here, the reporter conveys the sense of unity between the ordinary people and the politicians who had abandoned government to get involved. The New York Spectator also discusses the people who came to the White House:

'The Senate caught the spirit of the hour, and adjourned about one o’clock…The spectacle at the President’s home was a strange one…The company reminded one of Noah’s ark—all sorts of animals, clean and unclean’.

Popular travel writer Nathaniel Parker Lewis in his 1840 book Loiterings of Travel also depicted the event:

‘I joined the crowd on the twenty-second of February to pay my respects to the President and to see the cheese… the White House, was thronged with citizens of all classes…Bonnets, feathers, uniforms and all, it was rather a gay assemblage’.

These contemporary accounts give a sense of the vast mix of people in attendance, all of whom were being politically engaged to varying degrees. Extending the franchise and breaking down barriers between the supposed political elite and the ordinary people were major aspects of Jackson’s presidency. 

The background of the cheese is also worth considering: the cheese was not made solely as a gift for Jackson. Its creator, Thomas Meacham, was believed to be a Whig, and the gift was supposed to symbolize the prosperity of the state of New York. It was wrapped in a banner saying, ‘The Union, it must be preserved’. The fact that a New York dairy farmer felt he could reach out to the president to made a political statement is a testimony to the Jackson’s approachability. 

The impact of Jackson on the current American political system cannot be overstated. In a recent bid to make the White House more accessible, the government ran a social media campaign entitled ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’, a nod to the legacy of Andrew Jackson. To conclude, the essence of Jacksonian democracy is epitomised in the story of his Big Cheese. This makes it an important event that historians should not so quick to relegate to the footnotes of American political history.

Image: Thomas