Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Big Cheese

The root of the problem was that Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths. 

It was easy to see evidence of this obsession, as he kept the lower and upper jawbones of a mammoth in the entry hall of Monticello.  (And they are still there.)  While residing in the White House, he turned the largest room—the East Room—into something of a private museum, with bones scattered all over the floor.  In idle times, the president would try to rearrange them into some kind of order.

Jefferson’s obsession with fossilized bones, extending well beyond just those of mammoths, was so intense that today he is often referred to as the father of modern day paleontology.

Besides being b fascinated with paleontology, Jefferson was interested in mammoths because of the writings of the French scientist George Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon.  Buffon was one of the foremost naturalists in the world, and was working on a multi-volume work, the Histoire Naturelle, that would attempt to explain the entire natural world, including descriptions of the world’s plants and animals, of how animals were domesticated, and even of the origin of the solar system. 

In Volume V, Buffon attempted to answer why the animals of the New World were so obviously inferior, at least in size, to those of the Old World.  Buffon had never been to the Americas, and simply accepted the common European view of life in the New World, in which it was widely accepted that there was something unnaturally unhealthy about life in the New World:  Not only was there a dearth of large animals, but what animals did exist were notably smaller, weaker, and less healthy than their counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Asia.  American dogs could not bark as loud as European dogs, European birds could fly better than their American counterpart.

Somehow, it was even the common belief in Europe that the deer of the New World were puny.  Years ago, while traveling in England, my son What’s-His-Name (not The-Other-One) was describing New Mexico mule deer to a young man who had just gone deer hunting near Oxford.  Fascinated, he gave my son a key ring made from the foot of a deer he had recently harvested.  As you can see at left, it is about the size of a rabbit’s foot.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a large portion of the New World had yet to be discovered, and even those areas that had been explored were poorly documented.  The Spanish, in particular had already had extensive experience with wolves, jaguars, mountain lions, grizzly bear, Rocky Mountain elk, and buffalo.  Despite this, the Spanish, too, believed that life in the new world was unhealthy, producing inferior specimens. 

This belief even extended to people born in the New World.  If you had two sons, the one born in Europe would be stronger, smarter, and more capable than the son who happened to be born in the unhealthy New World.  The basis of this belief was due, in part, to the mosquito-borne illnesses prevalent in most of the Spanish ports.  Ironically, these diseases were imported by the Spanish (most likely in the water barrels of slave ships arriving from Africa).  The death rate of Europeans immigrating to the New World once they arrived in these pestilent ports was very high, reaching over a quarter of all new arrivals at times.

Buffon’s work was widely distributed, particularly among the European aristocrats who had both the leisure time and wealth necessary to be  naturalists.  Jefferson was furious that Buffon’s theory was generally accepted as proof that the American “experiment” with democracy was doomed to failure—that Americans were simply too mentally feeble for self-government.  Benjamin Franklin, by contrast, was amused by the notion.  When the topic came up during a diplomatic meeting in Paris, Franklin ordered everyone in the room to stand up, then pointed out that the Americans assembled towered over the diminutive French diplomats.

Despite Jefferson’s repeated written requests, Buffon refused to retract his opinion, so the Virginian sought to provide irrefutable proof.  He arranged to have a moose stuffed and shipped to Europe, but unfortunately the taxidermist did a poor job and it was a putrid rotting unidentifiable carcass that was actually deposited on Buffon’s doorstep.

What Jefferson really wanted as proof was a mammoth.  Not the prehistoric remains of one, Jefferson wanted a live mammoth.  In spite of the fact that they had been extinct for at least 4,000 years in North America, Jefferson fervently hoped that some might still be roaming around somewhere in the unexplored West.  Why not?  No one had been there yet, and there was a popular belief among some naturalists that God would not allow any of his creations to become extinct. 

Jefferson went to great lengths to gather evidence, writing friends and associates to search salt licks and creek bottoms for the skeletal remains of the elephant-like critters.  He collected the molars of mastodons (many of which were shipped at fairly large expense by some of the founding fathers of the country).  He measured bones and collected enough material that he eventually wrote a book, Notes of the State of Virginia, that favorably compared the measurements of animals in Virginia against their counterparts in Europe.  

All of these actions by Jefferson were nothing compared to his secret master plan—to perhaps capture a living mammoth.  When Lewis and Clarke set off to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, they carried secret instructions to be on the lookout for wooly mammoths.  (Jefferson also suspected the existence of a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians—but that’s a different story.)  While no pachyderms were sighted, the explorers did identify 178 new plants and 122 new animals.

Jefferson did, ultimately receive his mammoth, but it wasn’t wooly.  To honor Jefferson’s election, the Baptist parishioners of Cheshire, Massachusetts collected the milk from 900 cows and using a cider press as an improvised cheese press, created a 4’ wide, 1235 pound cheese bearing the inscription “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  To be certain that the cheese was pure, no milk was gathered from cows belonging to supporters of the Federal Party, Jefferson’s political opponents.

The huge cheese took three weeks to transport 500 miles by sleigh, ship, and hired wagon to Washington, where Jefferson promptly put it in the East Room along with his mammoth bones.  Since Jefferson was opposed to the notion of an Imperial Presidency, he insisted on paying for the cheese. 

Federalist politicians, delighted in making fun of the cheese, referring to it as the Mammoth Cheese because of all the bones also to be found in the room.  This was the first time that the word “mammoth” was used as a synonym for “huge”, a practice that continues to this day.  Within weeks, butchers and bakers began shipping to the White House similar items.  Jefferson received a mammoth cake, a mammoth veal, and so forth.

No one is exactly sure what happened to the mammoth cheese, though it was a featured part of a July 4, celebration a year later.  Supposedly it stayed in the East Room for over two years, before the remains were dumped into the Potomac River to make room for the Mammoth Loaf of Bread being presented to Jefferson by the US Navy.

Luckily, the tradition of mammoth gifts died out for a while.  In 1835, President Andrew Jackson was presented with a new, and even larger Mammoth Cheese.  Despite his best efforts to get rid of the cheese, it took Jackson years to dispose of it.  In 1838, the newly elected President Van Buren complained bitterly that the entire White House reeked of cheese.

Since 1835, the White House has rejected all gifts of cheese, regardless of size.


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  2. Rather than make a cheesy comment about the hazards of playing "my cheese is bigger than your cheese", I would note that Ben Franklin's response was probably the best and most American one. Instead of arguing with snooty Europeans, simply tower over them, especially when Germans are attempting to overrun their countries and they're inclined to be more grateful for the largeness of America. The British could hardly help noticing the very largeness of the American soldiers packed onto their island during the run-up to D-Day. The English girls couldn't help noticing all those big handsome American soldiers either, which is why when the U.S. military went home, they carried off so many pretty English (and French) girls. US soldiers based in Germany are still carrying off German girls to this day. So much for whose what-it is bigger than whose (which is, of course, largely what that's been all about from the beginning).