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Andrew Jackson's Big Block of Cheese

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On January 29th, the White House is holding "Big Block of Cheese Day." Inspired by Andrew Jackson (and Aaron Sorkin), "dozens of White House officials will take to social media for a day long 'open house' to answers questions from everyday Americans in real-time." Here's the story of Jackson's big cheese.

There’s a great scene in The West Wing's episode “The Crackpots and These Women” in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) tries to invigorate his exasperated team with a story about how Andrew Jackson kept a two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of the White House. According to Leo’s story, Jackson left the cheese there as a populist symbol; anyone who was hungry could pop in to the White House for a quick bite to eat.

While the notion of Jackson operating a free federal snack bar is appealing, the story told by Leo isn’t totally accurate. However, it’s not all that far from the truth. Andrew Jackson did own a monstrous block of cheese.

This is its story.

How did Andrew Jackson end up owning a big block of cheese?

The people loved Jackson. Jackson loved cheese. What better way to celebrate Jacksonian democracy than by sending Old Hickory himself an enormous wheel of cheese? Dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham of Sandy Creek, NY, hit on this notion in 1835, and he had the know-how to craft a titanic cheddar. The fruit of Meacham’s labor was a wheel that was four feet in diameter and two feet thick, weighed nearly 1400 pounds, and was wrapped in a giant belt that bore patriotic inscriptions like, “The Union, it must be Preserved.”

This cheese was actually the crown jewel of a larger collection of ten cheeses that appeared at an 1835 patriotic celebration in Oswego, NY. After the locals all got a good look at the cheese and felt themselves well up with national pride, the wheel was loaded onto a schooner and set sail for its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Meacham sent off two other 750-pound wheels in the same shipment, one to Vice President Martin Van Buren and one to New York Governor William L. Marcy.

At some point, we’ve all received a thoughtful, touching, impractical gift and wondered, “What the hell am I going to do with this?” Jackson apparently had the same reaction when the cheese finally arrived at the White House. According to 19th-century biographer James Parton’s Life of Andrew Jackson, the old general gave giant chunks of the cheese to his friends, but he was still left with an absurdly outsized block. Jackson could conquer the Bank of the United States, but he was helpless against such a massive wheel of cheese.

By 1837 Jackson’s second term was winding down, and he wasn’t about to haul a two-year-old mountain of cheese with him when he left office. So he decided to make the famed fromage a featured player at his last public reception at the White House. It was an astute move; there’s nothing people love more than free food. The reception’s 10,000 visitors attacked the wheel of cheese with such fervor that the entire thing was gone within two hours.

The reception took care of the cheese-disposal problem, but the cheddar certainly wasn’t forgotten. There are certain downsides to sending a big honking block of cheese to a warm climate like Washington and having it sit around for a couple of years. Namely, the cheese starts to get a bit fragrant, and a block that massive can give off some serious cheese-stink. Washingtonians could allegedly smell the cheese, which one dubbed “an evil-smelling horror,” for several blocks around the White House before the big party.

Of course, if a cheese has sat in a room long enough, its aroma can permeate into the fixtures. Jackson’s successor, Van Buren, apparently found this out the hard way. The Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Volume 13 from 1912 reprinted a letter written by former Senator John Davis’ wife, Eliza, in 1838. Mrs. Davis wrote:

The White House has been put in order by its present occupant, and is vastly improved – (Van Buren) says he had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days; to take away the curtains and to paint and white-wash before he could get the victory over it. He has another cheese like that which General Jackson had cut, and says he knows not what to do with it. What a foolish thing for a man to have made such a present to him or anyone else.

While Jackson’s reception cleared the White House of one smelly wheel of cheese, there’s some evidence to suggest that he left at least one other hulking block around as a housewarming gift for Van Buren. According to Gilson Willets’ 1908 book The Inside History of the White House, Van Buren eventually held a charity auction in 1839 to get rid of the last remnants of Jackson’s old dairy holdings, a 700-pound wheel of cheddar that also came from Meacham’s New York farm.

Bonus Fact

In that West Wing episode, a young Nick Offerman ("Ron Swanson") played a man lobbying the White House to build a $900 million wolves-only roadway. Work that into conversation at your next cheese party.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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founding fathers
Inside the Quest to Save 42 Giant Presidential Statues
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Gary Knapp // Getty Images

In 2004, Presidents Park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a huge open-air museum containing 42 two-story-high busts of the presidents to date at the time. Visitors could perambulate among the presidents, reading plaques about them. (Note: There are only 42 busts in total because of Grover Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms.)

In 2013, local builder Howard Hankins was hired to remove and destroy the busts, after the attraction itself went bust. Hankins had another idea. He carefully transported all the busts to his family farm. This cleared the way for an Enterprise Rent-a-Car facility now located on the former grounds of Presidents Park. It also left him with 43 giant statues, many of them slightly damaged, to deal with.

Over the ensuing years, Hankins has walked among the busts, weeding the grounds and struggling to figure out what to do with these "giants of men." He loosely envisions a similar attraction, this time called The Presidential Experience. Ideally it would have a better location to attract tourists. But Hankins lacks the funding to make it a reality. Since the original haul, he has managed to secure a tiny template for an Obama bust, but couldn't afford to purchase the full-size version. No word yet on a Trump bust.

In the short film All the Presidents' Heads directed by Adam Roffman, we meet Hankins, see the busts, and learn about the possible second coming of a presidential roadside attraction. Enjoy:

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