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Andrew Jackson's Big Block of Cheese

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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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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