On January 1, 1802 an unusual gift arrived for the new president, Thomas Jefferson. It was a 1,235 pound hunk of cheese from the Elder John Leland and the Cheshire Baptists. Why would this devout Baptist preacher bestow such a conspicuous gift on the deistic Jefferson? The answer is simple: Leland saw Jefferson as one his ablest allies in the struggle for democracy and religious liberty. Delivering the cheese personally, Leland recited a message from a committee of five influential citizens from Cheshire, declaring that they were presenting him with the enormous cheese:
“as a token of the esteem we bear to our chief Magistrate and of the sense we entertain of the singular blessings that have been derived from the numerous services you have rendered to mankind in general and more especially to this favored nation, over which you preside. It is not the last stone of the Bastille, nor is it an article of great pecuniary worth, but as a freewill offering we hope it will be favorably received.”
From all accounts the cheese was “favorably received.” One account recalls that the cheese was carved “in the presence of the president and cabinet, foreign diplomats and many distinguished men and women of ancient note…and that it was the object of great curiosity.” Leland received special thanks and was “introduced person, by person by the president, to the entire gathering.” The celebration for Leland did not end with the ceremony; he celebrated all the way home in what “resembled a triumphant march.” (1) This little known event is a reminder of the great alliance between rationalists such as Jefferson, and the pious dissenters who helped establish religious liberty in the new nation.
John Leland grew up in New England, but he spent his early career in Virginia, where he came to admire Jefferson and Madison. In a popular sermon given soon after Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, he declared, in reference to Jefferson: