...in 1801, the Berkshire County town of Cheshire made a 1235-pound ball of cheese and shipped it to Washington, D.C. as a gift for the newly-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a popular figure in western Massachusetts. When news of the "mammoth cheese" reached the eastern part of the state, it caused consternation. Jefferson had won the presidency by defeating John Adams, Massachusetts' native son. Westerners were more in sympathy with Jefferson's vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers than they were with the strong central government advocated by Adams and his supporters in the Federalist Party. Cheshire's cheese was a sign of the tensions over ideology, economics, and politics that long divided the state's eastern and western regions.
The division between east and west in Massachusetts was nothing new in 1801. The western part of the state had never been closely tied to the port towns that dominated eastern Massachusetts. Many of the families that settled Berkshire and Hampshire Counties came from the south, up the Connecticut and Hudson River valleys, rather than from the east. Their settlement patterns and then their trade routes tied them more closely to Connecticut and New York than to eastern Massachusetts.
In the 1760s and 1770s, people in eastern and western counties found common ground in their resistance to British oppression. The fiercely independent farmers of the western Massachusetts hill towns agreed with Boston radicals who called upon citizens to protect their right to life, liberty, and property. Indeed, many Berkshire County towns changed their names to honor Boston Patriots, such as Adams, Hancock, and Otis.
But under the stress of wartime, this unity eroded. The war exacted a high price from small farmers. If they took up arms, the families they left behind struggled to make ends meet. High taxes assessed to pay for the cost of the war forced many into debt and some into bankruptcy. Farmers with larger operations could provision the troops, and make a profit, while helping the cause. These larger farms were concentrated in the east and in the Connecticut River Valley. Small farmers believed they bore an inequitable share of the war's costs and resented it. The feeling was especially acute in the western counties.
The differences and conflicts between east and west erupted into heated debates as soon as work began on framing a constitution for the new state. The first version, drafted in 1778, proposed property qualifications for state senators and the governor, and gave the right to vote only to men who owned property. Westerners were outraged, and the document was defeated. Although the debate revealed differences in politics and class as well as region, the clearest divide was of vision. Most westerners viewed themselves as common farmers and tradesmen; they favored government by ordinary men who would be responsive to popular wishes. In general, easterners believed in a strong central government that would support trade and fund internal improvements, and they believed that government should be run by the best that is, the wealthiest and most educated men acting in the interests of all.
In 1779, when a constitutional convention appointed John Adams to re-draft the document, he knew that he would have to balance conflicting ideals deference to order and authority against personal rights and liberties that to a large extent reflected conflicts between the eastern and western parts of the state. In a brilliant synthesis of political thought, Adams's draft protected rights, while establishing a strong and balanced frame of government. Neither east nor west was completely satisfied, but in the end, Adams's compromise succeeded; the state was united under one constitution.
Not surprisingly, the document did not resolve the regional differences. Pockets of anti-Federalists were scattered across the Commonwealth, but the west was the stronghold of Republicanism. After the Revolution, the government in Boston imposed heavy taxes to pay the state's war debts, and small farmers were hit especially hard. In western Massachusetts, anger turned to open insurrection. In 1787 Daniel Shays and a band of armed farmers tried to shut down the courts to stop foreclosures.
The radical Republicanism of the western counties resurfaced in the bitterly contested election of 1800, which pitted the Federalist John Adams against the Republican Thomas Jefferson. Never mind that Adams was a Massachusetts man through and through. To people in the western part of the state, he was the incarnation of the eastern elite they so resented. Jefferson might be a wealthy Virginia planter, but he embodied the promise of economic independence for the small farmer.
In the fall of 1801, Cheshire's Baptist minister transported the huge cheese ball to the nation's capital. On New Year's Day of 1802, he ceremoniously presented it to the president as a gift from the people of Cheshire. The minister and his congregation believed that Jefferson's vision of limited government would be their salvation. A native son had been defeated, but the voters of Cheshire viewed the election as a victory.
Gazetteer of Berkshire County, Mass. 1725-1885, "Town of Cheshire," compiled by Hamilton Child (Hamilton Child, 1885).
"Elder John Leland and the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese," by C. A. Browne in Agricultural History 18 (1944), pp. 145-153.
"Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant," by L. H. Butterfield in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 62 (1952), pp.154-252.
Massachusetts: A Concise History, by Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).