Location: Nashville, Tennessee
If Meriwether Lewis had ever made it over the Natchez Trace to its northern terminus in Nashville, he might well have stayed with General Andrew Jackson, then head of the Tennessee militia. Jackson was only seven years older than Lewis and three years older than William Clark. Like them he was part of an emerging generation of leadership that would take America beyond the Revolutionary generation. Visiting Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, is a great way to extend your understanding of Lewis & Clark and the course of western expansion.
Our recent blog, Mr. Jefferson’s Embargo, and some of the comments we got put me in mind of the way that the “stock” of various historical figures goes up and down over time. Like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure in his own time and later. With “greatness” defined solely by public perception, they were both probably at their zenith as heroes in the 1930s. After all, each in his own way pioneered the robust populism that eventually evolved into the New Deal politics of the era. The Jefferson Memorial was a New Deal project, and the Jefferson nickel was introduced in 1938. New Deal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a massive biography called The Age of Jackson which directly linked Jackson to FDR.
But the next generation saw the Civil Rights Movement and with it an interest in the role of minorities in history. All of a sudden Jefferson and Jackson didn’t look so great. It turned out that Jefferson’s fine words rang hollow on the issue of slavery, and that a major portion of Jackson’s career was spent driving the Indians out of their ancestral homes in the Southeast, culminating in the infamous Trail of Tears episode. Right now the stock of both Jefferson and Jackson is probably at its lowest point since each man’s lifetime.
But love or hate him, Jackson was one of the most important of all U.S. presidents. And his personal story was compelling and iconic; this rough man of humble beginnings was the first president to embody the American dream of rags to riches.
The Hermitage experience is every bit as interesting and intense as any presidential home I’ve visited, including Mount Vernon and Monticello. At the very nice visitor center, we saw a short film about Jackson and viewed some exhibits about him and his wife, the long-suffering Rachel. Theirs was one of the great love stories of American history. I especially enjoyed the mannequins dressed in the clothes they would have worn at the reception after Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, which accurately depicted their less-than-perfect physiques. In each other’s eyes, they were beautiful.
A short walk takes you to the house, which Jackson began as a log cabin in 1804 and gradually added to and improved. It is now restored to the period of Jackson’s retirement in the 1840s. I was interested to learn that the massive stone columns that support the plantation portico are actually wood, finished with a sand-textured paint.
Inside, the house is furnished almost entirely with Jackson’s actual possessions; he had exquisite taste. While he knew how and when to project the image of a savage frontiersman, it was clear that Jackson, the first self-made man to become president, was determined to prove to the world that he was also the finest of Southern gentlemen. Beautiful wallpaper in the entrance hall depicts an entire scene from Greek mythology. The parlor and dining room are outfitted for gracious entertaining, and Jackson’s study is a place of refuge and retreat, complete with books, newspapers, and a comfortable recliner.
Rachel died after Jackson’s election and before he was sworn in as president, so he spent his presidency and retirement years as a widower. The bedrooms upstairs included Jackson’s own, with a large portrait of Rachel, and those of his son, daughter-in-law, and many grandchildren, who lived with him throughout his retirement. It was nice to know that the aging Jackson was surrounded by a young and loving family.
All of this genteel living was made possible by over 100 slaves. We saw the kitchen and pantry, the smokehouse, the springhouse, and some of the slave quarters, which are currently being excavated and restored. One touching story was that of Alfred, a slave born at the Hermitage in 1812. Highly capable, Alfred often ran the plantation in Jackson’s absence. He once quietly asked a guest who complimented him on his situation, “How would you like to be a slave?”
After the Civil War, the plantation passed out of the hands of Jackson’s family, but Alfred stayed on, eventually becoming the caretaker and the first tour guide at the Hermitage. He endured until his death in 1910 and is buried in the Jackson family cemetery onsite. His reconstructed cabin can now be seen, providing quite a contrast to the finery of the Hermitage itself.
The beautiful Hermitage gardens, beloved by Rachel, surround the cemetery and tomb of the Jacksons. In his old age, Jackson visited Rachel’s grave every evening at sundown. He never ceased to grieve for her or to be bitter against his enemies for the vicious personal attacks and stress that caused her fatal heart attack.
We left the lovely (though very hot and humid) gardens and had a wonderful lunch in the onsite restaurant, highlighted by bread pudding with caramel sauce. Afterwards, we took in an exhibit of antique quilts, hit the gift shop (great book selection), and stopped by Tulip Grove, the nearby mansion of Jackson’s adopted son, Andrew Jackson Donelson (who later played a key role in the annexation of Texas), and the Hermitage Church (Rachel made him build it).
Topped off this great day in Nashville with dinner at a terrific restaurant called Cock of the Walk — yummy catfish and exceptional hushpuppies — and relaxing swim at the Red Roof pool. A day of history tourism well spent!
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