Andrew Jackson was a character. He challenged men to duels. He invited “common people” into the White House after his inauguration (and the common people trashed it). He ignored Supreme Court rulings. He expanded the powers of the president. He deeply loved his wife.
Everyone had an opinion about Jackson: either you loved him or you hated him. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “When I was President of the Senate he was a Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. His passions are no doubt cooler now but he is a dangerous man.”
Last Saturday I drove to the Hermitage, Jackson’s Tennessee plantation northeast of Nashville, to visit the home Jackson loved. It was worth the trip.
When you pull in to the Hermitage off a small Tennessee highway, the grounds spread out before you like a green carpet dotted with trees. The blue sky and quiet breeze made me feel like I’d stepped back in time to an era when most of Tennessee was wide open pastures or dense, green forests. The winding drive deposits you in front of the visitor center and museum. I popped into the bookstore first, to see if there were any books I would absolutely have to buy later. Of course, I saw some, but managed to restrain myself.
After paying the $18 admission fee, I ventured inside the museum and the small theater. A surprising number of people were crowded around waiting for the movie to start. When it did, I was pleased that it didn’t try to gloss over Jackson’s many faults or the faults of southern society during that era. The film bluntly described the slave system, a system Jackson had no problem with, and described how the South depended on slaves for its wealth. It also mentioned another topic that I have a special interest in, Jackson’s role in the Indian removals in the first half of the 1800s.
After watching the film, I wandered around in the museum. The exhibits focused mostly on Jackson the man, and what his plantation was like when he lived there. Several portions of the exhibit focused on the slaves and slave families that lived and worked at the Hermitage.One exhibit explained how Jackson gave a slave to his in-laws as a wedding gift. I find it so bizarre that people in the days of slavery gave human beings away as gifts.
The rest of the museum featured information about Rachel Jackson, the president’s beloved wife, and aspects of their home life. Rachel and Jackson did share a very deep connection. In 1813, she wrote a letter to him that said: “”Do not my Beloved Husband let the love of Country, fame and honor let you forget you have me. Without you I would think them all empty shadows. You will say this is not the Language of a Patriot but it is the language of a Faithfull wife.” Rachel was not an outgoing woman and preferred the company of her family to big parties and social events. She was drawn into one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in our history in 1828 (You think today’s campaigns are bad? Not compared to some of the earliest ones!). John Quincy Adams’ campaign brought up the fact that Rachel was not officially divorced from her first husband when she married Jackson. The Adams campaign accused Rachel of being a bigamist, among other unsavory things. The accusations and personal attacks deeply hurt her. She died before Jackson was inaugurated. He was inconsolable and went into deep mourning. He never forgave those who drew her name into the muckraking of the election.
After wandering around the museum, I headed out the back door towards the Hermitage mansion itself. The building is surprisingly small, but quite lovely.
The mansion is one of the best preserved Presidential homes in the country because luckily it transferred to the state of Tennessee not too many years after Jackson’s death. The original wallpaper is intact in the front parlor, a lovely Paris print that depicts scenes from an ancient Greek myth of a visit to the island of Calypso. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures. The interior rooms are walled off by plexiglass, making it really kind of hard to view the items in each room since you have to jostle other visitors to peer inside. Jackson’s bedroom is almost exactly as it was during his life except that the draperies have been replaced with exact replicas. A lovely portrait of Rachel hangs over the fireplace, making it the last thing Jackson would have seen when he went to bed and the first thing he would have looked at each morning.
After touring the home, I went out on the back porch. A kitchen and smokehouse are accessible from here. The kitchen is a newer addition, built after a kitchen fire destroyed part of the mansion. I wandered over to take a tour of the gardens. Rachel evidently loved her garden and it is a pretty little area. When Rachel died, Jackson buried her there.
Paths wind in and out of nicely manicured flowerbeds, and a large open lawn had a huge white tent sitting smack in the middle of the green grass. The grounds would be a really nice spot for a party.
The path eventually wound around to a small cemetery where Rachel, Jackson, and several other relatives and former slaves are buried. A stone gazebo shelters Rachel and Jackson’s simple tombs. It’s a peaceful spot for quiet reflection. After Rachel died, Jackson reportedly came to the grave every day to visit Rachel. When he died, he was laid to rest next to her. Her gravestone reads:
Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died December 22nd 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind. She delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow-creatures,and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods. To the poor she was a benefactress; to the rich she was an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament. Her pity went hand in hand with her benevolence; and she thanked her Creator for being able to do good. A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor. Even death, when he tore her from the arms of her husband, could but transplant her to the bosom of her God.
His tombstone simply reads “General Andrew Jackson.”
A few other gorgeous tombstones are located in the small cemetery, including one from a long-time slave, and later freeman, Uncle Alfred.
Next I wandered the grounds. My first stop was a small springhouse next to the site of Jackson’s original home on the plantation. He moved into a small log cabin and lived there for several years before building the existing mansion. No rivers flowed across the property, but two excellent springs provided water to both the main house and slave quarters. The springs were a bit low when I visited, but plenty of water bubbled out of the ground, enough for the needs of the people living there. I did wonder about irrigation. What happened when rain was scarce and the cotton crop suffered?
A couple of slave quarters remain, but several were reduced to rubble many years ago. Archaeologists excavated several of the slave cabin sites, discovering a wealth of information about how they lived. When the archaeologists finished excavating, they placed stone blocks where walls once stood. Nothing else remains of the places where so many slaves lived and died.
A few horse-drawn carriages passed me. Visitors can pay for a ride around the grounds with a guide. It seemed a bit dusty to me, but the bit of commentary I overheard proved that the guides are very knowledgeable about the plantation, slave life, and probably everything else related to the tour.
After visiting all of the sites around the plantation, I sat in the grass, looked up at the sky, and thought about Andrew Jackson, about Rachel, and all of the slaves who lived and toiled here. It’s a beautiful place with a rich history. If you’re interested in the history of the early 1800s, this place will take you back to a time that was very different from today.