Coming to Terms with Andrew Jackson
My first trip to the Hermitage was in 1998 after an all night road trip from State College to Nashville. I dare say we embarked on the trip for the sole purpose of visiting the home of Andrew Jackson, we did not. We went to visit friends. But they obliged me a few hours to traipse the land of the seventh president.
The second time I visited the Hermitage was in 2012 with my wife. Somehow I scored exclusive (and free!) tickets to a special concert by the Oak Ridge Boys hosted by Sirius XM Radio. So we took a weekend trip to Nashville where I sat three feet from Richard Sterban, the bass singer of the Oaks, as he belted all my favorite songs. I don’t have photos of this concert as we were instructed not to bring cameras inside. Having dutifully left mine in the car so not to be tempted to sneak a pic, imagine my dismay when I looked up during Elvira to see the other twenty people all holding up cameras. Oh well. My wife and I enjoyed a tour of the Hermitage, a ride in the horse drawn carriage around the property, and paid our respects at the family cemetery in the garden.
This third time visiting occurred during a solo Chasing Presidents in Tennessee adventure over the Fourth of July weekend in 2022. It began in Greenville visiting a campus of sites all circling number seventeen, Andrew Johnson. I trekked westward and landed in Nashville, deciding to spit my Saturday between Jackson and James Knox Polk. The Hermitage was becoming familiar to me. It was hot, and my black t-shirt proved unwise in the
Southern Sun” that Hank Williams Jr. wrote would “make you beg for your next breath.”
A tip for the adventurous “Chasing Presidents” type people reading this blog. Early morning tours are best. Try to either register for the first tour of the day in advance, or arrive plenty early to get in line. (Yes, some presidential sites have lines. Jackson’s is one of them.) Why the mention for an early tour? A fresh tour guide who has not spent the day in the sun or about to embark on their fifth speech of the day is preferred.
I just erased three paragraphs of examples of how a late day tour can feel rushed or sometimes even painful, but it felt like I was complaining. Everyone has an off day. Some have off weeks. You just have to hope for the best and if it turns sour, there are always books in the gift shop.
The docents of the Hermitage are very good. They balance the excitement of visiting a President’s home with the massive recall of facts about all sorts of things. You never know when someone is going to ask about a table or wallpaper or a spoon at the place setting. Sometimes spoons are interesting, I suppose, when Andrew Jackson once ate his cornmeal with it.
What struck me about this visit was something I must have missed previously. Jackson’s stately home is not the house he spent the most time living inside during his lifetime. He lived with his wife in a very small home a few hundred yards from the present house. It was a much more primitive life, as one would suspect of ‘everyone else’ on the frontier in the early 19th century. I felt the presence of Jackson inside the main house. But there was something altogether different out back, as the house that once hosted Jackson was passed to his slaves.
Jackson has been under fire recently for his policies toward Native Americans throughout his service to the United States, both as General and President. And his plantation, and therefore his lifestyle, thrived because of enslaved men and women who bore the workload without the benefit of freedom or profit. Two very important segments of our society were mistreated by one of our presidents. This is a fact and I am not going to shy away from or ignore it. The Hermitage is far ahead of any of us, in blending the complicated story of Jackson, his enslaved population, and the Native Americans he mercilessly pushed west.
In May I had the opportunity to attend a Conference on White House History hosted by the White House Historical Association. Throughout the day, leaders from presidential sites coming from all corners of the country gathered to discuss the ‘story’ of some of our presidents and the need to include the members of our society that have fought for human and civil rights: African Americans, Women, Native Americans and many smaller segments throughout our history. It is a difficult blend. I don’t believe our founders came up with the concept of a melting pot, but whoever did failed the people who believe it.
As I sat and listened to the leaders discuss the need to tell two stories for some presidents, I couldn’t help but hold back the pessimist in me who saw a bleak future of two driveways into Monticello- one for the people who celebrate Jefferson the white man and one for people who celebrate the black men and women who suffered because of him.
But it will not be so bleak. Sites such as The Hermitage, Monticello and Mount Vernon are long accustomed to the difficult blend of telling a story about men who are deeply flawed at the same time infinitely important.
It is why I continue to go back.