“I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me.” –Andrew Jackson
Well, this is weird, I thought as I hopped into the back seat of my Uber. I was picked up at the Hermitage for a ride to the Hermitage. With a free day on my own in Nashville, I had been convinced by the concierge at the Hermitage Hotel to venture out of the city limits to see the Hermitage, the estate of the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson.
It’s no secret that I will never be mistaken for a history scholar; I really knew very little about “Old Hickory” until yesterday. What I found was a man who was at once a simple, old fashioned Southern gentleman and also a passionate, forward thinking firebrand. Jackson was a fascinating paradox. He loved his country and his fellow Americans, but did not seem to consider blacks and Indians his equal. More than one historian has dedicated many years to the study of this enigmatic man, so there will not be anything erudite issuing forth from my five hours at the Hermitage. Nonetheless, I want to share what I learned.
The son of Irish immigrants, President Jackson was born in South Carolina in 1767. His father died a few months before his birth. The Revolutionary War spread to the Carolinas in 1778 and had a devastating impact on young Andrew in that he lost two brothers and his mother during that time. He lived for a while with some of his mother’s people, but soon took off to make his own way in the world. He spent the next few years in a rough and tumble lifestyle which earned him a reputation as charismatic, daring, wild, and fearless. Andrew decided he wanted to pursue a career in law, so he moved to North Carolina to study under the tutelage of some attorneys there.
With his law degree secured and some experience under his belt, Jackson moved to Nashville. Young Andrew lived for a while in a boarding house belonging to a Mrs. Donelson. He fell in love with her daughter, Rachel, who had come home to her mother after her marriage failed and her husband took off to Kentucky. There was some talk that she was the victim of domestic violence, but this charge was never substantiated. Andrew and Rachel eloped and married although she was still legally married to her first husband at the time. In 1793, she was finally granted a divorce and she and Andrew legally married in 1794.
Never one to walk away from a fight, Jackson was a principle in three duels and involved in one way or another in many more. A young man by the name of Charles Dickinson was mortally wounded by Jackson in one duel. It is rumored that Mr. Dickinson insulted the honor of Rachel Jackson, but that has never been established as fact because the circumstances surrounding duels were kept between the principles and their representatives. (The Hermitage has reinactments of duels all during the day; suffice it to say that duels following Code Duello bear little resemblance to the portrayal of duels by Hollywood.) Jackson carried a bullet in his shoulder from that duel until the day he died.
Jackson quickly made a name for himself in the War of 1812. His characteristics of fearlessness and decisiveness served him well in the military, especially in the Battle of New Orleans. He found himself lauded as an American hero. Jackson deftly parlayed this fame into service in his nascent political career.
Politically, Jackson had a reputation as a “common man,” a man of the people. He was the first president of the United States who was not from the aristocracy of the new country or a wealthy Virginia landowner. He lacked fancy degrees and a stuffy privileged family pedigree. He shook up politics like no other in his time.
On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson was sworn in as the seventh president. Sadly, his beloved Rachel was not by his side. She died in December of 1828 and it crushed the President-Elect. He always believed that she perished due to the strain on her caused by insults and cruel comments made by the Washington elite. She was accused of bigamy and of being a woman of questionable morals. Months before her death and Jackson’s inauguration, she told a friend, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.” Her wish was granted. Rachel was buried in the garden that she loved at the Hermitage. Andrew Jackson mourned the loss of Rachel for the remainder of his life.
Andrew Jackson left Washington in 1837 having served two presidential terms. His list of accomplishments is long. He is the only president to have paid off the national debt. He strenghtened relationships with other countries. During his time in Washington, America grew from its infancy into young adulthood in so many ways. There is no doubt that Jackson helped shape the US into the country it is today.
Jackson owned many slaves at the Hermitage. It has been said that he had too many, but he did not want to split families by selling any of them. Whas he good to his slaves? Yes, apparently he treated his slaves well, but could any slaveholder be described as “good” to his slaves as long as he enslaved them? As much as Jackson believed in the common man and his rights as bequeathed by God, there is no evidence that it ever occurred to him that slaves should have the same rights and liberty.
Probably the biggest shame on Andrew Jackson’s presidency was the Indian Removal Act of 1831. Jackson thought that Native Americans could not be successfully assimilated into the white man’s world and needed to be relocated for their own good. He thought that their culture would be destroyed if assimilation was even attempted. The infamous Trail of Tears will always be a stain on Andrew Jackson’s legacy. Again, it is just ironic that a man who believed so fervently in the uniquely American concept of government by “We the People” did not consider extending these rights and privileges to free blacks, Native Americans, and women. It might seem like an odd turn of events, but in 1813, Jackson came upon a Native American child crying next to the body of his dead mother after the Battle of Tallushatchee. He took the child, named Lyncoya, and raised him with his own adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Junior. Lyncoya was the only Native American child to have ever grown up in the White House.
Jackson saw many changes during his time. He was the first president to ride a train and only the second to be photographed. He installed bathrooms at the White House as well as running water. The first president to be the target of an assassination attempt, Jackson personally thwarted the would-be assassin by striking the man with his cane and knocking him down.
Andrew Jackson died at the Hermitage in 1845. He was buried next to his beloved Rachel in the garden with ten thousand people in attendance. Poll, his pet parrot, was brought to Jackson’s funeral, but had to be removed when he began cursing the mourners.
I loved my day at the Hermitage. There was so much to see, to do, and to learn there. Now I can’t imagine looking at the face on a twenty dollar bill without thinking about the life and times of “Old Hickory.”