Life on the Frontier of Change

Published: February 8th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Hermitage mansionHermitage mansionHermitage mansion

The front of the Hermitage with columns
Most of today was another day behind the wheel.

I needed some time out of the car, and found it in Nashville.

I went to the Hermitage.

This is the cotton plantation founded by one of American history’s more crucial, and controversial, figures: Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was the third of three sons of Irish immigrants.

His father died during the crossing, so his mother was a widow when he was born in rural South Carolina (a few people claim he was born on ship, and forged his birth papers later).

Life on what was then the frontier was very rough.

All three boys ultimately joined the army during the Revolution.

South Carolina commanders used boys like them to run messages to the troops and other armies.

The job was crucial and also very dangerous; both of Andrew’s brothers died before the war was over.

His mother died of smallpox soon afterward, leaving him an orphan.

After the war was over, he moved to what was then the territory of Tennessee and earned a law degree.

While there, he met and courted the daughter of
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Tour guides relax between tours at the Hermitage
a prominent plantation family, Rachel Robards.

Her father eventually agreed, and they married in 1791.

They did not have any children.

He founded the Hermitage during this time.

The life of a frontier planter did not really suit him.

When the US declared war on Britain in 1812, Andrew Jackson eagerly reenlisted, and became a general.

It was thanks to primitive communication methods that Jackson had the moment that made him a national hero.

The British king had already opened peace negotiations when a large British force advanced on the newly acquired US territory of New Orleans in 1815.

Andrew Jackson organized a ragtag force of New Orleans Creoles, US settlers, Creek Indians, and Caribbean pirates to defend the city

They won.

The participation of the Creeks is worth noting in particular, given their deep dislike of European settlers.

Soon afterward, Andrew Jackson led military campaigns against Seminole Indians in what is now Florida and Alabama

This was a controversial move at the time; for one thing the US did not have clear claim to the territory.

These actions
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A portion of the restored gardens at the Hermitage
did make Jackson a hero to frontier settlers like himself, however.

After that success, Andrew Jackson decided to run for President in 1824.

People like to paper over it at this point, but the United States was founded mostly by men who owned significant property and wealth, and early leaders came from this class.

They ran the country primarily for their benefit.

Frontier settlers, especially new immigrants, did not fit in this picture.

If anyone had any doubts, the property requirements for voting and holding office in most states made it quite clear.

Andrew Jackson took offence at this.

He was now a plantation owner, but he remembered his early frontier days and sympathized accordingly.

The election was contested in the Electoral College, and Jackson ultimately lost to John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, in 1828, he ran again.

He borrowed a page from Jefferson’s campaign of almost thirty years earlier, and formed his own political party, the Democratic Republicans.

Eventually the “Republican” part of the name was dropped, and the party evolved into the current Democrats.

This party was devoted to causes favored by
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The graves of Andrew and Rachel Jackson at the Hermitage
settlers and the poor: opening the frontier, dismantling institutions that favored the landed gentry, and (above all) widening who could vote.

Jackson campaigned non-stop, and this time won.

His administration was marked by many initiatives.

He pressured the states to remove property qualifications for government participation, and mostly succeeded.

He destroyed the Bank of the US, which many poor people saw as a government subsidy to rich industrialists.

Most importantly, he battled his own Vice President, John Calhoun, over nullification, the right of states to supersede federal laws they disagreed with.

This fight presaged conflicts that a generation later would cause the Civil War (and surfaced again in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s).

Most controversially, Jackson promoted and implemented the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which allowed the US government to forcibly remove all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma.

Jackson these days is seen as a contradiction.

He promoted extending government participation, but only to white settlers like himself.

White immigrants from Europe should have increased rights, but Indians who had lived in what was now the US for thousands of years
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The grave of Alfred, one of Andrew Jackson's slaves and the last person alive who personally knew him.
should not have any.

Women and slaves weren’t even on the agenda.

The on-site museum makes the point that Jackson’s ideas were very radical for their time, and eventually other oppressed groups would push for greater inclusion using many of the same arguments Jackson used.

The Hermitage

The highlight of a visit is a tour of the Hermitage mansion.

The tours are conducted by guides in period costume.

It’s worth noting that these costumes reflect the Federal period rather than the antebellum one, which was a relief after so many hoopskirts earlier in the trip .

The building is laid out on the classic Federal period design, with a central corridor and symmetrically laid out rooms.

The house has a row of columns both front and back.

Unusually, the building has almost all original furniture and books.

The entrance hallway is covered in silkscreened wallpaper.

It tells a Roman myth.

Andrew Jackson bought it because his wife liked the story.

The second floor hallway has the same wallpaper.

At one end of the hall lies Jackson’s study, which is filled
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The single standing slave cabin at the Hermitage. It was used by sharecroppers after the Civil War.
with bound newspapers.

Jackson devoured the news during his Presidency, and subscribed to nineteen daily papers.

Another room is filled with military artifacts.

Front and center is Jackson’s sword, which he kept near him at all times.

The last notable room is Jackson’s bedroom.

He died in bed, which has been left as it was at that time.

A portrait of his wife lies on the opposite wall.

She died during his second presidential campaign, and he kept the portrait in his possession throughout his remaining years.

After the house, I took a walk through the garden.

The Hermitage has a formal garden, which all proper houses were expected to at the time.

While Jackson was alive, slave gardeners kept the garden.

After Jackson’s death, the garden fell into deep disrepair.

Volunteers have reconstructed it, but most is based on research of what gardens would be like at the time, not the specific design Jackson used.

It’s based on a classic English design of four open grass areas surrounded by flowering plants.

Near the garden is the only tree on the estate
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The Saturn S1 rocket outside the Alabama welcome center.
which is known to have been alive in Jackson’s time.

It’s a tulip popular, which grows slowly enough it looks smaller than the surrounding oak trees.

Beyond the garden lies a copula.

This is the site of the family cemetery.

Jackson and his wife are buried next to each other under the copula.

The cemetery has a number of other gravestones, all descendents of relatives of Jackson’s wife.

It also has the notable grave of one of Jackson’s slaves, Alfred.

He was just a boy when Jackson was alive, and after the Civil War he became a sharecropper on the land.

At the time of his death, he was the last person to have known Jackson personally.

Entering Alabama

After leaving the Hermitage, I had a decision to make.

My original plans were to tour Alabama next.

That was before a deadly black cloud ripped through the state, leaving destroyed land and misery in its wake.

I did some research at an interstate welcome center and made some calls.

In the major cities at least, the state was functioning.

Power was on, hotel rooms were available, attractions were open, and stations had gas at affordable prices.

The rural parts of the state were another story entirely.

I ultimately decided to go, because the historic sites in Birmingham are too important to miss.

I did make sure to fill my tank before crossing the border.

The crossing into Alabama is unmistakable.

The welcome center has an enormous rocket ship in front.

The rocket is a Saturn S1, one of the test models used to develop the Saturn 5 moon rocket.

The rocket is here because it was developed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in nearby Huntsville.

Next to the rocket is a series of signboards describing mankind’s wonderful future in space, and how innovations from Alabama will make it all possible.

Given that the last shuttle mission flies in June, and the US has no current replacement, I found the boosterism a bit ironic.

The welcome center also has another sign of what state I was in, this one a bit hidden.

It’s a granite block with the following inscription: “Alabama. We dare defend our rights”.

The phrase is the state motto, adapted in 1923.

For travellers in the 1960s, it had a very specific meaning indeed (if it’s not obvious what, see By My Works Ye Shall Know Me)


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