By Mary Ann DeSantis
Exterior and Interior photography courtesy of The Hermitage. Other photos by Mary Ann DeSantis.
A visit to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee, is a great place to visit during the long Presidents Day weekend. Known as “the People’s President,” Jackson was one of the nation’s most influential leaders.
Even before he became the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson was a legendary figure. He enlisted in the Revolutionary Army at age 13; he asked for 3,000 volunteers from Tennessee in the War of 1812, but 5,000 showed up, thus giving the Volunteer State its nickname; and his victory in the Battle of New Orleans launched him into the national spotlight in 1815. He had a notorious temper, but his heart was big – he fostered 20 children over his lifetime and he never stopped loving his Rachel, who died shortly before his presidential inauguration.
“I was born for a storm, and calm does not suit me,” Jackson wrote to Founding Father James Madison, who served as the fourth U.S. president. However, The Hermitage and its park-like setting belie his words, because the home and its more than 1,100 acres are a tranquil oasis near Nashville’s urban development. After all, the word ‘hermitage’ in French means ‘secluded retreat.’
Jackson’s classical-style mansion is definitely the centerpiece of the property – literally and figuratively – and is the draw for most visitors. Completed in 1821, the home contains 90 percent of original artifacts, including French wallpaper in the foyer that is 182 years old. Jackson’s office contains bound newspapers on which he wrote comments in the margins. He read 15 papers regularly, and the comments were his way of arguing with the writers.
Visitors should make time for “Born for a Storm” exhibit at the visitors’ center to learn about the contentiousness of politics in Jackson’s day. The exhibit brings Jackson’s story into the 21st century with family friendly, interactive exhibits that help visitors understand his life before he became the nation’s commander in chief. “Born for a Storm” focuses on Jackson’s modest origins as an orphan, his resiliency as a general, and his visionary leadership as the U.S. President from 1829 to 1837.
A new visitor’s experience includes a dueling demonstration that occasionally allows visitors to participate. Arguments were often settled with a duel, as Jackson had to do with attorney Charles Dickinson. For the rest of his life, Jackson had a bullet lodged near his heart that couldn’t be removed after the duel; Dickinson, who actually fired the first shot, died from his wound.
“We need to engage with history in open and honest ways,” says Mike Zimmerman, an interpretative manager at The Hermitage. Just as dueling is honestly discussed so is the issue of slavery.
“We talk about slavery up front and refer to Jackson’s slaves by name whenever we can,” explains Zimmerman.
For almost 30 years, The Hermitage has attempted to recover rare personal biographies of the African-American men, women and children who also lived at The Hermitage. Only a few of their stories are known, but The Hermitage continues to search for more. On Feb. 16, as part of its 2019 Black History Month programming, the Hermitage will host a panel discussion about the role of archaeology in learning more about enslaved communities at the Hermitage and in the Southeast. Other free events are scheduled throughout Black History Month.
One of the slaves who was known for many years, even after the President’s death, was Alfred Jackson who was born into slavery on the property but stayed after he won his freedom. Alfred became the property’s first tour guide when it opened to the public in 1889 as a museum. Today, visitors can see Alfred’s grave in a place of honor near those of Andrew and Rachel Jackson.
More than 200,000 visitors a year tour The Hermitage, which is considered one of the best preserved of early U.S. presidential homes. The home has been kept as authentic as possible. If President Jackson were to again walk through the front doors of the mansion, it is said he would recognize his home as just about how he had left it, right down to the cracks in the mansion windows.
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Did You Know?
PRESIDENTS DAY HISTORY
Presidents Day is celebrated on the third Monday in February, but that wasn’t always the case. The holiday was established in 1885, originally to honor President George Washington, and was celebrated on his February 22 birthday. The holiday became Presidents Day in 1971 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. It now honors Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February. Some workers still get the day off, but it’s mostly celebrated by retailers with Presidents Day sales.
PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES AND MUSEUMS
The Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration, currently administers 13 presidential libraries. The presidential library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his papers to the federal government.
However, private foundations, historical societies, and some states operate libraries and museums for the earlier presidents, including The Hermitage which is managed by the Andrew Jackson Foundation. Another example is Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Library and Museum, which is run by the State of Illinois.