Yesterday Kish and I went to the Hermitage, the plantation home of Andrew Jackson. It is conveniently located within the footprint of metropolitan Nashville, and it’s well worth a visit — both to learn a bit more about one of our Presidents, but also to spend some time pondering the imponderable question of why any American, much less a President, thought it was acceptable to own slaves.
The Hermitage consists of a large brick pillared and porticoed plantation home and its grounds, an adjoining garden in which Jackson and members of his family are buried, and a series of walking paths that take you to other places and buildings on the plantation grounds, some of which are still standing and some of which are visible only in the form of foundations traced on the ground.
The main building is beautiful and well-preserved, with original wallpaper, lighting fixtures, and furnishings. You can see Jackson’s study, his bed and his chamber pot, the weekly newspapers he read and bound in large books and the room where he died. You can hear from the friendly guides wearing period costume about the house and Jackson’s family and his love for his wife and their adoption of their son. You can visit his grave in a beautiful garden, where Old Hickory lies beneath a small Greek dome.
The real impact of the tour for us, however, didn’t occur until we walked away from the main building and its well-kept grounds and began touring the fields and outbuildngs, where Jackson’s slaves toiled. Jackson eventually owned 150 slaves who did the real work on the plantation. They planted and picked cotton and operated the cotton gin that Jackson built, churned butter, tended the horses, mucked out the stables, and cooked the meals. Little is known about them, and when you walk back to the area where the slaves lived and see photos of their lost possessions that preservationists have uncovered, you cannot help but feel an immense sadness and anger.
I commend that Hermitage for making a significant effort to cast light on the fact that one of our most famous Presidents was a large slaveholder who bought and sold slaves as chattel and achieved wealth through their uncompensated labors. He may not have been the cruelest master in the Old South, but he somehow rationalized the ownership of fellow human beings. That simple fact, for me, makes the rest of the Jackson story a lot less relevant.
Years after Jackson’s death, during the midst of the Civil War, the Union Army captured Nashville and slaves were free to leave. The vast majority of the slaves on the Hermitage plantation promptly left, choosing an uncertain future over continued interaction with their former masters. That tells you all you need to know about slavery.