The Hermitage, near Nashville, Tennessee, is a time capsule of the life and times of America’s seventh president.
By Al Stewart
It has been nearly 200 years since Andrew Jackson purchased the property on which The Hermitage now stands. Yet visitors to the plantation, with its stately, columned mansion, lush grounds, and historic outbuildings, are able to return to the past as they envision Jackson’s home life.
In 1804 the future president paid $3,400 for the original 425-acre tract 12 miles east of Nashville, Tennessee. This rolling land with fertile soil formed the basis for his plantation, which he called The Hermitage. He and his wife, Rachel, lived on that land in a log cabin while a two-story mansion was built on the site. “Mrs. Jackson chose this spot and she shall have her wish. I am going to build this house for her,” Jackson wrote. It was completed in 1821.
Begin your visit to The Hermitage at the visitors center, which also offers a restaurant and a museum store. There, you can watch a 15-minute film about the life of Andrew Jackson. Afterward, proceed to the mansion. Costumed interpreters guide you through the half-hour tour of the restored mansion and grounds.
The mansion has undergone several changes since it was first built. A library and dining room were added in 1831. On October 14, 1834, during Jackson’s second term as president, fire destroyed the second story and damaged the ground floor. Fortunately, Jackson’s papers, as well as most of the furniture on the first floor, were saved. Jackson stated on the day following the blaze that “a benevolent Providence will spare me long enough to have it rebuilt,” and he was right. During the next 18 months extensive changes were made, including replacing the elaborate front portico with a simpler one supported by six great white pillars. The mansion’s restoration, though costly, was necessary as a step in preserving Old Hickory’s place in American history.
The mansion now looks as it did during Jackson’s retirement years, from 1837 until he died in 1845. The two-story structure has 14 rooms and a central hallway on each floor. A stately, curved staircase leads to the second floor, and original wallpapers beautify the rooms. Almost all of the home’s furniture, silver, porcelains, and portraits are the original items that belonged to Jackson. Many of his personal possessions, including a sword, eyeglasses, hundreds of books, and a Bible, are on display.
You also will see original slave cabins, a smokehouse, a flower garden, a vegetable garden, a cotton field, a springhouse, and a nature trail. The Hermitage staff cultivate vegetables and other crops grown in Jackson’s day.
Archaeological digs go on at the site during the summer months, generally from June to mid-August. The work has been focused on the original two log buildings where the Jacksons lived before the mansion was finished. The restored First Hermitage complex is scheduled to be dedicated in 2004, two centuries after Jackson bought the property. Jackson recalled that he spent some of the happiest days of his life in those cabins.
The Hermitage was very much a working plantation. The most profitable crops were cotton, corn, and wheat. Cotton was processed at a gin and press near the fields, then sent via boat to New Orleans, where it was sold. Jackson received additional income by ginning cotton for neighboring farmers.
Visitors also can see the Hermitage Church (Presbyterian), whose construction was largely financed by Jackson. Referred to as “Mrs. Jackson’s church,” the brick edifice is still used for weddings and memorial services. Built in 1824, the church is less than a mile from the mansion. Jackson became a member of the church in 1839.
Another building on the tour is Tulip Grove, a two-story Southern plantation house near the church. Originally occupied by Andrew Jackson Donelson, Jackson’s nephew, and his wife, Emily, this structure now houses scores of artifacts that belonged to Old Hickory and his wife. It was extensively renovated in the 1960s.
East of the mansion is the flower garden Jackson had built for his wife in 1819. More than an acre in size, the garden contains approximately 50 varieties of old-fashioned plants, along with giant hickory and magnolia trees that Jackson planted himself.
Like many plantation owners of his period, Jackson divided his slaves into two groups. Those who performed household duties lived in cabins near the mansion, and those engaged in farming lived in quarters near the fields. Research confirms that Jackson encouraged stable family life, supplied adequate food and housing, and did not endanger his slaves’ health through overwork. “Uncle” Alfred, a house slave who was born at The Hermitage, asked to be buried beside the Jackson tomb when he died in 1901. Among slave artifacts that have been unearthed in archaeological digs are porcelain dinner plates, writing slates, sewing equipment, medicine bottles, tobacco pipes, and children’s toys.
One of Rachel’s nephews became the Jacksons’ adopted son, for they were childless. They named him Andrew Jackson Jr. and he became owner of The Hermitage after his namesake’s death. But his debts mounted, so the state of Tennessee purchased the property in 1856 and let him and his wife, Sarah, continue to live there until their deaths. In 1889 The Hermitage was deeded to the Ladies’ Hermitage Association; they opened it to the public that same year.
President Andrew Jackson was named for his father, who died two weeks prior to young Andrew’s birth. The Scotch-Irish boy was born on March 15, 1767, in the Waxhaw Indian settlement on the border between the two Carolinas. Recent research indicates that he was born in South Carolina, but both states claim him as their native son.
Although his formal education was limited, Jackson was well educated in the school of hard knocks. At the age of 13, Andrew fought the British in the Revolutionary War along with his brother, and both boys were captured and imprisoned. They also both caught smallpox. Their mother got them released, but Andrew’s brother died of the disease on the way home. Andrew’s mother died soon thereafter from cholera while tending to wounded American prisoners.
The orphaned teen lived with neighbors and relatives while finishing school, then studied law in Salisbury, North Carolina. He returned to Tennessee, where he became a successful lawyer and public prosecutor. He married Rachel Donelson in 1791. Five years later he was elected to the House of Representatives from Tennessee, and won a Senate seat the following year.
Several years later, Jackson led a band of Americans to victory against their British foes in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. At war’s end, he held the rank of major general.
Old Hickory’s political career peaked in 1828, when he was elected to our nation’s highest office, where he served two terms. But his first victory was tinged with sorrow. Political opponents so slandered his wife through vicious attacks in the press and in pamphlets that she suffered from heart trouble throughout the election year. She died December 23, 1828, and was buried on Christmas Eve.
The entire scandal centered on miscommunication. Rachel had been told that her first husband, whom she married at 17, had filed for a divorce. So, she and Jackson were wed. After two years of marriage, the Jacksons were notified that the divorce had just become final, so they hastily married again. Jackson’s political opponents used the incident to insinuate adultery and bigamy.
While Andrew Jackson served two terms as president, Rachel’s niece, Emily, served as his White House hostess. Jackson was able to see his own hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, take office as he retired to The Hermitage. He maintained a Democrat’s view of national affairs throughout the rest of his life.
On his deathbed on June 8, 1845, at the age of 78, the master of The Hermitage, hearing the moans of several servants, admonished them, “Do not cry. Be good children and we shall all meet in Heaven.” He was buried in the garden near the mansion beside his beloved Rachel.
One biographer has observed that America’s seventh president was full of “sharp contrasts and sudden turns.” Jackson firmly believed that he represented the masses of people against aristocracy and privilege, yet he lived quite well. The Hermitage splendidly aids in one’s understanding of how Andrew Jackson went from orphan to the Oval Office.
The Hermitage is located off exit 221 from Interstate 40 on Old Hickory Boulevard. Drive 4 miles to the entrance on the right. It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the third week of January.)
Admission is $10 for adults and $9 for seniors; a AAA discount is accepted, and a $1-off admission coupon may be obtained at the Hermitage Web site.
For more information, contact The Hermitage, 4580 Rachel’s Lane, Nashville, TN 37076-1344; (615) 889-2941; www.thehermitage.com