No, the cabin pictured above is not the beloved home of Andrew Jackson, seventeenth president of the United States, “Hero,” and “Rock Star” (the latter two according to the promotional material for the historic site). It’s one of the cabins where his slaves lived.
I visited The Hermitage within the first month of moving to Nashville. I went with my grandma, and the beautiful home and property definitely made for a pleasant walk. I’ll be honest: it seems a bit odd to me to turn the home and gardens of a genocide’s mastermind into a celebratory historical destination. And let’s face the facts, that is exactly what Andrew Jackson was….a man who earned his stripes killing Native Americans, gained celebrity status for a brutal battle in a war that had already ended, and masterminded the death of thousands of Native Americans through the Indian Removal Act, a precedent that opened the floodgates for the killing of this country’s original inhabitants on a sickening scale.
Living in Tennessee, which is very proud to have produced this president, I get really frustrated with the gentle, white-washed portrayals of Jackson. He is described as a complex/complicated man who did both so much good and so much bad.
The official jacket description of his most recent biography (by John Meacham) describes him this way: “Jackson was the most contradictory of men. The architect of the removal of Indians from their native lands, he was warmly sentimental and risked everything to give more power to ordinary citizens. He was, in short, a lot like his country: alternately kind and vicious, brilliant and blind; and a man who fought a lifelong war to keep the republic safe–no matter what it took.”
Are you kidding me? Can you imagine a biography of Hitler or Stalin or Pot Pol that spoke of their contradictions as if “warm sentimentality” is a balance for genocide? It might go something like this: “Hitler was a complicated man. He loved Eva passionately and was a vegetarian and did not drink, but also had a fierce side that came out in his Final Solution. He did whatever it took to boost the moral of his countrymen and improve the economy.” That would be ridiculous right?
Throughout his lifetime, Andrew Jackson owned up to 300 Black people. His farm ran on their labor, his food came to his table because of them. His beautiful home was likely built with slave labor. It was certainly maintained by it. The Hermitage exhibits describe his wife Rachel as a kind, loving woman…but also a harsh master. Let’s face the fact, the Jacksons success in life was based on the brutal exploitation of Native Americans and enslaved Blacks.
But I didn’t learn that at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. There, in a series of beautiful exhibits and a tour through the house, I learned all about his military exploits, his happy home life, his great love marriage to Rachel, and where on the property his slaves lived. The exhibits in the visitor’s center did reference the Indian Removal Act, but if the phrase “Trail of Tears” was there, I didn’t see it (and I read every word in exhibits). They did talk about one slave in particular…the one who wanted to be buried next to the Jacksons when he died *ughhh*. I was also disappointed to hear an elderly interpreter refer to Jacksons “servants” (I’m guessing that’s not their site-wide policy, but it’s still disappointing.
I feel like I missed a great learning opportunity. What a great place that would have been to learn more about the impact Jackson had on the large-scale destruction of Native communities. What a great place that would have been to learn about how his power, like that of so many at the time (not to mention the entire US economy) was based on the labor of slaves and resources stolen from Native tribes.
After a few days of fuming, I didn’t think too much more of the Hermitage until recently, when the site released its official statement on the removal of Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill and his replacement with Harriet Tubman (a true hero). The statement released by Andrew Jackson Foundation (which governs the site) said they were disappointed with the decision and reminded readers that the man was “complicated.” Sigh. If you are in the area, it’s certainly a historically significant site, so perhaps worth a visit, but I do hope they will one day focus more on the Jackson’s horrifying decimation of a people group and less on the “love story” of his marriage.
On a brighter note, here’s a picture of me and my adorable Grandma, who visited me for a night while on a road trip from Maryland to Arizona (something she still does regularly at 85 and alone except for her little dog because she loves to travel…my hero).
Please note that the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. [35mm taken with my Canon EOS Rebel 2000. Click here for more pictures of Tennessee.]