This past week, I finally visited the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home in Tennessee, a place that I have wanted to visit for several decades. Jackson was the seventh President of the United States, serving two consecutive terms from 1828-1837.
The visit was a graphic reminder of the evil of slavery and of how US culture has changed dramatically during my lifetime. The Hermitage is a large and comfortable house for nineteenth century Tennessee, which for much of the century was frontier country. For example, on the ground floor, two parlors, the dining room, and two bedrooms each measured about four hundred square feet. Jackson slept in one of the bedrooms; his adopted son and the son's wife slept in the other bedroom. Jackson's relatively opulent lifestyle would have been impossible if he had to pay workers to staff the house, gardens, and plantation.
Slaves lived in cabins, fifteen or more people in a single room that might have four hundred square feet. Jackson's contemporaries saw him as a benevolent slave owner because he kept families together to his own financial detriment. Instead of keeping only the one hundred or so slaves that operating his one thousand acre plantation required, he had as many as one hundred and fifty because he did not like to sell children without their parents or to sell one partner of a couple without the other.
NB: Slaves could not legally marry. Black men in the US forming lifelong bonds with their partner at a substantially lower rate than do males of other races in the US is one tragic legacy of slavery in which slaves were treated as chattel rather than human beings.
When Union forces captured Nashville, most of Jackson's slaves fled to freedom in Nashville, preferring possible death or poverty to continued slavery. Jackson had died in 1848, a staunch supporter of the Union.
Descriptive materials explicitly characterized Jackson, the self-styled people's champion, as paternalistic. People (family, friends, soldiers, other politicians) who obeyed his wishes were graced with his favor. People who did not heed his wishes felt his wrath. In the case of slaves, this wrath sometimes included savage whippings or other punishments.
In many respects, what the Hermitage omitted communicated a clearer message about Jackson as a person than did the information that was available. Jackson preferred that people address him as General instead of President, even while serving his eight years in the White House. The interpretive material failed to explain this; I suspect that Jackson preferred the control that a General exercises over his/her army to the need to exercise persuasion inherent in the presidency. The interpretive material also glossed over details of Jackson's military exploits, conveniently ignoring his extreme brutality toward Native Americans and illegal invasion of Florida, then owned by the Spanish.
Jackson could inspire a fierce loyalty. One of his slaves, following emancipation at the end of the Civil War, stayed on at the plantation first as a tenant farmer and then, when the house was opened to the public, as a guide. This man bartered with the historical society that operated the Hermitage a piece of Jackson family furniture he had bought at auction for the right to be buried next to Jackson. On the man's tombstone, at his request, is carved "Uncle Alfred," with no surname. Alfred had taken Jackson's name as his own surname; "Uncle" was a term used by whites to refer to older black men. By the mid-twentieth century, both that usage of "Uncle" and the adoption of a former owner's surname had become offensive. Yet, like the tombstone with its carving, the evil effects of slavery remain deeply embedded in our culture, often in ways to which too many people are sadly oblivious.
One of the docents in the big house was black. Unfortunately, I did not have a good opportunity to ask her how she felt about working there. I have wondered what Jackson would have thought about it. Among the numerous visitors, I saw only one interracial couple and no other people of color. Jackson and slavery are both part of the American heritage. The depiction of slavery today was much more honest than what I experienced fifty years ago in visiting historical sites, e.g., the descriptive materials noted that there were no good slave owners because the term is an oxymoron since slavery is inherently evil.
On the other hand, the road to reconciliation and racial harmony stretches into the future. Jackson and his family were no more than six of one hundred and fifty-six people who lived at the Hermitage; the other one hundred and fifty people deserve a proportionate amount of attention and respect. Without the other one hundred and fifty, Jackson would most likely never have risen to military or political prominence, and the world might be a better place because thousands fewer would have experienced his brutality and premature death.
Ironically, Jackson's great military victory against the British at New Orleans, the event that catapulted him to national prominence, achieved nothing beyond the death of thousands of British soldiers (fewer than sixty US casualties) and boosting the morale of a young nation. Unbeknownst to any of the combatants on either side because news traveled so slowly, the War of 1812 had ended a month earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
Since leaving the Hermitage, I've been wondering: what will my legacy be? Will future generations see my legacy as I desire? Or, with the help of hindsight, will they recognize evils that I do not see or prefer to ignore?