HERMITAGE, Tenn. - The first item discussed on the audio tour of the Hermitage mansion near Nashville is a painting of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president who served two terms ending in 1837.
Before I examined the painting, however, my attention was drawn to three large photographs of slaves who lived on the estate with a short history of who they were and what their duties entailed. Between two of the pictures, a giant chart listed by name and type of work as many as could be discovered of the 140 slaves who were the property of the plantation.
The Jacksons gave some of the slaves a great deal of responsibility and allowed them to have money. On the other hand, one of the letters in the visitor center’s museum made it clear that if slaves escaped, Jackson would do everything in his power to see that they were captured and brought back.
Jackson did not come from a slave-holding family, but once he had the money, he had no compunctions about buying and selling them. The records show that many of the slaves had a large number of children, so it was apparent that many of the 140 were born on the land.
Little mention was made of slaves in the early writings about the Hermitage. That attitudes toward slavery have changed dramatically is shown by the efforts now being made to piece together knowledge about the slaves at the Hermitage through a careful analysis of documentary sources and ongoing archaeological investigations.
The goal is to restore the Hermitage slave community to its prominent place in the story of life at this Tennessee plantation. This emphasis on the conditions of slavery was continued in the bookstore, where about two dozen books either written by ex-slaves or other authors reported on slavery in the Old South.
At a number of places on the audio tour, evidence of this research and details about a number of slaves were given prominence; one in particular was Alfred Jackson. His cabin has been reconstructed, and a brief biography was given. His body is buried in the same graveyard as that of Jackson’s relatives who lived in the mansion. Other slave cabins also have been reconstructed, and descriptions are given of what life might have been like.
Audio tours are getting sophisticated, and this was no exception. At the 33 stopping points within the visitor center and around the 1,120-acre plantation, listeners had choices of when to listen, the ability to stop and restart or cancel. Although there is a main narrator, other experts often elaborate, there are sound effects and for interested visitors optional additional remarks. There also is a children’s edition.
Jackson is usually ranked among the top 10 presidents. He had a remarkable career, starting out as a penniless orphan. The battle of New Orleans against the British in the war of 1812 brought him fame as a general, the title he preferred the rest of his life. I have some negative feeling about him based his treatment of the American Indians and the resulting "Trail of Tears," the forced march west causing hardship and many deaths. I understand that even to this day Cherokee Indians won’t have anything to do with the $20 bill that his picture on it.
At the 1837 mansion, all information was given by knowledgeable guides in period costumes. The rooms of the mansion have mostly original furniture and decorations. A combination of poor management by Jackson’s adopted son and economic conditions at the time forced the plantation to be vacated and the furnishings sold.
In 1887, when the Ladies Hermitage Association took over the management, they were able to retrieve 90 percent of the sold materials. Most of the original 170-year-old wallpaper remains, but it is regularly restored.
Rachel died three months before his inauguration as president, an event that sent him into a deep depression. In his bedroom at the mansion, her picture is placed so that it was the first thing he saw upon waking in the morning. Jackson died here at age 78 after a slow decline. His last years might have been complicated by three bullets that he still carried in his body.
In the visitor center are manikins of him and Rachel. Jackson was 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 140 pounds; she was 5 feet, 1 inch tall and looks as if she probably weighed more than he did. Everything I’ve read emphasizes how devoted the two were to each other. His tomb with her beside him is in the garden.
While I took the walking tour using the audio guides, I passed a wagon tour with a live guide that takes visitors around the farm. For more information, visit http://www.thehermitage.com./