A recent trip through Tennessee allowed us to see two presidential museums: Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville and the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia.* Both are quite enlightening in their way.
The Hermitage, first acquired by Jackson in 1804, was little more than a log cabin until 1820, when he built a two-story Federal style mansion. This burned down in 1834, and was replaced by the Greek Revival building in the photo above. But this was simply the manor house for a thousand-acre plantation, with numerous outbuildings devoted to various functions – including the housing of enslaved African-Americans, of whom Jackson owned up to 300 over the course of his lifetime. The whole thing is reminiscent of Mount Vernon or Monticello, other presidential plantations that one can visit.
The visitors’ center gives more information on Jackson’s life and presidency. I did not know that he was a veteran of the Revolutionary War – he joined the militia in South Carolina at age thirteen, and was taken prisoner by the British shortly thereafter. A formative episode occurred when Jackson refused an order to polish the boots of a British officer, who then slashed him on the head and hand for insubordination. A Currier & Ives lithograph from the 1870s, “The Brave Boy of the Waxhaws,” depicts this event. Jackson carried the scars, and an abiding hatred for the British, for the rest of his life.
Jackson’s mother managed to secure his release, but she died soon after from cholera, leaving Jackson an orphan (his father had died before Jackson was born). Despite having a rather ornery personality, he found a lawyer who took him on as an apprentice, and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1787. The next year he was appointed prosecutor of the western district (i.e. Tennessee), and moved to the new settlement of Nashville to take up the post. There he met Rachel Donelson Robards, whom he married despite that her divorce from her first husband had not yet been finalized, a situation that dogged him throughout his career. In 1796, he became a delegate to Tennessee’s constitutional convention, and on account of his participation there was elected the state’s first U.S. representative. Shortly thereafter, the Tennessee legislature elected him U.S. senator, but he grew bored with the job and returned to Tennessee to become a judge of the state superior court – and to engage in the sort of land speculation common on the frontier. It was at this point that he purchased and began to build up the Hermitage, but what really set him up for future notoriety was his election as major-general of the Tennessee militia in 1802.
In this capacity, Jackson defeated the Red Stick faction in the Creek War at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1813, and most famously routed the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This made Jackson a national hero.
He then proceeded to invade Spanish Florida in order to defeat the Red Stick refugees, runaway slaves, and Seminoles, some of whom were using it as a base to launch raids into Georgia. Jackson was ruthless and successful, and Spain relinquished control of Florida by the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. For his efforts (not appreciated by everyone), in 1821 Jackson was appointed the first territorial governor of Florida, but the job was as appealing to him as being Senator from Tennessee, so he quit after a few months. Then followed his run for the presidency in 1824, when he was one of four Democratic-Republican candidates at a time when political parties seemed to be losing their importance. Jackson won the most popular votes, and the most votes in the electoral college, but he did not get a majority there, so the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. There, in a “corrupt bargain,” House Speaker Henry Clay, himself one of the four candidates, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who was duly elected president – and who promptly appointed Clay Secretary of State. Stung by this rejection, Jackson almost immediately began campaigning for the presidential election of 1828. He won in a landslide, and then won again in 1832.
Ralph Earl, The Tennessee Gentleman (detail), c. 1831.
To my annoyance the “Presidential Gallery” at the visitors’ center was closed, but presumably it would have dealt with Jackson’s boisterous inauguration, the Petticoat Affair, the battle over the Second National Bank, Cherokee Removal, the Nullification Crisis, and other things I vaguely remember from History 1. We did get to see a short film about his presidency, and it left me with the impression that he was a perfect embodiment of “he’s a nice guy, but don’t cross him.” He would not have been as successful as he was if had he not been immensely popular, but he also had a volcanic Scots-Irish temper, fought numerous duels, and held intense grudges (Wikipedia: “On the last day of his presidency, Jackson admitted that he had but two regrets, that he had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or to hang John C. Calhoun.”) One commentator in the film claimed that he represented “both the best and the worst” of the American national character.
Lots of people liked to compare Trump to Hitler, but the parallels between Trump and Jackson are what always interested me. Both were extremely polarizing figures, rich but rough around the edges, with their base of support among commoners far from the centers of political power. (The difference is that Jackson was much more self-made than Trump, and had actual political and military experience prior to becoming president – which may be why Jackson got a second term while Trump didn’t.)
Another thing that struck me as relevant was Jackson’s attitude toward political parties. He believed in them, and is considered the first Democratic president. The trouble is that he identified his party with “the People,” and a victory for the Democrats was a victory for “the People” – conversely, a defeat for the Democrats was a defeat for the People. Some would say that this attitude has not changed in almost 200 years.
Jackson died at the Hermitage in 1845, and is buried on the grounds.
Right next to it is the grave of “Uncle Alfred,” Jackson’s “faithful servant.” Alfred was born into slavery on the plantation, and was put to work maintaining wagons and farm implements. After emancipation he continued to live there as a tenant farmer, and acted as a tour guide for people interested in seeing the Hermitage once it was turned into a museum in 1893. He died in 1901; his funeral took place in the main hall of the Hermitage, and he insisted on burial right next to Jackson, a wish that was granted.
One interpretive sign mentioned that, in the late nineteenth century, Alfred was held up as a model ex-slave, who maintained affection for and loyalty to his old master’s family. I don’t doubt there were such people, but they’re not the whole story – apparently most of the slaves at the Hermitage sought refuge with Union troops when those troops were close enough. Jackson may have been a relatively benign slave master, but he had no compunction against chasing runaways, or offering rewards for whipping them. And in general, the enslaved people were simply invisible – more valuable than the cattle or the farming equipment, but otherwise treated as the property that they were. Modern researchers have had to work very hard reconstructing the identities of those who lived and worked at the Hermitage. One is reminded, once again, how great a moral crime slavery was.
Jackson’s ally and protege James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, somewhat by accident. The Democrats nominated him on the ninth ballot at their convention in Baltimore as a compromise candidate among their factions, and he went on to defeat Henry Clay in the general election that fall. He vowed to serve only one term, which he did – but that was enough to fulfill all his campaign promises, as his fans are proud to claim.
Polk was born in North Carolina in 1795. In 1803, his family moved to the Duck River in what became Maury County, Tennessee, and came to dominate the county and its new town of Columbia. He received enough of an education that he could enroll in the University of North Carolina in 1816, and graduated with honors in 1818. He then moved to Nashville to apprentice as a lawyer, and upon being called to the Tennessee bar in 1820 he returned to Maury County to open a law office there. This practice provided him with a steady income, and the house museum in Columbia that one visits dates from this time (it is the only place where he lived, apart from the White House, that still stands). However, he always had political ambitions, and his marriage to the educated and graceful Sarah Childress in 1824 certainly helped on this front. From 1825 until 1839 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was eventually chair of the Ways and Means Committee and Speaker of the House. From 1839 until 1841 he acted as governor of Tennessee – always with Sarah’s unwavering and competent support.
Although he lost his bid for reelection as governor, and lost again two years later, fortune had bigger things in store for him. His presidency is most famous for its realization of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had the right to dominate the North American continent from coast to coast. His administration accepted Texas as a state, thus provoking war with Mexico – which the United States decisively won, thereby annexing what became the American southwest. As an extension of Texas most of this had the potential to become slave territory, so Polk was practically obliged to offset it by coming to an agreement with Britain about the free Oregon Country. This large area spread from the Rocky Mountains westward, from the latitude 54º40′ in the north (the southernmost extent of the Alaskan panhandle) to 42º in the south (the northern boundary of California). It was jointly occupied with the United Kingdom, and although “54-40 or fight!” was apparently one of Polk’s campaign slogans (i.e. either we get the whole thing or we go to war for it), he came to a deal with the UK simply to extend the already-existing boundary between the United States and British North America at the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Some people may have seen this move as an admission of weakness, but it established unquestionable American title to the Pacific northwest, out of which were carved the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
(A fun fact: the British did not call the area the Oregon Country, but the Columbia District. Thus the part north of the 49th parallel, which the British retained, became “British Columbia.” Apparently before its admission to Canadian confederation in 1871, B.C. was sometimes called “British Oregon.”)
Other achievements of Polk’s presidency included the foundation of an independent treasury (a precursor to the Federal Reserve), the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of the Interior, the issuing of the first U.S. postage stamp and a postal treaty with the U.K., the admission of Wisconsin and Iowa to the Union, the lowering of tariff rates, and the beginning of the construction of the Washington Monument. All this had an effect, which is apparent in the two portraits shown above, the first of which was painted at the beginning of his presidency, and the second at the end.
Unfortunately Polk did not live long after he left office. He traveled by boat from Washington DC down the Atlantic coast, around Florida, to New Orleans, and thence up the Mississippi to Tennessee. Somewhere along the way he contracted cholera, and died of it in Nashville at age 53 on June 15, 1849. Polk thus set a number of presidential records:
• Shortest post-presidency (101 days)
• Longest surviving First Lady (42 years)
• First president to be survived by a parent (his mother)
• Only president to have no children, either natural or adopted (it is reckoned that surgery as a teenager to treat bladder stones may have left him sterile)
• Youngest president elected until that time (49)
• The only president to have been Speaker of the House
I would be remiss in not mentioning that, like Jackson, Polk was a slaveholder, both in Tennessee and through the absentee ownership of a plantation in Mississippi. Although he recognized the evils of slavery he did not do anything to try to end it; in fact as speaker he instituted a gag rule to prevent the issue from being brought up in the House of Representatives. Polk’s personal slave, Elias Polk, was proud of his service to the former president and, following the Civil War, played the same “faithful servant” role that Uncle Alfred did for Andrew Jackson. But it’s useful to remember that the slaves at Polk’s Mississippi plantation, which he only occasionally visited, suffered an exceptionally high death rate. This is disappointing and an unquestionable blot upon the reputation of a man who had so many other accomplishments.
It was fun to learn about both these presidents. The only drawback to these museums is that, being fundamentally house museums, they emphasize domestic affairs at the expense of a really detailed look at the president’s early life and time in office. But this is a minor complaint. See them if you can.
* The earliest president to get a full-on NARA-sponsored Presidential Library and Museum is Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), and you can visit his if you’re ever passing through West Branch, Iowa. Presidents prior to him can have museums, but they’re variously run by states, the National Parks Service, universities, local history societies, or specific foundations; those presidents’ papers are also stored here and there. Such things were beyond the federal government’s concern in the nineteenth century.