American Sabbatical 92: 4/13/97

Natchez Trace

4/13.. Natchez Trace.

Garden Drawing
Raw and in the low 40s on a Nashville Sunday. We put all our layers back on and retreated to the Hermitage, Andy Jackson’s place in his own bend of the Cumberland. After bad-mouthing Old Hickory for the Cherokee removal, we were now going to take advantage of his hospitality. Politicians are used to that.

The damp Norther nipped at us as we ambled through the park at the Hermitage. Peggy went inside the brick mansion for the tour. I roamed the gardens. Irises and columbines were out already, but probably wishing they weren’t. I shivered my way through a colored sketch. It gets harder to find a new angle to draw these plantation houses from. The Hermitage, in particular is a full-face kind of place. The two storied pillared facades stand out in front of the building itself like false fronts, fore and aft, so the profile looks a bit like a Western town. Makes sense, I suppose, this WAS the wild West in Jackson’s day. Maybe that’s why they all wear cowboy boots at the Opry.

Andy's Garden

Some grand trees in Andy’s yard, including a huge example of those purple-blooming wonders we’ve been seeing along the road. This one was identified as a Royal Paulownia. OK. The park is well past maturity, and the old cedars and magnolias almost completely obscure any long views. They weren’t blocking the wind this morning, though. I was chilled stiff before the watercolor was dry. We quick-stepped around the outbuildings, and made a break for a warm Owl.

(Memo #85)

April 13 The Hermitage, Nashville

Who? Andrew Jackson, Seventh President, “Old Hickory”

What? his plantation outside Nashville, Tennessee

When? early 1800’s -1845

How? Jackson was a self-made man

Topics: frontier development, planter class, Jacksonian democracy, Indian Removal

Questions: What does the Hermitage show about Jackson’s life?

Old Hickory

I am fascinated by the winnowing process of history. Who makes the cuts, whose fame endures? There are Americans who dominated their eras, yet get somewhat shortchanged afterwards. If I ask 1990’s students to name “great” presidents, they name John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. Sometimes Franklin Roosevelt. Only very occasionally does Theodore Roosevelt get listed, or Harry Truman, or Andrew Jackson. (Then we have a discussion about the concept of “great”).

This trip has really given us an ideal segue, from the preColumbian sites of Georgia (Ocmulgee and Etowah), to the historic Cherokee sites (New Echota, the Ross, Vann, Ridge houses), to the man who removed the southeastern Indians.

Hermitage Cabin
Andrew Jackson’s astonishing life is encapsulated in his city (Nashville, Tennessee) and plantation (The Hermitage). Jackson came though the Cumberland Gap in one of the earliest parties and settled in Nashville when it was a log sided stockade. Today a one quarter size model sits by the river framed against skyscrapers. At the Hermitage, you can see the original log cabins that the Jacksons used in the first years there, then the mansion itself (the original redbrick federal, and the white columns, false front and new wings of the successive renovations). His success as a businessman and land speculator funded the plantation, his military and government success brought the fame and visitors. He built the Hermitage into an 1100 acre showplace where he raised horses and cotton. He owned 130-150 slaves.

The Hermitage is proof that a poor boy could attain the American dream. Andrew Jackson was orphaned young. He was born before the Revolution to poor Irish immigrants. He had no formal schooling, but read law with a local lawyer. In the Revolution he scouted for the Patriots. Detained by the British, he was ordered to shine an officer’s boots. When the young man refused, the officer struck him with his sword. Jackson carried scars on his cheek and ear forever. This is said to have caused his hatred of the British (given scope in the War of 1812). His negative feelings about Native Americans are those of frontiersmen in a beleaguered settlement such as Fort “Nashborough” where lone men out plowing might be killed.


Front Door

Jackson’s career flourished as Nashville and Tennessee did. He was the public prosecutor of Nashville, helped write the state Constitution, served as Representative and then Senator from Tennessee in Washington, came home to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court and head the state militia. In the War of 1812 he lead a combined American-Cherokee force against the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and became a national hero in the Battle of New Orleans. Later he led an expedition into Spanish Florida and became first Territorial Governor.

Jackson married Rachel Donelson, the daughter of the man who lead the first settlement group to Nashville. “His devotion to his wife is the gentlest thing is his life,” said one contemporary. Frontier communication was bad and it turned out she was not officially divorced at the time of their wedding ceremony. This became the basis for a huge and vicious presidential election scandal in 1828 as well as Jackson’s many duels. The scandals are said to have killed Rachel (two weeks before Jackson left for his inauguration). We didn’t tolerate a divorced president until Ronald Reagan!

All the time he was building his fortune through land speculation and cotton and becoming part of the planter class. Although labeled a rough frontiersman by his opponents, a visitor to the Hermitage said Jackson’s “ manners are perfectly easy and polished”.

The Hermitage has the most imposing entrance buildings of any presidential home we’ve seen, with the requisite gift shop and small museum, also an auditorium and cafe. The mansion is reached by a walk through park land and trees. It seems quiet and isolated from modern intrusions and a lovely way to first see the house. At the Hermitage, you take a self-tour with an individual tape recorder.

Back Door

The Hermitage is apparently the presidential home with the most original furnishings (90%), so there were none of the usual double talk (“furnished with what WOULD have been usual furniture of the era” ). The rooms are high ceilinged and beautifully furnished. There is heavy upholstered wooden furniture, ornate wallpaper, curtained beds, heavy drapes. There is crystal and silverware and china in the pantry and on the diningroom table. Portraits of Jackson and his family hang everywhere (Rachel’s portrait is opposite his bed where he could see it first thing in the morning). Every doorway is blocked with glass. The rooms all have enough personal objects so they seem inhabited. The large central hallway has a grand curving staircase, a crystal chandelier and French wallpaper with classical scenes. There are two parlors, a huge diningroom. Jackson’s bedroom and study downstairs. Upstairs there are four more bedrooms. In his retirement Jackson regularly had forty guests in the house! The guide noted that the furniture was bought from the family and placed with the help of Jackson’s man servant “Uncle Alfred” (who lived until 1901 and is buried near the Jacksons in the garden).


The renovations (which greatly increased the house’s size) and furnishings were done primarily by Jackson’s daughter-in-law while he was in the White House. Daughter in law? Interesting that all my readings have avoided mention of family. Some presidents have fairly anonymous families while the T. Roosevelt children, Lincoln boys, and John-John are national icons. Remember the antics of “Brother Billy” Carter? Andrew and Rachel adopted a child (from a branch of the family). Andrew Jackson Jr., his wife, and their three children lived at the Hermitage and the son managed the plantation during his father’s presidency. He later wracked up huge debts.


Jackson's Carriage
It is a beautiful and gracious house, and was kept by at least ten house slaves.The huge garden - Rachel’s particular joy - is adjacent and the irises and columbine were out as were the dogwoods. The Jacksons' shared tomb and the small family graveyard are in a corner of the garden.

Visitors can tour the cookhouse adjacent to the mansion, the smokehouse, Uncle Alfred’s log house a hundred yards away, two original cabins used by the Jackson’s and the brick church. I did not get a feeling for the full plantations or the lives of the slaves (at Mt. Vernon wash house and barns and overseer quarters were extant).

There are few souvenirs of Jackson’s colorful life. He was extremely controversial. Attacked as an “adulterer” and “bigamist” (Rachel’s divorce) and a “murderer” (his duels), he championed the rights of the ordinary (white) man against the power of the educated eastern elite. “Jacksonian Democracy” is the phrase historians use to describe the extension of suffrage to include the average man (the property qualification for voting disappeared). He is the father of the Democratic party. He was a strong president (1829-37) who used the veto power more than all his predecessors together.


Jackson destroyed the National Bank, and established the “spoils system” and a kitchen cabinet to include more Americans in government. He stood up to South Carolina, and threatened army intervention when the state touted secession during a tariff struggle (Lincoln was to try the same tactic in 1861). He sent the Army in to remove the southeastern Indians even though the Supreme Court supported their rights! The introductory movie mentioned that Jackson had sent a Cherokee orphan to the Hermitage after the battle of Horseshoe Bend (“I feel an unusual sympathy for him,” Jackson wrote). The Hermitage is proof that Jackson successfully joined the southern planter class and enjoyed all its benefits.


Peggy's Hermitage

4/14.. cont.

Then we enjoyed another 5-star meal. The Loveless Cafe and Motel out on the western fringe of the urb was a promised gustatory delight, and we figured it must be when the line was 45 minutes long even at 2 PM. So we sat in the motel lot until our number came up, then crammed into the plain and simple diningroom. Three actually, looking to be small rooms of an old house with the partitions torn out. The original watercolors on the walls were of old trucks and gas stations and other roadside attractions. Quite good. The food was even better. Ham and biscuits, black-eyed peas with fried corn bread and molasses, grits and green beans. Complete repletion.

But dessert was the best. The Loveless is an hundred yards from the north end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and we contentedly Owled onto that roadway, unsuspecting. It may be the most beautiful road in America. The Lochse wilderness road through the sawtooth mountains of Idaho, or the California coast road out of Ferndale, may be grander but the Trace has a gentle rolling loveliness, and no log trucks breathing down your neck. No trucks at all. Forty or fifty mph speed limits. No utility pole and lines. And this gray Sunday we had it all to ourselves.

Sashaying down the idyllic two lane between tall groves of hardwoods.. oaks and maples and tupelos and gums and beeches and chestnuts and every kind of temperate broadleaf you can imagine.. just coming into leaf. Under the myriad pastel greens of the canopy, explosions of dogwood blossoms illuminate the understory, far into the diminishing distance between the aisles of gray trunks.

It’s easy to move out of time here, and imagine ourselves traveling the trace in the days before steam. Back then river boatmen would guide their flatboats and rafts down the Cumberland and Ohio and Tennessee, into the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they’d sell everything, boat and all. Poling and cordelling were the only ways to fight back upstream. Some crews did that, and they were the bragging kings of the rivers. The proverbial Mike Finks: half horse, half alligator. Most crews sold out or were paid off in the delta, and set off for the frontier settlements upstream via the Trace. The foot highway from the French and Spanish stews of New Orleans and Natchez to the American outposts in the original Old West.

Old Natchez Trace

Sometimes a pair of travelers would buy one horse and ride-and-tie their way to Nashville. One man would start riding in the morning, tie the horse around mid-day, and walk on. The other would walk until he met up with the horse, then ride to where his partner had made camp. Then they’d trade off the next day. There are days when this might be better for us, too. I could leave the Owl half way to Memphis, perhaps...

There are no adverts on the Trace Parkway, just directional signs at the infrequent crossings.. and brown information signs every couple of miles. I’m beginning to think this journal should be called Brown Roadsigns. The Trace is an historical encyclopedia, and you might spend all day just reading the footnotes. As it was we only made about 20 miles the first hour.

We couldn’t resist stopping to walk a section of the original Trace. The woods climbing down the ridge beside us were totally still . No squirrels. No birds. Even the wind had flunked out, and faint hints of blooming fragrance crossed our path.. and the smell of fresh horse manure. Somebody ride-and-tying maybe. The forest floor was carpeted in places with violets. We heard a hound baying way off in some holler.

Now and then the Trace crossed a declivity. The State of Tennessee has built soaring flyovers for the Parkway, and you look down on pocket farmsteads on the valley floors, or tucked into the folded terrain. When the scenic highway goes under a crossroad it’s through a graceful cement arch, as easy on the eyes as the scarf-dancing hills. The guard-rails are zigzags of traditional split rail fence.

Meriwether's Last Stand
Just south of Gordonsburg on the Trace is where Meriwether Lewis died so mysteriously. We had read Undaunted Courage in January, the most recent retelling of the Lewis and Clark story. It left me with the impression that Lewis ended up a self-important drunk, who couldn’t face the grunt work of editing his journals. The adulation he received after his epic adventure had spoiled him for mundane tasks, or maybe the adventure itself made them seem too petty. His death was portrayed as almost a grateful escape from a sorrier fate. Then again, I came away disliking the author intensely, with all his self-important pontifications, and now wonder if I wasn’t simply glad the book was over when Lewis died.

The projections of biographers throw weird shadows on history, and the Jeffersonian era has been badly served in our time. I’ve had trouble admiring Jefferson ever since I read Dumas Malone’s gigantic exercise in canonization. Malone spends so much time defending Jefferson from the petty affronts of previous generations that I was heartily sick of both of them by volume three. Jefferson acquired the fussy prissiness of Malone. Maybe I’ll change my mind at Monticello. And Undaunted Courage makes it hard to like Lewis.

History is the mirror of ourselves. So we must retell it every generation. The versions of the story told in any age are a window into that time, and we can’t separate “real” history from contemporary prejudices and concerns. There’s no more “objective” history than there is objective journalism. Right now we are fixated on data. The more details we can amass about a person or his time, the more we KNOW. And the first person style of reportage means we can’t follow Lewis to his sad end without suffering through all the personal musings of a pompous academic. Makes you wish contemporary writers would stand a bit farther back. Present company excepted, of course. But back to the Trace.

The sun broke through just once on Sunday: as we pulled off into the field where Meriwether Lewis is buried, beneath a simple monument... a broken axle. There’s something happily symmetrical in Lewis lying beside this historic footpath, set out of time. DeVoto in his magnificent grove of cedars in the Lochse, and Lewis among the chinquapins beside the Trace.

Eventually we had to return to the 20th century, but even along Rt. 64 the curvilinear topography was easy on the eye. We did intersect sections of clearcut, the only logging done anywhere anymore, it seems. And there were trailers loaded with fresh felled sticks parked along the way, waiting for the Monday mill openings, I assumed. I deduce that these are independent logrigs, and loggers, working through the sabbath and loading their spare trailers for a cash bulge on Monday.

For the second time in a week we met with the aftermath of a tornado. Ripped and ravaged swaths where trees are uprooted and houses disintegrated, surrounded by untouched pastoral. Acts of God, while the neighbors go calmly about their business. Or so it seems. We sped on, only looking over our shoulders now and then. Every few miles the roadside flowers would change. A carpet of purples, then a white mist, then acres of daisies. We leveled out in the Tennessee valley at Savannah, and bivouacked across the water from Shiloh.

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