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Andrew Jackson and The Hermitage: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

Here are 10 things *I* didn’t know about President Andrew Jackson and his famous home, anyway, until my visit to The Hermitage yesterday.

1) Jackson was verrrry skinny.  The man was 6’1″ and 140 pounds when elected president.  (John Quincy Adams, just before him, was 5’7″ and stout; Martin Van Buren followed him at 5’6″ and also full-figured.)

2) Nobody knows why he called it The Hermitage.  Jackson first called his new farm “Rural Retreat,” then switched to The Hermitage. His first cabin there was small and remote; possibly he was being wry? The Hermitage is about 12 miles east of Nashville — a half-day’s ride back in Jackson’s time.

3) Only the front of the Hermitage is actually that famous yellow color.  The rest is brick.  (See back view, below.) According to the guides, Jackson didn’t want to pay to do up the whole house, so he only did the part most people would see as they rode up.

4) His son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., was donated by Jackson’s brother-in-law.  The boy was one of twins born to Rachel Jackson‘s brother Severn Donelson and his wife Elizabeth in 1808.  Severn and his wife gave one of the boys to the Jacksons to adopt and raise as their heir.  “It wasn’t uncommon in those days,” the tour guide claimed, for another couple to give a child in this manner to a childless couple.

5) Andrew Jackson, Jr. was not a great money manager.  “Andrew Junior believed that money was for spending and enjoying, not for earning,” as the tour guide put it.  After President Jackson died, Junior blew through everything his dad left him, sold The Hermitage for $50,000 — a mammoth amount in those days — and then blew through that, too. Gambling and high living, those were the problems. Eventually he and his family returned and lived at The Hermitage through the grace of the state of Tennessee.  Reckless to the end, Andrew Jr. died at The Hermitage in 1865 after shooting himself in a hunting accident.

6) Andrew Jackson VI is alive and well and is a judge in Knoxville. He has a wife, two daughters and a dog, but there is no Andrew Jackson VII.

7) The Hermitage is not a national park. It’s run by the Ladies’ Hermitage Association, a non-profit group founded in the 1880s to save the house, which had fallen on hard times and was about to be turned into a home for old Confederate soldiers. If that sounds a lot like the ladies’ association that rescued Mount Vernon in the 1850s, that’s because the LHA was modeled after the Mount Vernon group.

(Kudos to the Hermitage ladies, by the way, for keeping things balanced editorially. There’s plenty pro and con about Jackson on the site, including frank notes on his slavekeeping.  Not that the ladies spit on Old Hickory by any means, but it could have been much more of a hagiography. The Alamo, for instance, is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in the manner of a religious shrine.)

8) Jackson was a newshound. He subscribed to “15 different newspapers from all over the world,” according to our guide.  Jackson saved the papers in handsome bindings, and most are still on site at The Hermitage.  His study, by the way, is awesome. Alas, no photos were allowed inside the home.

9) One of Jackson’s slaves, Uncle Alfred, is buried next to him.  Jackson was a slaveholder until his death in 1845. Most of his remaining slaves rather sensibly fled to freedom in Nashville as soon as it was taken by Union forces in 1862. One who stayed was Alfred Jackson, who was born at The Hermitage about 1812 and remained there the rest of his life. After his death in 1901 he was buried, at his own request, a few steps from Jackson’s tomb. His gravestone reads “Uncle Alfred.” Plaques at the site claim that “Uncle,” now considered derogatory (in the vein of Uncle Tom), was at the time considered a term of politeness.

10) There’s no dirt over Andrew Jackson’s grave.  Caretakers renovated the tomb (above) in 1977, and the first thing they did was pop off the limestone grave covers. Under Rachel’s cover they found the expected: dirt. But when they opened Jackson’s grave, they found an empty four-foot shaft, with another slab at the bottom reading “Andrew Jackson.” Nobody knows why; some claim that Jackson left instructions that no dirt should rest atop him.

One last point about The Hermitage: it’s popular. As we left a little after noon, 40 history-minded citizens were waiting in line to get in. Good for them!

See our complete Andrew Jackson biography »

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