Wrestling With Jackson: At The Hermitage, the Full Story Must Be Told
Wrestling With Jackson: At The Hermitage, the Full Story Must Be Told

The Hermitage

This story is part of a five-part series examining the presidency and legacy of Andrew Jackson. For full context, please visit these stories as well: "Wrestling With Jackson," "Reevaluating Old Hickory's Legacy," "The Cruel Enslaver," "Conductor on the Train of Native American Genocide."

Birthdays often prompt reflection. They are convenient milestones by which to measure our progress over the past year, what we have accomplished and where we might improve. They are also an opportunity to look ahead, set goals and make plans based on the needs and priorities of the moment.

This year, Andrew Jackson’s birthday — commemorated each March 15 at The Hermitage — arrives during a time of earnest reflection and planning for the Andrew Jackson Foundation. Jackson’s 253rd birthday in 2020 marked a major turning point for our organization. It was the first event changed dramatically by the COVID-19 outbreak and a precursor to the site’s full closure just two days later. In the year since, our leadership and staff have produced outstanding results, introducing new ticket offerings, rolling out robust digital programming and pivoting development and marketing efforts to generate support for the immediate needs of the site’s operation.

The story of Andrew Jackson is important. His heroics — and his flaws — bear relevance and speak to our contemporary triumphs and struggles as a nation. Continuing to share the story of our seventh president in a fair and unbiased way remains at the center of our priorities. We do not shy away from Jackson. He was a consequential American president who fought fiercely for his country, won the popular vote for our nation’s highest office in three consecutive elections and molded democracy and the presidency into institutions more closely resembling their modern definitions.

But The Hermitage story is not just about Andrew Jackson and his family. Our mission to preserve and interpret Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage extends beyond our namesake to the many individuals and families who lived and worked on the property. The stories of the enslaved community and freedmen who remained after emancipation are woven into the fabric of this National Historic Landmark. That is why this important part of our work remains active, even in the throes of the pandemic. For more than 40 years, we have conducted exhaustive research of the enslaved community, and for more than 20 years, it has been a focal point of our public-facing interpretive efforts. The Hermitage was one of the very first Southern historical sites to address slavery with original archaeology, and we remain an active member of the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery. The stories we have learned about over the past several decades now figure prominently into our interactive audio tours, guided interpretation and, most recently, our newest tour, In Their Footsteps: Lives of The Hermitage Enslaved — a comprehensive look at the lives of the enslaved men and women of The Hermitage, the operation of the Hermitage farm and the harsh reality of the enslaved system.

Our efforts to bring inclusivity to the narrative of The Hermitage, to tell the full story of the triumphs and tragedies tied to Andrew Jackson, have yielded encouraging results. Prior to COVID-19’s arrival, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage was the third-most-visited presidential home museum in the United States, welcoming more than 235,000 guests annually and boasting growing attendance and fundraising numbers as Jackson’s story entered the mainstream once again. In addition to the historical significance of our work, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage is a key part of Nashville’s tourism industry and a major contributor to the region’s economic success each year.

Jackson has received a lot of press in recent years. Concentrated efforts by the AJF to reintroduce the full story of Jackson to the public, the affinity held for him by President Donald Trump (who visited The Hermitage in 2017 and hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office) and a public more mindful of the flaws of political leaders, past and present, and their impact have all contributed to a resurgence in the coverage of Jackson and heated debate as to how he should be remembered. In his own time, Andrew Jackson inspired both fierce loyalty and intense disapproval, and the same remains true today.

I believe Jon Meacham, presidential historian and former AJF trustee, said it best: “Anyone who believes in democracy, anyone who believes in the future, has to grapple with Jackson.” There is no avoiding Andrew Jackson in an honest study of American history. His victories were stunning and his transgressions dreadful, but both shaped the United States of America and continue to have an impact on our nation. For that reason, the story of Andrew Jackson is worth telling. It must be told.

As his 254th birthday is commemorated, we will remember Jackson as a consequential figure in American history and continue to share the full story of his life, educating the next generation and allowing them to decide for themselves how they will grapple with Jackson. Our mission — to preserve, educate and inspire — has endured for 132 years and counting, and we will continue the core work of The Hermitage, telling the stories of all who called it home.

Howard J. Kittell has been the president and CEO of The Hermitage since 2008.

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