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," "Conductor on the Train of Native American Genocide," "At The Hermitage, the Full Story Must Be Told."
As I reflect on Andrew Jackson’s relationship with the population of African Americans he enslaved at the The Hermitage, I tend to not focus on the life and times of Alfred Jackson, the enslaved man who holds the distinction of having called the The Hermitage home longer than any other resident. Indeed, my mind fixates on the number 300 — although it is not my intent to create an image of Jackson as King Leonidas, or compare the struggle for freedom in the Athens of the South to the Battle of Thermopylae. The number 300 is significant because it represents the number of African Americans Andrew Jackson and his family compelled to call The Hermitage home, and it also relates to one of the most disturbing advertisements for help capturing an enslaved person who ran away seeking freedom that I have read as a scholar of African American history.
In an 1804 advertisement, Jackson sought assistance in acquiring an enslaved man who had recently absconded from his farm. In the ad, Jackson does not provide much information about the man aside from the fact that he stood a bit over 6-foot-1 and may have had some freedom papers in his possession. Jackson offered a $50 reward for the man, and he added that if the man was captured out of the state, he would pay the slave catchers $10 extra for every 100 lashes they gave him, up to 300 lashes.
As I read this, I became curious about the significance of the number 300. Were the 300 lashes representative of Jackson’s anger, and was that number sufficient to prove his authority and satiate his anger? One has to wonder — as the freedom-seeking man recovered from the lacerations, infections and mental anguish — about the message Jackson intended to deliver to the other enslaved people at The Hermitage who witnessed his painful recovery. In looking at this one advertisement, it is difficult to imagine that Jackson’s temperament toward his enslaved community — people whose lives he claimed complete authority over — improved as his fortunes changed and he became more established in American politics. Indeed, Jackson would have rage to spare as he considered dueling Thomas Hart Benton, John Sevier, Henry Clay and others whom society viewed as his equals. It is difficult to believe that he would interact with an insolent enslaved man or woman on better terms than he would these esteemed gentlemen. It is also inconceivable that he would allow anyone to beat any of the horses he owned 300 times.
One thing that needs to be clear to anyone assessing the relationship between Jackson and the African American community at The Hermitage: None of the enslaved was there by choice. Until the destruction of the Confederacy in 1865, African Americans were the largest group of residents to call The Hermitage home. Nevertheless, a bill of sale provided their admittance to Jackson’s estate, and Jackson’s whips, guns and clubs — along with a constant fear for the lives and safety of themselves and their loved ones — compelled them to stay.
Learotha Williams Jr. is a scholar of African American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and public history at Tennessee State University. He also spearheads the North Nashville Heritage Project, an effort that seeks to encourage a greater understanding of the history of North Nashville — including but not limited to Jefferson Street and its historic relationship to the greater Nashville community.