Well, I closed my eyes and it’s been over two weeks since I last posted. In that period I wrote a couple of TinyLetters, and threw a whole bunch of photos up on Instagram and drove another 3000 miles.
Where to begin? Let’s jump into the Hermitage, former home of my favorite Problematic President, Andrew Jackson.
I’m being snarky, but at one time, he really was my favorite. How did that happen? Thank Leo McGarry, and this legendary tale right here (see section “Assassination attempt”). There was also a musical which yielded a handful of good songs, an unlikely sex symbol, and a jogging of the collective memory around THE TRAIL OF TEARS. It didn’t do at all well on Broadway.
Anyway, I’ve wanted to visit the Hermitage for very many years and so made it a point to spend a good portion of time there on my first day in Nashville. The populist similarities between Jackson and Trump are almost immediately visible, and there were murmurs of recognition during the orientation film whenever the narrator or historians would mention his determination to stand against the political elite, or dismantle institutions like the Bank of the United States. However, Jackson was a keen businessman, unlike 45, which is something that tends to sail over the heads of people who think that because you have your name in tacky gold letters on a skyscraper you must have more money than God and “be good at deals.”
By far the best quote from the film came from a historian, who also happened to be a Black woman: “John C. Calhoun was, at best, a second-rate political theorist.” It’s like she’s patting him on the head and saying, “You precious pro-slavery politician, BLESS YOUR WHOLE HEART.”
I was skeptical for quite awhile of the Hermitage, as Americans have a tendency to lionize terrible people and create/perpetuate monuments to the same effect. The museum places a premium on two pieces of information: that Andrew and Rachel Jackson were madly in love and Jackson’s outstanding performance during the War of 1812, specifically during the Battle of New Orleans. Whereas at Monticello the museum incorporates the history of slave labor (“enslaved laborers” is the phrase Monticello puts to use most often), the Hermitage devotes ample exhibit space to Jackson’s contentious political attitude. In what were probably the best placards, the present rang true and all the more absurd.
As I read that, I snickered, and the man next to me heard. “That one needs an update,” he smiled.
This one illustrated another Jackson/45 divide, if only because there was no one at 45’s inauguration. But LOLZ, “How’s that relevant? INAUGURAL CROWDS.” This would be especially funny if it showed up after this year’s, but I have a feeling it’s not new.
The house was decorated in a style I can only believe would’ve been called “Backwater tacky.” Busy patterns and bright colors, a definite look of nouveau riche. It was also pulled together with furniture I recognized from illustrations in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, or those from the American Girl series. In that way it felt very familiar, almost comfortable.
The self-guided audio tour of the Hermitage is structured so that the house’s focus is more on Jackson and his family, and the external areas of his estate — specifically the fields — are where the conversation around slavery stays. This dichotomy divorces the importance of slavery to the running of a home like Jackson’s, the fact that it was socially acceptable and encouraged to enslave people in order *to* run your household. It depersonalizes the facts. According to the Hermitage, Jackson didn’t have much interaction with his enslaved laborers since, due to his responsibilities to the military and later to Washington, he was rarely home. The museum mentions he wanted his slaves cared for properly and not whipped too often, and that he ran through overseers like we buy and discard fast fashion, today. Rather than indicating how benevolent of a person he was, to treat his slaves so kindly, that attitude reflects a businessman’s concern for his investment: A sick or otherwise ailing slave can’t work.
Through all of this, there was nary a serious mention of his crimes against Natives. One man, a historian, mentions in a film that we do wrong by Jackson if we let his narrative be dominated by the mistakes he made — men make mistakes, after all.
But overdrawing your bank account, say, or even cheating on your wife, is not remotely comparable to relocating by force — and foot — 17,000 men, women and children hundreds of miles from their homes. Can you imagine walking through ONE state, let alone multiple?
And Jackson ordered it done in violation of a Supreme Court ruling against his case, doing so with promises to people for livestock and money and other provisions that he knew he wouldn’t grant them.
This brings me to one of the questions that’s centralized itself during this trip: how do we recognize (and/or celebrate) the accomplishments of our historical figures without lionizing them and whitewashing history?
I think one way is exactly how my friend G. put it when we were in Charleston a few days ago (more on that to come): slavery, and those who were enslaved, become the pivot point from where almost all other discussions begin. Because the most important thing to note for anyone learning American history is that none of what we have built up would have been possible without that free labor.
In Jackson’s case, the Trail of Tears would also be a pivot point. None of what we have developed on any of that land we took would’ve been possible had we left the Cherokee alone, or Monroe’s Manifest Destiny doctrine not been taken so highly to heart. Think of the money that has been made in the ensuing years by the people and institutions that built up on that land, and the money that is largely missing from Native communities, as is opportunity. Would you send your kid to live and grow and learn on one of the designated areas of land carved out for Natives today?
We have to keep talking about this because otherwise we forget. We ignore. Life as we live it becomes normal and we begin to think we are ordained. We are not. We didn’t get the land because we are special, we bamboozled it out from under the people who’d been here for countless years before we even knew there was anything here.
And, surely, there will be many who ONLY want to know about the heroism, the sweeping military battles, the foiled assassination beatdowns. They’ll grunt and grimace and say, “UGH, why do we have to talk about slavery again? Do we have to talk about the Indians?” Because you, or someone like you, doesn’t get the expansive role it played in this country’s first centuries. Doesn’t get how it set up the system of institutional inequality that we have now. And until you do, we’re going to keep talking about it.