Andrew Jackson's birthday is March 15, and folks in the Nashville vicinity-or people traveling through those parts this summer-might plan to drop by The Hermitage, home of America's seventh president. The 425 acres Jackson purchased in 1804 display the unostentatious house built in 1821 (rebuilt after an 1834 fire) and lots of outbuildings. One is the three-room farmhouse, little more than a log cabin, that Mr. and Mrs. Jackson lived in during their first 17 years on the spread.
Distinguished guests eager to meet the wealthy "Hero of New Orleans" were surprised to find themselves offered hospitality in a three-room house rather than a mansion. Even when the Jacksons moved up to eight and then 10 rooms in a larger building, their dwelling was more cozy than courtly. The first floor has small parlors and the warm library where Jackson in retirement spent his days. Upstairs are simply furnished bedrooms (almost all the Hermitage furnishings are original), with Jackson's featuring a portrait of Rachel: After she died, he had the portrait face the bed so that he would see her image first and last every day.
The structure itself was made of red bricks that had been made in a kiln located on the farm itself. The only large area is a great dining room with a table roomy enough for a dozen or more. That was where Jackson liked to discuss issues with visitors such as evangelist Peter Cartwright, who was present when a lawyer at the table started to attack Christianity. Cartwright later wrote that he saw "General Jackson's eye strike fire" at each attack, and particularly come alive when the lawyer asked, "Mr. Cartwright, do you believe there is any such place as hell, as a place of torment?" When Cartwright said he did, the lawyer responded, "I thank God I have too much good sense to believe any such thing."
That's when Jackson, no longer able to hold his tongue, said heatedly, "I thank God that there is such a place of torment as hell." The lawyer, startled by Jackson's "great vehemence," then earned his spot in the hall of fame for dumb questions by asking, "General Jackson, what do you want with such a place of torment as hell?" Jackson quickly responded, "To put such damned rascals as you are in, that oppose and vilify the Christian religion." According to Cartwright's story, the lawyer fled the room.
Jackson was like that: He could make people flee, but he also exemplified the leader so respected by all for his rectitude, and loved by some, that his supporters stuck by him even when the going got rough. At a time when travel to Nashville from states to the east would take several weeks, The Hermitage was a stopping point (with ready hospitality) for visitors from Europe who wanted to learn the essence of America. They saw in Jackson the opposite of what recent writers have seen in Bill Clinton: Jackson refused to pander, fought for principle regardless of obstacles, and was faithful to his wife, and then the memory of his wife.
A few yards from the brick house at The Hermitage lies a garden that wraps around the tombs of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. The inscription on one large tombstone reads, "Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died the 22nd Dec. 1828, Aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, her heart kind; she delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow creatures, and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods." The memorial concludes, "to the poor she was a benefactor; to the rich an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament; her piety went hand in hand with her benevolence, and she thanked her Creator for being permitted to do good."
The inscription on the other tombstone is terse: "General Andrew Jackson. Born March 15, 1767. Died June 8, 1845." It's too bad that the dying words he uttered on that latter day were not added. Lying in his deathbed in the little house nearby, he pointed to the Bible and left a political legacy: "That book is the Rock upon which our republic rests." Then, speaking to the family members and servants that he had called to his bedside, he left a racial legacy: "I hope and trust to meet you all in Heaven, both white and black." Finally, he left a theological legacy: "The Bible is true.... I bequeath my body to the dust whence it comes, and my soul to God who gave it, hoping for a happy immortality through the atoning merits of our Lord Jesus Christ."