As part of the research for our upcoming book,* we’ve been traveling around the country visiting presidential libraries and historical sites. And you can travel along with us—virtually!—by reading a review of each place we visit.
*It’s true! Hottest Heads of State: The American Presidents, is coming out from Henry Holt & Co. in January or February 2018. (We honestly don’t know whether it is January or February. Maybe we should ask someone!)
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Adults: $20 | Students (ages 13-18): $15 | Children (ages 6-12): $10
JD: We visited The Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s historical site, on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. If you’re looking for something to help take your mind off a presidential election, I do not recommend visiting a presidential museum.
Kate: As we walked the grounds, I was looking for good holes I could crawl into. Something about burrowing inside a hole and refusing to come out…it just felt right.
JD: We got there right at opening, and my first thought was “Maybe we should pretend to be employees and sneak in for free.” My brain was really running like a well-oiled machine that morning.
Kate: If the woman selling tickets had tried to question us, we could have accused her of being an imposter.
JD: Actually, I would have questioned her on her black nail polish. What is this gothy girl doing working at The Hermitage? Despite his big dramatic white hair and long dark coats, I feel like Andrew Jackson would not have been down with goth stuff.
Kate: The tickets are not cheap. You have shell out $20 for each adult in your party who is unable to disguise themselves as a Hermitage employee. But the price of your ticket does include a self-guided audio tour, which beats having to read things.
JD: The guy who handed us the audio guide devices told us the exact same instructions twice, verbatim. Just the same paragraph repeated a second time, like he was a robot experiencing a glitch. It added yet another element of unreality to an already unreal morning.
JD: My first question upon arriving at The Hermitage was “why is it called The Hermitage? What is a Hermitage? Was Jackson a hermit?” These questions were never answered, unless they were answered on one of the many placards I didn’t read because our kids were being awful.
Kate: At one point, to my horror, our 3-year-old climbed on top of Rachel Jackson’s tombstone.
JD: It remains unclear to me whether she is actually buried under that tombstone, inside the museum. Speaking of which, Kate, please take note: I want to be buried inside a museum. I don’t care which one. If you fail to follow these instructions I will haunt you.
Kate: I’ve already got a spot picked out at the American Jazz Museum! I’m going to pour your ashes into Charlie Parker’s saxophone.
JD: OK, on second thought I guess I do care which museum I’m buried in. Lead a good and righteous life, people, or else you might spend eternity at the American Jazz Museum.
The Hermitage museum, as opposed to the separate restored mansion, is surprisingly compact. And, much like Jackson himself, it is largely dedicated to talking incessantly about the Battle of New Orleans.
Kate: Also, I think they forgot to mention the Trail of Tears.
JD: No, they mentioned it.
Kate: I also noticed that a lot of swords have been given to Andrew Jackson as gifts. I can just see people saying to themselves, “What do you give a man who has everything and also likes to kill people?”
JD: Next to one of the swords they had a lock of his hair, like a saint’s relic. I do not think this what the founders had in mind when they established a republic.
Kate: I did enjoy the display devoted to Petticoat Affair. I found it surprisingly comforting, because it is exactly the kind of dumb thing that Trump would get distracted by. He’ll feel like someone disrespected his authority, and then he’ll spend the rest of his administration trying to prove that he is in charge of everyone’s social life.
JD: I was too entranced by the valuable information about the Battle of New Orleans to read about the Petticoat affair. Here it is in a nutshell: During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson won a battle against the British in New Orleans. And since it was our first victory after a series of embarrassing defeats, he became a huge national hero, and he rode the fame from that one battle into the White House, and then onto the $20 bill.
Kate: I assume that’s why admission is $20—because it’s cute to have people pay in bills with Jackson’s face on them on it. But how many people are really paying their admission in cash?
JD: Not us. I am not a Jackson fan, so whenever I get a $20 bill, I burn it. That’s why Kate took away my ATM card.
Kate: Now I have two ATM cards!
JD: As we were leaving the museum, the audio tour bragged that Jackson’s wife smoked a pipe, then immediately segued to reminding us there was no smoking allowed on the grounds.
Kate: It was almost as if they knew I was about to start smoking a pipe.
Kate: The museum is pretty small, but that’s because it’s just an appetizer to whet your appetite for the main course: Andrew Jackson’s beautifully restored, Greek-revival mansion. My stomach is rumbling just thinking about it!
JD: The mansion is palatial. As it turns out, the famously populist Jackson was actually one of our wealthiest presidents. How weird that a populist demagogue who claims to be fighting the elites on behalf of the people would turn out to be a super-rich plutocrat!
Kate: There are guides stationed in each room to tell you about the mansion and also to make sure you don’t touch the wallpaper. I found them to be extremely knowledgable, but I was also distracted by my desire to touch the wallpaper.
JD: One of the guides told us everything in the house had been restored to its 1837 condition. And I asked, “Oh neat, even these busts?” to which she replied, archly, “Well they’re here, aren’t they?” And I wanted to reply, “Oh so the central air was here in 1837? The electric lights were here in 1837? Wow, and here I thought this was just a run-of-the-mill slave plantation.” But I didn’t, because I am afraid of strangers.
Kate: That’s why there’s a different guide in each section of the house. If you antagonize one guide, pretty soon you’ll have a chance to start fresh with a new one.
JD: The guide who showed us the guest bedroom told us that Jackson’s guests had included “President James Polk, President Martin Van Buren, the Marquis de Lafayette…and Sam Houston!” Like, she seemed to think that we would be most impressed with Sam Houston. I honestly do not know who Sam Houston is. Something to do with Texas? Or am I just assuming that because his name is Houston? I should have just asked her who Sam Houston was.
Kate: Isn’t he a cartoon character?
JD: If a cartoon character visited Andrew Jackson’s home then that is legitimately impressive and I take back everything bad I’ve said about him.
Kate: Overall, I thought the tour of the mansion was great, even though the only thing I can remember learning is that Andrew Jackson had different bedding for summer and winter.
JD: I really enjoyed the tour, too. Even if you don’t like Andrew Jackson, it’s fun to walk around his house. Actually, maybe that makes it more fun. Like, “I’m going to touch your wallpaper when the guide isn’t looking, Old Hickory! How do you like them apples?”
Kate: The guide at the end asked us if we had any questions, and our 5-year-old asked her who her favorite Disney character was, revealing how closely she had been paying attention.
JD: The cafe is called “The Kitchen Cabinet,” which is wordplay based on the fact that 1) it has a kitchen, and 2) Jackson relied on the counsel of a bunch of random flunkies—his “kitchen cabinet”—instead of the actual Senate-confirmed cabinet officers who had formal authority and accountability. The museum thought this was a charming, folksy policy, but I do not!
Kate: If you read our review of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, then you can imagine my delight upon discovering that the sandwiches at The Kitchen Cabinet are named after members of Andrew Jackson’s actual kitchen cabinet! All except for “The Dickinson Dog,” which is a hot dog named after a man Andrew Jackson killed in a duel. I kind of thought that was in poor taste. (That did not stop me from ordering the hot dog, which is delicious.)
JD: Naming a hot dog after a man you murdered in a duel is really a perfect homage to the vindictive, violent spirit of Andrew Jackson. That said, the people running The Kitchen Cabinet are really nice, except for the intensely hard sell we got on their fresh-baked muffins.
Kate: Whenever I went up to the counter to get a spoon or refill my drink, they would start talking loudly to each other about the muffins. “Can you smell those muffins?” “Yes, I just took the muffins out of the oven!” “Mmm…fresh muffins.” At one point, someone even went back into the kitchen to bring out a tray of muffins and wave it around in front of me.
JD: Based on my single year of college Russian in 1999, I think they were all speaking Russian. This added yet another bizarre element to our morning. Waking up to find that Putin’s favored candidate had taken the White House and Russians were running the cafe at a presidential museum in Tennessee gave things a slight Red Dawn vibe. Except instead of putting us in reeducation camps, the Russians were baking us muffins.
Kate: On another subject, did you notice how everything was served on a paper doily? It made me feel very refined while I was eating my hot dog named after someone killed by Andrew Jackson.
The Gift Shop
JD: If you’re looking for a place to buy a cane, and you don’t mind traveling to Nashville, this is a place you can buy a cane. They have a big cane selection, which is perhaps an homage to the time Andrew Jackson beat a would-be assassin with a cane.
Kate: The store is definitely geared toward an older customer. I wouldn’t bring your children in there, unless you want them to break a teacup with a squirrel painted on it.
JD: They had a ton of reading glasses for sale. I guess to go with all their history books? And they assume their customers don’t normally read books, so they don’t already have glasses? “Hey, why don’t I buy some books, but I’d better buy some glasses so I can read them. And while I’m here, I can stock up on fake Confederate currency.”
Kate: Given what a cult of personality there is around Andrew Jackson, I was surprised that there was so little Andrew Jackson-specific merchandise. Like dueling pistols, or a robotic parrot that spews profanity.
JD: Well, they had posters of Andrew Jackson. But I mean, who doesn’t already have one? And you can only wallpaper your kitchen with so many Andrew Jackson posters before it starts to look garish.
Should I bring my kids?
Kate: There isn’t really a lot for children to do at The Hermitage, unless they are looking for work.
JD: About 50 percent of the staff were children from a local school on a field trip. They’d been dressed in period costume, given a short spiel to memorize, and then put to work repeating that spiel for tourists. This is how I learned, for instance, that Andrew Jackson never had the opportunity to use the Hermitage’s well, because he died in the Civil War.
Kate: Makes sense!
JD: Another kid advised me that the cramped, rustic shack that had housed a freed slave was, “Pretty nice house, for a slave.” I wanted her to ask me for a tip, so I could give her a pine cone and say “That’s a pretty nice tip, for a kid.” But no matter how long we stood there awkwardly, she never asked for a tip.
Kate: I thought that maybe our children would enjoy learning about Andrew Jackson from other children, but that was not the case at all.
JD: Our kids did enjoy running around in the big open fields. But I’m not sure it makes sense to travel to Nashville for open fields. I don’t want to be a shill for St. Louis, but we also have lovely fields in St. Louis. If you want to go on vacation to a place with nice fields, come to St. Louis! You can stay at our house.
Kate: We love having house guests, and we never go through their stuff while they’re asleep.
JD: There were also big piles of fallen leaves all over the grounds, which our kids jumped in as we walked from the museum to the mansion. We were there in the Fall, though, so you might want to check if they have those piles of leaves year-around before scheduling your trip to Nashville.
Kate: You can always make your own piles of leaves by plucking all of the leaves off of a tree, but this is time-consuming.
JD: And you’re not going to want to squander any time that you could be using to learn about the Battle of New Orleans.
Kate: Once you arrive at the restored, early-19th century Jackson mansion, there is a lot for kids to NOT do. Specifically, touch anything.
JD: Including the walls. Walking through the narrow hallways was like being inside a giant game of Operation.
What Would You Change?
JD: I guess I don’t think African-American schoolchildren should be taken on field trips where they work all day at a former slave plantation, dressed in antebellum costumes.
Kate: I must have missed the section where The Hermitage grapples with the fact that Jackson’s own views on democracy, the rule of law, slavery, and race in general make him a problematic figure today.
JD: The primary grappling at The Hermitage is the history of Andrew Jackson literally grappling with various people.
Kate: I’m not saying The Hermitage’s message should be “OMG Jackson was awful, you should leave and ask for your money back.” But he’s a complicated guy and it would be more evenhanded to talk about his many flaws, in addition to his legitimately impressive and important battlefield success.
JD: I guess the main thing I would change is that every time a museum docent said something about the Battle of New Orleans, I should have looked confused and said, “Wait, WHAT? There was a battle in New Orleans?”
JD: A good alternate name for The Hermitage would be “The Museum of the Epic Battle of New Orleans and its Extraordinary Hero, Andrew Jackson.” The docents there tell you that President Jackson preferred to be called “General Jackson,” and that in his retirement he just constantly told long stories about the Battle of New Orleans. And you want to reply, “Yeah, obviously.”
Kate: The Hermitage did not endear me to Andrew Jackson the way it might have if they offered a more frank and honest portrayal of his faults along with his strengths.
JD: Jackson described himself as “Born for a storm,” but here’s the thing: it very rarely storms! And behavior that makes sense in a storm, like wearing a raincoat or nailing boards over your windows, is not necessarily sensible in normal weather. Instead of electing Andrew Jackson president, we probably would have been better off keeping him in cold storage somewhere, in case the British try to take New Orleans again.
Read the rest of this series:
JD and Kate Visit the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
JD and Kate Visit the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum
JD and Kate Visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum
J.D. and Kate Visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
JD and Kate Visit the John Tyler Presidential Museum and Swamp Lair