Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

John Sevier almost slept here

The second oldest home in Knoxville is the James Park House, located downtown on Cumberland Ave.  Google Street View doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s better than the photo I tried to take with my phone while stopped at a red light a couple of days ago.

James Park House

I wanted to snap a picture of the Park House because it’s got an interesting connection to John Sevier.  “Nolichucky Jack” didn’t live here, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Sevier purchased this downtown lot and started building a home there in the 1790s, around the same time he was serving as Tennessee’s first governor.  Construction didn’t get very far.  Nothing but a brick foundation and part of a wall had been completed before a financial setback forced Sevier to abandon the project.  For a man so accustomed to winning, whether on the battlefield or in politics, it must have been an irksome disappointment.  He sold the lot to his son G.W. Sevier in 1801, and it passed out of the family’s hands six years later.

James Park, an Irish immigrant and Knoxville mayor, bought the lot and built the current structure on Sevier’s foundation in 1812.  The house stayed in the Park family for a century; after that, it served time as a Red Cross facility and a medical academy.  Gulf & Ohio Railways acquired it to use as a headquarters building a few years ago and undertook an extensive restoration.

Although Sevier never got to build the home he wanted on the lot, it’s just a stone’s throw from the courthouse lawn where his remains were reinterred in the 1880s.  One fellow who did get to spend some time in the Park House was Sevier’s mortal enemy Andrew Jackson, who stopped by for a visit in 1830.

In a sense, the story of the house lot on Cumberland Ave. mirrors the larger story of Sevier’s place in Tennessee’s history.  In both cases, Sevier secured the land and laid the foundation, but it was left to others to build up the structure, which obscured and overshadowed the contributions of the man who made so much of it possible.  And in both cases it happened around the same time.  While James Park was building his house in 1812, Sevier’s great rival was on the brink of national fame and state preeminence, but Sevier himself was in the twilight of his long and very eventful life.

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Andrew Jackson workshop at TSLA

If you’re going to be in Nashville on Oct. 26, you might be interested in a free workshop at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  Mark Cheathem will be discussing Andrew Jackson as a southerner, which is also the subject of his new book.

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Tennessee State Museum mounts War of 1812 exhibition

If you’re going to be in Nashville between now and June 24, swing by the Tennessee State Museum and see the special bicentennial exhibit Becoming the Volunteer State: Tennessee in the War of 1812.

Nashville Scene has an article on the exhibit and Andrew Jackson’s role in the war.

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A few miscellaneous Rev War items

First off, happy Cowpens anniversary.  Here’s a report on this year’s festivities.

While we’re on the subject of the war in the Carolinas, the marker for Pyle’s Defeat (or “Pyle’s Hacking Match,” as it’s more colorfully known) apparently needs some major revision.

During last night’s Republican debate, Newt Gingrich invoked Old Hickory’s backcountry boyhood: “We’re in South Carolina. South Carolina in the Revolutionary War had a young 13-year-old named Andrew Jackson. He was sabred by a British officer and wore a scar his whole life. Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.”  That sums up Jackson’s attitude pretty accurately, I think, although throwing in the anecdote seems a little gratuitous.

Finally, Richard Ketchum, author of a number of popular books on the War for Independence, passed away last week.

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Let’s have some historical biopics

I ran across a post suggesting some possible subjects for historical biopics. The LBJ idea is especially intriguing; I wouldn’t mind seeing a miniseries adaptation of Robert Caro’s work.

I’d also propose Frederick Douglass (great story), John Brown, Joseph Smith, and Daniel Boone as interesting film subjects.  Boone’s life in particular is full of dramatic material; the deaths of his sons, the rescue of his daughter, his captivity, and his court-martial would all make for powerful scenes, and then you could wrap it up in melancholy fashion with his abandonment of the Kentucky for which he gave up so much and migration to Missouri.

Personally, though, what I’d really like to see is an Andrew Jackson biopic along the lines of Patton, depicting both his greatness and his faults. I’d start out with his boyhood in the Revolutionary Waxhaws and the beating he took for defying a British officer, and then flash forward to the War of 1812.

Either that, or just adapt David Nevin’s novel 1812 as a miniseries.  I rarely read historical fiction—I don’t read much fiction at all, actually—but that was a genuinely great book, and anybody who could play Jackson the way Nevin managed to flesh him out would deserve a Golden Globe.

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Where’s the birth certificate, President Jackson?

Now that we have Obama’s long-form birth certificate on hand, maybe we can all get back to the important things in life.  Like wondering whether Andrew Jackson was really born in America, for example.

From Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t know it was an issue until I read Allan Eckert’s classic book The Frontiersmen.  Eckert has his protagonist, Simon Kenton, and Jackson getting into a brawl near Danville, KY in 1779.  Here, Jackson is a member of a rowdy surveying team led by “Dr. Jonas Walker” running the North Carolina-Virginia line, which at that time would have also passed between the unborn states of Tennessee and Kentucky.  The crew shows up at a tavern where Kenton is eating dinner, and a drunk Jackson suddenly knocks Kenton to the floor, only to have the big frontiersman get up and beat the stuffing out of him.  According to Eckert, both fighters were about the same age, in their early or mid-twenties.  That would put Jackson’s birth in the mid-1750’s.  Conventional wisdom puts Jackson’s birth in the Waxhaws region of northern South Carolina (or maybe in southern North Carolina, but one controversy is enough for this post, thanks) on March 15, 1767.  Eckert thus moves Jackson’s birth date back about twelve years.

In a note at the end of the book, Eckert defends this decision, claiming that “there is good cause to believe…that Jackson was, in fact, born at sea while his parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, were immigrating to America from County Antrim, Ireland, thus making him legally ineligible for the office of President of the United States, which he later assumed” (597). He presents four pieces of evidence to substantiate this claim.  For the sake of convenience, I’ve separated them out and numbered them here:

  1. Simon Kenton told the story of the fight to Judge John James in 1833, and James transcribed the interview.  Kenton said that he and Jackson were close to the same age.
  2. Henry Lee (not to be confused with Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame) claimed that he was with Kenton at the time of the fight, and corroborated Kenton’s account.
  3. The same Judge James who wrote down Kenton’s story stated that in 1840 he accompanied a Kentuckian by the name of John Chambers to a political meeting.  On that trip, Chambers told him of an elderly neighbor who claimed that she was on the same ship that Jackson’s parents took to America, that Jackson was born “three days from land,” and that she herself “received him in my own hands.”
  4. Finally, Eckert cites the testimony of Marshall Anderson.  Jackson and James Monroe stopped at the home of Anderson’s father during Monroe’s tour of the West in 1819.  Anderson overheard Jackson and his father chatting privately, and reported that when Anderson asked Jackson where he was born, Jackson replied, “I was born at sea.”

Eckert concludes that all this testimony makes it likely that “Andrew Jackson was not a native American and that his age has been altered by twelve years; that he was not, in fact, born after his father’s death, nor was he born in South Carolina, but instead was born in a ship at sea in 1755, the year his parents were immigrating from Ireland to America” (p. 598).

There are a few problems with this conclusion, aside from the fact that it dismisses all the other evidence we have that Jackson was born in the Carolinas in 1767.  First, Jackson’s parents did not emigrate to America in 1755, but a decade later.  I’m not sure why Eckert moves the date back, unless it’s simply to reconcile the born-at-sea theory with the early birth theory.

Second, while there are four pieces of evidence given in support of the theory that Jackson was born in the 1750’s and/or at sea, what we really have here are only two sources.  According to Eckert, Lee’s corroboration of Kenton’s story is in the manuscript collection assembled by frontier historian Lyman C. Draper. The other three pieces of evidence are recorded in an article written by Judge James and published in a volume of historical materials published in 1859.  In other words, we don’t necessarily have four independent witnesses, but rather four pieces of testimony reported by only two independent sources.

The quality of those sources also seems questionable.  Kenton and Lee got one thing right—there was a survey being run along the VA-NC border in the fall of 1779. Dr. Thomas Walker was one of the party’s leaders, and perhaps he’s the man Eckert refers to as “Dr. Jonas Walker.”  But I can’t find any evidence that Jackson was present.  I’ve been unable to find any reputable biographies of Old Hickory that mention a surveying trip in 1779; they all indicate that in that year he was right where he had always been, growing up in the Carolina backcountry.  We know that he was in the Waxhaws in the early summer of 1780 as the British swept into the area after the fall of Charleston.  I suspect that Kenton and Lee encountered someone else—perhaps someone else named Andrew Jackson?—and conflated this encounter with the name of a famous person, either through the fog of old age or a deliberate desire to magnify their own exploits. After all, in 1833, when Kenton told his story to Judge James, Jackson had just started his second term as president.

I therefore see little reason to believe the Kenton story, and even less reason to think Jackson was a grown man in 1779.  It is much simpler to believe that Kenton was either mistaken or fabricated the story than it is to believe that all the other evidence we have about Jackson’s age is wrong, or that a public figure like Jackson was able to knock ten years off his age without anyone who knew him as a younger man calling his hand on it. After all, this was an age of intensely personalized politics, and Jackson’s critics weren’t reluctant when it came to digging up dirt on his past.

The testimony regarding the birth at sea also seems dubious to me.  The remark attributed to Jackson by Marshall Anderson contradicts other public statements (at least as early as 1824) in which Jackson claimed South Carolina as his birthplace.  If Jackson lied about his place of birth just so he could take a shot at the presidency, why was he telling people that he was born at sea as late as 1819, when he was already a public figure?

The other piece of evidence for the birth at sea is a bit of hearsay attributed to an elderly woman for whom we don’t even have a name.  And the story dates from 1840, by which time Jackson had achieved the pinnacle of his fame and power.  It seems more reasonable to assume that the old lady was muddling things up, as older folks sometimes do, by placing herself at the birth of someone who had become a celebrity and a beloved hero.

Here’s something else to consider.  Even if the story about a birth at sea were true, would it necessarily have made Jackson ineligible for office?  Most people assume that the Constitution restricts the office to natural-born citizens. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  The bit about being a citizen at the time of adoption was necessary, because technically none of the first presidents were “natural-born citizens.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were all born in British colonies. No man who had attained the required thirty-five years of age necessary to become president had, at the time the Constitution was written, been born in an independent United States of America.

I suspect that even if Jackson was born at sea, he would have fallen under the “citizen at the time of adoption” clause.  After all, he had essentially lived his entire life in America, and had participated as a teenager in the Revolution.

Since politics of the 1820’s and 1830’s were even nastier than those of today, I’d imagine that if any of Jackson’s opponents had evidence that he was constitutionally ineligible for office, they would’ve used it.  The fact that Old Hickory’s detractors didn’t become the first birthers is itself pretty good evidence that Jackson was born where and when most people think he was.

I don’t intend this to be a criticism either of Eckert or of his book.  I enjoy his work, and I think The Frontiersmen is an absorbing read.  In fact, the entire “Winning of America” series is worthwhile for anyone interested in the early American frontier, even if Eckert’s free use of reconstructed dialogue and other novelistic techniques makes me hesitant to lump them together with standard non-fiction works of history.  I just thought the issue of Jackson’s birth was a neat little historical controversy that ties into recent political debates, and therefore the kind of thing that makes for good blog fodder.

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Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

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Andrew Jackson Superstar

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this.

This spring’s biggest downtown hit was undoubtedly BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Rolling Stone called it “the season’s best musical” and audiences flocked to The Public Theater-where iconic shows like A Chorus Line and Hair started out-to see what the daring young creative team ALEX TIMBERS (writer/director) and MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (composer/lyricist) had cooked up. Now, by populist demand, their bloody brilliant show is packing up its tight, tight jeans and heading to Broadway!

In BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, rising star BENJAMIN WALKER reprises his role as America’s first political maverick. A.J. kicked British butt, shafted the Indians and smacked down the Spaniards all in the name of these United States-who cares if he didn’t have permission? An exhilarating and white-knuckled look at one of our nation’s founding rock stars, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON recreates and reinvents the life of “Old Hickory,” from his humble beginnings on the Tennessee frontier to his days as our seventh Commander-in-Chief. It also asks the question, is wanting to have a beer with someone reason enough to elect him? What if he’s really, really hot?

I saw one of the people behind this thing interviewed on TV today, and he described it as an emo take on Old Hickory.  I’d always figured Jackson as more of an eighties metal sort of guy.

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History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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Hanging out at the Hermitage

I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrew Jackson.  Sure, he was about as politically incorrect as you can get: a slaveowner, a great foe of the Indians, and a guy with a notoriously bad temper.  But he also had an unwavering faith in and devotion to the common man and to democracy.  It’s fitting that an era is named for him, because he embodies all the qualities of early nineteenth-century America, good and bad.  In any case, I’m pretty certain that if he could read many of today’s negative assessments of him, he’d dismiss them with a burst of indignant contempt and a flurry of profanity.

I live just a few hours from the Hermitage, his longtime home, and I’ve been in the neighborhood countless times.  Yet, for various reasons, I’d never been able to see it for myself.  Going to Nashville and seeing the directional signs was, for me, like going to your favorite bookstore and seeing that particular title that you’ve always wanted to read but have just never found the time.  This past weekend I finally made a trip to Nashville specifically to tour the site.  It was well worth the wait.

The biggest surprise to me about the Hermitage was its size.  I’m not talking about the house itself, which was actually smaller than I’d expected.  I’m talking about the extent of the entire site.  This isn’t a historic house museum—it’s an entire plantation that’s been preserved and now interpreted.  It’s an incredibly expansive site that’s rich in content, and it takes a lot of time to fully appreciate it.

The place to begin is at the visitor center, where a theater offers a short film with an overview of key events in Jackson’s life.  The emphasis in the film is on Jackson as a public figure.  You’ll hear about his political and military offices, and some of the important issues he faced in the White House.  There’s a considerable amount of attention paid to his opinions about slavery and Indians, too, and the film doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of this side of Jackson.  In fact, what really surprised me about the movie is the extent to which it emphasizes some of these negative aspects.  What’s missing from the film is a sense of Jackson the private man, but it does provide a good introduction to his role in American history for those who are unfamiliar with it.

The visitor center also contains exhibits on the history of the plantation and its inhabitants, featuring personal items owned by Jackson and members of his family as well as artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations.  In the exhibit galleries, as throughout the tour, the emphasis is on the plantation as a whole rather than specifically on Jackson and his family.  Some of the most interesting items on display are tiny pieces of jewelry recovered from the slave areas, which are carved in recognizably African motifs.

To interpret the grounds, the Hermitage employs a personal audio tour.  Visitors are issued devices with headphones and a keypad.  Numbered signs are in place throughout the grounds at various important points (the kitchen, the springhouse, the slave cabins, Jackson’s tomb, etc.).  When you arrive at one of these points, you can enter the number into the device using the keypad, and you get a brief narration about it along with comments from curators, archaeologists, gardeners, and other on-site experts.  Combined with a printed walking guide and the usual signage with text and images, the audio tour is wonderfully effective.  I particularly appreciated the brief excerpts from interviews with the staff, which was much more engaging than an impersonal exhibit label.  The audio, signage, and printed guides all combine to give you a layered interpretive experience, so that you can get as much or as little detail about particular areas as you like, in whatever manner suits you best.  There’s also a separate audio tour designed specifically for kids.

Of course, the main highlight on the tour is Jackson’s actual house.  The rooms are furnished with beautiful period pieces and artwork, many of them once owned by Jackson himself.  My only complaint about the house tour is its brevity.  Costumed guides usher groups through the mansion at quite a brisk pace, so if you want in-depth information about the rooms or furnishings, the thing to do is ask questions.  You’re in and back out before you know it.

The grounds are so extensive, though, that there’s quite a bit to see outside the house: Jackson’s tomb, slave cabins, the springhouse, the gardens, etc.  I was there for nearly four hours, and I still didn’t see everything before closing time.  Again, the interpretation here covers the entire scope of life at the plantation, so you’ll learn quite a bit about the slaves, farming techniques, and all the other things that went into managing the place.

In fact, amid all the information you’ll get about the site’s history, its workings, and its multitude of inhabitants, you don’t hear much at all about the inner life of the man responsible for it.  At most historic house sites of this kind, the spotlight is on the notable figure who lived there; the servants and other inhabitants usually remain faceless.  You hear about them, but they hover in the background.  At the Hermitage it’s Jackson who waits in the wings.

That surprised me, because Jackson’s personality and character are such fascinating subjects.  I kept wondering how much of the site had his personal stamp on it, and what role he had to play in the artifical community that he built.  Few men have left such a decisive mark on American history.  Indeed, he gave his name to an entire period.  Of course, for some time now, historians have been trying to correct the oversights of past scholars by focusing away from the great and powerful and more on the marginalized.  It seems to me that the interpretation at the Hermitage might be an over-correction.

Still, it’s an incredibly impressive historic site, managed and interpreted with the highest possible degree of professionalism.  It’s clear that exhaustive research has gone into the restoration and programming, and the communication between the site and visitors is handled with extraordinary deftness.  It’s a stellar example of historic house museum management.

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