When Andrew Jackson was racking up military victories and becoming a national hero and political superstar, his wife, Rachel, ran their Tennessee plantation, the Hermitage, from a modest log cabin. Later, when Jackson was on the verge of becoming the seventh President of the United States, they built another house, more of a showplace this time, on the same property.
It's appropriate that today's visitors to the Hermitage, the third most visited presidential residence after Mt. Vernon and Monticello, can see both houses, because Jackson was much admired in his day as the archetypal self-made man, the frontiersman with a smattering of education who made it to the top.
The first building you see when you come here is the big brick main house. It is wide and pillared, and the front is painted white. It looks a little odd as you approach from the side, but seen head-on the Hermitage seems irreproachably Southern, a Greek Revival vision of lightness and graciousness through the trees. Not bad for a man who was left an orphan at the age of 14.
To get to the plantation's log cabins, you wander down the path at the back of the big house, past the cabin of Alfred and Gracey, the slaves who attended the Jacksons in the big house, past a small but flourishing cotton field, trees, and green lawn.
``I think most people, when they look at those wooden cabins, think [the Jacksons] must have been eating out of wooden trenchers with a wooden spoon, but in fact they had a rather high style of life,'' comments Mrs. Fletch Coke, research chairman of the Ladies' Hermitage Association and an ardent history buff. She took me to a small museum on the grounds where we looked at bits of Staffordshire plates, some fine silver, and some of Rachel's elaborate jewelry.
The cabins are usually deserted, but in the summer you'll wait in line at the main house to be swept through in small groups by the guides.
Inside, the mansion is decorated in a heavy, dark, and ornate style. There are a number of gigantic fourposters, much horsehair furniture, and wallpaper with large patterns in browns, dark greens, and grays. The overall effect, nonetheless, is of a house that would be easy to live in. The Marquis de Lafayette once said, ``The first thing that struck me on arriving at the general's was the simplicity of his house. Still somewhat influenced by European habits, I asked myself if this could really be the dwelling place of the most popular man in America.''
Among the highlights of the mansion's interior are a fireplace trimmed in hickory carved by an admirer, and the charming front-hall wallpaper -- a particular favorite of Jackson's -- telling the Greek poet Homer's story of Telemachus searching for Ulysses. ``It is a dreamy kind of world, isn't it?'' says Mrs. Coke.
The Hermitage was no place for a hermit; Rachel Jackson Lawrence, the president's granddaughter (by his adopted son), wrote that it ``was such a public place that I do not think the family ever sat down to a meal by themselves -- there was always company.''
Particularly useful for entertaining were the double parlors, which now contain some of the gifts Jackson received, such as a sword presented by the state of Tennessee.
``He was very fond of keeping gifts and showing them to friends,'' according to Mrs. Coke.
Jackson's friends and relations were apt to come for long visits. After marrying Rachel's niece, the artist Ralph E. W. Earl stayed with the Jackson family, painting beautiful portraits of the president, some of which are on display. A very small girl on my tour started recognizing him in the pictures, crying ``There he is!'' as we went from room to room. ``Many visitors, when they see so many portraits, think he was very vain, but we have no other place to store them,'' explains Mrs. Coke.
The front guest room, full of the best furniture, is called the brides' room. ``They had a lot of weddings here -- I think Jackson was kind of a romantic.''
There is also a little nursery. The Jacksons were childless, but they took in numerous wards -- including at least one young Indian. They adopted a nephew, whom they named Andrew Jackson Jr.
The garden was very important to Rachel Jackson and ``this is where we feel her presence most,'' says Mrs. Coke, explaining that just as Jackson always took people to see his relics, Mrs. Jackson would take visitors to see the flowers, usually sending them home with a little bouquet.
Today the garden is full of old-fashioned strains -- hollyhocks and sweet william, phlox and columbine. Rachel and Andrew, and many other members of the family are buried in one corner. Practical information
The Hermitage is located east of Nashville off Route 70. Most visitors come in the summer -- as many as 3,000 a day. March, April, October, and November are pleasant and less-crowded times here. In the summer, if you come around 9 a.m. on a weekday, you'll avoid the crush.
The admission charge of $3.75 for adults, $1 for children, also allows visitors to see a short film and to tour the church Rachel Jackson had built and the home of young relatives of Rachel's, the Donelsons.