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Andrew Jackson's Hermitage - Tennessee


Much less disappointing was Andrew Jackson's Hermitage just out of town. 

Australians of my generation are more likely to know about Cook and Macquarie and Sturt and Leichhardt than about Andrew Jackson. But to appreciate the Hermitage, or indeed the 'South' at all, it's necessary to know some US history. 

Older Australians are probably familiar with one of Jackson's 'bar killing' contemporaries through the B&W TV series Davey Crocket and the eponymous ballad.  For a period, when I attended Thornleigh Public School, my friends and I ran about Thornleigh sporting our versions of his similarly eponymous 'coon skin hat', with a furry tail hanging down our backs, as do our grandchildren in superhero or Frozen outfits today.

Andrew Jackson is the guy on the US$20 note.  For those of you unknowledgeable about the people appearing on US Currency, Jackson was the hero of The Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the War of 1812 against the British.

Older Australians may have heard of this too as the subject of a jingoistic popular song in the 60's titled: The Battle Of New Orleans by Johnny Horton - later covered by Johnny Cash: 

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

We looked down the river and we see'd the British come.
And there must have been a hundred of'em beatin' on the drum.
They stepped so high and they made the bugles ring.
We stood by our cotton bales and didn't say a thing.

Old Hickory said we could take 'em by surprise
If we didn't fire our muskets 'til we looked 'em in the eye
We held our fire 'til we see'd their faces well.
Then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave 'em ... well

Yeah they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico


This is all very well but displays a definite colonial bias and history usually depends on the teller so here's my version, distilled in large part from our recent trip - no doubt many will disagree with my Australian/British perspective. 


A very short history of the USA - up to the Civil War

As we would confirm later on during these travels, the British were not the first Europeans to colonise North America.

One thing we did learn about America at Thornleigh Public School was that in 'fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue' in the Niña the Pinta and the Santa María.  We learned it the same way that we learned that there are 5,280 feet in a mile, by rote, with the threat of corporal punishment (a smack with a rule) if we got it wrong. 

America was sometimes known as Columbia but Columbus was a difficult hero so it is named today after another explorer: the Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci.  Both Spain, the superpower of the day, and contenders, Portugal, laid claim to the newly discovered Americas.

To resolve this problem, Pope Alexander VI, consulted God and in 1494 divinely divided the trading and colonizing rights for all newly discovered lands between Portugal and Castile (later applied between the Spanish Crown and Portugal) to the exclusion of other European nations. As Pope Alexander was Spanish, the dividing line conveniently missed the known Americas altogether.  But the next Pope Julius II, was Portuguese and a second consultation with the Divinity revealed that the line had been misplaced.  So in the final version of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1506 Portugal got to keep Brazil and the entire planet was divided into Spanish and a Portuguese hemispheres. Thus even China and Japan were nominally Portuguese.  Late last century this 16th century Divine allotment became part of Argentine claim on the Falkland Islands.

Under the treaty the entire North American continent was given to Spain.  A papal bull, Romanus Pontifex had already instructed the Spanish King how God's Church required him to proceed in such new lands. 

He was to: "invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed..." And to acquire all: "dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery..."  And to: "apply and appropriate to himself (the Spanish King) and his successors... possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit... the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbours, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors."

South America, where the natives were sophisticated enough to mine and work in gold and silver, was the great prize.  The Iberians were less enthusiastic about North America, that was good for furs and slaves but not much else. Native people also felt that they had rights to the territories on the grounds of thousands of years of prior occupation.  But in general these claims were disregarded by the Spanish who saw the natives as either primitive souls to be saved or bodies to be enslaved - often both. 

At this time Britain was a cluster of waring states and earldoms on a group of islands off the coast of France. But then, with the help of God and the restored True Religion, as Elizabeth's tomb in Westminster Abby makes clear, they defeated an attempt by Papist Spain, to invade.  God also protected her and her successors from several Papist attempts on their person's. They were soon a united country with a Union Jack (flag) and challenging the superpower at every opportunity. 

As Niall Ferguson argues in his book Empire: over the next century, while perusing commerce to the exclusion of all else, Britain would, almost accidently, acquire the basis of what would become the greatest Empire the world had yet seen. I've discussed this elsewhere in more detail. Read more...

As part of this search for commercial opportunities, the British colonisation of North America would begin in 1607, in Jamestown Virginia.

Several other European powers had made prior territorial claims and established colonies including: Spain, France and Holland.  The new British colonies were thus often disputed. As a consequence the early British settlements in North America needed to be fortified, principally against the Spanish but also against the French, off and on enemies, who in the late 1600's laid claim to the Mississippi and a vast tract of land to the west - from Mexico to Canada - known as Louisiana after the French king or as New France.

French settlers, together with some Germans and Jews, set up the cosmopolitan city of New Orleans, based principally on trading in agricultural exports.  The wealth generated was modest, unlike colonies with access to gold or silver, and was mostly in the form of timber; rice; and indigo, as well as enslaved natives. Eventually the Spanish claim would be recognised and the colony would be handed to Spain but then came the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon who took it back.

The British colonies progressively expanded. The French were defeated in Canada and most of the eastern seaboard down to the border with Florida became part of the Empire. A century after first settlement around a third of the continent was English speaking and several generations of native sons had been born in the British colonies.

Many of these native sons and daughters had never been anywhere near London, they had no representation in the Parliament and yet they paid taxes to London.  In 1776 activists in thirteen of these: Delaware; Pennsylvania; New Jersey; Georgia; Connecticut; Massachusetts Bay; Maryland; South Carolina; New Hampshire; Virginia; New York; North Carolina; and Rhode Island decided to demand their independence from British taxation. Earlier demands had not been met so the activists became revolutionaries. These revolutionaries, as Benjamin Franklin, the man on the $100 bill declared, would need to 'hang together' to avoid being hanged separately.  Their endangered necks were saved in 1783 when the American Revolutionary War - also known as the American War of Independence - finally resolved the matter in their favour.  Over 100,000 loyalists, those who were not killed in the fighting, were obliged to flee the country.

In his book Empire, Ferguson makes the point that at the time they secured independence none of the thirteen colonies was very profitable so they were of no great commercial loss to Britain.  Yet just twenty years after winning their independence the southern states were exporting ever more cotton and other agricultural materials to the mother country and beginning to grow sugar, made profitable by slavery.  British private investment continued unabated. 

Under President Thomas Jefferson, the man on the $2 bill, they approached Napoleon to buy port facilities at New Orleans but learned that to have it they would have to purchase the entire territory.  The problem was that the young nation didn't have the money to hand, so as one does in that situation, they went to London and issued bonds on a British and Dutch banks, effectively borrowing the cash.  Jefferson's opponents were appalled, describing the territory as worthless desert.  Nevertheless, in 1803 the United States paid sixty-eight million Francs for The Louisiana Purchase, a deal that enabled Napoleon to fund his forthcoming war with Britain.


New France - The Louisiana Purchase was for the remainder of the outlined area west of the Mississippi
The eastern side was already part of the US by then

Nine years later in June 1812 the US, now under President Madison, believing Britain to be preoccupied with Napoleon, attacked Canada.  Americans were unhappy with Britain for its protection of native Americans and for conscripting American sailors to fight the French; and Madison saw the opportunity to grab some more territory including the bit of Canada that was part the above purchase.  This became known as The War of 1812.

It was badly misjudged.  Britain and its loyalists that included Canadians; native peoples; and escaped slaves, resisted.  They fought off the invaders and imposed a naval blockade that brought the United States close to bankruptcy. They then carried the fight to the US itself.  The British expeditionary force burnt Washington but famously failed to take Baltimore.. "by the rocket's red glare".  Madison's ill-advised war was concluded with the signing of The Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814.

But due to slow communications by sea the knowledge that a peace treaty had already been signed, ending the war, had not reached  the British and American generals on the ground.   So in the following January, the British forces were still closing in on New Orleans. To defend the city the American General, Andrew Jackson, had built earthworks, secured by gun emplacements, the Jackson line, across the only British path through the marshy land that surrounds the city. 

The British significantly outnumbered the Americans and it should have been a pushover.  But hesitancy on behalf of the British officers, perhaps because they had secret communications confirming a treaty was under discussion, led to a delay, allowing more elaborate American preparations.  Despite the failure of their own preparations, attempting to dig paths for troop boats through the swamps, the British staged a series of ill planned frontal infantry attacks against Jackson's hardened fortifications and artillery.  On one front, due to miscommunication or incompetence one of the British commanders had omitted to supply the troops with the ladders necessary to climb the defences.

The result was slaughter on a scale not repeated until the American Civil War.  For Britain, it was a massacre almost ten times greater than that of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea forty years later "guns to the right of them; guns to the left". Only 55 Americans lost their lives. Britain lost 2,459 killed, captured or wounded.  The British General, Edward Pakenham, and his second-in-command, Major General Samuel Gibbs, were both fatally wounded, so they would never know of their ignominy.

But for The Battle Of New Orleans, The Treaty of Ghent would have been a Pyrrhic victory for Madison. The campaign was little more than a sideshow for the British, in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, but it was hugely costly for the infant United States. Overall, US losses were twice those of the British; British naval supremacy, challenged during the war (see the USS Constitution in Boston Harbour on this website), was restored; and not a foot of new territory was gained by Madison. He's not remembered on any US banknote.

Jackson's victory became a matter of great face-saving pride to the new nation. Jackson became 'Old Hickory' a US hero on similar scale to that of the Duke of Wellington, the Hero of Waterloo, in Britain, when Napoleon finally met his Waterloo a year later.  And like Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) who became Prime Minister during the time of Queen Victoria, Jackson was catapulted into politics, eventually to become the seventh President, despite his humble 'log cabin' beginnings and a common law, perhaps bigamous marriage.

Controversial today was Jackson's ownership of slaves and his solution to the problem of native peoples who disputed with white settlers - round them up and march them west to fight it out with other native people.


Andrew Jackson - Click on this picture to see more

At the Hermitage we learned that as President, Jackson was concerned to add more territory to the US and how his erstwhile deputy and ex-governor of Tennessee, Sam Houston, after whom the City is named, first set about destabilising the Mexicans and then establishing the huge Republic of Texas, alienating it from Mexico and the Spanish, with a little help from US soldiers dressed in civilian clothes.  During this 'revolution' the famous Davey Crocket, also from Tennessee, would be killed at the Alamo.  Crocket had gone to Texas in high dudgeon after his failure to prevent Jackson driving the native peoples out of their traditional lands.

Nine years later in 1845 the supposedly independent Republic of Texas would be annexed by the US.  The absorption of Texas became one of the ultimate causes of Southern secession and thus the American Civil War. But first they had to sort out those ornery Mexican revolutionaries who, having recently wrested their country from Spain, now objected to losing Texas, leading to war with Mexico a year later.  This war added even more territory to the US, including de-facto control over the soon to be absorbed Republic of California. 

Tennessee was a Slave State.  Slavery is a very ancient economic system.  Slaves are continually mentioned in the Bible, by Plato and in other ancient texts as a fact of life. Slaves could be prisoners of war, as in Aida,  people fallen on hard times, criminals, people captured and sold by slave traders or the children of slaves. In America these were chattel slaves:  people treated as property, bought and sold, or sometimes bonded slaves: people who had sold themselves in payment of a debt.  Thus, occasionally, slaves managed to buy their freedom or to have it bought for them.  Today chattel slavery is illegal across the globe and 'slavery' refers to forced labour, generally without remuneration.

The British had long been uncomfortable with chattel slavery.  Chattel slavery had ceased in Britain when slaves legally became serfs in the twelfth century.  As in Russia all the way into the 20th century, serfs were effectively chattel slaves by a different name.  But in Britain as early as 1102 the Church was already making laws against 'selling men like animals' and this practice was illegal right across the British isles by the turn of the thirteenth century. Thus progressively British serfs became freemen. This did not prevent Cromwell solving the 'Gypsy Problem' by transporting thousands to the West Indies as slaves in around 1650.  And until 1807, when slavery was finally abolished across the British Empire, slavery was still legal in many British colonies.  In Australia, convicts transported from Britain were effectively slaves during the course of their sentence.  In that case the (local) goal was to populate the colonies with able people, so many had their sentence commuted, after which they became 'emancipists' and often very successful.

In the days before harvesters and other farm mechanisation, slaves were essential to a southern farm or plantation's competitiveness.  It was simply impossible to compete with other farms in the region, for example sugar plantations in Cuba and the Bahamas, without slaves and they were a significant asset, often more valuable to their owners than the land they worked.  As we will see Charleston was initially a slave exporting port, exporting native Americans to plantations in the Caribbean following in the footsteps of the Spanish who also enslaved Europeans, particularly Gypsies.

As with any asset, slaves could be bought and sold.  In Charleston we visited the Old Slave Market that is now a museum. Here a good working age male slave would fetch upwards of $1,500, equivalent to about $35,000 in 1970 dollars. The price of a luxury car in 1970.  Most farmers could not afford many of these but some 20 of the wealthiest plantation owners owned over 500 each.  Less expensive slaves were employed as and often treated like household servants. Slaves were a mark of social status and even some free blacks owned slaves. Thus in the south slaves outnumbered freemen and it was in the interests of their owners to keep their slaves healthy and to encourage them to have children. 

In more enlightened communities slavery was under attack.  Enlightenment thinkers, now freed from religious prejudice, were not swayed by Romanus Pontifex; nor religious arguments that slavery was ever-present in the Bible and thus endorsed by God; nor the prevailing view that 'savages' particularly Africans, were inferior and provided by God to be slaves. It was amazing to see that this claimed racial inferiority was still subscribed to by US segregationists in the 1960's.


Segregationist belief in racial superiority
Segregationist belief in racial superiority Segregationist belief in racial superiority

Segregationist belief in racial superiority - click on the image to see more from the ML King Memorial in Atlanta


Many of these people are still alive. No wonder they had a problem with a black president, not to mention all those doctors; lawyers; engineers; mathematicians and generals; doing better in life than they and lording it over them. 

Back to the story.

With the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 Britain set out to shut down slavery across the globe. Military campaigns were mounted against slavery in Africa and the British Navy began to intercept and punish slave traders.  In America this had the effect of pushing the market in human trafficking underground and increasing the slave price so that some ship owners were more than willing to run the gauntlet. A fortune could be made on a single passage. Thus slaves were still being traded in the Charleston slave market right up to April 1865, a few days after the end of the American Civil war.

As in Britain, in the northern States of  the US enlightenment reformers and some religious, like the Quakers, had long sought to ban slavery and this seemed to have enlightened Founding Father support:  'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...'. 

Right from the beginning, in 1780, Pennsylvania passed a Gradual Abolition Act, providing that the children of slaves would be free.  After Independence was achieved this was followed by States to the north also moving to progressively phase out and then outlaw slavery.  Thus northern farmers had to find other ways to compete with each other without the aid of unpaid hard labour, leading to increasing mechanisation. The southern border of Pennsylvania had been defined by a survey as the Mason Dixon Line. This line formed part of the Missouri Compromise line in 1820, above which slavery had been phased out and was now illegal.  So the territories to the south became known as 'Dixie' a term that was further popularised in the minstrel song "Dixie's Land".  Again people of my generation probably remember singing it at school, along with 'My Grandfather's Clock': "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton; Old times there are not forgotten; Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land."

The Missouri Compromise protected civil rights in the north but its effect was to make slavery essential in 'Dixie' if plantation owners wished to compete with their slave owning neighbours. It also set up two opposing cultures that still persist in many ways today.

Despite its smaller area, the non-slave North was growing rapidly with immigration and industrialisation, now that after Independence Britain was no longer flooding their markets with industrial products.  Americans now had to manufacture their own mass-produced goods and often invent their own machines to do this. Thus the North was industrial and protectionist while the South were free-traders, who argued that they could sell their cotton and sugar and rice and indigo and tobacco to Britain and buy the machines and manufactured goods that they needed. Yet slavery was making a mockery of the new country's claim to be: The Land of the Free.

A Presidential election would take place in 1860.  Vocal anti-slavery advocate Abraham Lincoln was a candidate.  A year before the election the execution the of anti-slavery campaigner John Brown, whose body lies a' mouldering in his grave, as we sang at Thornleigh PS to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, had been executed.  With 21 supporters he'd led an attack on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry to capture weapons to arm a slave uprising.  This had polarised the debate.  In the southern states Brown was a dangerous terrorist.   Yet in the north Brown's supporters argued that, as Lincoln's proposal to buy slaves' freedom from their owners had failed, armed force was now the only foreseeable way to achieve abolition.

At the election Lincoln received virtually no support from the Slave States.  Up to 60% of the population was black but they had no vote.  Almost the entire white population was polarised against him.  Yet somehow he won the election. His southern opponents called foul. Nothing much has changed in US presidential elections in that regard.

Lincoln was to take office the following March.  By February seven southern states: Alabama; Florida; Georgia; Louisiana; Mississippi; South Carolina; and Texas had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America.  In their view they were now a separate country and they appointed Jefferson Davis as their President. 

We can see a similar thing happening right now in Spain where Catalonia has voted to secede and the Government in Madrid has rejected the people's wishes.  Hopefully history is not about to repeat itself.

An uneasy truce followed during which the Confederacy mobilised their militias, last used against the British in 1814.  These had their origin in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution adopted in 1791 that states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  This had paid off in 1812 and now South was able to resist invasion again.  It's echoes still resonate.  Later this trip we would visit the Book Depository in Dallas and then we would arrive in Las Vegas two days after the most deadly mass shooting in US history.

During The War of 1812, the island fort in Charleston harbour, Fort Sumter, had been material to the American coastal defence.  It was still manned by Union troops in what had now become Confederate South Carolina.  In April the local militia thought it would be amusing to remove the interlopers.  So in a 'picnic-like' atmosphere, with the city folk cheering every shot, the militia began a bombardment.   On April 12 1861 the fort surrendered and the United States of America (the Union) promptly declared war on Confederate States of America (the Confederacy).  The remaining four southern states: Arkansas; North Carolina; Tennessee; and Virginia promptly joined the Confederacy in outrage and fraternal support.  

In the North people were equally outraged.  The Confederacy was now significantly larger in area than the Union. Territory hard won had been taken away and their grand vision for their new country was in tatters.  They would send their young men into battle, not to free slaves but to recover those secessionist territories, and in so doing continue to realise their grand vision of a 'United States of America'.

Initially the Confederacy was remarkably resilient.  Its troops were fighting for their homeland and their way of life against a perceived invasion by the country to the north.  The War of 1812 had taught the southerners that all they had to do was make the fight so expensive to the invaders that they would give up; sign a treaty; and go away.  If they made it hard and expensive enough Lincoln's support would collapse; and he would be impeached.  Or at the very least, if they held out for four years, Lincoln would lose the next election. 


Birmingham campaign for racial equality Birmingham campaign for racial equality
Birmingham campaign for racial equality Birmingham campaign for racial equality

Civil War motives and expectations - to see these images in more detail click on the Atlanta History Centre in the Atlanta chapter


Despite the relative areas, the total population in the industrial North was over twice that in the rural South where only half the population was white and prepared to fight.  While the South produced commodities for export the North produced most of America's food, like wheat and meat and its gross economic product is estimated to have been three times that of the South

Initially it wasn't too unequal. The Generals on both sides had gone to the same schools.  Although the North had twice as many troops, country boys can already ride and shoot and camp out and find their own way, so they make better soldiers than city kids.  Many of the older men on both sides were battle hardened fighting the British, and the militia on both sides had military weapons, thanks to The Second Amendment

In particular, General Robert Edward Lee, commanding the Confederate forces, turned out to be a superior tactician to the Generals commanding the Union forces. 

But the North was determined - after setbacks at the hands of Lee, Union military leadership passed to Generals Grant and Sherman, and despite unprecedented slaughter, mainly by Sherman, Lincoln went from political strength to strength. As the war drew on, the South was blockaded by the Northern Navy, restricting access to war materiel and cash, in return for their crops, and the North used its industrial infrastructure to make significant technological advances in weapons and weapons manufacture.  It became a fight to the death and it became clear that victory would require either the complete destruction of the Confederate ability to fight or Confederacy successfully destroying the invaders. 

So both sides sought to annihilate the other's troops and entire cities in the South were put to the torch.   It soon became the bloodiest war the US has ever fought, exceeding the combined casualties and deaths of every war the US has fought before and since.

Eventually, on April 9 1865, the Confederacy was forced to surrender and it was occupied by Union troops.  But like France occupied by Germany, not everyone accepted the outcome.  For plantation owners slaves had been a major asset, rendered worthless that year by the Emancipation Proclamation followed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.  The South lay in economic ruins. 

For the now freed slaves things weren't a lot better. Paid work was hard to find.  Conditions offered were often little different to slavery, sometimes worse.  Many fled north.  In the south, secret white resistance groups were forming based on the old militias. These would soon have a new cause:  strict racial segregation, the Jim Crow Laws, and the extrajudicial punishment or murder of 'niggers' who got too big for their boots. 




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