Visit a Trio of Presidents in Tennessee on Presidents’ Day 2014
For many of us Presidents’ Day is more about a three-day weekend than our three Tennessee presidents, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson.
But after touring their homes, the veil of time parted and revealed their compelling personal stories.
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Andrew Jackson’s parents were dirt-poor Irish immigrants. His impoverished early years were spent living with his widowed mother and brothers in South Carolina. By the time he was 15, he had fought for the American Revolution, been captured and sent to a prison camp and become an orphan after the untimely deaths of his brother and mother.
At the Hermitage (www.thehermitage.com) you’ll learn about his later life and career. By the time he became the seventh president of the United States, he was a famous war hero, a veteran politician and one of the most popular men of his time.
A vicious presidential campaign with personal attacks charging Jackson and his wife, Rachel, of adultery couldn’t keep him out of the White House but his beloved Rachel died shortly before he took office.
He won by a landslide vowing to represent the interests of the “common man.” When hundreds of rowdy frontiersmen in beards and buckskins showed up at the White House to celebrate his first election, Washington society was aghast. Some people hated him but many more loved him.
After two controversial terms Jackson came home to the Hermitage, worked off the debts he made while president and visited Rachel’s tomb every day at sunset.
March 15th is Jackson’s birthday. There will be a day-long event at the Hermitage that will include a wreath laying ceremony, with the keynote speech delivered at the tomb. Activities for the family will include quill-writing demonstrations, spring planting activities, frontier foodways, lawn games, and “I Spy” First Hermitage. Wagon Rides, food vendors, and an educational workshop will be part of the activities as well.
James K. Polk Home
Jackson was the political mentor of James Knox Polk, the second Tennessean elected President. The two men shared political views but led very different lives as I learned during a tour of Polk’s ancestral home in Columbia with Director John Holtzapple (www.jameskpolk.com).
Born in 1795 in North Carolina, Polk moved to Middle Tennessee with his parents when he was 11 years old. His father was a prosperous farmer and land surveyor. He had health problems as a boy and decided against following in his father’s footsteps due to the physical demands of being a frontier surveyor. After a couple of years of formal schooling, he was admitted to the University of North Carolina as a sophomore and graduated as class salutatorian.
He studied law, was an effective speaker and held office at state and national levels. On January 1, 1824 he married Sarah Childress, his life-long personal and political intimate.
In 1845 Polk became the youngest president to be elected. Sarah oversaw an elegant and sophisticated White House. True to his campaign pledges Polk extended national borders to the Pacific Ocean, expanded our national boundaries by 800,000 square miles and served a single term. In the spring of 1849, he left Washington worn out and weakened. Within three months he died from cholera.
Sarah remained in mourning until her death 42 years later.
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
But the most challenging Presidency fell to Andrew Johnson (www.nps.gov/anjo) as you’ll learn at his homestead in Greenville.
His father, a hotel porter in Raleigh, North Carolina, died when he was four. He was apprenticed to a tailor but ran away when he was 15. By the time was 18, he had settled in Greeneville, Tennessee, opened a tailor shop and married Eliza McCardle, two years his junior. She aided his quest for education, teaching him mathematics and writing. Two years later he entered politics.
He served in Congress and became House Speaker for two terms, spoke out against secession which he believed was unconstitutional and was appointed Military Governor of Tennessee during the Union occupation in the Civil War.
In 1865 President Lincoln asked him serve as vice president in his second administration. Six weeks later, Johnson became the 17th president after Lincoln’s assassination.
The South hated him because he was a Unionist. The Republicans hated the Southern Democrat and his moderate approach to Reconstruction. Tensions built and he was impeached on the grounds that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act by suspending Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) who openly opposed his Reconstruction policies. He was acquitted of the charges by one vote and served the remainder of his term.
How will you celebrate Presidents’ Day?