7. Andrew Jackson

Log Cabin Democrats (July 13, 2011)

Before there was a California, there was simply Manifest Destiny: the mysterious force that on a winter's night in 1795 compelled Samuel Polk to plow his wife like a cotton field. And so God's plan for Disney on both coasts was set in motion. Nine months later in Mecklenburg County, N.C., future president James K. Polk sprang from his mother's loins. A lot of people sprang from her loins over the years -- James was the first of 10 -- and they did so in cabins that looked something like this:

That's not the actual birth cabin (whose manifest destiny Was rotting to oblivion), but it is a nice, upper-middle-class dwelling for the time and region. Samuel had some land, some slaves, and one of the only cotton gins in the neighborhood; that level of prosperity was enough to get you a two-room log hut, a barn and a separate log kitchen. Times have changed, and (going by the Motel 6 I stayed in the night before) today that would qualify only as a middle-class dwelling for the Charlotte region.

For a nice chunk of the 20th century, the only thing marking the birth site was this fine ... uh, thing ... from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But today there's a visitors center, and some period structures, and a demonstration garden. There's a nice little cemetery where Polk's grandmother happens to be resting. And there's a mission to let you know what life was like for the future president. For young James, there was character-building farm work, and (negative) character-building exposure to slavery, and your standard home schooling. But were there any telling episodes which chiseled the man who would besmite Mexico and spread our great land from sea to shining sea? Well, the story goes that one day James plowed a field, but stopped short of a nearby stream. "Father, it is too difficult to go all the way to the water's edge," he said. And so Samuel horsewhipped him and rubbed his face on the cotton gin. "DO NOT STOP UNTIL YOU GET TO THE WATER!" he screamed.

Which is to say, I made that up and there are no stories. The Polks pulled up stakes and headed off to Tennessee when James was 10. James came back to attend UNC, and he was the starting point guard for the 1817 ACC championship team. But his fortunes are more closely tied to the Volunteer State, where he became a protege of its greatest political hero -- who was also from North Carolina. Maybe.

Once again it's the DAR to the rescue, this time by marking the log cabin site of Andrew Jackson's 1767 birth, about a 20-minute drive to the south. You'll be interested to know that Andrew Jackson was born in the middle of a gravel ring at the end of a gravel road. You can only reach the circle -- about a quarter mile inside the N.C. state line -- from a South Carolina road, and there are no signs anywhere indicating its location. You have to know it's there, and it really helps if you have a satellite picture of the region. If you go there past 9 p.m. a moonshiner will shoot you. The reason for this obscurity, you'll be interested to know, is that Andrew Jackson wasn't born in North Carolina. Maybe.

That's the very helpful DAR marker indicating the log cabin site of Andrew Jackson's birth, about another 2 minutes to the south. In South Carolina. The story goes that a very pregnant and recently widowed Elizabeth Jackson was wandering the countryside like Mary, looking for a place to drop her miracle baby. She went into labor at an relative's house, but which relative isn't exactly carved in the historical record. One uncle lived in present-day North Carolina, another lived nearby in South Carolina. The states have been politely disputing each other's claims ever since.

South Carolina is winning, because Andrew Jackson State Park at least has paved roads leading up to its DAR marker. And beyond that, there's a small museum on Jackson's childhood, an equestrian statue of young AJ and some recreations of period-appropriate structures (a schoolhouse and a meeting hall). But again, what about the formative episodes of rambunctious youth?

Jackson's life was nothing BUT formative episodes. The Waxhaws region (stretching over both states) was like a colonial Hazzard County, stocked with friendly relatives and troubling authority figures. During the Revolution, the British came through and tore stuff up; Jackson and his brother were captured when running errands for local militia. Jackson suffered a saber scar to the face and his brother died of smallpox contracted while a prisoner. His mother died a short time later working as a nurse for wounded soldiers. And somewhere in there I bet he got to second base while pressing some backwoods babe up against a pine tree. The point is, his time in the Waxhaws toughened him up -- to the point where he finally was able to get the hell out and go to Tennessee.

The rest is history: he becomes a military legend and political champion of the earthy backwoods people that made America great. In a true evolution of American democracy, Jackson was our first "common" president, and he learned to be so common in the Waxhaws.

I learned alot in the Waxhaws too. Chiefly, that the DAR likes to be thorough and once had a huge budget for giant stone markers.

Action Jackson (June 2, 2013)

By 1828, our great experiment in constitutional democracy had survived a war with Britain, vast new territories had been added to the country, and power had been peacefully transferred between executives five times. There had been growing pains, but the system seemed stable enough to carry us forward into the foreseeable future. So the nation decided to have fun for once, and it elected our first cartoon president.

The great thing about Andrew Jackson is that many of the ridiculous, folk-tale-sounding stories about him are verifiably true. He did kill a man in a duel (and survived a few potentially lethal fights), he did get involved in horrific real estate debacles, he did obliterate the British on the field of battle, he was a prisoner of war in the Revolution, he did have his own troops shot for disciplinary reasons, there was enough legal confusion about his marriage that he might have been a party to bigamy, he did threaten his political opponents in hilarious fashion, he did love racing horses, he did try to beat the crap out of a would-be assassin, and his election was celebrated with a mob of drunk morons trashing the White House. He could have named a bear his vice president and gotten away with it.

And beyond that, he was the iconic figure of a political movement that dominated America for about 30 years. Jacksonian Democracy was the belief that culturally elite wankers like Thomas Jefferson had governed enough, and that political power and voting rights should be pushed out to a much broader (but still white) group. Jackson wanted some powers kept away from the federal government , like central banking -- a position informed in part by his own personal investment disasters earlier in life. But he also believed in a strong executive, and he refused to acknowledge the right of states to ignore the federal government -- a position that glued together the union for a few extra decades.

It stands to reason that he should have a kick-ass house. Someone called Mount Vernon the autobiography George Washington never wrote; it really is a monument to his steady persistence and competence. The Hermitage, on the outskirts of Nashville, can't live up that standard. Instead of a mansion, it would have to be a giant dinosaur statue with monster trucks for shoes.

But it is one of the slicker setups, as far as presidential sites go. Jackson (who was a successful lawyer, as well as a perpetual potential defendant) acquired the property in 1804, when the countryside was a lot rougher. He and his wife spent the first 15 years or so in a simple log cabin, which they eventually expanded to two stories. The brick mansion was built as his fortune and fame grew -- he was a war hero and a successful politician by 1820. That mansion burned pretty badly in 1834, and Jackson had it rebuilt and improved at ridiculous expense; he died in that version of the house in 1845.

Then his adopted son (he had no children of his own) pissed away the family fortune and let the property slouch into disrepair. It's a minor miracle that it's still around for us to enjoy, but it is; what's left even seems reasonably authentic. There's nothing about the Hermitage mansion that's particularly mind-blowing, but it does have some character. The entry hallway is decorated with a remarkable French wallpaper. Wrapping around the whole room, it tells the story of Telemachus' search for his father (from "The Odyssey"). You can see a similar kind of story-telling wallpaper in the New York home of Martin Van Buren, the Robin to Jackson's political Batman. It was a trendy thing to have. The dining room looks like a nice place to entertain, and the bedrooms look like good place to sleep and eventually die. That's how they were used.

To me, the crown jewel of the property is the garden, where Jackson and his wife are buried. Rachel shuffled off the mortal coil in 1828, just after her husband had been elected president. She was in her 60s, which was a perfectly respectable age at which to die in those days, but Jackson was always convinced that presidential politics had killed her. Though her husband had no particular religious bent (at least before he was on his death bed), Rachel had become increasingly pious over the years. A few historians have speculated that her shift was motivated by guilt generated by the fuzzy circumstances of her first marriage, which was very ugly and ended with her fleeing her mildly unstable husband. During the campaigns of the 1820s, when people started questioning if that marriage had ever ended legally -- remember, Reagan is the only president to have been officially divorced -- Rachel got a case of the vapors. The stress might have helped to kill her.

Jackson wrote the epitaph on her grave, which read as follows:

"Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died December 22nd 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind. She delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow-creatures,and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods. To the poor she was a benefactress; to the rich she was an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament. Her pity went hand in hand with her benevolence; and she thanked her Creator for being able to do good. A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor. Even death, when he tore her from the arms of her husband, could but transplant her to the bosom of her God."

As cartoony as Jackson was, I think he was also genuine. His passions often got the better of him, but they also drove him to remarkable things. You read an epitaph like that, and you really do believe that his greatest reward for living was the chance to be buried in the ground next to his wife. Romance!

And speaking of romance, the Hermitage was actually one of the first presidential sites I visited as a stand-up comedian. One of my first audition trips took me to Nashville, where I slept on the couch of a generous friend. Looking for something to do during the day, I figured the Hermitage was as good a thing as any. I didn't realize at the time that it would be the start of a 10-year journey through American history. I didn't take any notes on my first visit, and I never bothered to write it up. By the time I realized I had accidentally developed a hobby, the memories were too dull to do the place justice. You can go home again.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White