While traveling through Nashville we stopped to see the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's plantation home. Old Hickory built himself quite a house; a two-story mansion furnished Philadelphia furniture and French wallpaper.

On one level, Jackson's life is a classic American rags-to-riches story. Born poor in the Carolina's, moved West to seek his fortune, practiced law and traded and rose in local society until he became a planter; serving in the militia then the Regular Army, he became a national folk-hero for his courage and success. As a political leader he championed the ordinary man against the elites. Ironic, some might say, given that he had risen into elite status himself. Opportunistic, some more cynical might assert, using common-man rhetoric to further his own ambitions. I think, though, Jackson believed his own words, and truly wanted to keep America the land of opportunity.

When Andrew Jackson championed the rights and liberty of the common man, he meant, of course, the common white man. He owned slaves; their labor made his lifestyle possible. Field hands lived near the fields they tilled, and household slaves lived near the big house, ready to answer the bells from the back-porch summoning them to meet the needs of their masters. Champion of Liberty and Owner of Slaves: was he a hypocrite? Not in the context of his time. His generation, and those before, understood Liberty to mean different kinds of liberty for different kinds of folks, depending on their ability for self-government. White men with full liberty followed by white women then children with blacks below. Does that make Jackson a racist. Sure, by modern standards. Although I would call his racism a "soft" racism: that is, I know of no evidence that he hated blacks and practiced cruelty toward slaves because they were black. Indeed, the slaves at the Hermitage lived better than most slaves in the area, and probably not below the conditions of many poor whites. This is not to condone slavery, but to attempt to understand our past.

Jackson, the Indian fighter, also was the man who adopted an orphaned Indian boy. He and Rachel raised him like a natural-born son. Contradictory? Seemingly so. Jackson believed in American expansion, and forced the powerful southern tribes west of the Mississippi. Yet he himself seemed to believe that he was doing them a favor as well as gaining opportunity for whites; that the only way the tribes could be preserved was to remove them from contact with whites.

The irony that strikes me today is that Jackson, a hero in his home state of Tennessee and admired throughout the South, gave one of the mortal wounds to the idea that America was a nation of states rather than a nation-state. When South Carolina rebelled during his presidency over taxation, Jackson forced her to remain in the Union with believable threats of violence. "Our Federal Union, it must be preserved."