Andrew Jackson’s careers included such diverse occupations as lawyer, judge, storekeeper, land speculator, soldier, and politician; farming was the basis of his economic plan.
To realize his plan, Jackson bought The Hermitage and developed it into a large plantation ñ an industrialized form of farming that relied on slave labor to produce a single cash crop. – cotton.
By 1860, only 12% of farms in the slave states of the American South could be classified as plantations, and many of those were much smaller than The Hermitage having only 20 to 30 slaves. Although a minority within larger southern society, this elite plantation aristocracy controlled the majority of wealth and power in this primarily agricultural landscape. Their cash crop was cotton, and “King Cotton” ruled with a heavy hand throughout southern plantations.
The Hermitage as Plantation
At the peak of operation, Jackson had more than 100 enslaved men, women, and children working in the fields. Additional enslaved families provided for the domestic necessities of the Jackson Family, such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, driving, and a multitude of other daily tasks.
Although cotton was the sole cash crop of The Hermitage, only 200 acres of the 1000 acres of the plantation was planted in cotton. The intense amount of labor needed to raise this crop made the growing of any more difficult. From planting to weeding to picking, “King Cotton” ruled the daily lives of the enslaved.
But, cotton was not the only crop that grew at The Hermitage. Corn provided the basic sustenance for the enslaved. Other grains, such as oats, wheat and barley, were grown to feed the Jackson Family as well as fodder livestock. Garden crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas and beans, were also grown by the enslaved. The Hermitage had orchards of diverse varieties of apples, pears, peaches, quince, cherries, and other fruits. Hogs provided the basic allotment of protein for everyone, slave or free, but milk cows, beef cattle, and sheep also provided food for the Hermitage residents.† Hay from the pastures fed animals and wood from the woodlot heated the mansion.† Jackson raised and trained racehorses but this operation was mostly for pleasure, not profit.
King Cotton’s Tarnished Crown
The insatiable demand for cheap cotton by the textile mills of Great Britain and New England encouraged the expansion of slavery and cotton production into the interior American South. In these fertile lands, American Indian tribes had practiced agriculture for over 1,000 years. The fertile soils of the “Black Belt” through Alabama and Mississippi became the foundation of King Cotton’s realm. But, planters stretched the ecological limits of the crop as they sought their fortunes. Tennessee was the northernmost outpost of cotton production in the antebellum South. But the climate here allowed for only a narrow window of success in planting this cash crop.
Andrew Jackson knew he would have to quit depending on cotton for his income. The land was wearing out, the price of cotton was falling and the barely long enough growing season made it a great risk.
“ … We must change our culture in part from cotton and turn our attention to stock, hemp, and perhaps tobacco, as I am convinced from the change of the seasons we must not depend on the cotton crop entirely, for support.”
(Andrew Jackson to Andrew Jackson Jr, Sept. 22 1836.) By 1845, the year of Jacksonís death, he described the price of cotton as ruinous.
Andrew Jackson Junior continued growing cotton at The Hermitage, but he also diversified by investing in an ironworks and lead mine, both located in Kentucky. The plantation produced 94 bales in 1850 according to the Agricultural Census. Dairy products, especially butter, became increasingly important products for sale. In 1850, The Hermitage produced 1,000 pounds of butter.
Falling cotton prices, bad financial decisions, and natural disasters sunk Andrew Jackson Junior deeper into debt. He sold an unsuccessful plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi, and then sold the iron works as well as the slaves that were working there. In 1856, hoping to consolidate operations at a new location on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Andrew Jackson Junior sold The Hermitage to the State of Tennessee. The new plantation was not ready yet, so the family leased The Hermitage back from the state for two years.
With the family’s absence, agriculture at The Hermitage came to a near halt in the years just before the Civil War. There is no entry for The Hermitage in the Agricultural Census of 1860. However, the new venture in Mississippi failed too and in the fall of 1860, the Jacksons returned to The Hermitage as tenants. A few months later, the Civil War began.
From Plantation to Farm
By the 1870 Agricultural Census, agriculture at The Hermitage had changed radically. The enslaved gained their freedom and most had moved away. Andrew Jackson Junior died in 1865 and his son Samuel died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga. Sarah Jackson, her son Andrew Jackson III, tenant farmers, and a few day laborers farmed The Hermitage. The Jacksons reported no cotton production at all in 1870 and 1880. Livestock and grain production were greatly reduced. They produced 500 pounds of butter in 1870, half the production of 1850. Alfred Jackson, a former slave who remained at The Hermitage as tenant farmer, produced one bale of cotton in 1870 and two bales in 1880. Most of his 40 acres were devoted to subsistence farming for his family.
When the Tennessee Confederate Soldiers’ Home was established in 1889, able-bodied residents assisted in farming The Hermitage to produce food for the home. When the Soldiers’ Home closed in 1933, the Ladies’ Hermitage Association hired workers to farm the land to help support the museum. A small farming and cattle breeding operation continued at The Hermitage through the 1980s. Today, row crops, such as corn, wheat, and soybeans as well as hay are grown on the Hermitage farm. A small heard of Belted Galloway cattle, chickens, and guinea fowl highlight the agricultural history of The Hermitage.