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Published November 05, 2015
Andrew Jackson: President. Hero. Rockstar.
So reads a billboard welcoming arrivals at the Nashville International Airport, attempting to lure them from the honky-tonks of downtown Broadway to Jackson's historic home called The Hermitage a few miles to the east.
A new exhibit there encourages visitors to remember that the man with the lofty forehead and towering hair portrayed on the $20 bill had the star power of an Elvis Presley or Kanye West back in his day. It's part of a broader makeover effort to move Jackson's image from a half-remembered "Old Hickory" caricature to a man whose vision changed the presidency and the nation and whose legacy can still be felt today.
"Andrew Jackson, Born for a Storm" is the first major content change to The Hermitage's exhibition space in 25 years. Perhaps surprisingly, the new exhibit is also the first at the historic home to focus on Jackson and his legacy.
It comes at a time when The Hermitage hopes to take advantage of a renewed interest in Jackson, helped along by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "American Lion" and Broadway rock musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."
Jackson, America's seventh president, is often remembered for his infamous campaign of Indian removal. He pushed through the 1830 Indian Removal Act, under which multiple tribes were forced away from their land.
The "rock star" comparison might seem like a stretch, but take this example: Jackson's raucous first inauguration was overrun by drunken well-wishers who tore up the White House furniture. Jackson himself had to escape from a window and his supporters were only persuaded to leave when they moved the alcohol-laced punch onto the lawn.
"Jackson was the next great war hero after George Washington. People really felt like he had saved the country," said Tony Guzzi, Hermitage vice president of preservation who helped craft the new exhibit. "They put his image on everything from plates to pitchers to coins to you-name-it."
The wild scene at the White House reflected Jackson's populist campaign for office in which he vowed to take back the government from Washington elites.
"The people really thought it was their government, and their White House," Guzzi explained.
Jackson's presidency saw the closure of the national bank and an unprecedented use of the veto that many members of Congress criticized as exceeding his authority. His time in office was also known for the Petticoat Affair, a social catastrophe that began when members of his household and cabinet refused to socialize with the scandal-plagued wife of War Secretary John Eaton. The situation escalated and led to the dissolution of nearly Jackson's entire cabinet.
But Jackson, an outsider who grew up on the frontier, would never have become president if not for the Battle of New Orleans, in which he won a brilliant victory against the British at the close of the War of 1812.
"The legacy of the battle is that Americans felt Jackson had saved them from the British. That launched the U.S. into an era of national pride," Guzzi said. "The big, important thing is it really changed the way Americans felt about their country. They were more confident about the permanency of the U.S., which was only a few decades old."
Jackson was honored with ceremonial swords, medallions and gold presentation boxes, some of which are on display at the exhibit that opens Thursday to coincide with the battle's 200th anniversary.
The Hermitage has appointed some nationally prominent figures to its new board of directors, including "American Lion" author Jon Meacham. And the name of the board itself has changed from the quaint Ladies Hermitage Association to the solid-sounding Andrew Jackson Foundation.
The association of ladies first took over the care and maintenance of The Hermitage more than 125 years ago, when Jackson's grandson still lived there, and they have meticulously preserved original furnishings, wallpaper, clothing — even a carriage. But luring tourists into the suburbs to see the collection has been a challenge in recent years.
In the 1980s, The Hermitage was the third most visited presidential home behind Washington's Mount Vernon and Jefferson's Monticello, said Hermitage President and CEO Howard Kittell. But visitation has fallen from a high of about 330,000 to only about 185,000 this past fiscal year.
The new exhibit is an effort to "capitalize on what makes us distinct," he said. "It was Jackson."