Andrew Jackson’s career encompassed the purviews of lawyer, judge, storekeeper, land speculator, soldier and politician; but farming became the basis of his economic plan.
To actualize his plan, Jackson bought The Hermitage to produce a single cash crop: cotton.
The Hermitage As Plantation - "King Cotton"
Although cotton was the sole cash crop of The Hermitage, cotton plants covered only 200 of the more than 1000 acres of the plantation. Production of any other crop was difficult due to the intense amount of labor needed to raise cotton. The perpetual process of planting, weeding then picking required by “king cotton” ruled the daily lives of the enslaved.
At the peak of operation, Jackson had more than 100 enslaved men, women and children working in his fields. Additional enslaved families provided domestic necessities for the Jackson Family such as cooking, cleaning, gardening or driving.
By 1860, only 12% of farms in the slave states of the American South could be classified as plantations. Many of those were much smaller than The Hermitage with only 20 to 30 slaves.
Although a minor sector within larger southern society, this elite plantation aristocracy controlled the majority of wealth and power in a primarily agricultural-driven landscape. Their cash crop was cotton, and “King Cotton” ruled with a heavy hand throughout southern plantations.
King Cotton's Tarnished Crown
The expansion of slavery and cotton production into the interior American South was fostered by the insatiable demand for cheap cotton by the textile mills of Great Britain and New England. In these fertile lands, Native American tribes had practiced agriculture for over 1,000 years. The fertile soils of the “Black Belt” through Alabama and Mississippi became the base of King Cotton’s realm.
However, planters stretched the ecological limits of the land as they sought their fortunes. Tennessee was the northernmost outpost of cotton production in the antebellum South but the climate allowed for only a narrow window of success in planting this cash crop.
Andrew Jackson knew he would have to cease depending on cotton for income eventually. The land was wearing out, the price of cotton was falling and the limited growing season made it a great risk. By 1845, the year of Jackson’s death, he described the price of cotton as “ruinous.”
“ … 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
Even though the Census of Agriculture of 1850 shows a record of 94 bales of cotton being produced at The Hermitage that year, Andrew Jackson Jr. also diversified by investing in an ironworks and a lead mine, both located in Kentucky. 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 Jr. deeper into debt. He sold an unsuccessful plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi. Later he sold the ironworks and the along with the slaves that worked there.
In 1856, hoping to consolidate operations at a new location on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Andrew Jackson Jr. sold The Hermitage to the State of Tennessee. The new plantation was still under construction, so the family leased The Hermitage back from the state for two years.
Once the family left, agriculture at The Hermitage nearly came to a halt in the years just before the Civil War. There is no entry for The Hermitage in the Census of Agriculture for1860. The new venture in Mississippi failed too and in the fall of 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Jacksons returned to The Hermitage as tenants.
From Plantation to Farm
By the 1870 census, agriculture at The Hermitage had changed radically. The enslaved gained their freedom and most moved away. Andrew Jackson’s family transitioned operations at The Hermitage into a small farm.Continue to Farm