High Domes and Bottomless Pits

Exploring the homes of two presidents, the birthplace of another, and a natural wonder that once drew visitors from far and wide.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the fourth installment in the series.]

After leaving the Trail of Tears, we headed north to a different kind of destination: the home of James K. Polk, in Columbia, Tennessee, not far from Nashville. There, we found a pleasant house, now in a charming small town filled with shops and restaurants. Abby and I had last seen the Polk family at the future president’s childhood home in Pineville, North Carolina. There, log cabins chinked with red clay told of life in the early nineteenth century. The Polk home in Columbia showed that the family had made the most of its move to the west, gaining land and building prosperity along with the growing Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

The President James K. Polk Home & Museum [Photo: Ed Ayers]

James Polk was the oldest of ten children in the family, and was ill throughout his childhood. Showing signs of ability, the sickly boy was sent to the University of North Carolina, then a small school with only a few students. Polk did well there and returned to his parents’ home to work as a lawyer. He quickly became involved in politics and was sent to the state legislature in his twenties. Polk married well, to Sarah, a young woman much admired by Andrew Jackson. With her help, and Jackson’s, Polk established a presence in Washington. He failed in two attempts to win the Tennessee governorship, though, and it appeared that his political career was over.

At the visitor center, an unusually lighthearted and irreverent film tells the story of Polk’s sudden nomination as the dark-horse Democratic candidate for president, and of his unlikely victory over Henry Clay in 1844. Many of the items in the house were chosen by Sarah for the White House, but Polk died of cholera soon after his one term in office and Sarah, childless, took the china, chairs, and other elaborate accessories back from the White House to Columbia. She loved red, as many of her decorating choices revealed.

As at the Polk birthplace, the war with Mexico — the dominant feature of Polk’s presidency — never comes into focus at the Polk house. The domestic setting seems somehow inadequate to the task of explaining war, conquest, and loss. As with the Trail of Tears and the domestic slave trade, the biggest transformations of the era remain beyond reach, even as the home sites reveal the families behind those transformations.

We thought that our next stop — Andrew Jackson’s plantation, The Hermitage — might tell the big stories, since it is a much larger operation with greater resources (and higher ticket prices), and since it is devoted to the central political character in the years between 1800 and 1860.

Hermitage Museum [Photo: Ed Ayers]

The visitor center at the Hermitage was large and colorful, as was the film, featuring several historian friends of mine who did a fine job of explaining Jackson, Native removal, the Bank War, and other complexities — all in 17 minutes. The graphics on the wall were modern and expertly designed. Some gave the names and histories of individual enslaved people. The mansion itself was impressive, as was the tight schedule on which everything necessarily ran. The garden was especially beautiful, and Abby recognized flowers that I would have missed.

But the best part of the visit was the most modest: a wagon ride to the site of the fields and enslaved quarters no longer visible from the mansion. The two women who drove the horses explained to the eight of us on the tour that the lush lawn and large trees would not have been there during Jackson’s lifetime. Instead, the grounds would have been hard-packed earth, made bare by the work and passage of dozens of enslaved men, women, and children. The guides explained the enormous scale of cotton production at the Hermitage and named the men Jackson trusted to operate the large gin and cotton press.

Wagon tour at The Hermitage [Photo: Ed Ayers]

All that remained of the slave quarters were the outlines of the buildings’ foundations, each divided in two. Our guides explained that as many as 21 people slept in each side of those buildings, an image that clearly registered with the young people in the wagon. The bare outlines of the cabins were more powerful than a reconstruction would have been, it seemed, leaving room for imagination and empathy.

At the end of the tour, Abby and I spoke with the guides about their experiences leading the tours. They loved the work, they said, both because of their affection for the horses and because of the message they were able to convey. They admitted it was not always easy; many visitors were more interested in the horses than in the experiences of the enslaved. One man, on his own on the tour, told the guide that he didn’t want to hear about slavery at all, using an expletive, that he was tired of having it “shoved down his throat.” But both women were willing to put up with the occasional hostility in turn for the chance to connect people with a part of history that seemed difficult to imagine in the abstract.

In a transition that would likely have annoyed the irascible Jackson, our next history stop was the home of his enemy, Henry Clay. Jackson accused Clay of being the spokesman and tool of the aristocracy of moneylenders and speculators, and as such, considered him the most dangerous man in the country. From a historical distance, the two men were more alike than dissimilar: southern planters who used their wealth to political advantage, and vice versa. In the era of the new nation, however, Clay and Jackson saw each other as threats to the very survival of the experiment that was the United States.

Between the Hermitage and Clay’s Ashland lay a site I had visited as a Boy Scout and that stuck in my memory: Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Abby and I thought we’d take a break from political history to see a natural wonder, and so we stayed at a campground in Cave City to get on an early tour of the caves. Abby is not a fan of dark, enclosed spaces that are filled with many species of creatures that do like such spaces, but she once again swallowed her reservations for the sake of adventure.

Our break from history proved short-lived. A video near the entry to the impressive visitors center told of Stephen Bishop, a young enslaved man who, between 1838 and 1857, became the most famous guide at the caverns. After his enslaver purchased the grounds under which the enormous and complex caves snaked and twisted, Bishop was assigned the job of leading tours. Fascinated by what he found, Bishop studied geology and won the respect of the scientists fascinated by the caverns. He discovered many of the most famous portions of the cave, where he signed his name to commemorate the find.

Cave guide Stephen Bishop [Image: Library of Congress]

Two of the most important figures of the new nation traveled to Mammoth Cave, it turned out: Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1850 and the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind the following year. The allure of the caverns must have been great, considering that no railroad reached the site and that the journey there would have involved a long and jostling carriage ride. Emerson described his experience in his essay, “Illusions”:

I lost the light of one day. I saw high domes, and bottomless pits; heard the voice of unseen waterfalls; paddled three quarters of a mile in the deep Echo River, whose waters are peopled with the blind fish; crossed the streams ‘Lethe’ and ‘Styx;’ plied with music and guns the echoes in these alarming galleries; saw every form of stalagmite and stalactite in the sculptured and fretted chambers, — icicle, orange-flower, acanthus, grapes, and snowball. We shot Bengal lights into the vaults and groins of the sparry cathedrals, and examined all the masterpieces which the four combined engineers, water, limestone, gravitation, and time, could make in the dark.

He drew out a moral, of course: we view nature not as it is but as illusions, metaphors, memories, and impositions.

Our next stop was unplanned, and one of the strangest of our journey. On the way from Mammoth Cave to the home of Henry Clay we saw a sign for the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace. Bertha immediately swerved off the highway to see what we expected to be a small cabin. Instead, we found an enormous Beaux-Art edifice standing at the top of 56 wide stairs (each for a year in Lincoln’s truncated life), with a cabin inside. It was not, it turned out, the actual cabin of Lincoln’s birth but what the National Park Service calls a “symbolic cabin.” It had been rebuilt inside the classical structure, surrounded by only a few feet of passage and with no light inside. The product of the early 20th century, the site had been inaugurated by William Howard Taft.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace [Photo: Ed Ayers]

The anomalous structure stood above the sinking spring that had led Thomas Lincoln to try to establish a farm on the poor land, only to give up a few years later to move to another site not far away before abandoning Kentucky altogether for Illinois.

The symbolism was intentional, demonstrating the heights of glory to which even a boy with such poor prospects as Abraham Lincoln could attain in America. The architecture seemed to overwhelm that message, though, attesting instead to the ambitions of the United States at the outset of the 20th century. Two-hundred thousand people a year visit the site — the first Lincoln memorial — so perhaps it resonates with others in a way it did not with us.

Back on the road, we headed to Lexington, Kentucky, to see the home of Henry Clay. Not nearly as prosperous as the Hermitage today, Clay’s Ashland nevertheless bore signs of the wealth and prestige Clay acquired in his remarkable life. The impressive brick privy attested to refinement, as did the deep ice houses and paintings of prize pigs, horses, and cattle. The house, it turned out, had been rebuilt after Clay’s death and so, though it was from the 1850s, held little resonance for me. The guide said little about slavery, though he acknowledged the more than one hundred enslaved people who sustained Clay’s standard of living. A sign outside spoke directly:

Much of the wealth and comfort the Clay family enjoyed derived from labor of the people they enslaved. These individuals raised the livestock, grew the crops, prepared the food, maintained the buildings, helped raise the Clay family children, and thus contributed significantly to the luxurious lifestyle the Clays enjoyed. They worked from sunup until sundown and received little in return save a few items of clothing, cramped quarters, and minimal rations of cornmeal and pork.
Often violently punished, enslaved people universally lived in constant fear of being sold and separated from their families and friends. Many were exploited for more than their labor, enduring the added terror of sexual abuse from their oppressors. Enslaved people met their realities with remarkable resilience and, often, resistance.

After plantations and caves, our visit to Cincinnati marked quite the change. We drove Bertha into the city on a Saturday morning, hoping we could find a place large enough to park. We had no trouble, for the beautiful museum complex of the city offered ample — and wide — parking.

Cincinnati was the fastest-growing city in the country in the 1820s and 30s. It was a port on the busy Ohio River, a destination for many visitors, the center of pork production and processing, and the boundary between slavery and freedom. I was delighted to see that the city had built the impressive museum complex in its stunning 1931 railroad terminal, and devoted much of the space to local history. I was even happier to see that they had also constructed a replica of a river boat and its dockside. Abby and I found it absorbing. I loved seeing how the steam engine worked and the paddle-wheel mechanism turned. The goods stacked all around in boxes and barrels gave a great sense of the diversity and velocity of trade in the era.

Cincinnati history exhibit [Photo: Ed Ayers]

On shore, reconstructions of a photography shop, a pharmacy, a millinery, and a print shop deployed artifacts very effectively. As in other places we visited, we found that history did not have to be pristine and stuffy to be powerful. New approaches to exhibit design and immersive technology are enabling museum professionals to connect with people who arrive knowing little about a particular time and place.

At the other end of the funding spectrum from the lavish Cincinnati Museum Center stands the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Rescued from destruction in 1943 through a biracial effort, the house was sustained for generations by volunteers before a full-time director was hired a couple of years ago. Recent grants are funding the restoration of the house to the time when Harriet Beecher Stowe lived there.

Harriet greets Abby Ayers at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati [Photo: Ed Ayers]

The story is compelling, for the house was the home of Harriet’s father, Lyman Beecher, who had been lured to Cincinnati to head the Lane Seminary (now a Cadillac dealership just up the street). It was from this house that Harriet ventured across the river to Kentucky, where she witnessed the sale of enslaved people, and where she saw the Underground Railroad in operation.

Our final stop in Cincinnati was a beautiful park overlooking the city, to see an isolated statue of Stephen Foster. Despite his often raucous and joyful music (such as “Oh! Susannah,” written in Cincinnati), Foster was a sad and lonely man who died an early and perhaps intentional death. His statue captures that spirit well. On the way to Cincinnati, we had passed by Bardstown, Kentucky, which claims to be the inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home” even though it is assuredly not. Instead, that song was inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was in turn inspired by the scenes of slavery Harriet Beecher Stowe witnessed near Cincinnati.

Stephen Foster Statue at Alms Park, Cincinnati [Photo: Ed Ayers]

Abby and I were pretty tired by this time and knew we had a long drive ahead of us back to Charlottesville. Looking at the map, we saw what we knew but could easily forget: Cincinnati is almost directly west of Charlottesville. This major city of “the North” was in fact the same latitude as “the South.” In between were the mountains of West Virginia, which Bertha handled beautifully as we snaked around the bends of the New River Gorge. That river, despite its name, is in fact one of the oldest in the world.