If you were asked to put together a list of fun or interesting road trips, it's likely that presidential museums wouldn't make your top 20. Or so we thought until visiting the John F. Kennedy presidential museum and library on a rainy post-cruise day in Boston.
That visit launched a multi-week adventure of presidential discovery as we made unexpected presidential stops along the route of an extended family vacation. After the JFK museum in Boston, we detoured on a Chicago trip to Springfield, IL, and the Abraham Lincoln museum. Then, approaching Nashville, we ventured off our planned route to Hermitage, home of the Andrew Jackson museum. (If you follow our journey below, some of the included links may contain advertising where the website or author may receive payments.)
All good road trips need an epic soundtrack. But aside from a few numbers featuring Christopher Jackson as George Washington in the Hamilton soundtrack, can you even name any driving tunes about or even mentioning presidents? So instead, we turned to a playlist of “Stuff You Missed in History Class” and the Washington Post podcast “Presidential,” recorded during the 2016 campaign. We completed 18 episodes of the ~45-minute program during our 3,800+ mile traversing of the South and Midwest. For those not familiar, that means we’ve covered all presidents from founding fathers George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to war heroes likes Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, through the nation’s greatest test under Abraham Lincoln and its painful recovery under Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.
Talking with JFK in Boston
Our rainy-day visit to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum launched our journey just as JFK’s leadership and challenge aimed our early rockets into space and to the moon. Kennedy’s presidency, and even more so, his assassination and funeral, was seared into my childhood memory. For history-based tour sites, experience quality often is determined by multimedia exhibits and tour guides. Our JFK docent guide was a Kennedy groupie, in the positive sense of the term. She could hardly contain her storytelling, verbally self-editing so she didn’t run over her allotted time. She expertly supplemented and personally curated the exhibits, suggesting favorite artifacts and areas deserving more attention.
But it was Kennedy himself – his notes, his words and the video presentations of his speeches – that made this much more than a museum collection. Kennedy mastered popular culture and television as a new political medium, and those images plus his stirring words bring the museum to life. Throughout the museum, Kennedy walks with you, speaking to you directly from video clips.
A Haunted and Haunting Lincoln
Whereas JFK accompanies you through the Boston museum, the sad, tired image of Honest Abe veritably haunts you at every turn in Springfield. He’s everywhere – in portraits, caricatures, Photoshopped-posters, souvenir centers, bronze statues, seriously played by actors and frivolously portrayed by impersonators.
Walking through exhibits on Lincoln’s upbringing, his early life as a lawyer, his entry into politics then his time as president, you're pulled into a 19th century America that is splitting apart at its geopolitical boundaries. The divergent positions are presented stunningly. Lincoln’s careful consideration of the Emancipation Proclamation is represented in long hallway where Lincoln sits alone, the approach to him featuring competing banners overhead and ghost-like figures in the walls that shout literally and figuratively their positions.
Re-Evaluating Andrew Jackson
Our presidential summer ended at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Here, the most historically accurate early presidential home is the backdrop for the Jackson story. Carefully protected by both sides during the Civil War, Jackson’s thrice-expanded mansion majestically towers above the rolling hills, fields and farmlands that once comprised a working plantation housing over 200 enslaved people.
Confusion, reevaluation and changing perspectives are common experiences for those who consider, study or portray Jackson. Even the primary movie at The Hermitage reflected this complexity: a new movie introduced in 2017 employs biographers Steve Inskeep and Jon Meacham to provide broader perspective rather than simply telling a chronological story.
Our Next Presidential Visit
The full story of our accidental presidential summer is detailed in our blog. Also ahead on our future exploration agenda is the Jimmy Carter Library and Plains Home. Surprisingly, while less than 30 miles from our home, we've yet to visit the Carter Library in Atlanta. Nor have we stopped by his family home in Plains, GA. Both are on a short list for summer visits.
And we found this handy listing of all the presidential libraries from the National Archives for our future travel reference. So who knows where else we'll go.