Portrait by Ralph E. W. Earl, 1823
June 15, 1767
|Died||December 22, 1828 (aged 61)|
(m. 1787; div. 1790)
Andrew Jackson (m. 1794)
|Parent(s)||John Donelson |
|Relatives||Emily Donelson (niece)|
Andrew Jackson Donelson (nephew)
Daniel Smith Donelson (nephew)John Donelson Martin (great nephew)
Rachel Jackson (née Donelson; June 15, 1767 - December 22, 1828) was the wife of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States. She lived with him at their home at The Hermitage, where she died just days after his election and before his inauguration in 1829—therefore she never served as First Lady, a role assumed by her niece, Emily Donelson.
Rachel Jackson was married at first to Lewis Robards in Nashville. In about 1791, she eloped with Andrew Jackson, believing that Robards had secured the couple a divorce. It was later revealed that he had not, meaning that her marriage to Jackson was technically bigamous. They were forced to remarry in 1794 after the divorce had been finalized.
She had a close relationship with her husband, and was usually anxious while he was away tending to military or political affairs. A Presbyterian, Rachel was noted for her deep religious piety. During the deeply personal prelude to the 1828 election, she was the subject of extremely negative attacks from the supporters of Andrew Jackson's opponent, John Quincy Adams. Jackson believed that these attacks had hastened her death, and thus blamed his political enemies.
Rachel Donelson was born near the Banister River, about ten miles from Chatham, Virginia, in Pittsylvania County on June 15, 1767. Her father was Colonel John Donelson (1718-1785), co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee, and her mother was Rachel Stockley Donelson (1730-1801). Her great-grandfather, Patrick Donelson, was born in Scotland about 1670. She had seven brothers and three sisters:
From about 1770 to 1779, her father operated the Washington Iron Furnace at Rocky Mount, Franklin County, Virginia. With her family, she moved to Tennessee at the age of 12. Her father led about 600 people from Fort Patrick Henry to Fort Nashborough, down the Cumberland River. The Donelson family were among the first white settlers in Tennessee.
Rachel attracted much attention from suitors because she was very beautiful as a young woman, described by a contemporary as having "lustrous black eyes, dark glossy hair, full red lips, brunette complexion, though of brilliant coloring, [and] a sweet oval face rippling with smiles and dimples." Later in life, her country manners and full figure were severely in contrast with Jackson's tall, spindly form and developed genteel manners. However, her love for her husband was unmistakable: she languished when he was away for politics, fretted when he was away at war, and doted on him when he was at home. Unlike Jackson, Rachel never liked being in the spotlight of events. She would consistently warn her husband to not let his political accomplishments rule him; for example, after Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans, she warned Jackson that his subsequent popularity (on the scope of George Washington) would tempt him to value his glory over his own family.
Her first marriage to Captain Lewis Robards of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a landowner and speculator, was not happy, and the two separated in 1790. According to Marcia Mullins of The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee there were rumors that Lewis Robards was cruel and jealous. Believing that her husband would file a petition for divorce, she returned to the Donelson family home.
When Andrew Jackson migrated to Nashville, Tennessee in 1788, he boarded with Rachel Stockley Donelson, the mother of Rachel Donelson Robards. The two became close, and shortly after, they married in Natchez, Mississippi. Rachel believed that her husband had obtained a divorce, but as it had never been completed, her marriage to Jackson was technically bigamous and therefore invalid.
Rachel's marital status was complicated by the distances involved and the changing governmental authorities. During the process of Rachel and Robard's divorce, Kentucky became a state instead of a territory of Virginia, and North Carolina turned over management of the territory including Tennessee to the Federal Government. These complicating factors were understood by locals and the unusual circumstances of the Jackson marriage were not greatly discussed in Nashville society.
In 1793, Andrew and Rachel Jackson learned that although Lewis Robards had filed for divorce, the divorce had never been granted. This made Rachel a bigamist and an adulterer. On the grounds of Rachel's abandonment and adultery, Lewis Robards was granted a divorce in 1794. At about the same time, the legitimacy of the Jackson marriage was questioned because they were married in then-Spanish-controlled Natchez, Mississippi. The Jacksons were Protestants, and only Catholic marriages were recognized as legal unions in that territory. After the divorce was finally legalized in 1794, Andrew and Rachel wed again in a quiet ceremony at the Donelson home.
Although the Jacksons never had biological children, they adopted her nephew in 1809 and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr. When his father became President, Andrew Jr. assumed management of the Hermitage farm. He married Sarah Yorke of Philadelphia on November 24, 1831.
In 1813, the Jacksons adopted a Creek orphan boy who was found on the battlefield of Tallushatchee with his dead mother. They named him Lyncoya. Lyncoya was educated along with Andrew Jr., and Jackson had aspirations of sending him to West Point, as well. Political circumstances made that impossible, and he instead trained as a saddle maker in Nashville. He died of tuberculosis on June 1, 1828.
Around 1817 the Jacksons adopted Andrew Jackson Hutchings who was the grandson of Rachel's sister and the son of a former business partner of Jackson's. He attended school with Andrew Jr. and Lyncoya. He then attended colleges in Washington and Virginia while Jackson was president. In 1833, he married Mary Coffee, daughter of Jackson's friend John Coffee, and moved to Alabama. Hutchings died in 1841.
Andrew Jackson served as the guardian for the children of Captain Edward Butler (soldier), Adjutant General and Inspector General of the United States Army from July 1793 until May 1794, and the children of Rachel's brother Samuel Donelson's son. These children did not live with the Jacksons full time.Andrew Jackson Donelson, son of Rachel's brother Samuel, became Jackson's protégé, and served as personal secretary to Jackson during his presidency.
According to Ann Toplovich, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Society, John Quincy Adams' presidential campaigns targeted Jackson's "passion and lack of self-control" in both 1824 and 1828, "making it central to the argument that he would devastate the integrity of the Republic and its institutions." One newspaper ran an article asking, "'Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?'"
The publicity surrounding her and the public knowledge of what was considered a very private matter caused Rachel to sink into depression. She reputedly told a friend "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington." Adding to her stress, in 1828, Lyncoya Jackson died at the Hermitage. Between the scandal, her son's death, and a heart condition she spent much of the campaign depressed and crying.
She died suddenly on December 22, 1828, of a heart attack, given her symptoms according to Jackson: "excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast." That her death came immediately before Jackson left for Washington was more than an inconvenience; it was crippling. He held her body tightly until he was pulled away, and he lingered at the Hermitage until the latest possible date.
Even though her maladies began as early as 1825, Jackson always blamed his political enemies for her death. "May God Almighty forgive her murderers," Jackson swore at her funeral, "I never can."
She was buried on the grounds at The Hermitage wearing the white dress and shoes she had bought for the Inaugural Ball. Her epitaph reads: "A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor."
The Rachel Jackson State Office Building, in Nashville, Tennessee, built in 1985, was named for her.
Rachel Jackson was the title character of a 1951 historical novel by Irving Stone, The President's Lady, which told the story of her life with Andrew Jackson. In 1953, the novel was made into a film of the same name starring Susan Hayward and Charlton Heston as the Jacksons. In the 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy (a fictionalized biography of Peggy Eaton), Rachel Jackson was portrayed by Beulah Bondi, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.