The President’s Lady

The drive from downtown Nashville to Andrew Jackson’s home at the Hermitage takes about 20 minutes if the traffic is light to medium. In Jackson’s day, however, it was a difficult four hour trek through the wilderness. So the plantation is aptly named.
Unlike a number other Presidential homes, there is nothing palatial or noteworthy about the Hermitage mansion. It is not much different from the homes of other prominent persons in the ante bellum period. One noteworthy feature in Jackson’s bedroom is on the wall opposite his bed. It was the first thing he would see waking up; the last thing he would see before falling asleep. Indeed, it was the last thing he would see on this earth: a portrait of his wife of 38 years, Rachel Donelson Jackson.
Had he never become President, Andrew Jackson nevertheless would be in the pantheon of American history. Commanding a rag-tag assembly of state militias and a few regulars of the U.S. Army, he managed to defeat the world’s most powerful army – an army which had only recently captured Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol and White House – in a toe-to-toe battle near New Orleans in January 1815. Jackson had also successfully campaigned against the Indian tribes of the southeast U.S. who were allied with the British in the War of 1812. But President he did become, and one of the most effective, some might say great, of the forty-four men who have held that office.
Jackson, whose father had died before he was born, had been caught up in the vortex of the American Revolution when scarcely a teenager. The British effort to suppress the rebellion was particularly brutal in the Carolinas where the family had settled. Both his mother and brothers died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict. Briefly captured by the British, Jackson was beaten allegedly for refusing to shine an officer’s boots. As a result, he bore a scar on his face for the rest of his life. These experiences instilled a loathing of the British in him. Because Indian tribes were allied with the British in the Revolution, and later in the War of 1812, Jackson had little use for them. Most of his wrath, however, was saved for those who would disparage Rachel. The source of that disparagement and anger is not commonly known outside of Jacksonian scholars and others with a particular interest in his life and times. Thus, I share here what I know about it.
Rachel Donelson was the tenth child of John Donelson and his wife, also named Rachel. The Donelson family was wealthy by the standards of the day, being landowners in Kentucky and Tennessee. The young Rachel was well educated for a young frontier woman, and was said to be exceptionally attractive. When she was 17 in 1785, she married Lewis Robards, a captain of militia and merchant of equivalent social and economic standing. It was, however, a “marriage made in hell” according to one author, and in 1788 Rachel had left, or was thrown out of, Robards’ household and went to her widowed mother’s home in Nashville. There she met Andrew Jackson, then age 22, who was boarding with the Donelson family. Robards is said to have attempted a reconciliation, but when that failed sought a divorce. In those days, divorce was not easy to come by and required a special “bill of divorcement” to bring such an action. Since Kentucky was still part of Virginia at that time, it required an act by the legislature in Richmond which was not easy to obtain. Robards had the connections to obtain one, but he still had to prove grounds to a court and jury, which at that time were limited to adultery, abandonment, or extreme cruelty. The time-line is confused, but Rachel and Andrew, reportedly believing that Robards had obtained the divorce and she was free to marry, eloped to Natchez, at the time in Spanish territory. Whether they were formally married or merely held themselves out as married (“common law” marriages occurred frequently on the frontier) is unclear, but upon returning to Nashville, they learned that Robards had not yet actually obtained the divorce, and thus their marriage was legally void. Robards proceeded obtain a divorce without Rachel’s participation from a Kentucky jury on the grounds of adultery and abandonment. Jackson and Rachel then entered into a ceremonial marriage in Nashville in 1794.
It is difficult today for us to understand the mores of two centuries ago. Nowadays, sexual improprieties of public figures generate little more than a yawn for most of us. Then, however, even on the frontier where the social conventions were looser, marriage was for life, and adultery, especially for wives was a serious matter. Happy or not, a marriage was supposed to be endured, at least by the distaff side. A wife who left her husband, no matter how bad the situation, was a fallen woman. If she took up with another man before having the benefit of a divorce, she had the status of a prostitute; her paramour was a rake and adulterer.
The downstream effects ultimately turned out to be extremely unpleasant for the couple. The finding of adultery in the public record, technical or not, would come to haunt them. When Jackson entered public life, his political opponents continuously used the questionable circumstances of his and Rachel’s marriage against him. John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, and Jackson nearly dueled over a reference to the situation Sevier once voiced. In 1806, Jackson fought a duel with one Charles Dickinson over the latter’s character attacks. Jackson killed Dickinson after being serious wounded himself. During the 1828 campaign for President, John Quincy Adams and his ally Henry Clay vociferously attacked Jackson’s and Rachel’s character. The idea of the First Lady of the nation an adulteress, no matter that nearly 40 years had gone by since the occurrence, was unthinkable.
Unfortunately, the unthinkable did not happen. Jackson won the 1828 Election handily, ousting John Quincy Adams from the White House, and was President for eight years. Rachel is listed in histories as First Lady, but she was never to live in the White House. Though she knew her husband had been elected despite the scurrilous attacks on his and her character, she died, probably of a heart attack, two days before Christmas of that year.
Andrew and Rachel Jackson’s remains rest under a Greek-styled gazebo monument on the grounds of the Hermitage.

For those interested: See H. W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005); Robert V. Remini, The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988) (abridgment of Remini’s e volume biography) Patricia Brady, A Being So Gentle (2011). There is a fictional account by Irving Stone The President’s Lady (1950).
Next: The Smokies.

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