June 25, 2022

The Almost First Lady: Rachel Jackson

The Almost First Lady: Rachel Jackson

In the final edition of the Andrew Jackson series, I am taking a look at the life of his wife and soulmate, Rachel Donelson Jackson.

Though she passed away before Jackson assumed office, the marriage between Rachel and Andrew Jackson was one for the ages. Though their relationship started in scandal, a scandal that would came to haunt them as Jackson pursued national politics, it was also one of true dedication and admiration of one another.

So tune in and hear about just who Rachel Jackson was and what made their marriage so scandalous.


Boissoneault, Lorraine. Rachel Jackson, the Scandalous Divorcee Who Almost Became First Lady. Smithsonian Magazine. June 15, 2017. (LINK)

Truth's Advocate and Monthly Anti-Jackson Expositor. United States: Lodge, L'Hommedieu, and Hammond, 1828. (LINK)

Brady, Patricia. “A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011. 

“Rachel.” The Hermitage. (LINK)

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2008.

Rachel Donelson Jackson to Andrew Jackson, March 21, 1814, from Correspondence of Andrew Jackson. Edited by John Spencer Bassett. (LINK)


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey, peeps. Welcome back. 


As we are coming to the end of June and closing the book on what has been our Andrew Jackson adventure, I thought it fitting to cover the one person who, for Jackson, there was no replacement. The love of his life and wife for nearly four decades; the almost first lady Rachel Donelson Jackson. 


Andrew Jackson was a passionate man who was quick to anger whenever he felt his honor was slighted. But as I will cover this week, that anger was triggered much more quickly when he felt the honor under attack was Rachel’s. 


So who was Rachel Jackson? How did she and Andrew meet? And why did her honor need such staunch defending? 


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


John & Rachel Donelson welcomed their fourth and final daughter, also named Rachel,  on June 15, 1767 in Pittsylvania county along the western frontier of Virginia. Rachel was one of eleven children in total, creating quite an extended family. Her father was a prominent politician and business owner, and a co-founder of the frontier town of Nashville, when he moved the family south when Rachel was just twelve years old. 


Of course, not much is known about Rachel’s early childhood experiences. Most of Rachel’s letters were burned during a fire at the Jackson family estate, known as the Hermitage, in 1835 and there is no known diary or other personal records accounting for the details of her youth. Like most women of the time, Rachel’s existence in history is tracked through her attachment to the men in her life, first with her father and then with her husband. 


Before meeting and marrying the young firebrand who would later become the seventh president, Rachel met landowner Lewis Robards. The two were married when Rachel was eighteen and the new couple moved in with the widowed Mrs. Robards in Kentucky. Rachel’s marriage quickly soured as she found herself with a man who was very jealous and accused her of infidelity, while he helped himself to women he declared as property. Their situation became untenable and Rachel moved back in with her family in Tennessee. 


It was while estranged from Lewis that Rachel met a young up and coming lawyer who was boarding at her mother’s home. Andrew Jackson, who had just arrived in town, was immediately smitten with young Rachel and there was an instant connection. But divorce was not something often granted or easily obtained during this time period. There were only three acceptable reasons given for divorce: abandonment, adultery and extreme cruelty. Though they were living apart, Lewis had made attempts at reconciliation, so abandonment was not a viable reason to request a divorce. And though he may have slept with the bondswoman he claimed to own, under the eyes of the law Lewis was not guilty of adultery, so the only other option available to Rachel was cruelty. Though he was jealous and they disagreed, there is no evidence to suggest he mistreated her and so Rachel found herself stuck in a loveless marriage without a way to escape. 


What happened next depends on who is asked. One version of the story is Rachel was escaping a violent and cruel husband and Jackson acted as a savior, shepherding her away to another state to avoid Lewis’ attempts at reconciliation. Another version, and the one most believed by historians, was that Rachel made a conscious decision to leave her marriage in order to take a chance at true love with Andrew. They made no attempts to hide their relationship; they lived openly as husband and wife while living in Mississippi, later claiming they were married there believing Robards had already secured a divorce. There are just a few, minor issues with this story: first, historians have been unable to locate evidence of a marriage ceremony during the couple’s time in Natchez (NATCH EZ); secondly, Jackson was a lawyer and should have known better. As historian Patricia Cleary notes quote, “It is most unlikely, however, that an attorney would be so uninformed about the laws regulating divorce or that Jackson had never checked into the matter in the two years they lived as husband and wife in Nashville,” end quote. 


Instead, it seems as though Rachel and Andrew purposely chose to elope. This was a highly risky choice to make, one that could, and for Rachel did, gravely impact their social standing. But for the two young lovers, the future impact did not seem to matter. As Jackson biographer Jon Meachem wrote quote, “their passion for each other was apparently deep enough to lead them, despite their later claims to the contrary, to choose to live in adultery in order to provoke a divorce from Robards,” end quote. 


They got their wish and Lewis Robards proceeded with divorce proceedings. Rachel failed to appear at trial and so a jury of twelve men found her legally guilty of spousal abandonment and adultery and granted Robards’ request for a divorce in 1793. And though they claimed to be married already, Andrew and Rachel went ahead and got married officially on January 18, 1794. 


The marriage between the two young lovers proved a healing balm for both Andrew and Rachel. For Andrew, he finally got the family he had so long gone without. The Donelson’s were prominent in frontier Tennessee and, it appears, welcomed Andrew into their folds happily. For Rachel, she finally got a partner in life who fulfilled her needs. However, though she met the love of her life, Rachel and Andrew never had biological children of their own. Whether the issue was with Rachel or Andrew, Rahcel never gave birth, leading the couple to look elsewhere to create their own family.  


In a practice fairly common for the time period, Andrew and Rachel adopted one of their nephew’s, whom they named Andrew Jackson, Jr. They also took on the care for a young Creek orphan, Lyncoya. These two boys, in addition to the care and support of other extended family members, provided comfort for Rachel and provided a sense of family they both seemed to cherish. 


Rachel worried constantly about Andrew when he was away. A woman of her time, Rachel understood her husband had a duty to fulfill and a country to protect, but that didn’t make the separation any easier to deal with. Their letters during his extended absences are filled with longing to be reunited. History has lost many of Rachel’s original thoughts due to the fire at the Hermitage, but it is easy enough to decipher from Andrew’s responses the concern felt by his wife during his absence. While Andrew pursued his military and political posts, Rachel was left to manage the household. She decided money matters and oversaw the enslaved men and women, though she disliked and avoided discinplining the slave population. Whenever possible, she focused her attention on the activities she enjoyed most: gardening and planting. 


At some point during their marriage, Rachel found and recommitted herself to God. As someone living along the frontier, she may have been influenced by the revival movement that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Great Quakes of 1811 and 1812. I covered these great quakes in a prior episode. If you want to learn more, be sure to check out the episode titled the Great Quakes, which is episode 72 in the catalog. As I mentioned during the episode, many people recommitted themselves to faith, believing these quakes were a direct result of the wrath of Jesus Christ. While Rachel’s reasoning will remain a mystery to history, the timing of her conversion and commitment does correspond with the great quakes. So perhaps, she too, was impacted by the great shifts in the surrounding landscape and decided her solace would remain within God. 


After being separated from Andrew due to various military campaigns, when he was asked to be Governor of the Florida territory, Rachel knew she had no choice but to be reunited with her husband. Again, Rachel took over her duties as house manager, leaving Andrew to oversee policy for the new territory. 


Having found God, Rachel wanted to impart the wisdom of Jesus to the residents of Florida and requested the residents to faithfully observe the sabbath. This required the elimination of things deemed in conflict with the gospel; activities like gambling, dancing and playing music were all considered prohibited and Rachel wanted to ensure residents adhered to her faith. With her husband’s approval, Rachel tasked a Major with enforcing the sabbath, all but eliminating any sinful activities on Sundays. She quickly saw the results of her efforts, cheerily writing to a friend quote: “the gambling houses demolished; fiddling and dancing not heard any more on the Lord’s day,” end quote. Kind of a kill joy if you ask me. 


But Andrew’s ambition extended beyond the Governorship of Florida. While it was still uncouth to actively campaign for the role of president, it was very clear where Andrew hoped he would end up. So while he refused to engage in the politicking for the position, he did not stop others in their quest to put him in the presidency. 


As I’ve mentioned in my other Jackson episodes, opponents of Jackson pointed to his lack of established political experience as a reason to question his candidacy. However, his supporters rallied in defense and argued Jackson’s strength of character should far outweigh any previous political experience. This message seemed to resonate as Jackson did earn the most votes, despite ultimately losing the contest in 1824.  


Angered, his supporters went to work right away to build momentum for Jackson heading into the 1828 contest. Still worried about what it would mean to have Jackson as president, opponents went to work to come up with anything they could to blunt his chances. Unfortunately, what and who they decided to focus on was not Jackson himself, but his wife Rachel.  


Charles Hammond, a newspaper editor for the Cincinnati Gazette and a Ohio politician published a series of articles attacking Jackson by detailing Rachel’s first marriage and the divorce proceedings. While their flouting of normal custom had been more or less accepted in frontier society, it was something else entirely when trying to ascend to the top of the social circles of Washington. Published pamphlets poured over the details of her life and tried to paint Rachel as less than honorable. Her actions, they argued, made her a whore and therefore made Andrew Jackson ineligible for the presidency.


This was the first political campaign where candidate’s families were considered fair game. If you listened to my episode on Louisa Adams, you may remember I covered the attacks on her because of her birthplace. Jackson’s camp was furious and accused Hammond of being dishonorable. In defending the charge that wives should not be thrown into the political fray, Hammond wrote quote: “my own judgment has long been clearly satisfied, that it was an affair in which the national character, the national interest, and the national morals, were all deeply involved, and that, therefore, it was a proper subject of public investigation, and exposure,” end quote. Excusing his behavior as one of public interest, Hammond wrote quote: “We must see a degraded female placed at the head of the female society of the nation, or we must proclaim and urge the fact as a ground for excluding her husband,” end quote. 


Hammond tried hard to make the argument that if Jackson’s wife was unsuitable for the role of first lady, Jackson himself couldn’t be trusted to be president of the United States. Mind you, this was a time when the First Lady did little else than host dinner parties. She made no major decisions in terms of war declarations; economic sanctions or even the most basic of domestic policy. And peeps, some of the stuff he wrote was just… brutal. In one particularly colorful section, Hammond wrote quote: “the question fairly presents itself to a Christian and moral people, ought a convicted adulteress, and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and christian land,” end quote. 


And though Andrew tried to protect his wife, Rachel was aware of the perceptions of her. Writing to her niece she said quote, “Listening to them, it seemed as if a veil was lifted and I saw myself, whom you all guarded from outside criticism and surrounded with flattering delusions, as others see me, a poor old woman, suited for fashionable gaieties, a hindrance instead of helpmeet to the man I adore,” end quote. 


Andrew was livid. A man who was committed to a sense of honor and dignity, he fought every fiber of his being to challenge the various men who were degrading the morals and austerity of his wife. He wanted nothing more than to administer pain and punishment for attacking his partner of nearly four decades. But he remained silent, allowing his supporters to fight the charges on his behalf. 


Despite these attacks, Jackson enjoyed enough of a ground swell of support that his wife’s purported impropriety held little sway. Rachel was very much against Andrew’s presidential contest, but not because she didn’t believe he would be a great president. The capital city overwhelmed her and she was not exactly looking forward to potentially becoming First Lady. Writing to a friend of the potential, Rachel said quote, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington,” end quote. Despite her reservations, Rachel continued to support Jackson through his election. 

As early december rolled around, it became clear Jackson would not have a repeat performance of 1824 and would be elected president by a clear majority. As the family prepared to celebrate and pack up to move to their new home, tragedy struck. Rachel, who had a history of lung and heart issues and who had grown in girth as she aged, suffered what is likely a heart attack and collapsed on December 22. Andrew, ever the protector and guardian, refused to believe Rachel was gone. He called in doctors to perform bleeding and stayed with her through the night, praying she would come back to him. His wish went unfulfilled; Rachel was dead at 61 years old and Jackson lost his wife of thirty four years. 


Jackson made arrangements for Rachel to be buried in her favorite place at the Hermitage - her garden. And so on Christmas eve, Rachel Donelson Jackson was laid to rest, wearing the white gown she ordered special for her husband’s inauguration. To say Jackson was devastated would be an understatement. Practically inconsolable, Jackson carried a miniature of Rachel with him the rest of his life and arrived at his inauguration dressed in all black. He would blame his political opponents for her death and would be consumed with grief. 


And though she never made it to the White House to serve in official hostess duties, her impact was monumental, at least to her husband. As is inscribed on her tombstone, quote: “Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind; she was delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow creatures, and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods; to the poor she was a benefactor; to the rich an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament; her piety went hand in hand with her benevolence, and she thanked her Creator for being permitted to do good. A being so gentle and yet so virtuous, slander might wound, but could not dishonor,” end quote. 


And with that, we close our chapters on Andrew Jackson. 


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Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.