The President’s Lady – Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson

Portrait of Rachel Donelson Jackson, wife of U.S. President Andrew Jackson.

Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson never got to be First Lady. She died in the period between her husband’s election as President and his inauguration. Her death had a profound effect upon our government.

Rachel Donelson was born in present-day Halifax County in Virginia on June 15, 1767. Her father was Col. John Donelson, a well-to-do surveyor and member of the Virginia House of burgesses. Her mother was Rachel Stockley Donelson. Rachel was one of eleven children, seven boys and four girls.

In 1780, when Rachel was twelve years old, the family moved to the Nashville area of Tennessee. The journey involved a boat trip of some 2,000 miles during which the family faced many hardships, including Indian attacks. The family arrived safely and helped settle the new frontier town of Nashville, but the threat of Indian attacks was very real for a number of years after their arrival. Col. Donelson died a short time later on another expedition to Kentucky.

As a girl, Rachel was attractive and lively. She was an excellent dancer and one of the best horsewomen around. She was extremely popular, and a number of men courted her.

At the age of 17, she married Captain Lewis Robards of Kentucky. The marriage was not a success. Robards was apparently very tyrannical and very jealous, almost insanely so. He repeatedly accused Rachel of having affairs with other men in spite of her steadfast denials. Finally, she returned to her mother’s boarding house near Nashville. Robards came to retrieve his wife, and she returned to Kentucky with him. Before long, however, she again sought refuge in her mother’s boarding house.

When Robards next came to get his wife, a new boarder named Andrew Jackson protected her. After an altercation, Robards was sent on his way. Angry, he announced his intention to obtain a divorce, and filed papers with the state legislature necessary at the time to gain permission to sue for divorce. He sent word to Rachel about the divorce.

In the meantime, Rachel and the young lawyer Andrew Jackson fell in love, and they were married in August 1791. But Robards had not completed the divorce. In 1793, he sued in court for a divorce on the grounds of Rachel’s infidelity in living with another man while still married to Robards. The court granted the divorce on these grounds, and this judgment of infidelity and adultery haunted both Rachel and Andrew for the rest of their married life. When they discovered their marriage was not valid, Rachel and Andrew married again on January 17, 1794. In reality, this kind of legal confusion was not entirely unheard of in the western districts of Virginia (Kentucky was then part of Virginia) given the distance from the state capital and the inefficient means of communications of the day.

Andrew and Rachel enjoyed a most happy and serene marriage, marred only by Rachel’s sadness at the prolonged absences of Andrew during his military and political career. During the marriage, Rachel changed into the figure known to history through her portraits. She became heavier, her skin became leathery, and she was known for smoking a corncob pipe.

Andrew Jackson was known for both his temper, and his love and devotion for Rachel. His enemies found malicious pleasure in circulating gossip about Rachel’s reputation. Andrew got into a number of fights and even duels during his career, over insults to Rachel. In one such duel, Jackson killed District Attorney Charles Dickinson while taking a bullet that he carried for the rest of his life.

Rachel’s first trip out of Tennessee after her marriage to Andrew Jackson was a trip to Washington in 1815. She accompanied Andrew to a celebration there in honor of his victory at New Orleans. Rachel received a cool welcome in the nation’s capital. With her divorce over two decades old by that time, her cool reception might have been more due to her lack of sophistication and education. She was, after all, a child of the frontier in spite of her family’s wealth. One society leader described Rachel by saying, “Mrs. Jackson is totally uninformed in mind and manners, although extremely civil in her way.” Another said that Rachel was “fat, forty, but not fair.”

During their marriage, Jackson served as an army general, in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, as provisional governor of Florida, and as a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Only this last position allowed Jackson to remain at home, which made it her favorite of all his positions.

In the next article, we will examine the Presidential election of 1828, and the unwilling role Rachel Jackson played in it. The results of her role were to change the way our government functioned. She never made it to the White House, but it may be said she had a greater effect on our government, and our history, than almost any other First Lady.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson ran for President. He won the largest numbers of popular votes as well as the largest number of electoral votes. But he didn’t win a majority of the electoral votes. The result was that the U.S. House of Representatives selected the winner from the top three electoral vote winners. In the end, John Quincy Adams was chosen President and Jackson returned home to Hermitage, his estate in Tennessee.

In 1828, Jackson ran again. The old Democratic-Republican Party (of which all four candidates in 1824 had been members) had split into two new parties, the Democrats led by Jackson and the National Republicans led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Jackson won the election of 1828 by a large majority to become the 7th President of the United States.

The election of 1828 was one of the dirtiest campaigns in our history. Dirty campaigning, attacks ads and negative publicity are nothing new. But few campaigns have been as vicious as in 1828.

The National Republicans had their share of problems, some of their own creation. President John Quincy Adams felt that campaigning was begging for votes and beneath the dignity of a President. He said simply, “If my country wants my services, she must ask for them.” In addition, the Democrats made some outrageous charges against Adams personally. During his term, he had purchased a billiard table and an ivory chess set with his own money. The Democrats turned this into a charge against the New England Puritan of purchasing “gaming tables and gambling furniture” with government funds. Perhaps the wildest accusation was that when Adams was minister to Russia, he had procured a young American prostitute for Czar Alexander I.

But the worst charges were made against Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel. Knowing that their only chance of winning was to discredit Jackson with the voters, they heaped every charge of immoral conduct, wanton violence and debauchery against him that they could create. Of course, the old stories of Rachel’s accidental bigamy had even greater value because they were actually true. Stories of Rachel’s adultery were published in every National Republican newspaper in the country. One asked, “Ought a convicted adultress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” Another questioned whether such a woman should be placed “at the head of the female society of the United States.”

One of the National Republican strategies was to have Jackson lose his temper, proving their warning that he was a savage and violent beast with an uncontrollable temper. To this end, when Rachel accompanied Jackson to a rally early in the campaign, there were insulting signs (such as “Don’t Put A Whore In The White House!”) and hecklers shouting comparable insults. They succeeded and Jackson started to lunge into the crowd. His supporters caught him just as he was about to jump off the stage to go after one of the hecklers.

Rachel was accosted and heckled when she appeared in public, and many people stopped speaking to her. Some even crossed the street to avoid meeting her. To escape the animosity and humiliation, she stayed at home, rarely going out in public. Jackson won the election, but instead of relieving the tension, his victory only made it worse for Rachel. She was now faced with the prospect of returning to Washington, where she had received such a cool welcome years earlier. When Jackson had taken his seat as U.S. Senator in 1825, Rachel tried to keep to herself in Washington. She rarely left her rooms in Gadsby’s Hotel, where they lived. On January 8, 1825, she had to attend a party because it was given in honor of her husband. None of the ladies did anything to make her feel welcome or comfortable. The ladies said she was “stout, vulgar and illiterate” and made fun of her poor grammar. The ladies also used an old French saying that Rachel “shows how far the skin can be stretched.” Now, with the bitterness of the recent election, Rachel would be under even harsher scrutiny and criticism.

Rachel considered staying in Tennessee. The campaign had been a torture to her. She wrote in a letter, “The enemies of the Genls have dipt their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me. They had no rite to do it.” The fact that Jackson won did not ease her discomfort. She also wrote, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my Lord than live in that palace in Washington. For Mr. Jackson’s sake, I am glad, for my own part, I never wished it.”

Rachel decided to accompany Jackson to Washington when a friend of theirs, John Eaton (who would be named Jackson’s Secretary of War) told her that everyone in Washington was watching to see what she would do. Eaton said that if she stayed away, her friends would be disappointed and her enemies would have the last laugh in that they had scared her into staying home. Never one to back down, Rachel began preparing for the trip to Washington.

Rachel had been in poor health for a number of years, suffering chest pains and shortness of breath. In December 1828, she suffered a heart attack, and died on December 22. She was buried on Christmas Eve in the garden of The Hermitage, their estate outside Nashville. Jackson, deeply in love with Rachel, took her death very hard. He was convinced that the strain of the personal attacks on her character, conducted on a national level, was directly responsible for her death. In his own words, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can.”

Jackson blamed the National Republicans for the attacks. When they couldn’t defeat him, they attacked his wife. He considered his wife, as with all wives of politicians, off limits for such political attacks. He also blamed John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay for not stopping their followers from making these attacks. These people killed his beloved Rachel. He resolved to remove these people from all government offices wherever possible.

All parties replaced many of the other party’s followers when they took office. Jackson did so to such a large degree that complaints were made on the floor of Congress by National Republicans. Jackson made no excuses about removing opponents and appointing only his own followers to positions in the government. One Democrat, Senator Marcy of New York, spoke for the Democrats by saying simply, “To the victor goes the spoils.” This gave the name to the new and excessive version of political patronage: the Spoils System.

Rachel Jackson was a truly American woman. She was born into a good family in Virginia, moved west as the nation expanded, and lived the life of a frontier settler. She braved Indian attacks, helped build a city and a state, and was involved in some of the greatest events in our early history. Had she lived, she would have been a unique First Lady. Her death brought dramatic changes to our government and gave us the spoils system.