Jackson, Rachel Donelson (1767–1828)

views updated

Jackson, Rachel Donelson (1767–1828)

American frontier woman who died shortly before taking her place as first lady of the United States. Name variations: Rachel Robards. Born on June 17, 1767, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia; died on December 22, 1828, in Nashville, Tennessee; fourth daughter and tenth of twelve children of Colonel John Donelson (an iron master and surveyor) and Rachel (Stockley) Donelson; married Lewis Robards, on March 1, 1785, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (divorced); married Andrew Jackson (7th president of the United States), on August 18, 1791, in Natchez, Mississippi (remarried on January 17, 1794, in Nashville, Tennessee); children: (adopted) Andrew Jackson, Jr.

In March 1829, when Andrew Jackson entered the Capitol building for his inauguration as the seventh president of the United States, he wore a miniature portrait of his wife around his neck and a band of mourning on his sleeve. Rachel Jackson had been buried in her inaugural gown the previous Christmas Eve, victim of a heart attack and the scandal that had punctuated their marriage.

One of 12 children, Rachel was 12 years old when her father John Donelson led 120 Virginians, including his family, on a perilous six-month journey to found a settlement in the Cumberland Basin. After floods and Indian raids destroyed their first encampment near Nashville, the family moved to a farm near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. John Donelson was killed four year later, and the family opened their home as a roadhouse to support themselves.

In 1785, Rachel married Captain Lewis Robards, the son of a prominent local family, and, from all reports, an alcoholic given to drunken periods of unfounded jealousy and rage. In 1788, Robards accused Rachel of returning the advances of another man and sent her back to her family, complaining, "She did not behave with the discretion he had the right to expect." While staying with her mother, Rachel met and befriended Andrew Jackson, then a young lawyer boarding with the Donelsons. Jackson, though attracted to Rachel, kept a respectable distance. Robards came to claim his wife in 1790, but the reconciliation failed, and he filed for divorce. Mistakenly thinking a divorce had been finalized, Rachel and Andrew pursued a courtship and married in 1791, only to learn two years later that the divorce had only been sanctioned, not granted. Robards subsequently completed the proceedings on the grounds that Rachel "doth still live in adultery with another man." The Jacksons quietly remarried in 1794, but questions surrounding Rachel's matrimonial history would persist throughout her life.

While Jackson distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and pursued a political career, Rachel's happiest moments were spent managing the family farm, the Hermitage, near Nashville, Tennessee. Childless, the couple opened their home to the children of Rachel's many relatives, and even raised the sons of friends who had appointed Jackson guardian. They formally adopted a nephew, naming him Andrew Jackson, Jr. Rachel also found comfort in religion, occasioned by her conversion by a frontier Presbyterian minister.

Jackson's successful campaign against John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1828 provided his enemies with another opportunity to parade the questions surrounding the Jackson marriage before the public, and detractors had a field day. Handbills and newspapers declared Jackson an "immoral homewrecker" and Rachel an "illiterate adulteress." Emotionally wounded by the ordeal, Rachel had little enthusiasm for her upcoming role as first lady. Stricken with a heart attack in Nashville, where she had traveled to purchase her inaugural gown, she died on December 22, 1828, and was buried in a favorite garden spot at the Hermitage. Jackson was buried beside her when he died in 1845.


Klapthor, Margaret Brown. The First Ladies. Washington, DC: The White House Historical Association, 1979.

Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

related media:

The President's Lady (96 min., b/w film), starring Susan Hayward and Charlton Heston, based on Irving Stone's fictionalized account of Rachel Jackson's life, 20th Century-Fox, 1953.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Jackson, Rachel Donelson (1767–1828)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article