Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson (1767-1828)
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was born in July of 1767 to Colonel John and Rachel Donelson. In what is present-day Pittsylvania County, Virginia the Donelson family lived on a rural plantation. Rachel received no formal education beyond basic reading and writing. Instead, she was taught “female” subjects that would prepare her for the roles of wife and mother. Her skills included sewing, spinning, weaving, embroidery, managing a plantation, and directing slave laborers. In 1779, the Donelson family moved to Fort Nashborough (present-day Nashville), Tennessee. Within a few years, the family moved again to Harrodsburg, Kentucky in response to threats of attack from Cherokee and Chickasaw Indian tribes.
At age seventeen Rachel married Lewis Robards, son of a prominent Harrodsburg family. The marriage was an unhappy one, with Rachel claiming physical abuse. In 1790 Rachel and Lewis separated and she returned to the Donelson family home. She believed that her husband would file a petition for divorce. To escape him, she fled to Natchez, Mississippi with a group of friends and relatives. Future President Andrew Jackson, a friend of the family, escorted and protected their group as they traveled through the unfamiliar territory. In 1791 Rachel Robards and Andrew Jackson wed in Natchez. Upon their return to Tennessee that same year, the Jacksons and the Donelson family settled in Nashville.
In 1793 Andrew and Rachel Jackson learned that Lewis Robards had never obtained a divorce; he had merely been granted permission to file for one. 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 this 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.
Around 1800, the Jacksons began construction on their now-famous plantation in Nashville, the Hermitage. The couple had no biological children but adopted two sons. One was Andrew Jackson, Jr. who was Rachel’s nephew. Since both his mother and his father were alive at the time of his adoption, it is unclear why the Jacksons assumed care of him. Their second adopted son was Lyncoya Jackson. He was a Native American child whom Andrew Jackson found on a battlefield beside the body of his dead mother. The Jacksons took the child in and raised him from the time he was two years old. Rachel and Andrew Jackson were also the legal guardians for six boys and two girls. Many of these children were relatives of Rachel’s and the rest were children of Revolutionary War General Edward Butler.
During Andrew Jackson’s political career, Rachel Jackson preferred to stay at home instead of joining him at public events. She tried to limit her public appearances to religious services. While her husband was off campaigning, she would remain at the Hermitage and manage the plantation. During the 1828 presidential campaign, the press sensationalized the scandal surrounding Rachel’s first marriage. Opponents of Andrew Jackson painted her as a morally lax adulterer and bigamist. 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?’”(1) Andrew’s marriage to Rachel was used as proof that he was not fit for the role of President. The publicity surrounding her and the public knowledge of what was considered a very private matter caused Rachel to sink into depression. 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. Once Andrew Jackson won the election, Rachel Jackson was recorded as saying she would “‘rather be a door keeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.’”(2)Jackson’s campaign managers encouraged women from the western states and the wives of Jackson supporters to attend the Inauguration as a show of support for his wife.
In December of 1828, Rachel Jackson had a near-fatal heart attack from which she never fully recovered. She died on December 22, 1828. On Christmas Eve she was buried at the Hermitage in 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.”(3)
- American First Ladies. Robert P. Watson.
- An Amiable Woman, Rachel Jackson. Katherine W. Cruse.
- The Presidents’ First Ladies. Rae Lindsay
- As quoted in “First Lady Biography: Rachel Jackson.” http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=7. Accessed on April 5, 2007.
- As quoted in “First Lady Biography.”
- As quoted in “Rachel Donelson Jackson.” http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/rj7.html. Accessed on April 5, 2007.
- PHOTO: The Hermitage