Rachel and Andrew had a deeply loving marriage despite the controversy it incited among Jackson’s political rivals.
"A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor."
Inscription on Rachel's tombstone
Rachel Donelson was born in 1767 in Pittsylvania County, which was on the western frontier of Virginia. She was the eighth of eleven children born to the Tennessee pioneers, John and Rachel Donelson.
When Rachel was 12 years old, her father led her family, along with a large group of others, on a flotilla down the Cumberland River for nearly 1,000 miles in what today is Middle Tennessee. They arrived in April 1780 to become some of the first white settlers of Nashville.
Due to the sustained threat of attack by Native Americans on the Cumberland, the Donelsons soon moved north to Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Two Marriages, One Wife
It was there in Harrodsburg that Rachel married Lewis Robards at the age of 18. By all accounts, it was a most unhappy marriage. By this time, Rachel’s father had died, and her mother had returned to Nashville. After separating several times from her husband, Rachel eventually moved to her mother’s house in Tennessee.
A young lawyer, named Andrew Jackson, recently arrived from North Carolina, was boarding with her mother when Rachel arrived. The attraction between the two was immediate. Believing her first husband had divorced her, Rachel went to visit friends near Natchez, and Jackson accompanied her on the journey. While in Natchez, they married. Because Rachel’s marriage to Robards had not been legally dissolved yet, theirs was technically invalid.
An Unusual Start Becomes Political Ammunition
When the couple returned to Nashville in 1791, they learned that Robards had initiated the divorce proceedings, yet the divorce was not finalized.
Though no written record of the Natchez wedding has ever been found, Robards used this “marriage” as new evidence in completing the divorce by charging Rachel with bigamy. Andrew and Rachel legally married in Nashville in 1794.
All of this confusion was caused by the fact that divorce was a little-understood process then. It was made even more complicated by the distances involved and the changing governmental authorities. (For example, during the process of Rachel and Robards’ divorce, Kentucky became a state instead of a territory of Virginia, and North Carolina turned over management of the territory, including Tennessee, to the Federal Government). Thus, the unusual circumstances of the Jackson marriage were not greatly discussed in Nashville society.
However, during the mudslinging in the presidential campaign of 1828, Rachel’s virtue became a subject of great discussion and political spin by the supporters of Jackson’s opponent, John Quincy Adams.
"I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington."
Life with the In-Laws
Although Jackson was orphaned as a teenager and fathered no children of his own, he did have a family.
His marriage to Rachel Donelson brought him into her large family of brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews. Several of these children lived at The Hermitage at some point in their lives. In 1808, Jackson and Rachel even adopted one nephew, the son of Rachel’s brother Severn, naming him Andrew Jackson, Jr.
Additionally, Jackson served as a guardian for several children from outside the family. Some of his friends and associates, such as General John Coffee and artist Ralph E. W. Earl, married Rachel’s nieces.
Rachel's Everyday Life
Andrew and Rachel Jackson were devoted to each other. When Jackson’s political, business or military affairs frequently took him away from home, Rachel sorely missed him. Luckily, because her large family lived nearby, she usually had friends or family with her at The Hermitage.
Although Rachel Jackson grew up on the frontier, she did receive an education. Though most of her letters were destroyed in the fire that burned the Hermitage mansion in 1834, the few that remain indicate she was an affectionate woman who cared deeply about her friends and family.
Some observers described Rachel as an unfashionable country woman. By her own admission, she did prefer the company of her family and religious services to a constant round of parties and social engagements.
After the Jacksons returned from Washington, Rachel’s health began to decline. As is the case with most 19th-century medical diagnoses, it is difficult to translate Rachel’s exact condition into modern medical terms, though her illness seemed centered around her heart and lungs.
As Andrew Jackson began his campaign to gain the White House, personal and political attacks mounted. Degrading remarks and taunts focused on the circumstances of Rachel’s marriage to Andrew. Stress and depression compounded her existing health issues.
As the campaign continued, her condition worsened. She reputedly told a friend, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.”
Just after Jackson won the presidential election, Rachel’s final downturn in her illness began. She died on December 22, 1828. Her death devastated Andrew. Even though her maladies began as early as 1825, Jackson always blamed his political enemies for her death.
Heading to Washington as a widower, Jackson took several members of his extended family to live with him. It was there that his niece, Mary Eastin, married Lucius Polk. His great-niece Mary Emily Donelson was even born in the White House.