The General’s Lady
By Anne Adams
Scandal is certainly nothing new to American politics but these days it is not unusual for a political figure to stray morally or ethically and emerge unscathed. However in the 1800s it was far different, for though the culture of the time might overlook a man’s misbehavior, it was entirely different for a woman where any suspicion of marital or premarital infidelity meant disgrace. Even when a woman had made an honest mistake and afterward lived a decent life she could still face social ostracism. No one knew this better than President Andrew Jackson after what had happened to his beloved Rachel.
Rachel Donelson was born in June, 1767 in Halifax County, Virginia, the daughter of a farmer/businessman and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. She was the tenth child in her family and spent most of her girlhood on the plantation, receiving the practical domestic training considered proper for a girl of her time.
When Rachel was twelve, her father decided to investigate moving to central Tennessee where they would settle in a new community called Nashville. Colonel Donelson’s task was to bring the families into the area, and they arrived in 1780 after a precarious flatboat journey down the river. However, after some Indian attack threats Donelson sought a safer atmosphere and moved his family to the Harrodsburg, Kentucky area. They later returned to settle on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. There she met the man who would be her first husband.
Rachel and Captain Lewis Robards where married in March, 1785 when Rachel was 17 and for the next three years she lived with her husband and his mother in Mercer County, Kentucky. However, she soon discovered that her husband had a quick temper that, when paired with a jealous streak, meant a difficult life for her since any man who showed the briefest kindness to her was likely to set Robards into a violent rage. Rachel’s mother in law took in boarders and one of these, a Mr. Short, somehow riled Robards. So despite his mother’s or Rachel’s pleas, he decided to publicly punish his wife by ejecting her from the house. He wrote Rachel’s mother to send for her, and at age 21 the disgraced Rachel accompanied her brother back to Nashville.
Apparently it was Robards who was at fault, and his family rallied to Rachel’s defense. While Rachel remained secluded with her family, the Robards family tried to work out a reconciliation, which they felt would eliminate the stigma to her reputation and also seemed to be the only course available. Rachel’s family asked a friend to intervene but specified that if the couple reconciled they insisted that they had to settle near the Donelson family. The negotiations were successful and Robards and Rachel settled on a farm with Rachel’s mother. However, Robards did not seem to do anything to advance either his farm or his marriage.
Mrs. Donelson also took in boarders, and one of these was a thin young lawyer with a soft spot for “women in distress,” and it was natural that Robards see Andrew Jackson as a potential threat. Jackson supported Rachel, and then revealed to a friend that he had fallen in love with Rachel. He moved to another house, but kept himself informed about Rachel’s welfare, especially after Robards suddenly left for Kentucky. It soon became apparent that Rachel had also grown to love Jackson, and dreaded Robards’ reappearance.
Early in 1791 Rachel traveled to Natchez to visit friends, and escorted by a party that included Jackson. Upon arrival, he returned to Nashville where he remained devoted to her despite an uncertain future. Then that summer Jackson heard a rumor that Robards had received a divorce from the legislature in Virginia, and when a friend after a visit to Kentucky confirmed the rumor, Jackson traveled to Natchez to bring his bride back to Nashville. However, two years later Jackson realized he should not have been so impetuous for Robards had only begun divorce proceedings that had not been finalized.
In 1791 Kentucky was part of Virginia and the procedure was for someone in Kentucky desiring a divorce to petition the Virginia legislature to refer the case to a court. According to the law at the time Robards could secure a divorce on such grounds as adultery or desertion and all he had to do was publish a newspaper notice and wait a specific amount of time. The other party did not need to respond or even know about the pending divorce. The legislature almost never granted a divorce without a court hearing, something Jackson should have known not only because he was he a lawyer, but also district solicitor of the Tennessee territory. Still, his impetuous “marriage” gave Robards the cause he needed and so he went to the Kentucky Supreme Court and got his divorce on grounds of adultery.
Andrew and Rachel were remarried in January, 1794 yet their friends and associates in the tolerant frontier culture did not fault them. Rachel herself did not seem to be bothered by the problem, but Jackson felt deep humiliation that they were the subject of vicious gossip and rumors. On the rough frontier, fights, duels and feuds were common and Jackson was an active participant as he entered politics and his opponents brought up the subject of his two marriages. One time when he was a candidate in 1803 his opponent in a speech remarked that the only public service Jackson had to his credit was to get involved with another man’s wife. Jackson came by to hear the remark and was furious. “Great God, do you mention her sacred name!” He yelled, and challenged the opponent to a duel which the man eventually avoided.
Meanwhile at home the devotion of Andrew to Rachel was so close and strong that none of the attacks disturbed her domestic life. She was sublimely happy in her routine at their home at Nashville area plantation, “Hunter’s Hill”, as Jackson continued his military and political career. Since he was absent much of the time, Rachel was in effect the farm manager. Then in 1804 after some financial demands called for the sale of the Hunter’s Hill property, Rachel and Andrew went to live in a log house on property that would develop into The Hermitage. Since they had no children, in 1809 Andrew and Rachel adopted one of the twin boys born to Rachel’s bother, naming him Andrew Junior, He had several playmates growing up at the Hermitage, including a Creek child who had been orphaned at a battle in 1813, the orphaned son of a friend, and another nephew who would later assist Jackson in the White House. There were also many other nieces and nephews who frequently visited.
Rachel was a devout member of the local Presbyterian church, and this may well have helped her cope with her volatile opinionated husband who despite his temper was truly devoted to her. After Jackson and his army defeated the Indian threat on the frontier, then defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson finally sent for Rachel to join him in New Orleans. After a brief time they traveled to Washington where Jackson was due to advise the War Department on army reorganization and as they passed through various cities the demonstrations and festivities was encouraging. Unlike New Orleans where she had attracted some criticism from urbane society leaders because of her “backwoods” image, in Washington she found respectful attention.
After they returned home later that year Jackson was called away to deal with a Seminole uprising in Florida, but while Rachel remained in Tennessee she used the time to supervise the construction of a new house to replace their log house. When Jackson arrived home they would spend several happy years together before Jackson’s political plans took him away more and more.
Jackson had been among those considered in the presidential election of 1824 but when the decision was thrown into the House of Representatives the rumors about his premature second marriage were used against Jackson. Behind the scenes Jackson muttered in anger about those who had spread the story calling them “invaders of Female Character” who “would attempt to disturb the repose of an innocent female in her declining years.” But Jackson’s advisors began a written campaign defending Rachel’s character, aimed at the next election in 1828. Jackson’s use of the phrase “declining years” may well have been an indication that he knew Rachel’s health was not good since she had struggled for several years with bronchial problems and a heart condition.
As the 1828 presidential campaign began Jackson’s advisors had a difficult time preventing Jackson from fiery retorts when Rachel’s name and her premarital difficulties became fodder for critics. Rachel was also devastated by the attacks. She wrote to a friend in July, 1828: “the enemys of the Genls have dipt their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me Almighty God was there ever anything to equal it …” As Rachel wrote this she was living in a home that was more campaign headquarters than residence as Jackson’s advisors and followers were constantly present. As the election neared and then passed the great numbers of visitors put extra pressure on the house and the hostess, but she knew she had to prepare to move to Washington. A major part of this was shopping for the prerequisite wardrobe. Though she had many sympathetic friends and neighbors to assist her Rachel was still anxious because she was leaving the security of Nashville and her friends to a new and unfamiliar atmosphere of Washington.
In December Rachel was sick, and her doctor treated her for heart irregularities, and while she was feeling better for a while, visitors brought a cold that developed into pleurisy. Then on December 22, 1828, she was sitting beside her bedroom fire when she collapsed and died almost immediately.
Jackson was devastated, and it was a haggard and somber, and solitary man who assumed the presidency the next year. There had been a story that Rachel had died of a broken heart because she had inadvertently heard of the scandal while shopping for her new wardrobe, but that did not happen. However, what is true is that a sensitive woman with heart trouble suffered greatly from the emotional turmoil of all the political attacks.
Jackson died in 1845, and was laid to rest beside his beloved Rachel in the garden of the Hermitage. It was the final end of an enduring love story that had become part of the romance and drama that was Andrew Jackson.