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Rachel Donelson Jackson


One of the most controversial presidents to this day, Andrew Jackson, had a kind and gentle soul as his wife.

Although their life was plagued with rumors of bigamy, the real story was much simpler. Rachel Donelson married Lewis Robards at the age of 17. His unreasonable jealousy forced her to separate from him and return from Kentucky to her family in Tennessee. She heard that he had filed for divorce. In 1791 she married Andrew Jackson. Two years later they received word that Robards had just then filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery. It seems he had previously obtained permission to file for a divorce but not done so. Now he filed, citing adultery since she had married Jackson.

The Jackson's faced another dilemma. If they were to contest the charge of adultery - the divorce may not have cleared and Rachel would have still been married to Robards. So the Jacksons had to accept the charge of adultery (although they did not believe it was true) in order to complete the divorce. The divorce was granted and the Jackson's remarried in a private ceremony in 1794.

Just as land claims and civil suits plagued many of the early settlers so did this unfortunate situation. Thinking their marriage perfectly legal, the Jacksons, were caught up in the communications and documentation struggles of the time. Divorce was rare but perfectly legal. Countless early settlers faced similar situations when they presumed a spouse was dead and remarried only to have that spouse return after years of being gone.

The Jacksons were from Tennessee and considered "backwoods" by the emerging elite in Washington. Even though Rachel moved to the frontier at the age of 12 her early family life had included visits with Virginia elite like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Although of meager education Rachel was considered a "classic beauty" in her teens. Unfortunately by the time she reached middle age her beauty had faded and her weight had become an issue. She was once called "a fat dumpling" in comparison to her tall lean husband.

R Jackson birthplace

Birthplace of Rachel Jackson


President Andrew Jackson


The controversy about Jackson continues today as efforts to remove him from the $20 bill have surfaced. Supporters of the plan wish to see a woman’s portrait on the bill.


His presidential run in 1824 failed when he lost to John Quincy Adams. He gained support over the next 4 years during Adam's presidency and ran again in 1828. This time posing more of a threat to Adams, the Adams campaign branded the Jacksons as "bigamists." This was one of the first times in the young republic's history that a wife or family member became political ammunition. Prior to this a more "gentlemanly conduct" prevailed and political issues were limited to the candidates themselves. With the attacks on Rachel Jackson a new political era had begun. Anything a candidate or one of their family members had done added to the political fodder.

It was a rough blow to the gentle Rachel Jackson. With failing health, the constant barrage of rumors against her had an effect on her. It was reported that she had heart problems. Although she was of Presbyterian upbringing and did not condone dancing she had purchased a white silk dress and shoes for the inauguration. She did not live to make the move to the White House. She died just two weeks after the election and two months before Jackson took office. Jackson described her symptoms as "excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast". After struggling for three days, Rachel finally died. Instead of wearing the dress to the inauguration she was buried in it. Jackson had to be pulled from her so the undertaker could prepare the body.

Her epitaph, written by her husband read ""Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died December 22nd 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind. She delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow-creatures, and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods. To the poor she was a benefactress; to the rich she was an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament. Her pity went hand in hand with her benevolence; and she thanked her Creator for being able to do good. A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor. Even death, when he tore her from the arms of her husband, could but transplant her to the bosom of her God."

But the Jackson rumors had not started in the 1824 campaign. In 1806 Jackson had fought a controversial duel over the same issue of bigamy. Charles Dickinson had published an attack on Jackson in the local newspaper, and it resulted in a written challenge from Jackson to a duel. Since Dickinson was considered an expert shot, Jackson determined it would be best to let Dickinson turn and fire first, hoping that his aim might be spoiled in his quickness. Jackson would wait and take careful aim at Dickinson. Dickinson did fire first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Under the rules of dueling, Dickinson had to remain still as Jackson took aim and shot and killed him. However, the bullet that struck Jackson was so close to his heart that it could never be safely removed. Jackson's behavior in the duel outraged men of honor in Tennessee, who called it a brutal, cold-blooded killing and saddled Jackson with a reputation as a fearful, violent, vengeful man. It was only another example of Jackson bending rules to his own gain.

Ironically the Jackson era is noted for the beginning of more overt political favoritism and loss of political ethics. Jackson's maneuvering with cabinet members and even his vice president John C. Calhoun added fuel to these claims. Calhoun was the first vice president in U.S. history to resign from office, doing so on December 28, 1832.

Although remembered for her calm personality Mrs. Jackson was not timid. She managed the couples Tennessee plantation “The Hermitage” with a strong arm. She traveled to New Orleans after the 1815 battle there and also accompanied her husband
to Florida in 1821, to Washington and Charleston in 1824, and to New Orleans in 1828. And although having no children of their own she raised their adopted children and numerous nieces and nephews. Her adopted son Lyncoya Jackson (c1811-1828) was a two year old American Indian found by Jackson on a battlefield with his dead mother. 

At her December 24th funeral over 10,000 people traveled to The Hermitage. The gathering included family members, the slaves of the plantation, and political friends and colleagues alike. Churches in Nashville observed her death by ringing their church bells from 1 to 2 pm on the day of her funeral.

So despite the controversy surrounding Jackson and his presidency, his wife Rachel Donelson Jackson has often remained a misunderstood figure. A gentle soul once labeled as a bigamist she lived her life by her own principles and died much as she lived her life in the shadow of her husband, Andrew Jackson.

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