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wife of Andrew Jackson
Rachel Donelson was born near Chatham, Virginia, in 1767 (exact date not recorded), to Colonel John Donelson, a Revolutionary War vetern, surveyor, foundry owner and member of the Virginia Assembly, and Rachel Stockley Donelson. The youngest of ten children, she had five brothers and four sisters -- Alexander Donelson , Mary Donelson Caffery, Catherine Donelson Hutchings, Stockley Donelson, Jane Donelson Hay, John Donelson, William Donelson, Severn Donelson, and Leven Donelson. In 1779-80 the large family, along with many other families, removed to the frontier and founded what is now Nashville, Tennessee. They later moved to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, due to constant threats from local natives. Her father was murdered by unknown assailants while returning from trip to Virginia in 1786.
On March 1, 1785, Rachel married Lewis Robards, a member of a prominent Mercer County family. The marriage was rocky from the start, with Lewis constantly accusing his wife of being too flirtatious. Details of what actually went on in the home remain a matter of debate, but by 1788 Rachel was out of Lewis's house and living with her mother. In 1790, Robards filed a petition with the Virginia Assembly for permission to divorce Rachel, who was by then seeing Andrew Jackson, a lawyer staying in her mother's boarding house. Believing that a divorce had been granted, the two were married in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1791. Unfortunately for the Jacksons, Robards had not followed through with his divorce petition and, as a result, Andrew and Rachel were technically guilty of adultery. Robards then sued for divorce again on grounds of adultery and desertion, and his petition was granted on September 27, 1793. Rachel and Andrew had a "proper" marriage in Nashville on January 7, 1794. The circumstances surrounding Andrew and Rachel's marriage would haunt the couple for decades, and Andrew often found himself engaging in fights of honor. In 1806 Andrew engaged attorney Charles Dickinson in a duel after Dickinson insulted Rachel; Jackson was wounded, Dickinson was killed.
In 1796, Andrew Jackson purchased a plantation he called Hunter's Hill, and Rachel soon became mistress of a large and successful estate. The Jacksons sold Hunter's Hill and moved to what became The Hermitage in 1804. In addition to managing the plantation and slaves, she also took on the duties of raising a large family. Although the Jacksons had no children of their own, they adopted two sons -- Andrew Jackson, Jr. (the son of her brother Severn) and Lyncoya Jackson (an Indian boy Jackson had found lying next to his dead mother on a battlefield), and became legal guardians to John Samuel, Daniel, and Andrew Jackson Donelson (her nephews), Andrew Jackson Hutchings (her great nephew), and Caroline, Eliza, Edward, and Anthony Butler (children of Revolutionary War General Edward Butler, who had named Jackson as guardian). Although she proved adept at managing such a large family and estate, Rachel resented that her husband spent as much time pursuing his military and poltical career as he did at home, and was not afraid to tell him so. She was, however, with her husband while he served as Territorial Governor of Florida, and while he awaited results of the hotly contested 1824 presidential election in Washington, D.C.
The questionable circumstances of Andrew and Rachel's marriage became a major issue during the presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828, as John Quincy Adams made frequent references to Andrew Jackson not having the proper character to lead the country due to his having married an adulteress. Andrew Jackson was angered by the constant attacks on Rachel's character, but Rachel herself simply withdrew from public life and fell into a depression. When Andrew was finally elected in 1828 she was unsure whether she could be an effective First Lady, but was prepared to follow her husband into the White House anyway. She did not get the chance, however, as she died of a massive heart attack on December 22, 1828. She was buried in a crypt Andrew Jackson had built on the grounds of The Hermitage, in the white dress she had purchased for his inauguration.
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This page was last updated on December 22, 2018.