The Smithsonian Institution maintains a priceless collection of First Ladies’ inaugural gowns – at least those of the past hundred years.
But if they had collected and maintained every First Lady’s inaugural gowns, the most valuable could arguably be the gown purchased by Rachel Jackson for her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1829.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson
At the time of Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, both Andrew and Rachel Jackson were sixty-one years old, and both were in poor health. He had a long list of chronic ailments, although he would live to be seventy-eight. She, on the other hand, had a bad heart.
They had been a loving and devoted couple, married for nearly forty years. Jackson was happy to give his wife anything that was in his power, but the two things she craved the most, he could not provide: children of their own, which was in God’s hands, and his company. Jackson was a man who could not stay-put.
It had also been a marriage marred by scandal and slander. She had been married before she met Jackson. She had been, of all horrors, a divorcee. It made her reclusive, spawned by the murky details of her unhappy first marriage. The reclusiveness was further heightened by her growing religious fanaticism.
Rachel managed to find some comfort in their well-named Hermitage plantation in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by her large family, dozens of little nieces and nephews, and close friends.
Rachel had also grown stout. Her manners, while acceptable in frontier-Tennessee, were unacceptable in the polite societies of larger cities. Her education was scanty. Her conversation was limited. In short, she was not about to fit into the footsteps of the incomparable Dolley Madison – or the sophisticated and cultured Elizabeth Monroe and Louisa Adams.
Rachel Jackson Becomes First Lady-Elect
But in late 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States, and despite her personal misgivings and disinclination, she agreed to go to Washington with her newly-elected husband, because she knew he wanted her near. And she always wanted to please him.
She planned to bring some nieces with her to manage the social obligations. Needing an appropriate gown for the inauguration, however, she went with some well-meaning friends to a dressmaker in Nashville, and selected a white gown. Many later historians claim she was poorly guided by her friends (and/or the dressmaker), since it appeared to be more suitable to a young bride rather than a heavy, dropsical woman past sixty.
In town for a fitting, she read a newspaper story rehashing her unhappy first marriage and her divorce and subsequent marriage to Jackson – compounded by their realization that the divorce had not been finalized when she married Andrew Jackson. They had been immediately remarried, but the scandal had wings and a long life. Jackson was a man who made enemies, and comments about his “adulterous wife” was the quickest way to Old Hickory’s spleen. He carried two bullets in his body as souvenirs from duels he fought over Rachel’s honor.
If roiling of those muddy waters weren’t enough to cause Mrs. Jackson pain, the article went on to discuss Rachel’s “unfitness” for her new role; that she would bring disgrace to the White House. She wrote to a friend that she would rather “be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to live in that great white palace.”
Rachel Jackson left the shop in a flood of hysterics. We will never know what the gown looked like, other than the well-quoted comment that it was white. Her friends brought her back to the Hermitage, where she suffered a heart attack a few days later. She died on December 22, 1828, only ten weeks before a grieving Jackson took his oath of office.
She was buried in her beloved flower garden, wearing that same white gown she would have worn the evening of March 4, 1829.
It is arguably the most expensive inaugural gown in First Lady history. It cost Rachel Jackson her life.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961, 1990, William Morrow
Burstein, Andrew – The Passions of Andrew Jackson – Borzoi/Knopf, 2003
Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008