Rachel Donelson: The Three Marriages
When Rachel Donelson (1767-1828) was seventeen, she married Lewis Robards, a prosperous Kentucky planter ten years her senior. She was said to be attractive, with dark, flashing eyes and an outgoing, lively personality. Her family considered Robards a fine match and Rachel went willingly. It did not take long for her to discover that Robards was a jealous and abusive man, who perhaps confused her outgoing nature with flirtation. He, on the other hand, was known to have a violent temper, and a disposition toward infidelity. Rachel was unhappy. So was Robards.
The basic story goes that one of her brothers came, supposedly at the urging of Robards himself, to bring Rachel back to her mother’s house in Nashville. While there, she met one of her mother’s boarders, a lanky young lawyer named Andrew Jackson, who had recently come to make his home in Tennessee.
The attraction between Jackson and the unhappy Mrs. Robards was quick to flower – although it was claimed by all that nothing inappropriate ever happened between them, despite Robards’ continued violent suspicions..
Then the story gets very murky. What seems to be generally true (although in what order may be questionable), is that Robards and Rachel reconciled, and she returned to Kentucky with her lawful husband. But things did not improve, and the Donelsons (who had come to like young Jackson) asked him to bring Rachel back home – permanently.
Then things get even murkier. Rachel decided to visit friends in Natchez, then part of Spanish Florida, ostensibly to escape Robards’ wrath and/or any further reconciliation. Andrew Jackson signed on for the riverboat trip, ostensibly to protect them against Indians. He escorted Rachel to her Natchez friends and returned to Nashville, where he learned sometime later that Robards had petitioned for a divorce. Believing the divorce had been granted (seriously murky here), he hurried back to Natchez to marry his now-free Rachel. This was in 1791. They were both 23.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Jackson returned to live happily in Nashville, among a close-knit clan of Donelsons. That is, until 1794, when it was learned that the Robards divorce had never been finalized, thus the Jacksons were “living in sin.” They immediately remarried on January 15, 1794.
Rachel the Reclusive
Even though the Jacksons married for a second time, and the Donelson family adored their brother-in-law, the scandal of Rachel’s divorce and possibly bigamous marriage to AJ changed then both.
Jackson, always a volatile sort with a mix of good points and bad points, became even more thin-skinned. Having as many foes as friends, those foes quickly learned that the fastest way to Jackson’s spleen was to talk freely about Mrs. Jackson’s “character.” He fought duels and carried bullets in his body defending her good name. He was also destined to be a public figure of national proportions.
Rachel became more reclusive. And then more reclusive. And finally reclusive enough to suit the name they gave to their Nashville home: The Hermitage. With no children of their own, she found comfort in the company of her large family and select friends, happy to be their beloved “Aunt Rachel.”
Although the Jacksons adopted a couple of children, and foster-raised a couple more, there has always been some indication that Rachel believed her empty womb was God’s punishment for leaving her first lawful marriage, no matter how miserable she was. And of course, periodic aspersions about her bigamy, her character, her adulterous marriage, etc., managed to bubble up from the murk (and Jackson’s enemies), and caused her added distress.
When Rachel Jackson was around forty, she became acquainted with Rev. Gideon Blackburn, a Presbyterian minister. Her religious fervor now deepened that reclusiveness. Later, at his wife’s request, AJ had a small adjoining chapel built for her daily devotions.
That Last Year: 1828
1828 began very poorly for Rachel. Lincoya, the Indian orphan boy they adopted when he was a toddler, developed tuberculosis and died. He was only 17. Rachel loved him dearly, and was devastated at his death.
Her own health had been failing as well. Now, past 60, she had slowed down visibly, and tired easily. She had grown stout and puffy and was said to wheeze when she walked. Even then, early doctors suspected heart problems. Modern medicine concurs, although it is hard to determine if it was chronic angina, congestive heart failure, or otherwise.
Her depression grew throughout the year. Jackson’s growing likelihood as the next President deeply disturbed her. She wrote a friend, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord than live in that great white palace.” Like it or not, Jackson won the election.
Rachel acquiesced about going to Washington in order to please the husband she loved so dearly. She planned to take two nieces to handle the social obligations. She would remain secluded.
When she learned, either by reading a Nashville newspaper or by local gossip (everything is always murky with the Jacksons!), that in addition to the old adultery charges, people said she was unfit for the White House, and that she would bring shame to the presidency. She became hysterical, and friends brought her home.
A few days later, she suffered a major heart attack. Jackson never left her side. Legend has it that three days before Christmas, 1828, she insisted she felt a little better and that he get some rest. He went into to next room, and shortly afterward, she died, thus sparing him the pain of witnessing her last breath. Legend continues that Jackson held her for hours, hoping she would revive.
Her funeral on December 24, was also legendary. Businesses throughout Tennessee were closed; church bells rang for an hour; 10,000 people came to the Hermitage to pay their respects to “A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could never dishonor.”
Nevertheless, Andrew Jackson would never forgive those who he believed hastened her death.
Burstein, Andrew – The Passions of Andrew Jackson – Borzoi/Knopf, 2003
Meacham, Jon – America Lion: Jackson in the White House – Random House, 2008
Remini, Robert V. – Andrew Jackson 1767-1821 – Vol. 1: American Experience – History Book Club, 998