Wearing the white dress she had purchased for her husband’s inaugural ceremonies in March 1829, Rachel Donelson Jackson was buried in the garden at the Hermitage, her home near Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas Eve in 1828. Lines from her epitaph—A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor—reflected Andrew Jackson’s bitterness at campaign slurs that seemed to precipitate her death.
Rachel Donelson was a child of the frontier. Born in Virginia on June 15, 1767, she journeyed to the Tennessee wilderness with her parents Colonel John Donelson and Rachel Donelson when she was 12. At 17, while living in Kentucky, she married Lewis Robards, of a prominent Mercer County family. His jealousy made it impossible for her to live with him; in 1790 they separated, she returned to her family home, and she heard that he was filing a petition for divorce.
Andrew Jackson married her in 1791; and after two happy years they learned to their dismay that Robards had not obtained a divorce, only permission to file for one. Now he brought suit on grounds of adultery. After the divorce was granted, the Jacksons quietly remarried in 1794. They had made an honest mistake, as friends well understood, but whispers of adultery and bigamy followed Rachel as Jackson’s career advanced in both politics and war. He was quick to take offense at, and ready to avenge, any slight to her.
Scandal aside, Rachel’s unpretentious kindness won the respect of many who knew her—including innumerable visitors who found a comfortable welcome at the Hermitage. She also oversaw the enslaved families that farmed and maintained the plantation.
Although the Jacksons never had children of their own, they gladly opened their home to the children of Rachel’s many relatives. In 1809 they adopted a nephew and named him Andrew Jackson Jr. They also reared other nephews; one, Andrew Jackson Donelson, eventually married his cousin Emily, one of Rachel’s favorite nieces. When Jackson was elected president, he planned to employ Andrew Jackson Donelson as his private secretary, with Emily as company for Rachel. After losing his beloved wife, he asked Emily to serve as his hostess.
Though only 21 when she entered the White House, Emily skillfully cared for her uncle, her husband, four children (three born at the mansion), many visiting relatives, and official guests. Praised by contemporaries for her wonderful tact, she had the courage to differ with the president on issues of principle. Frail throughout her lifetime, Emily died of tuberculosis in 1836.
During the last months of the administration, Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson Jr. presided at the mansion.
Click here to learn more about the enslaved household of the Jackson family.
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