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 his bitterness at campaign slurs that seemed to precipitate her death.
Rachel Donelson was a child of the frontier. Born in Virginia, she journeyed to the Tennessee wilderness with her parents when only 12. At 17, while living in Kentucky, she married Lewis Robards, of a prominent Mercer County family. His unreasoning jealousy made it impossible for her to live with him; in 1790 they separated, 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 all who knew her—including innumerable visitors who found a comfortable welcome at the Hermitage. 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 have young Donelson for 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, she 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 in her stead.
You Might Also Like
Mid-Century Fashion and the First Ladies: From Ready-to-Wear to Haute Couture
Foreword, William SealeThe Style of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: Fashion and Frugality in Times of Depression and War, Morgan BlattenbergThe...
The 2021 First Ladies Symposium
The First Ladies
Read Digital Edition Foreword, William SealeThe Office of the First Lady: Managing Public Duties, Private Lives, and Changing Expectations, Anita...
First Ladies' Private Lives
In the early decades of the republic a president's wife, like other wives, seldom displayed her private life to the...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Reading Lists & Bibliography
General White House Bibliography:Aikman, Lonnelle. The Living White House. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical Association, 1996. Cunliffe, Marcus....