Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson was married to Andrew Jackson. When she died before his inauguration as President in 1829, the duties of First Lady fell to her niece, Emily Donelson.
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.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Rachel Donelson Jackson’s spouse, Andrew Jackson.