“There is pollution in the touch, there is perdition in the example of a profligate woman,” claimed an editorial in the Massachusetts Journal in 1828. A presidential election approached, with Andrew Jackson campaigning to unseat President John Quincy Adams, and for the first time in the country’s history, the candidates’ wives were being dragged into the fray—especially Rachel Jackson, the “profligate woman” in question. Not only was Rachel a divorcée, but rumor had it that she and Andrew had lived together before she was legally separated from her husband. In papers across the nation she was called a bigamist, an adulteress and a whore, and critics questioned whether her character was suitable for the White House.
“The campaign which preceded this election was the most abusive and slanderous that his enemies could contrive and was not equaled in American history until the 20th century,” writes historian Harriet Chappell Owsley. “The effect on Rachel of being the object of insults and abuse was devastating. The happy, fun-loving woman, saddened by the slanders withdrew from the unfriendly eyes of her persecutors.”
But Rachel was more than a scapegoat for her husband’s political opponents. In an era when women had few choices over their lives, she made a daring choice to leave her first husband and marry the man she loved—a decision that she was never able to escape.
Born on June 15, 1767, Rachel Donelson was among 11 children raised on the edges of the new American nation. Her family moved from Virginia to the western Cumberland area of what is today Tennessee when she was still a child. Her family became some of the first settlers of Nashville and played an important role in the fledgling city’s business and political base, and at age 18, Rachel aligned herself with another land-owning family on the frontier in her marriage to Lewis Robards. The couple went to live with Lewis’s widowed mother and a number of boarders in modern-day Kentucky.
But within a few years of their marriage, it became clear the couple wasn’t destined for a happy and harmonious relationship. “Lewis was a suspicious and jealous husband and accused his wife of having affairs with the men boarders in his mother’s home, and there were reports of wrongdoing on his part,” including, Owsley writes, sleeping with women in the slave quarters, almost certainly without their consent. Rachel returned to her family in Tennessee, and soon thereafter took a trip to Natchez, Florida, still a Spanish possession at the time. It was in between those trips, in 1789, when she first met Andrew Jackson, a local lawyer.
The story at this point becomes more muddled, and versions differ depending on the teller. According to the Jacksons and Donelsons, Rachel escaped to her family as a victim of domestic abuse, and fled to Florida to avoid Robards, who had reunited with Rachel once at her family’s residence. Jackson, per their version, acted as the Lancelot to her Guinevere and escorted her to Natchez.
The Robards family argued otherwise, claiming Rachel was stolen by the rakish Jackson—and historians have tended to agree with that claim. “Their passion for each other was apparently deep enough to lead them, despite their later claims to the contrary, to choose to live in adultery in order to provoke a divorce from Robards,” writes Jon Meachem in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.
It was an incredible example of a woman taking control of her life. “That a woman of Rachel Donelson’s status chose the extralegal recourse of desertion to end her marriage is extraordinary,” writes historian Ann Toplovich. “Elite women were expected to tolerate outrageous behavior on the part of their husbands, seeking separation only when violent behavior placed their lives in danger… Society generally regarded any woman who sought comfort from the sufferings of her marriage in a relationship with another man in contempt.”
At the time, divorce was almost entirely unheard of, and the laws governing it were tangled—especially in unorganized territories west of the original 13 colonies. During the colonial period, Americans followed the same marital laws as those who lived in England, where marriages were often held without ceremony or witnesses but legal divorces were exceedingly rare. Between 1670 and 1857, Parliament granted only 325 full divorces. After independence, that trend continued; between 1786 and 1827, Virginia’s state legislature allowed for the hearing of divorce petitions on an ad hoc basis. In that period, they granted only 42 bills of divorce—one of which went to Lewis Robards in December 1790.
But the bill was only the start. From there, Robards had to take it to a district court where he could then sue Rachel for divorce. The trial didn’t take place until August of 1793, several years after the Jacksons had claimed to be married in Natchez (no documents have ever been found to prove they wed in Florida). At that point Robards himself had also remarried, but he went forward with the trial. Rachel was absent from the proceedings, and the 12-person jury found her guilty of abandoning her husband and living in adultery with another man. On January 18, 1794, she and Andrew were officially married in a ceremony overseen by Jackson’s brother-in-law, Robert Hays.
By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. “General Jackson loved and admired her extravagantly, finding his chief pleasure in her companionship, his greatest reward in her approval,” Jackson’s niece Emily Donelson later said. But the two could never fully escape the dark cloud of societal censure over their marriage, and Jackson was quick to challenge any man—even going so far as to fight duels—whenever anyone made an attack on Rachel’s character. And while Rachel was shielded from much of the vitriol of the 1828 campaign, she did hear some of the gossip and see some of the editorials.
Another newspaper in Ohio wrote, in regards to Jackson’s defense of his wife, “We must say that his notions of an unblemished female character differ widely from ours.... for the honor and purity of the sex, we most sincerely hope they will not be generally understood, and nowhere adopted.”
“Listening to them, it seemed as if a veil was lifted and I saw myself, whom you have all guarded from outside criticism and surrounded with flattering delusions, as others see me, a poor old woman, suited for fashionable gaieties, a hindrance instead of helpmeet to the man I adore,” Rachel is reported to have told her niece after overhearing women talk about her in the days after Andrew’s election. It wasn’t long afterwards, three months before her husband’s inauguration, that Rachel died of a heart attack at the age of 61.
Jackson would always claim that her death was the result of his political opponents, though she’d started having heart trouble three years earlier. Engraved in her tombstone on the Hermitage plantation was one particularly pointed line: “A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor.” Even as Jackson settled into his presidency, Rachel’s absence caused him constant pain. “My heart is nearly broke,” he wrote to a friend in January 1829. “I try to summon up my usual fortitude but it is in vain.”