Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, born Rachel Donelson, (June 15, 1767 – December 22, 1828) was the wife of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States. She lived with him at their home at The Hermitage, but died before his inauguration in 1829, and therefore was never First Lady.
Rachel Donelson was born near the Banister River, about ten miles from Chatham, Virginia in Pittsylvania County on June 15, 1767. Her father was Colonel John Donelson (1718–1785), co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee, and her mother was Rachel Stockley Donelson (1730-1801). Her great-grandfather, Patrick Donelson, was born in Scotland about 1670. From about 1770 to 1779, her father operated the Washington Iron Furnace at Rocky Mount, Franklin County, Virginia. With her family, she moved to Tennessee at the age of twelve. Her father led about six hundred people from Fort Patrick Henry to Fort Nashborough, down the Cumberland River. The Donelson family were among the first white settlers in Tennessee.
Her first marriage to Captain Lewis Robards of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, a landowner and speculator, was not a happy affair, and the two separated in 1790. When Andrew Jackson migrated to Nashville, Tennessee in 1788, he boarded with Rachel Stockley Donelson, the mother of Rachel Donelson Robards. Shortly after, they married in Natchez, Mississippi, believing that her husband had obtained a divorce. As the divorce had never been completed, their marriage was technically bigamous and therefore invalid. Historians found that a friend of Lewis Robards had planted a fake article in his own newspaper, saying that the couple’s divorce had been finalized. The Jacksons later found out about Robards’ action in planting the article, and that he had never completed the divorce. Later, Rachel ensured the divorce was completed. She and Jackson remarried in 1794. During the presidential election campaign of 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s opponent, accused his wife of being a bigamist, among other things. Despite the accusations, he won by a comparative landslide; he was a popular military hero after his victory in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
She was Presbyterian. She was an avid reader of the Bible and religious works as well as poetry. She died suddenly in 1828, probably of a heart attack, given her symptoms according to Jackson: “excruciating pain in the left shoulder, arm, and breast.” That her death came immediately before Jackson left for Washington was more than an inconvenience; it was crippling. He held her body tightly until he was pulled away, and he lingered at the Hermitage until the latest possible date. She was buried on the grounds at The Hermitage.
Rachel attracted much attention from suitors because she was very beautiful as a young woman, described by a contemporary as having “lustrous black eyes, dark glossy hair, full red lips, brunette complexion, though of brilliant coloring, [and] a sweet oval face rippling with smiles and dimples.” Later in life, her country manners and full figure were severely in contrast with Jackson’s tall, spindly form and developed genteel manners. However, her love for her husband was unmistakable: she languished when he was away for politics, fretted when he was away at war, and doted on him when he was at home. Jackson was griefstricken by her death. He never remarried after. He was also in a depression afterwards.
- June, 15, 1767
- Halifax County, Virginia
- December, 22, 1828
- Nashville, Tennessee
Cause of Death
- heart attack
- The Hermitage
- Nashville, Tennessee