Little known fact about me, I am a bona-fide history junkie. My grandmother had this set of World Book encyclopedias, pretty sure this is where it started. They were black and white and housed in a maple bookcase, with a sliding glass door in her breakfast nook. I remember sitting at the table and feeling a sense of satisfaction seeing the black and white spines lined up all in alphabetical order. To this day, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing books lined up in a logical manner. As I would sit at the table I would think carefully about which one I was going to choose that day to meander through.
I would finish my meal and then eagerly, but carefully choose my adventure for the day. Thumbing through the encyclopedias I would read about medical discoveries such as the iron lung and penicillin; I would read of faraway lands in Arabia and Asia; discover the treasures of the Louvre in Paris, France and I would imagine that one day I would visit all of these magnificent places. Always, however, I would end my adventure with a visit to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln (I was from Illinois, so there was a natural affinity there) and all of the other the great heroes of our beautiful nation.
I would spend much of my day trying to discover who they really were. I wanted to know their ancestry, where they were educated, the what/how behind what landed them in my American history classes; above all, I wanted to know who the women were in their lives. More specifically, our First Ladies.
From Martha, to Mary, Jackie and Nancy I have forever been captivated by the women who stood by their men on their journey, to become the leader of the free world.
One of these “First Lady’s” in particular has been of great interest me ever since reading about her in that World Book in the “J” section, way back when. Rachel Jackson. Rachel Jackson was the wife of our 7th President, Andrew Jackson. Despite never officially being our country’s First Lady, I still categorize her as such. She and Andrew had a love and devotion that defeated all odds, until her death weeks before her husband’s inauguration in 1828. I was recently reminded of my affinity for her while reading a book about the former President during the Battle of New Orleans; followed by a long layover in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rachel Donelson was born on a plantation in Virginia, and her father was Colonel John Donelson who was known for being an adventurous frontiersman involved as a leader within the community, as well as the military. Colonel Donelson moved his family over 1000 miles to the region now known as Nashville, Tennessee. Young Rachel met and married a prominent land owner, Lewis Robards. This is where the story gets interesting for me.
Rachel was not “formally” educated, however could read and write; she was charming and a skilled equestrian. She married Mr. Robards in the spring 1785. He proved to be an abusive husband. This is where my mind transports back 135 years in time as I read how Rachel separated from her abusive husband, multiple times. This is an interesting concept to me considering at this point in our young country, women were expected to be submissive. Keep in mind, the 19th Amendment was not ratified until August of 1920. So, Ms. Rachel was light-years ahead in my mind knowing that she separated from such a despicable human being.
In 1791, after several attempts at reconciling Rachel Robards fled to her mother’s home in Nashville. There in Nashville, Mrs. Donelson ran a boarding house. A young, fiery lawyer named Andrew Jackson just so happened to be one of her tenants. This is where their love story begins.
Photos of Rachel in her later years show that she was not what most would consider “attractive” by today’s standards. However, she was described in her younger years as beautiful, with dark hair and captivating eyes; she was described as a kind, caring and god-fearing woman who did not care for attention. At the time of their meeting, she was a married woman who left her husband. However, she did not realize she was still married.
Andrew has been described as charming and intellectual, well spoken; yet brash, bold, arrogant and even self-righteous, he enjoyed the spot-light. This just does not seem like a match if Mr. Jackson and Ms. Donelson were on an episode of the Bachelor or Bachelorette. Despite it all, a spark was felt between the two.
Rachel met Andrew after she left her abusive husband around 1788-89. The two I would like to image, even though polar opposite, ignited like fire. I mentioned that they were an unlikely pair, but I think that is what made them “click.” They married in 1791 thinking that Rachel was divorced from her belligerent husband. However in the 1700’s divorce was so rare, that laws were confusing and ambiguous. Let us not forget that during this time territories were being taken over and made part of the United States. It is probably safe to say that laws of any sort were a bit of a “cluster” back then, especially those that were so heavily involved with the church of any sort.
John Robards was finally granted a divorce in 1794 because Rachel was classified as an “adulteress and a bigamist.” Go figure, right? The SOB that was an abusive, shitty husband was granted the divorce and Rachel was the “bad seed.” You can see why I like this woman. She has grit and guts.
Despite the chaos neither Andrew, nor Rachel let this deter their relationship. Theirs became a love story for the ages. They “remarried” in 1794 at her family home near Nashville.
The couple never had children of their own, but they adopted Rachel’s nephew as well as an orphaned Creek Indian boy. Please tell me you are getting this picture? It is the 1800’s, Andrew marries a married woman, who then gets divorced, and then remarries her; they have no children of their own but adopt a family member, and a native child? This is sheer scandal; and one of the reasons I love their story and Rachel so much.
When Jackson chose to run for the office of the presidency, John Quincy Adams chose to go straight for the jugular, he went for Jackson’s one weakness, his “kryptonite” so to speak: Rachel. He is quoted as saying: “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” It is the Scarlett Letter, or the biblical story of the adulteress all over again. Still, they pressed on.
Her appearance and country mannerisms, which differed so greatly from Andrew’s refined southern ways, later were also mocked. She was even called a “fat dumpling” as she no longer resembled the beautiful, enchanting woman she once was.
To say she was tabloid fodder is an understatement. Despite all of this, their love never wavered. The letters exchanged between the two give any reader a glimpse of the devotion and support that Rachel provided for Andrew; and a sense of his undying affection for his beloved Rachel. My favorite of all, is one penned by Rachel to Andrew. It was her closing that has resonated with me. She the closed her letter to him in 1813, “Farewell, think on me. Your Dearest friend on Earth.”
Your dearest friend on earth…think on me…..I can feel the love and genuine adoration, and respect that she held for him in her words.
She was a woman that the world had shamed because of her past. She continued to defy the “things” that she was supposed to do and conform to. In my book, she is one of the greatest “feminists” of all time; and one who needs to be remembered for her strength, courage, determination and devotion. She had grit and strength; yet, she was soft and kind. A seemingly perfect balance of two opposing qualities.
She was quoted as saying after the election of 1828 that she would “rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington.” Perhaps it was a premonition, because weeks before her husband’s inauguration Rachel Jackson became a doorkeeper in the house of God, when she passed away December 21, 1828.
She never officially received the title of “First Lady.” Rachel Donelson Jackson, however, is one of the most inspiring and influential First Lady’s in our Nation’s history. One that I hope is never forgotten.