Rachel Donelson Jackson was the wife of President Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. She died just weeks before her husband became president, and thus was not officially a First Lady.
Rachel was born on June 15, 1767, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, the tenth child out of eleven. Since she grew up in a rural part of Virginia, she received no formal education. Instead, Rachel learned things like sewing and embroidery, as well as the chores and functions of plantation life. When she was twelve, her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, which was an up-and-coming city at the time. Rachel’s family was among the first prominent residents. Her father, John Donelson, was one of the cofounders of Nashville and would have a fort named after him in northern Tennessee.
Rachel married her first husband, Lewis Robards, a landowner in Kentucky, when she was eighteen. The marriage was not a happy one, and Rachel divorced him because of his violent temper and adulterous affairs. Her divorce attorney would be future husband Andrew Jackson, who courted her after the divorce. The divorce, however, was never properly completed and recorded. Nevertheless, Rachel married Andrew in January of 1794. Later on in Andrew Jackson’s political life, the circumstances surrounding the strange divorce would be used against her and the future president. Rachel, in fact, was the constant target of ridicule both for the divorce and for her perceived lack of sophistication. Andrew would even kill another man in a duel for insulting Rachel.
Andrew became a successful lawyer and built a large plantation house for he and his wife in Nashville that came to be known as the Hermitage. Rachel would manage the plantation when her husband traveled for military or political obligations. When Jackson returned home victorious after the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, he was a national hero. Rachel would often warn him not to let his fame “get to his head” and that such accolades and adulation was not as important as his family. When Andrew ran for president and the details of her previous divorce came under fire, Rachel grew to hate the public attention and negative “press.” In 1828, she suffered a severe heart attack and died at the age of sixty-one, just weeks before the Jacksons were to take residence in the White House. Andrew Jackson never remarried.