6/6/11 - andrew jackson marries a married woman

In today's excerpt - Andrew Jackson, later the seventh president of the United States, married Rachel Donelson, a woman who was already married. It became a scandal that haunted them for the rest of their lives, and became fodder for the slanders of his opponents in the presidential campaign of 1828. Jackson believed it was the cause of his wife's death shortly after he was elected. Their love for each other was strong—she once compared Jackson's impact on her to that of the sun on snow: he had 'that Effect on my spirits when I see you returning to me againe nothing will animate or inliven me untill then.' He, in turn, behaved 'almost as if she were a doll':

"Jackson went about the business [of choosing a wife] with his usual ardor and determination, not knowing that the decisions he and his future wife impetuously made in the 1780s and 1790s would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

"Twenty-one-year-old Andrew Jackson arrived in Nashville in October 1788 and took up residence in a cabin next to the blockhouse of Rachel Stockley Donelson. Eating with the Donelsons, Andrew grew particularly fond of Rachel's daughter, also named Rachel, a lively young woman of about his own age. The well-matched couple's flirting quickly earned the enmity of her husband, Lewis Robards. Rachel had married Lewis in 1785 when her family lived briefly in Kentucky. The ill-matched Robardses had fallen out almost immediately, however, amid recriminations over mutual infidelity. Rachel returned to her family in Nashville. Lewis followed her. Jackson's attention to Rachel and her attention to him, meanwhile, compounded an ugly and at least potentially violent situation. After several angry exchanges with his rival, Lewis Robards returned to Virginia, where in December 1790 he petitioned the General Assembly for permission to sue for divorce on the grounds of Rachel's desertion and adultery.

"Andrew and Rachel had long since taken matters into their own hands. A year earlier they had gone to Natchez in the Spanish territory of Mississippi, where they lived as man and wife for several months; they then returned to Nashville, where Rachel was addressed as Mrs. Jackson. Decades later, responding to political attacks, Jackson's friends claimed the couple had been married in Natchez and that Rachel's bigamy was no more than an honest mistake. More recent students of the episode suspect, however, that Andrew and Rachel were establishing her desertion and adultery to speed the case through the distant legislature. Living together without legal sanction was not the cause celebre in 1790 that it became in 1828, when Jackson bitterly concluded that widespread public discussion of the scandal in the course of his campaign for the presidency contributed to Rachel's death, shortly after his election.

"On September 27, 1793, Lewis Robards obtained a decree of divorce on the grounds that 'Rachel Robards, hath deserted the plaintiff, Lewis Robards, and hath, and doth, still live in adultery with another man.' Learning this news in December, the Jacksons were officially married on January 18, 1794. In their first years together, the couple worried little about the not altogether uncommon circumstances of their courtship, concentrating instead on the more pressing challenge of establishing themselves as one of the most prominent households in the Cumberland Valley. ...

"In October 1803, a year after [contesting former Tennessee Governor John Sevier in an election for the prized position of general of the militia], Jackson and Sevier exchanged insults in a Knoxville street. Defending himself against Sevier's sarcasm, Jackson cited his services to Tennessee. 'Services?' replied the former governor. 'I know of no great service you have rendered the country, except taking a trip to Natchez with another man's wife.' 'Great God!' exclaimed Jackson, 'do you mention her sacred name?' The two drew their pistols but were restrained by friends. Later, an exchange of notes printed in a local newspaper once more very nearly prompted a gunfight.

"It was not the last time Jackson felt obliged to defend Rachel's honor with a pistol. Three years later, Jackson fought a formal duel with Charles Dickinson, an impetuous twenty-seven-year-old lawyer with an unruly temper and a fondness for horses, women, and alcohol. The two men fell out initially over the payment of a forfeit from an aborted horse race. The situation deteriorated rapidly when Jackson heard that Dickinson had taken Rachel's 'sacred name' into his 'polluted mouth.' The antagonists met on May 30, 1806, near the Red River in Logan County, Kentucky. Dickinson fired first. The bullet struck Jackson's chest, breaking two ribs and lodging near his heart. Despite shock and the loss of blood, Jackson kept his feet, took careful aim, and shot Dickinson dead."

"Jackson's behavior was extreme but not unusual."


Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


The Dominion of War: Empire And Liberty in North America 1500-2000


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


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