I have a confession to make: the first time I “met” Andrew Jackson, I did not like him. I was first “introduced” to this larger than life figure in a book about the “Trail of Tears,” the forced march of the Cherokees from their homes in Georgia and Alabama out West to the Mississippi I found his decision to relocate the Cherokees and other Indians unconscionable and unjust.
Unfortunately, human beings are complex, and very few of us are entirely evil or entirely good, so later, as I learned a little bit about the Battle of New Orleans, and when I realized what Andrew Jackson accomplished in that major victory of the War of 1812, with the very limited men and supplies available to him, my attitude changed to include just a little bit of grudging admiration.
That grudging admiration increased even more when I learned about his enduring and reciprocated love for his wife, Rachel, who was originally Rachel Donelson. From all accounts, she was the only woman he ever loved.
He met her at the age of 21, when, just arriving in the frontier town of Nashville as Solicitor (ie., prosecutor) for the Western District of the North Carolina Territory, he was looking to make his own mark. He first boarded in a boarding house run by Rachel’s mother, which is how the two met.
Prior to meeting Andrew Jackson, Rachel had a brief, but unhappy marriage to Captain Lewis Robards, and the two separated in 1790. In 1791, believing, due to a false newspaper article Robards caused to have printed in the local paper, that Robards had obtained a divorce from Rachel, Rachel and Andrew Jackson got married.
In 1794, however, for the first time, Rachel and Andrew Jackson learned that Captain Robards had not, in fact, filed for or obtained a divorce. Immediately upon learning this, Rachel moved out of Andrew’s house, and filed for divorce herself. The divorce, the first ever in Kentucky, was granted in 1794, and the couple remarried.
For the next 35 years, Andrew Jackson and Rachel Jackson stayed happily married. Since Jackson was always a controversial figure, Andrew Jackson’s political enemies claimed that Rachel was a bigamist as necessary to attempt to defeat him in various political races. The presidential election in 1828 was particularly brutal. When Rachel died after the election but before his inauguration in 1829 of a heart attack, Andrew Jackson forever after blamed her death on his political opponents. FN.
It is in his response to her death that some of the most endearing traits of Andrew Jackson come to life. When she first died, Andrew Jackson refused to believe that she was dead, and urged his family and servants to put more blankets on the bed in case she woke up and was cold. Soon after her death, he commissioned an artist to paint two miniatures of Rachel from a portrait done late in her life so that he would always be able to carry her with him. He said good night to her every night before he went to sleep, and her final portrait hung across from his bed so that she would be the first thing that he saw when he woke up.
In the tomb that he built for her at their beloved home in Tennessee is etched the epitaph that he wrote for her. In these words you hear the love and grief echo back through centuries:
Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died December 22nd 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind. She delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow-creatures,and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods. To the poor she was a benefactress; to the rich she was an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament. Her pity went hand in hand with her benevolence; and she thanked her Creator for being able to do good. A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor. Even death, when he tore her from the arms of her husband, could but transplant her to the bosom of her God.
Through one of those occasional miracles that occur in the preservation of history, the Hermitage, the Jackson home in Tennessee, has been remarkably preserved. You can go see the Jackson tomb, now with both Andrew and Rachel Jackson buried there, surrounded by a garden that is much the same as it was when Rachel tended it. The house itself is open for tours, and contains the furniture that Andrew and Rachel Jackson owned. The entire presentation does not gloss over the less savory aspects of Andrew Jackson’s career; instead it presents, unapologetically, a full portrait of a complex, gifted man- and his tender relationship with the woman he loved until the day he died.
Have a great day everyone!
FN. I am sure the tactics on the Jackson side of the election were equally brutal, but that is not the point of this post.