The election of 1828 was very dirty (for those of you who think dirty politics is new, think again!). One of the issues that came up was Rachel Jackson’s first marriage and problematic divorce. Rachel Jackson was already sick before this election and the strain of the campaign added to her depression. She was dead before Andrew moved into the White House. Andrew Jackson blamed his political enemies for his wife’s death and never forgave them.
So what actually happened?
Ann Toplovich with the Tennessee Historical Society has written a very interesting article on this topic, “Marriage, Mayhem, & Presidential Politcs: The Robards-Jackson Backcountry Scandal.”
First, we have to start with Rachel Jackson’s first marriage to Lewis Robards:
The[ir] courtship accelerated when John Donelson decided to move his family back to the Cumberland Settlements in 1785. Rachel was 18; her career as a frontier belle took place in Kentucky, and she may have been reluctant to leave her friends. 27 year old Captain Robards had the wealth and large, influential kin network in Kentucky and Virginia to match that of the Donelsons. The arrangement was advantageous to both families, and in February 1785 John Donelson registered his permission for Rachel to marry Robards. On March 1, the couple married at Harrodsburg.
This was an unhappy marriage by all accounts.
In late summer 1788, Rachel’s brother Samuel came for her and they traveled to Nashville. Robards family accounts say Rachel had simply gone on a visit to her family. Jackson accounts claim that Robards had thrown her out -- John Overton states that he affected a reconciliation between Lewis and Rachel after Overton moved to Nashville in February 1789 and boarded with the Donelsons. However, in July 1788, Robards had bought almost 1,700 acres in the Cumberland, including a 640 acre plantation near Widow Donelson. This supports the position that Robards intended to settle permanently in the area with Rachel and that they had not separated when she came south later that summer. The couple was already together at the Widow Donelson’s before Overton came to Nashville. One thing is certain: when Overton arrived, Andrew Jackson was also boarding there.
Rachel and Andrew became friends (and who know what else…). This led to confrontations between Rachel and Lewis and Lewis and Andrew. As early as this time, Andrew was probably planning a way to get the already married Rachel.
The confusion is now what happened between the disappearance of Robards and the Jackson marriage:
The events that followed the summer of 1789 have been covered with the accretions of the Jackson spin machine of the 1820s. The accepted tale is still that Robards left for Kentucky, vowing never to see Rachel again. The innocent and wronged Rachel went to Natchez in a large party that happened to include Andrew Jackson. Jackson, back in Nashville, heard in 1791 that Robards had obtained a divorce, and hurried immediately to Natchez to marry Rachel. The Jacksons then returned to Nashville as an accepted couple. However, in the 1970s, Robert Remini did a masterful job of piecing the actual story together, showing that the Nashville Committee’s dates were all moved a year later in time to cover the Jacksons’ tracks in regard to Robards’s divorce action. Moreover, no credible evidence of a marriage ceremony in Natchez has ever been found.
But according to Toplovich, the Jackson elopement was even earlier – 1790. This questions Rachel’s position as an innocent bystander. The question in Jackson’s presidential campaign was just that: whether Lewis Robards deserted Rachel or Rachel deserted him:
Remini, and Andrew Burstein following Remini, concludes that Jackson carried off Rachel in December 1789 in order to provoke a divorce. However, this presumes that the provocative grounds and the way to get a divorce were understood in 1789. Given Rachel’s compromised reputation from her friendships with male boarders and the young age of the lovers (only 22), the elopement was most likely a matter of passion, although they also may have been seeking an extralegal solution. If capable of calculation (and Jackson certainly was), they also realized that the vivacious Rachel shed herself of a problem husband and the orphaned Jackson gained an heiress and an influential kin network.
Now before you further, get some background on divorce in this period (this is also in the article if you read all of it). Marriage and divorce in this period was riddled with confusion as laws were changing as “civilization” came to the back country areas. But as Toplovich states, Jackson would have known better: “The Robardses may be condoned for the actions they took due to the confusion of the day, but Jackson, as an attorney surrounded by lawyer friends, likely had a better understanding of the illegal nature of his actions.”
What happens next is a matter of conjecture. The Jacksons said that they believed Robards had filed for divorce before he left and so they were legally able to get married. But there are confusing points here – Andrew and Rachel were living together in 1790, but in 1791, Lewis Robards still saw himself as in control of Rachel’s property. There also isn’t a record of the Jacksons’ first marriage (bigamous). Robards didn’t actually file for divorce until 1792 and the Jackson marriage wasn’t legal until 1794. The actions of both Robards and the Jacksons raise questions. In the 1790s, the story of Robards and Jacksons was well known:
Although the Donelson family and members of their sphere of influence embraced the extralegal union of Rachel and Andrew Jackson – a marriage that became legal in January 1794 – there is clear evidence that members of the wider Tennessee community saw Rachel as a fallen woman and Jackson as a rake for many years afterward. As Jackson rose in prominence, the history of the marriage impacted their public reputations. John Sevier’s contempt of Jackson as a seducer was central to the duel correspondence of 1803, and Rachel’s virtue, or lack thereof, was a subtext of the Charles Dickinson duel of 1806 and perhaps the Benton shootout of 1813. It could not have surprised the Jacksons that Rachel’s divorce and remarriage would become a flashpoint when Jackson sought the presidency.
Although the story of the Jackson marriage, whatever the true facts, has come down as one of the most romantic love stories of American history:
Although Rachel Donelson and Andrew Jackson did in truth flaunt the moral and legal codes of their times, today they are legendary lovers. If Andrew Jackson is admired for anything, even by his most determined critics, it is for his devoted marriage to Rachel and his vigorous defense of her reputation. She is now a stick figure in the story, a passive belle tossed away by one man and swept up by another. Lewis Robards is hardly more than a name, although in 1790 he was the frontier nabob and Jackson little more than a knave. By an effective campaign strategy, the “American Jezebel” and the “Great Western Bluebeard” have come down to us as the most romantic pair in presidential history.