Andrew Jackson had two hostesses while he was in the White House. I wrote on Sarah Yorke Jackson yesterday and today I want to talk about Emily Donelson. Emily’s time in the White House was marred by the Peggy Eaton affair as Emily did not agree with Jackson’s acceptance of Peggy Eaton (in my personal opinion, Rachel Jackson wouldn't have approved of Peggy Eaton either and that's the reason Andrew Jackson was so adamant on her acceptance - he saw his own wife's situation in her) and she eventually left the White House over this issue. Enjoy this biography of Emily and her time in the White House:
In her preparations to assume the role of First Lady, there is some indication that Rachel Jackson did not intend to preside over the social life of the White House entirely on her own. She may have intended to replicate the situation at the Hermitage in which she supervised the management of the plantation life, including the slaves, and greeted important political visitors with her husband, but perhaps left the more routine afternoon entertaining of women callers to one of her younger, favorite nieces, Emily Donelson. Three factors would suggest this possibility: her own uncertain health, especially her poor heart condition and obesity which prohibited her from long standing as required in receiving lines and frequent climbing of stairs; her previously stated ambivalence about what she viewed as the irreligious elements such as vanity and pride that she anticipated as being a predominant quality of the Washington social scene; and her invitation, and many gifts of toiletry to Emily Donelson. Following Rachel Jackson's death, president-elect Andrew Jackson designated Emily Donelson as his official hostess, the first time such a status was so formally declared upon a presidential relative.
Emily Tennessee Donelson was born on June 1, 1807 at Clover Bottom Farm in Donelson, Tennessee. She was the daughter of Rachel Jackson's brother John Donelson and his wife, the former Mary Purnell. Unlike her aunt, Emily Donelson was afforded a thorough education, first at the Lebanon Road schoolhouse in Nashville and then at the Nashville Female Academy; her correspondence attests to her interest in current events and reflects a proper training in grammar.
On 16 September 1824, seventeen year old Emily married her first cousin Andrew Jackson "A.J." Donelson (1799-1871). The wedding day was overshadowed by the death that same day of the wife of Emily Donelson's brother William. Emily Donelson had known her husband since birth; West Point graduate and lawyer, A.J. Donelson was the son of Rachel Jackson's brother Samuel, but raised as a son by the Jacksons, his legal guardians upon the death of his father. Two months after her wedding, Emily Donelson accompanied Andrew and Rachel Jackson to Washington, D.C. where the presidential race in which Jackson was a candidate would be resolved by the U.S. House of Representatives. As part of the candidate's entourage, Emily Donelson was first exposed to the elite circles of the capital city, spending the social season of 1824-1825 there. She was welcomed at the White House as a guest of First Lady Elizabeth Monroe and attended a famous ball held in Jackson's honor by Louisa Adams, the wife of Jackson's opponent John Quincy Adams.
In her amber-colored Inaugural Ball gown, the 21 year old Emily Donelson attracted great attention from the beginning of the Jackson Administration. In the White House, her responsibilities were primarily that of a traditional hostess, overseeing guest lists, menus, and entertaining, as well as that of housekeeper, managing the Jackson family slaves brought from Tennessee and a dozen and a half other servants who were hired to work in the mansion, and the washing, cooking and health care for the presidential family. A.J. Donelson served as the President's private secretary and maintained a close relationship with his wife, fully discussing the complications of his own role. Three of her four children were born in the White House. President Jackson was godfather to two of them and future Presidents Martin Van Buren and James Polk were godfathers for the other two. In the first two years of the Administration, work on their plantation house Poplar Grove, which bordered the Hermitage commenced; it was later to be known as Tulip Grove.
Since her initial months as First Lady were during a period of her mourning for Rachel Jackson, Emily Donelson limited her social life to returning social calls. Particularly impressed by the quality of education provided to young women at the Georgetown Visitation School, run by Catholic nuns, Emily Donelson encouraged relatives to send their daughters out of Tennessee to enroll at the school and stated that a solid course of study for women "ought to be prized above everything." On a number of occasions, Emily Donelson entertained one of her predecessors, then-Washington resident Martha Randolph; she was the daughter of the late president and widowed Thomas Jefferson who had served as his hostess during two brief periods in his presidency. She also attended a dinner hosted by Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, at his Maryland estate. At the 1830 New Year's Day reception, Emily Donelson wore a dress of calico as a political statement: the cloth had been adopted as a symbol of Jacksonian democracy during the 1828 campaign.
With a strict sense of propriety and having been immediately taken into the circle of older wealthy women who composed the group of Cabinet wives, Emily Donelson immediately established her own intention to follow their lead and socially snub Peggy Eaton, the War Secretary's wife. Emily Donelson had first met Peggy Eaton during the 1824-1825 social season when the Jackson entourage had stayed at a boardinghouse run by the woman's father. As a courtesy, Emily Donelson did welcome an initial social call from Peggy Eaton and then returned one, as protocol dictated. She judged Peggy Eaton's remarks on her seeming closeness to the new President, however, to be inappropriate and determined to never again willingly associate with the woman, despite John Eaton's long history of loyalty and close to Jackson. After receiving a letter from the War Secretary imploring her to accept his wife and drawing comparisons to the treatment of her aunt Rachel Jackson, Emily Donelson retorted in a firm letter that her aunt's reputation among those in Nashville was long held in high esteem; her lack of comment on Peggy Eaton's reputation seemed intended to make a distinction. During a summer excursion to Fort Monroe, Virginia in 1829, when a pregnant Emily Donelson felt faint, Peggy Eaton offered her fan and some perfume to revive her: Donelson chose to faint instead of accept the offer from Eaton. In reaction, Peggy Eaton warned A.J. Donelson that President Jackson would send both he and his wife back to Tennessee for defying his support of the Eatons. Emily Donelson remained consistent in her treatment of Peggy Eaton: she would treat her with bare civility and invite her to the White House at the President's request, but she would not lend her own personal support to Peggy Eaton in order for the woman to be widely welcomed into Washington society.
A series of events soon forced an open confrontation between the President and his First Lady. In two consecutive meetings, Secretary of State Van Buren implored Emily Donelson to treat Peggy Eaton with civility, if not befriend her. Emily Donelson was shocked at what she considered his breach of propriety in raising the subject with her and insulted at his suggestion that her extreme youth had made her easily influenced by the older Cabinet wives. The President then forced his niece to invite the Eatons to the White House christening of her second child. While Emily Donelson and the Cabinet wives were in attendance at Jackson's November 1829 Cabinet dinner, they made none of the expected overtures of support for fellow guest Peggy Eaton. Van Buren's subsequent Cabinet dinner found Emily Donelson and the spouses refusing to attend; only Peggy Eaton accepted. As the 1830 social season got underway, the situation enlarged to involve debate among the diplomatic corps, posing potential international consequences if the President's wishes were to now be defied by foreign representatives. Finally, when Peggy Eaton refused Jackson's invitation to a White House dinner because Emily Donelson treated her formally, a definitive breach occurred. Despite the fact that Jackson and the Donelsons returned together to Tennessee for the summer of 1830, only A.J. Donelson returned with the President to Washington. Emily Donelson's further defiance of the President to stay with her mother rather than with him at the Hermitage affirmed the schism.
Although many of her Tennessee relatives implored her to accede to the President's wishes and thus return to the White House, Emily Donelson stood firm to her belief that Peggy Eaton was "too disagreeable to be endured." During this time, the President wrote that "there being no lady of the House, there was something wanting…" One Jackson friend advised the President that having a "presiding lady in the Establishment…will prevent intrusions, to which I perceive that you are exceedingly liable." Jackson relented and invited Emily Donelson to return to her post at the White House in late 1830: since he continued to defend the Eatons, she refused. Ultimately, it was only with the reorganization of the Cabinet and Jackson's naming of Eaton to the foreign post of U.S. Minister to Spain that Emily Donelson agreed to return to her position at the White House, arriving back there on 5 September, 1831. The rest of her tenure as First Lady was uniformly routine, with particular focus spent on her young family, two more children being born to her over the next five years.
Increasingly weakened by what would soon manifest itself as tuberculosis, she left the White House in June of 1836 for her Tennessee home. She died there 19 December, 1836, two days before her husband was able to reach her, he being on route from Washington. A.J. Donelson later remarried to another Donelson first cousin, the widowed Mrs. E.A. Randolph Martin, daughter of Catherine Donelson. He went on to serve as U.S. Charge d'Affaires to Texas Republic (1844-1845), U.S. Minister to Prussia (1846-1849) and was the Whig candidate for Vice President of the United States in 1856.
Hope you enjoyed this biography as well as one from last week!