Rachel Donelson was born circa June 15, 1767, in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, to Rachel Stockley and Colonel John Donelson. Raised on a rural plantation, she received no formal education but learned to read and write, along with other useful skills such as horseback riding and household management. When she was 12, her father led an excursion of several hundred Virginians into Tennessee and co-founded the settlement that became Nashville. Although Rachel and her immediate family soon moved to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, her extended kin became part of Nashville’s political and economic elite.
Rachel married Harrodsburg land owner and speculator Lewis Robards in March 1785, but their marriage was marred by his abusive behavior. She returned to Nashville during a period of separation, where Andrew Jackson was renting a room in her mother’s house. Rachel and Jackson soon took up residence in Natchez, Mississippi, and with both believing that Robards had obtained a divorce, they married in 1791. However, Robards had yet to complete the proceedings, and he did so in 1793 with proof that his wife was involved with another man. By that time, the Jacksons had resumed life in Nashville, where they remarried on January 7, 1794, to resolve any legal disputes over the state of their union.
Scarred by the negative publicity surrounding her divorce, Rachel retreated from her social circles to become a quietly devoted family woman during her second marriage. She and Jackson adopted one of her brother’s sons and became legal guardians to several others, and with the future U.S. president frequently away on business, she managed their large Tennessee plantation, known as the Hermitage. Rachel also became more devoutly religious during those years, attempting to persuade her husband to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol on Sunday during his time as governor of Florida.
Picking up on the animosity from the 1824 presidential race between Jackson and the victorious John Quincy Adams, the 1828 rematch was notable as the first in which a candidate’s wife was treated as fair game by opponents. Unfavorably compared to the sophisticated Louisa Adams, Rachel was derided for her provincial mindset and her weight. Worse, the details of her divorce were dredged up for public consumption, with Adams supporters arguing that this “adulteress” had no business being in the White House. Although Jackson prevailed, his campaign managers reportedly wanted to round up the wives of political allies in a display of support for the new first lady at the 1829 inauguration.
Rachel noted she would “rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington” following her husband’s electoral victory, a wish that turned out to be eerily prescient. With a preexisting heart condition aggravated by the malicious campaign attacks, the would-be first lady succumbed to a heart attack on December 22. She was buried at the Hermitage in her inauguration gown and slippers, with such dignitaries as Tennessee Governor Sam Houston in attendance. While Jackson remarked he hoped to have the “grace to enable me to forget or forgive my enemy who has ever maligned” his beloved wife, he never overcame his resentment of Adams and his followers for the toxic atmosphere of the 1828 presidential race.