EMILY DONELSON I.
THE THIRD SURROGATE FIRST LADY
ANDREW JACKSON’S NIECE, A SIGNIFICANT PARTICIPANT
IN A MAJOR WASHINGTON SCANDAL
President Andrew Jackson was America’s second president who was a widower. Rachel Jackson, his revered wife of many decades, died from a myocardial infarct (heart attack) during the interval between his election to the presidency and his inauguration in Washington D.C.
Thomas Jefferson relied upon Dolley Madison, a friend and the spouse of his Secretary of State, to act as his Surrogate first Lady. Andrew Jackson, suddenly and unexpectedly bereft of Rachel’s support, selected a niece, Emily Donelson, to perform the ceremonial, social, and managerial responsibilities as a substitute wife of the president.
Andrew and Rachel Jackson had no natural children although they eventually adopted two boys. Alternatively, The Hermitage, their Tennessee estate, became a welcoming venue for their numerous nieces and nephews, of which first cousins Emily and Andrew Donelson were their favorites. Jackson was very comfortable with Emily’s grace, intelligence, and practical abilities. Moreover, the president-elect had become reliant upon Andrew’s political and administrative skills as his personal secretary. Consequently the young married couple accompanied Andrew Jackson to the White House where they resided and supported him during his two-term presidency.
A review of the circumstances of the Jacksons’ wedding is necessary to place in context the political scandal that embroiled the president, Emily, and Jackson’s cabinet during the first half of his initial presidential term (1829-1831). Rachel and Andrew were officially wed in Nashville in 1794, after they had lived as husband and wife since 1791. Jackson long claimed that he married Rachel in Natchez in 1791, but several circumstances of their initial union remain clouded. The political problem for the future president was that Rachel remained legally married to Lewis Robards until 1793. Therefore, the Jacksons were bigamists.
Andrew Jackson battled the charge of bigamy during his entire political career. His principal concern throughout was the protection of dearest Rachel’s reputation. Her good name was a contributing factor in the deadly duel that he fought with Charles Dickinson. In the main, Jackson was successful in shielding his wife from the widespread slurs against her. However, while on a shopping trip in Nashville to buy clothes for her anticipated tenure in the White House, Rachel was exposed to a scurrilous newspaper discussion of her character. The president-elect blamed her subsequent fatal heart attack on his political enemies.
Andrew Jackson always was a defender of a woman’s reputation for virtue. Hence, when Peggy Eaton, the wife of his Secretary of War, was pilloried as a likely prostitute, with Rachel’s recent demise in mind, he swiftly rose to Mrs. Eaton’s defense. The consequences of Jackson’s subsequent obstinate support were a stagnation of accomplishment during the early years of his administration; the fracturing of his cabinet; and the alienation of his surrogate first lady.