EMILY DONELSON #3
THE THIRD SURROGATE FIRST LADY
HER SUCCESS IN THIS ROLE DESPITE HER BANISHMENT TO TENNESSEE FOR A YEAR AND A HALF
Emily Donelson, the niece of widower Andrew Jackson became this president’s substitute first lady upon his inauguration in March, 1837. Jackson’s devoted wife, Rachel, had died from a heart attack in December 1836 during the interim between her husband’s election and inauguration.
“In his grief Jackson turned to Rachel’s family. He would not – could not – go to Washington by himself. Around him at the Hermitage on this bleak Christmas Eve was the nucleus of the intimate circle he would maintain for the rest of his life. At the center of this group, destined both to provide great comfort and provoke deep personal anger at the White House, stood Andrew and Emily Donelson.” (1)
Emily was naturally suited for her White House role. She was lovely, attractive in appearance, possessed a naturally quick mind, and was well-educated in the context of the 1820s. She had developed an ease of manner amongst the Nashville elite, and previously experienced the capital’s social scene when she accompanied her uncle to Washington several years earlier.
Although not yet twenty-two, Emily already had managed a household during her four years of marriage to Andrew. Consequently, she assumed the duties of chatelaine with zeal and ambition, saying to Jackson: “Uncle, I wish to make the President’s House the model American home.” She ruled eighteen servants, and was not unduly troubled by her responsibilities. (2)
She was always the official mistress of the White House, using her tact and charm of manner to make “the Jackson Administration stand out as a brilliant one.” (3) Jackson deferred to his niece when there was any social question to solve, saying…”You know best, my dear. Do as you please.” (4)
Emily hosted numerous executive mansion dinners, receptions, New Year’s and Christmas gatherings. Part of her duties was greeting the numerous visitors to the president’s offical residence, and the making of courtesy house calls to significant individuals. But her failure to socially accommodate Peggy Eaton, the controversial wife of John Eaton, Jackson’s Secretary of War and close friend, led to her banishment from the White House for eighteen months.
However, Emily was extremely devoted to her uncle and did everything possible to make him comfortable in the White House. Proof of the familial ambience she crafted was the three babies she birthed in the presidential mansion.
- Meacham, Jon: American Lion. Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008) 6.
- Sweetser, Kate Dickinson: Famous Girls of the White House (New York: Thomas Y. Crowley Company, 1930) 129.
- Ibid., 107.
- Ibid., 111.