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First Lady Biography: Rachel Jackson



Born near the Banister River, about ten miles from present-day Chatham, Virginia, Pittsylvania County, in 1767; the exact date of her birth was not recorded at the time, but has been invariably attributed to the month of June, with some sources designating the date as 15 June


Colonel John Donelson, born 1718, Somerset Count, Maryland, hunter, surveyor, foundry owner, Revolutionary War soldier; a member of the Virginia Assembly, co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee, died by murder in 1786, assailants unknown on return from Virginia to Tennessee.


Rachel Stockley Donelson , born in Accomac County, Virginia, 1730, married there in 1744; died, Nashville, Tennessee, 1801


Scottish, Irish, Welsh, English; It appears that Rachel Jackson's paternal great-grandfather was Patrick Donelson, who was born in Scotland about 1670. He had a son named John who settled in Maryland. His wife was Catherine Davis of Welsh ancestry. They had a son John who married one Rachael Stockley, daughter of Alexander Stockley and Jane Matthews: the Stockley family allegedly originated in Ulster, Northern Ireland, and the Matthews from England. Both Rachel Jackson's father and brother are listed in the DAR Patriot Index.

Birth Order and Siblings:

Tenth of eleven children, seven brothers, three sisters; Alexander Donelson (1749-1785); Mary Donelson Caffrey (1751-?); Catherine Donelson Hutchings (1752-1835); Stockley Donelson (1753-1804); Jane Donelson Hay (1757-1834); John Donelson (1755-1830); William Donelson (1756-1820); Samuel Donelson (1758-1804); Severn Donelson (1763 or 1773 -1818); Leven Donelson (1765-?)

Physical Appearance:

Short, brown hair, brown eyes

Religious Affiliation:


There is no extant record of Rachel Jackson having received a formal education. In light of the fact that she spent the first twelve years of her life in a relatively rural part of Virginia, and there was not a tradition of educating young women beyond the basics of reading and writing. She was taught housekeeping duties such as sewing, spinning, weaving, embroidery, as well as preserving foods, overseeing the kitchens and generally managing the plantation life, including direction of the slaves' duties. She played musical instruments and was an accomplished horsewoman. Although most of her correspondence was destroyed in an 1834 fire at the Hermitage, her extant letters show that while her spelling and grammar were poor, she intelligently conveyed her thoughts. In later life, most of her reading was of the Bible and other religious works, yet she also had an extensive collection of poetry.

Occupation before Marriage:

Rachel left Pittsylvania County at age 12 when her parents moved to what would later become part of Tennessee. The Donelson family and other families totaling about 600 people, were led by her father, transported on 40 flatboats and canoes for almost 1000 miles from Fort Patrick Henry along the Holston River to the Cumberland River and the new settlement of Fort Nashborough, later to be named Nashville. The Donelsons were on the largest boat, Adventure.

Settling in April 24, 1780, the Donelson clans were among the first and most prominent settlers of Nashville. Rachel Jackson's siblings and her group of nephews and nieces, totaling 63, would dominate the city's business, civic and political power base for generations. They removed first to nearby Mansker's Station, and then to Harrodsburg, Kentucky because of serious threats of attacks on white settlers by Cherokee and Chickasaw native peoples in the region.


First marriage:

18 years old to Lewis Robards (born 1758, Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky; died, 15, April, 1814, Harrodsburg, Kentucky), land owner, speculator, on 1 March, 1785, at Lincoln County, Kentucky. Lewis and Rachel Robards lived in Harrodsburg with his elderly mother for over three years, until the late summer or early fall of 1788.
Divorce: The ultimate divorce of Rachel Jackson from her first husband would come to shatter all precedent in presidential history. It was the first time that such a deeply personal event would be used against a presidential candidate in a campaign and it was also the first large public consideration of the conceptual ideal of what kind of personal background a First Lady should ideally possess. It thus unwittingly played one of the first and important public debates in the history of First Ladies. Lewis Robards and his defenders would claim that his former wife had shamelessly flirted and that he asked her brother to remove Rachel from her marital home, but that he later sought reconciliation. Upon his return to Nashville, they claimed he found her in an inappropriately close relationship with Andrew Jackson, a circuit lawyer boarding with the Donelsons who then eloped with her in Natchez, Mississippi in an illegal marriage. This resulted in his seeking and gaining a divorce. In contrast, the Donelsons and Jacksons claimed that Robards had physically abused Rachel and that she ran first to her mother's home and then - when word came that Robards was coming to take her back to their Kentucky home - fled for fear of her life to Natchez with friends, a married couple, all of them guided and protected by Jackson.

They further claim that when Jackson returned to Nashville alone that he was told that Robards had boasted that he had successfully processed a divorce from Rachel, thus leaving her open to marry Jackson. The Jackson defenders would suggest that Robards had purposely misled them so that if Andrew and Rachel Jackson did marry and live together that it would make the union an adulterous one that was all the proof needed for Robards to then gain a divorce.

The Jackson evidence was weakened by the fact that no legal marriage of theirs could be legitimized in then-Spanish-ruled Mississippi because they were Protestant and only Catholic wedding ceremonies were recognized as legal unions. Robards did follow the law by first obtaining a required legislative grant to file a divorce. He then did so based on the fact that Rachel had openly committed adultery, and the divorce was granted to him, she found to be guilty of abandonment as well. The Jacksons remarried legally in Tennessee, but the incident had made Rachel Jackson a bigamist and adulterer.

*Rachel Robards Jackson was the first of three First Ladies who marriages previous to that of a President had ended in divorce

Second marriage:

26 years old, to Andrew Jackson (born March 15, 1767 in Waxhaws, North Carolina - died June 08, 1845, at the "Hermitage," in Davidson, Tennessee) on January 7, 1794, Nashville, Tennessee at the Donelson home.

For the three years following their "Natchez" wedding, Andrew Jackson and Rachel Robards had lived with her mother and the Donelson clan in Nashville. They continued to make their home there until they began construction of what would be the first building to later comprise their famous Hermitage plantation. Rachel Jackson chose the plot of land on which it was built.


Two adopted sons: Andrew Jackson, Jr. born, December 04, 1808 in Davidson, Tennessee, died 17 April, 1865 in Hermitage, Davidson Co., Davidson, Tennessee; he was actually Rachel Jackson's nephew, one of a pair of twins born to her brother Severn Donelson; since both of his parents were alive at the time of his adoption, the reason he was given to them is not clear; Lyncoya Jackson (c1811-1828), an American Indian child found by Jackson on a battlefield with his dead mother, was raised by the Jacksons from the age of two.

Legal guardian for six boys and two girls:John Samuel Donelson (?-1817), Daniel Donelson (1801-1863) and Andrew Jackson Donelson (1799- 1871) were all nephews of Rachel Jackson, the sons of her brother Samuel Donelson who died in 1804. The last of the three, another namesake of the president served as his private secretary in the White House, and married his cousin, Rachel Jackson's niece Emily, the daughter of her brother John Donelson; Andrew Jackson Hutchings (1812-1841), the orphaned grandson of Rachel Jackson's sister Catherine Donelson Hutchings; Caroline Butler, Eliza Butler, Edward Butler and Anthony Butler, children of Revolutionary War hero Edward Butler, who named Jackson as guardian to the children and who often came to live at the Hermitage following their father's death.

Occupation after Marriage:

Through her husband's public career in the military, business and politics, Rachel Jackson largely remained at home, at the Hermitage Plantation, supervising the large number of slave families that carried out the household tasks, farming and maintenance of the vast acres. Jackso nwas a lawyer, circuit judge, land speculator, farmer and businessman. He later moved into politics, was a soldier of national renown, especially for his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Rachel Jackson greatly resented his frequent absences and their lengthy separations, once admonishing him, "Do not, my beloved husband, let the love of country, fame and honor make you forget that you have me. Without you I would think them all empty shadows. You will say this is not the language of a patriot, but it is the language of a faithful wife, one I know you esteem and love."

Her life, in direct relation to the scandal of her bigamy, caused Rachel Jackson to withdraw from society’s glare. Although she confessed that she preferred to confine her public appearances to religious services, she joined her husband during his most important political endeavors to Pensacola Florida, New Orleans, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. She was in the capital for the House vote in the contested 1824 election and despite what some considered a backwoods manner marked by her smoking a long-stem clay pipe, she was befriended by the urbane First Lady Elizabeth Monroe.

According to family tradition, as a child, Rachel Jackson had been brought to the homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, all of whom were colleagues in Virginia politics with her father, a member of the House of Burgesses. She had grown up in a world of politics and was thus comfortable engaging in conversation with and welcoming as her lengthy houseguests the national political figures associated with Jackson. She also hosted regular gatherings forJackson's political supporters.

As for her personal influence on Andrew Jackson, there are several accounts that she was able with a small gesture or word to shut down his impulse to respond to an insult or a political remark with which he disagreed, thus saving him from creating more of a long-term complication for his career.

During Jackson's short stint as Governor of Florida, the increasingly religious fervent Rachel Jackson persuaded him to declare edicts banishing alcohol sale and consumption on Sundays. He also resigned the governorship "as Mrs. Jackson is anxious to return home." Senator Thomas Hart Benton stated that she also had "a faculty - a rare one of retaining names and titles in a throng of visitors, addressing each one appropriately…"

Much of Rachel Jackson's focus remained fixed on the estate that would become part of her husband's legend. From a cotton farm property he bought in 1804 with a log house he had decorated with French wallpaper, Andrew Jackson's famous plantation, the Hermitage evolved; in its earliest stages Rachel Jackson had a direct role in designing and then managing it. The acreage, outbuildings, and main house, along with the number of slaves bought to maintain it, grew over the next decade and a half.

By 1821, an 8-room, two-story brick mansion was the Jackson home. In the main stair hall, Rachel Jackson selected scenic wallpapers imported from France that depicted themes from Greek mythology. The mansion, however, continued to grow and evolve, especially after Jackson became President; thus, Rachel Jackson never knew the famous white-columned southern plantation that was to later become the familiar vision of the Hermitage.

Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:

Early in the 1828 presidential race, the story of Rachel Jackson's former status as an adulterer, bigamist and divorcee was used against her husband by the press supporting his rival for the presidency, John Quincy Adams. These included an anti-Jackson pamphlet called Truth's Advocate, printed in Cincinnati, and articles in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, National Banner and Nashville Whig. One editorial asked, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" Many of Jackson's detractors claimed he was not fit for the presidency based partially on his professional and personal behavior stemming from the circumstances of the Robard's divorce and his marriage.

The Jackson campaign organized what was called the "Nashville Central Committee," the first political public relations effort to clarify his "domestic relations in reference to his fitness for the presidency." Numerous pro-Jackson orators, like Thomas Kennedy made stump speeches that avoided the details of the Robard's divorce but attacked the lack of chivalry and "abominable" conduct of using the "affectionate partner" of Jackson for political purposes. The Nashville Central Committee produced a thirty-page booklet prepared and written by Robert Coleman Foster. It incorporated testimony from many different sources including a large contribution from Jackson's longtime friend, law partner and campaign contributor Judge John Overton, who had also known the Robards family. Nevertheless Rachel Jackson's controversial marital history was sensationalized in the opposition press that year.

Such widespread dissemination of her personal life at a time when women considered such matters to be exclusively private created enormous shame for her; one historian recounted that she spent much of the campaign crying and depressed, which only further stressed a strained heart condition that had first manifested itself in 1825. There were even later claims that she had personally encountered public degradation by overhearing taunts about her in a Nashville shop. A factor that contributed to her severe stress that is often eclipsed by the dramatic impact of the campaign was the sudden June 1828 death of her sixteen year old son Lyncoya, then working at the Hermitage.

While she was later quoted as stating after her husband's election that she would "rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington," she also wrote a statement of spirited self-defense to a Jackson campaign manager declaring her innocence against the enemies of her husband who she said had "dipped their pens in wormwood [poison]." There was a concerted effort by the Jackson campaign managers to encourage women whose husbands had supported Jackson or who were western to arrange to be in Washington, D.C.for the Inauguration as a concerted show of support for Rachel Jackson. Calling for women to organize a public action with such political intent was unprecedented. She intended to attend the Inauguration and had even purchased a gown and white slippers for the traditional ball. Despite this, her physical and mental health had so drastically deteriorated that by the fall she had a near fatal heart attack. She seemed to recover but died suddenly three days before Christmas. The president-elect was so stunned that he held her dead body in hopes that she could be revived.

61 years old
The Hermitage Plantation, Nashville, Tennessee
22 December, 1828

The Hermitage Plantations garden
Nashville, Tennessee

Unlike the death and burial of any previous presidential wife, the circumstances surrounding the demise of Rachel Jackson drew not only regional but national attention. It was ultimately used by Jacksonian Democrats as a telling story in the drama of conflict between the established Eastern seaboard ruling elite - as embodied by the defeated incumbent President, New England native John Quincy Adams - and the new power of the rustic western block from the frontier territories. Following news of Rachel Jackson's death, the mayor and the board of alderman of Nashville voted a resolution urging the people of the region to abstain from their ordinary business on December 24 - the day of her funeral - and that church bells be tolled from one to two o'clock during the hour of her burial.

On the day of her funeral, some 10,000 people turned up, according to newspaper accounts, coming not only from the area but also drawing Jackson political supporters from around the country. White and black, wealthy and poor were noted in the gathered crowds, a potent symbol of democracy. Among the pall-bearers was Tennessee Governor Sam Houston, who led the procession to the burial site, followed by Jackson, then the Donelson clan, and finally the Hermitage slaves. Family tradition holds that she was buried in the gown and white slippers she planned to wear to her husband's Inauguration. Jackson spoke at the ceremony: "I am now President of the United States and in a short time must take my way to the metropolis of my country; and, if it had been God's will, I would have been grateful for the privilege of taking her to my post of honor and seating her by my side; but Providence knew what was best for her. For myself, I bow to God's will, and go alone to the place of new and arduous duties…"

The death of Rachel Jackson also became the headliner subject of many national newspapers, cast as a political and public news story rather than a private and personal one. It attracted more editorial notice than any obituaries of more famous presidential wives like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams had or Dolley Madison and Mary Lincoln would in future decades.

Some newspapers that had previously attacked Rachel Jackson now mourned her passing, like the December 23, 1828 edition of the Nashville Whig. The Washington Telegraph declared that the U.S. had "lost one if its brightest ornaments. The friend of the widow and the orphan; the pious Christian, the amiable wife," and the Boston Statesman even outlined its pages in black mourning for her. Other newspapers, like the January 17, 1829 edition of the New Hampshire Statesmen and Concord Register considered her death a good opportunity to "erase from our memory, and from the records…the frailties and foibles of her early existence," and considered the "high-sounding and superlative epithets" that flowed from many previously anti-Jackson publications to be a blow to the "independence of a free press." It also believed that there were thousands of other women who were "Mrs. Jackson's superiors in every accomplishment," and that the "standard of female character in our country can hardly be thought sufficiently elevated, if Mrs. Jackson…is to be spoken of as exhibiting the most 'exemplary virtues and exalted character.'"

Andrew Jackson Administration

4 March, 1829 - 4 March, 1837

Press and citizen recognition of the unique role played by a president's wife or women attached to presidential life in a larger national public life reached its most sustained consideration in relationship to Rachel Jackson, from the 1828 campaign through the Administration.

Although she never lived to become First Lady, the memory of the late Rachel Jackson had great political consequence during her husband's two terms as president. At her funeral, Jackson had stated that he hoped he would have the "grace to enable me to forget or forgive my enemy who has ever maligned that blessed one…whom they tried to put to shame for my sake!" He seemed not to have been able to do so. He forever blamed his 1828 political opponent, John Quincy Adams and his supporters for the attacks on his late wife and blamed them for her death, despite evidence of her health problems occurring as early as 1825; he thus refused to honor the Inaugural tradition of calling on his predecessor because he thought, "any man who would permit a public journal, under his control, to assault the reputation of a respectable female, much less the wife of his rival and competitor for first office in the world was not entitled to the respect of any honorable man." As President, Jackson assiduously sought to purge any federal workers who were known to have helped circulate the attacks on his late wife, including the Librarian of Congress.

The memory of Rachel Jackson had its most explosive political impact on what was termed "the petticoat affair." Concurrent with the attacks on Rachel Jackson's character made during the 1828 campaign were the attacks on Peggy Timberlake, a friend of the Jacksons and the woman who became the wife of an incoming Jackson Cabinet member just eight days after the burial of Rachel Jackson.

If the social world of Washington lost its chance to ostracize Rachel Jackson because of her December 22, 1828 death, it lost none of its purpose and power by doing so to Peggy Eaton following her January 1, 1829 wedding. The only difference to Andrew Jackson between the attacks on Rachel Jackson and Peggy Timberlake were that his late wife had been divorced from her first husband and that the latter woman had been widowed by her first husband. Just as he had done with Rachel Robards, Jackson advised his wealthy friend and supporter, Senator John Eaton to immediately marry Peggy Timberlake. At the time, she was the victim of unrelenting rumors that she had committed adultery with Eaton. Jackson soon viewed the entire attack on the Eatons as part of a larger political conspiracy. One Senator declared it "odd enough" that a "dispute in the social world" could have such "great political effects" and help determine who would be Jackson's successor as President.

Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale was born in 1799, the eldest of six children whose father ran a Washington boardinghouse owner who put up many prominent political figures. During her 1824 visit to Washington, Rachel Jackson had met and liked Peggy, and Jackson was impressed by her political insight and willingness to express it, declaring her "the smartest little woman in America." After her marriage to purser John Timberlake, she continued to cross what were considered by polite society to be the proper boundaries of social interaction between the genders. While there was no evidence that she committed adultery during her husband's many long stints at sea, her closeness and frequent accompaniment by John Eaton fueled rumors to the contrary. When Timberlake died at sea in April 1828, Washington society began to speculate whether he had committed suicide in despair over his wife's relationship with Eaton.

Just prior to Jackson's March 1829 Inauguration, Floride Calhoun, wife of John Quincy Adams' Vice President who would hold the same position under Jackson, accepted a social call from Peggy Eaton just after her wedding but refused to return a social call, as protocol dictated. It was a calculated snub. Weeks later, at the Inauguration, all of the new Cabinet wives refused to acknowledge Peggy Eaton. The President soon found himself distracted as he steadfastly defended Peggy Eaton with the fervency he had defended his own wife. At a September 10, 1829 dinner with his entire Cabinet - save for Calhoun and Eaton, Jackson vigorously defended Peggy Eaton's reputation, even offering affidavits proving her innocence.

By early 1830, the President was convinced that his political enemies, led by rival Henry Clay had contrived the social snub as a plot to sow disunity in his Cabinet, pointing out that those most strongly opposed to the Eatons also most strongly supported Calhoun. Jackson and Calhoun differed most notably over the latter's support of a state's right to nullify federal law. Despite this, Calhoun had helped to elect Jackson with the support of other southern Democratic leaders in Congress. While their relationship was politically tenuous, it was a logical assumption that Calhoun would succeed him.Jackson ultimately came to view Calhoun and many other members of his Cabinet as disloyal because they all refused to urge their wives to reverse their social ostracizing of Peggy Eaton, the War Secretary's wife.

As Jackson soured on Calhoun, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren' earned the President's favor for his showing respect to Peggy Eaton; Van Buren was able to entirely avoid the question of whether his wife would receive Peggy Eaton since he was a widower. In 1831, Van Buren successfully advised Jackson on how to rid himself of other Cabinet members he considered disloyal as well as Vice President Calhoun - without losing the support of Calhoun's wing of the Democratic Party - by offering his resignation as Secretary of State, and also having Eaton do likewise. Jackson then announced he wished to reorganize his entire Cabinet and asked all of them to resign. With his 1832 re-election campaign approaching, Jackson was able to rid himself of Calhoun and the rest of those he considered damaging to his own power without either alienating Calhoun's wing of the Democratic Party or seeming to give in to the calls for Eaton's firing. Van Buren maneuvered himself into being named as Jackson's next Vice President and anointed successor afterJackson won a second term. He sent the Eatons to the Florida Territory, where Eaton was named governor; two years later, he was made Ambassador to Spain. As the second term began, a toast made the rounds in Washington: "To the next cabinet--may they all be bachelors--or leave their wives at home."

On a personal level, the President was also forever changed by his wife's death. He wore a miniature painting of her in a locket that hung on a wire bent to be near his heart and he propped the image up on a bedside table at night, the last image he saw before falling asleep and the first he saw upon waking. In 1838, he fulfilled a promise he had made to her by becoming a practicing Christian and joining the local Presbyterian Church. At the Hermitage, he hung her portrait above his bed and when in residence there, visited her tomb nightly. During his Administration, he further honored the wishes of Rachel Jackson by asking her niece Emily Donelson to serve as the official hostess of the White House. After her departure, his daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson filled that role.

Emily Donelson

(1 June, 1807 - 19 December, 1836)

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 fromTennessee 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 Jacksonen tourage 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 inNashvillewas 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 him and his wife back toTennessee 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 refusedJackson'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 toTennessee 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 another Donelson cousin, the widowed Mrs. E. A. Randolf, daughter of his first wife’s sister, Catherine Donelson Martin. 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.

Sarah Yorke Jackson

(July, 1805 - 23 August, 1887)

While Emily Donelson served as Andrew Jackson's hostess in the White House, it was originally intended that his daughter-in-law, Sarah Yorke Jackson, the wife of his adopted son would supervise the management of the Hermitage. A fire at the Hermitage, however, brought Sarah Yorke Jackson to the White House for lengthier stays and so she and Emily Donelson essentially served as co-hostesses, a unique situation in White House history.

Sarah Yorke Jackson was born into great wealth in July of 1805 in Philadelphia, the exact date unrecorded. Descendant of English Quakers, her great-great-grandfather had been a judge and officer of crown of England before immigrating to Pennsylvania, and she was also related to many of Philadelphia's wealthiest and most powerful families. Her father Peter Yorke was a sea captain, as had been his father, and amassed great wealth through his diverse mercantile enterprises; he had spent most of his business career on the sea and was familiar with a wide variety of cultures, having traded in ports through Europe, Africa, and Asia. He died in 1815. His wife, the former Mary Haines, on a trip toNew Orleans, died in that city in 1820, thus leaving Sarah Yorke Jackson orphaned by age 15 and in the care of two parental aunts, a Mrs. George Farquhar and Mrs. Mordecai Wetherill. Throughout her life she remained close to her two sisters, Jane and Marian.

It is not clear how Sarah Yorke met Andrew Jackson, Jr. President Jackson was unable to attend their November 24, 1831 wedding at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, but he sent the portrait painter and family friend Ralph Earl to represent him and present the bride with the gift of a pearl ring which contained a locket of the President's hair. The couple proceeded immediately to the White House, where the President stood on the front steps with open arms to greet her. He showed immediate affection to his daughter-in-law and they remained close until his death. The President held a number of parties in her honor, including a dinner to which the Cabinet and Diplomatic Corps were invited and she wore her wedding gown at the series of events. She and her husband remained at the White House through the holiday season of 1831 and the social season of 1832. She arrived at the Hermitage in late spring of 1832 to assume the management with her husband of the plantation. She gave birth there to her first child, named for the president's late wife, Rachel, in November. Sarah Jackson's cousin Emma Yorke Farquhar accompanied her to the White House and the Hermitage and married there Andrew Jackson, Jr.'s twin brother, Thomas Jefferson Donelson on 17 September, 1832. Sarah Yorke Jackson returned to the White House in February of 1833 for the second Jackson Inauguration. She remained there through the summer when she and her family joined the president at his seaside vacation in Virginia. She returned to the Hermitage in August. Her second child, Andrew, was born there in April 1834.

During that stay, however, a fire partially destroyed the Hermitage and required rebuilding. Thus, Sarah Yorke Jackson once again returned to the White House, arriving on 26 November 1834. She was accompanied by Emily Donelson and to avoid any questions of who took precedence as the President's official hostess, Jackson declared Sarah Jackson to be "mistress of the Hermitage," and implied that he view ed that as more personally dear to him; there is no evidence of any rivalry between the two women who then essentially functioned as co-hostesses. In February 1835, however, Sarah Yorke Jackson made an extended visit with her children to relatives in Philadelphia and did not rejoin the presidential household until that summer when she was part of the family again vacationing in Virginia and from there she returned to Philadelphia for a month. Part of her time in that city was spent ordering new furnishings for the Hermitage. She and Emily Donelson helped to host a large Christmas party for the children of the family in the White House, in December of 1835. She once again returned to the Hermitage in the spring of 1836 and then for one last time came back toWashingtonin the fall of 1836. She visited with her Philadelphia relatives before overseeing the packing and shipping ofJackson's eight years worth of possessions in the White House as he prepared to retire in March of 1837.

Upon Jackson's retirement, Sarah Jackson and her family returned with him to the Hermitage, and she resumed charge of his household. Three more children - Samuel, Thomas, and Robert - would be born to Sarah Yorke Jackson at the Hermitage. Shortly thereafter, Sarah's widowed sister Marion Adams came to live there as well, with her three sons, John, Andrew, and William.

After the death of the former President in 1845, debt-ridden Andrew and Sarah Jackson struggled to maintain their lifestyle on their plantation. Sometime between 1858 and 1860 they relocated to Mississippi, turning over the maintenance of the estate to two of the property's most trusted slaves, Hannah and Aaron. The state of Tennessee later purchased the property, intending to prepare it as an historic site, but permitted Sarah Jackson to live out her life there. She died at the Hermitage on August 23, 1887.