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Rachel Donelson (Robards) Jackson

(1767 - 1828)

Rachel Donelson was a native of North Carolina, daughter of Col. John Donelson, a Virginia surveyor in good circumstances, who in 1780 migrated to the neighborhood of Nashville in a very remarkable boat journey of 2,000 miles down the Holston and Tennessee rivers and up the Cumberlan died During an expedition to Kentucky some time afterward, the blooming Rachel was wooed and won by Capt. Lewis Robards. 

She was an active, sprightly, and interesting girl, the best horsewoman and best dancer in that country; her husband seems to have been a young man of tyrannical and unreasonably jealous disposition. In Kentucky they lived with Mrs. Robards, the husband's mother : and, as was common in a new society where houses were too few and far between, there were other boarders in the family among them the late Judge Overton, of Tennessee and a, Mr. Stone. 

Presently Robards made complaints against his wife, in which he implicated Stone. According to Overton and the elder Mrs. Robards, these complaints were unreasonable and groundless, but the affair ended in Robards sending his wife home to her mother in Tennessee. This was in 1788. Col. Donelson had been murdered, either by Indians or by white desperadoes, and his widow, albeit in easy circumstances, felt it desirable to keep boarders as a means of protection against the Indians. To her house came Andrew Jackson on his arrival at Nashville, and thither about tile same time came Overton, also fresh from his law studies. These two young men were boarded in the house and lodged in a cabin hard by. At about the same time Robards became reconciled with his wife, and, having bought land in the neighborhood, came to dwell for awhile at Mrs. Donelson's. 

Throughout life Jackson was noted alike for spotless purity and for a romantic and chivalrous respect for the female sex. In the presence of women his manner was always distinguished for grave and courtly politeness. This involuntary homage to woman was one of the finest and most winsome features in his character. As unconsciously rendered to Mrs. Robards, it was enough to revive the slumbering demon of jealousy in her husband.  

According to Overton's testimony, Jackson's conduct was irreproachable, but there were high words between him and Robards, and, not wishing to make further trouble, he changed his place of abode. After some months Capt. Robards left his wife and went to Kentucky, threatening by and by to return and " haunt her" and make her miserable. In the autumn of 1790 rumors of his intended return frightened Mrs. Robards, and determined her to visit some friends at distant Natchez in order to avoid him. In pursuance of this plan, with which the whole neighborhood seems to have concurred, she went down the river in company with the venerable Col. Stark and his family. As the indians were just then on the warpath, Jackson accompanied the party with an armed escort, returning to Nashville as soon as he had seen his friends safely deposited at Natchez. 

While these things were going on, the proceedings of Capt. Robards were characterized by a sort of Machiavellian astuteness. In 1791 Kentucky was still a part of Virginia, and, according to the code of the Old Dominion, if a husband wished to obtain a divorce on account of his wife's alleged unfaithfulness, he must procure an act of the legislature empowering him to bring the case before a jury, and authorizing a divorce conditionally upon the jury's finding a verdict of guilty.

Early in 1791 Robards obtained the preliminary act of the legislature upon his declaration, then false, that his wife had gone to live with Jackson. Robards deferred further action for more than two years. Meanwhile it was reported and believed in the west that a divorce had been granted, and, acting upon this report, Jackson, whose chivalrous interest in Mrs. Robards's misfortunes had ripened into sincere affection, went, in the summer of 1791, to Natchez and married her there, and brought her to his home at Nashville.

In the autumn of 1793 Capt. Robards, on the strength of the facts that undeniably existed since the act of the Virginia legislature, brought his case into court and obtained the verdict completing tile divorce. On hearing of this, to his great surprise, in December, Jackson concluded that the best method of preventing future cavil was to procure a new license and have the marriage ceremony performed again -- this was done in January. Jackson was certainly to blame for not taking more care to ascertain the import of the act of the Virginia legislature. By a carelessness peculiarly striking in a lawyer, he allowed his wife to be placed in a false position. The irregularity of the marriage was indeed atoned by forty years of honorable and happy wedlock, ending only with Mrs. Jackson's death in December, 1831 and no blame was attached to the parties in Nashville, where the circumstances were well known. But the story, half understood and maliciously warped, grew into scandal as it was passed about among Jackson's personal enemies or political opponents; and herein some of the bitterest of his many quarrels had their source. His devotion to Mrs. Jackson was intense, and his pistol was always ready for the rash man who should dare to speak of her slightingly.  -- Edited Appleton's Cyclopedia American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

 

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