When Andrew Jackson ran for the Presidency in 1828, the Nashville Central Committee issued a statement to explain the strange, indeed mysterious, circumstances of his marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards. According to the committee’s report, Jackson escorted Rachel to Natchez in January 1791 to help her escape her husband, Lewis Robards of Kentucky. Then he returned home. Several months later Jackson heard that Robards had obtained a divorce from his wife. Without waiting for confirmation, Jackson returned to Natchez and, according to the committee’s statement, “married Mrs. Robards” sometime in the summer of 1791. Two years later the couple learned that Robards did not have a divorce. All he had was an enabling act permitting him to sue for his freedom in a court of law. Not until September 27, 1793, did a jury find Rachel guilty of living “in adultery with another man” and desertion, whereupon the court dissolved the marriage. Four months later Jackson and Rachel were legally married by the justice of the peace of Davidson County, Tennessee, Robert Hays, Rachel’s brother-in-law.
In the presidential campaign of 1828 Jackson’s supporters insisted that he and Rachel were innocent of any wrong-doing at the time of their “first” marriage. But despite a recent and extensive search in this country and abroad, not a single document has been found that corroborates the story put out by the Central Committee. Indeed, several documents suggest a different interpretation. For example, the inventory of the estate of John Donelson, Rachel’s father, dated January 28, 1791, lists her as Rachel Jackson. Other documents dated July and October 1790 list her as Rachel Donelson. It would appear that Jackson and Rachel had “married” prior to their departure for Natchez, sometime between October 1790 and January 1791. It is also possible that they did not marry at all and simply lived together as husband and wife until the divorce was finally granted in 1793.
During the presidential campaign Rachel was accused of bigamy and the couple of moral delinquency. Was there a marriage prior to 1793? William B. Lewis, Jackson’s close friend, insisted that there had to be. “I would ask,” he wrote in 1827, “how it is possible that any man [such as Jackson] could have been held in such high estimation by a whole community if he had acted as has been alleged? Could any man, so destitute of moral virtue … maintain so high a standing?”
What makes this “mystery” historically significant, I think, is the fact that if no marriage took place in Natchez or anywhere else before 1793, as probable, within a forty-year period—the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century—ideas about “moral virtue” in relation to marriage on the frontier had changed considerably in the United States.