Andrew Jackson triumphed in the 1828 presidential election, but before he could claim his place in the White House, his victory was tainted by sorrow. His wife Rachel died of a heart attack after surviving a brutal campaign that ripped her reputation to shreds. Jackson swore he'd never forgive those who attacked the woman who had been the center of his world since they fell in love nearly four decades before. Historian Patricia Brady, author of the newly published A Being so Gentle: the Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, recently talked to U.S. News about the Jacksons' epic love story and its tragic end. Excerpts:
How did Rachel and Andrew Jackson meet?
She was part of a frontier family, part of the white settlement of Nashville in Tennessee. And Jackson came out, like a lot of young men, to try to make his fortune. He had been completely orphaned by the time he was 14, so he really didn't have a lot of parental influence or family as he was growing up, and he was really a wild guy. He was a gambler and went to brothels and lost money and just generally carried on. But he studied law, and he wanted to try to make something of himself, so he went West where there were new opportunities, and there he encountered the beautiful, young Rachel. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Why was their union controversial?
Because she was married to somebody else when they met. Her husband was abusive and unappreciative; he constantly accused her of flirting with other men. Divorce was really unusual at that time, and it was really hard to get. Her husband, at that point, did file for divorce, but then he took a lot of time to actually get it. During that time, she and Jackson had eloped and then came back to the frontier, where her family accepted him as their sister's new husband, and so did the neighbors and the friends. Then the former husband's divorce finally came through, and he charged her with adultery. She could've gone and fought the divorce, but then she'd still be married to a man she couldn't stand, and so they just let it go through.
What was Rachel's role for Jackson?
She was the center of his life. She made him happy. He was a very high-strung man, and she brought him peace and love.
Did their relationship change when Jackson became a public figure?
No, their relationship stayed really stable. He became famous after the Battle of New Orleans [in the War of 1812]; he was called the "hero" with a capital H. People started to say he might be a good presidential candidate. But he and Rachel were still the same to each other. He never was ashamed of her—by this time, someone described her as a fat little dumpling. She was a short, fat woman who had a country accent, and she wasn't particularly well educated, and he thought she was perfect. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
What part did she play in the 1828 election?
Some of his enemies had heard rumors that there was something a little odd about their marriage. So they actually had people go to courthouses and look at public records, and they found that she had been divorced on the grounds of adultery. The newspaper smear became huge. She was called an adulteress and a bigamist. A Cincinnati editor said she was not the kind of person who should even be allowed to go into the White House, much less be in charge there, because of the divorce. They were going on 60, which was elderly for the day, and they had lived their lives as very happy, very respectable people. She really took it very hard, and it made him furious.
How has the treatment of political spouses changed since Rachel?
That was the first time that the newspapers or other politicians ever attacked a candidate's wife—not by any means the last. Think about Eleanor Roosevelt. Because she was known to be very sympathetic to the rights of black people, southern newspapers just reamed her out. Of course, the worst thing they could think of to say about her was that she was black herself, and that wasn't true, but was considered a terrible insult. Now, if a woman's husband runs for president, they are considered fair game. [See photos of Michelle Obama.]
How did her death impact his presidency?
He was practically crazy for the whole first term. He missed her so badly. The whole first term was very taken up with the role of the wife of one of his friends that the women of Washington refused to receive and insulted badly. He was determined to protect her and take care of her, because of course he identified her with Rachel and the slander against her. So he really did not spend that much time on the real business of governing.
What made their love story epic?
They stayed together for life at a point when they were no longer attractive; they were elderly. They both had a lot of health problems, and yet being together was for both of them their greatest pleasure. I think it's a very American story. They really still loved each other when he was described as being a toothless skeleton and she was a fat little dumpling.