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First Ladies Never Married to Presidents: Emily Donelson

by Carl Anthony
on August 20, 2014

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Simply by making an entirely social decision and sticking to it, Andrew Jackson’s First Lady Emily Donelson, niece of his late wife, managed to impact the political climate of his presidency and come into open conflict with him.

In fact, were it not for Emily Donelson’s status in the presidential household and the rigid obstinacy of her decision, the famous “Peggy Eaton Affair” would have never occurred.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Although the President’s wife Rachel Jackson had died less than three months before her husband’s presidency began, she had made definitive plans about how she would carry out her role in the White House.

Anticipating the arrangements later made by Letitia Tyler, Peggy Taylor and Eliza Johnson, all presidential spouses from the southern states, Mrs. Jackson intended to have her young, well-educated and socially sophisticated relative – in her case, niece Emily Donelson – appear in public and assume the visibility of hostess at social events where guests were strangers to her.

Many people know the details of the tragic romance between Andrew Jackson and his wife Rachel, who had believed that she was legitimately divorced from her first husband Lewis Robards at the time she married Jackson, her second husband.

Not until she and Jackson had established a household together did they discover she was technically a bigamist, her divorce papers never having been processed.

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

A.J. Donelson. (The Hermitage)

This error, be it a matter of innocence or negligence, was nevertheless judged with harsh morality and Rachel was labeled a “wanton woman” and her bigamy used by Andrew Jackson’s political opponents as a poor reflection on his own character.

So emotionally pained was Mrs. Jackson that she seems to have intended to limit her public interactions which might expose her to the keener ridicule by which Washington society has always been known, and which she declared to be vain and irreligious. Her heart condition also made long receiving lines difficult for her to breath.

The new President formally designated Emily Donelson as his White House hostess, something no previous chief executive had done. At only twenty-one years old, Emily Donelson was one of the youngest women to serve as First Lady.

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

A sampler stitched by Emily Donelson. (Tulip Grove Plantation)

The daughter of Rachel Jackson’s brother John and born in a town which was named with her own family name, Emily Donelson had the opportunity to pursue a sophisticated education, graduating from the Nashville Female Academy.

Unlike that of her aunt, she became an expert in grammar and had an elegant handwriting.

When she was seventeen years old, Emily married her first cousin “A.J.” (named for Andrew Jackson), the son of Rachel Jackson’s brother William. Since A.J. was raised as a son by Andrew and Rachel Jackson (but never formally adopted) Emily was truly like a daughter to the President-elect and his wife.

A West Point graduate and lawyer, A.J. Donelson would come to work in the White House as the President’s Private Secretary.

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper's)

Teenager Emily Donelson attended the January 8, 1825 ball given for Andrew and Rachel Jackson by John Quincy and Louisa Adams, depicted 47 years after the event. (Harper’s)

Despite her youth, however, Emily Donelson was already familiar with the White House, having been entertained there by the President and Mrs. Monroe in the winter of 1924-1825, and had also been a guest of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa in their home.

Managing her loyalty to Andrew Jackson while befriending his hated political rival John Quincy Adams would prove to be a remarkable feat for the then-eighteen year old woman. It was a trait that served her well in the White House.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson's 1829 Inauguration Day.

The mob scene outside the White House on Jackson’s 1829 Inauguration Day.

In fact, this young First Lady, who dazzled crowds by appearing in an amber-colored gown at her uncle’s inauguration would befriend both past and future White House residents.

She came to know Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martin Van Buren and James Polk, the latter two serving as godfathers to two of her four children born in the White House.

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President's wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Emily Donelson named her first child, born in the White House, after her late aunt, the widowed President’s wife. (Tennessee State Museum)

Initially, due to a period of mourning for her late aunt, there was no great entertaining in the Jackson White House but from the moment the social events began there was trouble with Peggy Eaton, wife of the President’s Secretary of War and a close friend to Jackson.

Mrs. Eaton had first met a young Emily Donelson during the 1824-1825 social season in Washington, when the former joined the Jacksons and stayed as guests in the boardinghouse run by Peggy’s father. At the time, Peggy was married to a captain who was then away at sea and his absence apparently gave her license to behave flirtatiously with many other men.

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Peggy Eaton. (geni.com)

Despite this both Andrew and Rachel Jackson approved of Peggy and were happy when she, later widowed, married John Eaton.

Emily Donelson, however, refused to consider the Cabinet wife deserving of social respect. She joined the other socially prominent women who were married to Cabinet members and refused to accept invitations from Mrs. Eaton or to acknowledge her at parties or even treat her with any politeness.

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson's approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

A political cartoon suggesting President Jackson’s approval of Peggy Eaton, scandalously dancing and showing her ankles, at a Cabinet meeting. (New York Historical Society)

Emily received an angry letter of rebuke from the War Secretary.

He correctly pointed out that the social ostracizing his wife was experiencing was how Rachel Jackson had been treated, due to her previously being a bigamist.

Emily responded by defending her aunt and never mentioning Peggy.

Then Secretary of State Martin Van Buren tried, telling Emily she was being influenced by the older Cabinet wives.

In response, when Van Buren held a dinner for the Cabinet and their spouses, Emily and the other women refused to attend. Only Peggy came.

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

Peggy Eaton in later years. (LC)

It was no insignificant social matter by 1830, when President Jackson learned that the wives of diplomatic representatives of foreign countries were now considering a boycott of the American Cabinet wife. President Jackson was furious with his niece.

When she returned with her husband to Tennessee that summer, the President did not want encourage her to return to the White House unless she relented. She refused to.

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

The main hall at Tulip Grove, home of A.J. and Emily Donelson. (The Hermitage)

Furthermore, she also refused to stay at his Nashville estate, retreating to her Tulip Grove plantation instead.

Jackson wrote that “there being no lady of the House, there was something wanting,” but Emily refused to apologize or acquiesce to his wishes.

He took the actions of Emily Donelson and also the wives of his Cabinet members as an act of political insubordination.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

President Jackson meeting with his Cabinet.

The “Peggy Eaton Affair” ultimately was a factor in his firing his entire Cabinet and replacing them with more loyal members.

Not until a year later, when John and Peggy Eaton moved to Spain where he served as U.S. Ambassador there did the matter resolve.

In the fall of 1831, Emily Donelson returned to the White House as First Lady but weakened by tuberculosis she returned home and died there four months before the end of the Jackson Administration in 1837.

in
Non-Spousal First Ladies ,
White House Hostesses

Non-Spousal First Ladies
White House Hostesses

2 comments… add one
  • Mark Mosher
    August 21, 2014, 10:53 pm

    What I find most remarkable here is that Emily, niece of the much maligned bigamist Rachel, and married to her own first cousin, himself a nephew if the same maligned Rachel, would have the nerve to take such a moral high road vis a vis the merely flirtatious Peggy–coming so many generations later, as I do, I’m having a hard time following the various taboos and penalties for flouting them! Today, I think, it would be Emily who might be looked slightly askance at, for being poor Rachel’s niece and for marrying her own first cousin, while Peggy would be the decidedly sought after belle of the ball. At least the latter sounds like better company to me!

  • Carl Anthony
    October 10, 2014, 2:10 pm

    Dear Mark – Please forgive the delay of a month a half in responding – the problem is that so much of the “good” incoming comments are flooded by the overwhelming number of spam ones. I would have to agree with you about the hypocrisy of Emily Donelson. It is odd considering how close she was to Rachel Jackson. Again, sorry for the delayed response.

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Emily Donelson

 

Picture of President Andrew Jackson

Summary of Emily Donelson – First Lady of America
Our summary and fast facts about Emily Donelson provides an interesting and easy way to learn about the life of the First Lady as niece by marriage to President Andrew Jackson . Emily Donelson  married
her first cousin, important Andrew Jackson Donelson and was so politically well connected that President Jackson became godfather to two of their children, and future Presidents Martin Van Buren and James Polk were godfathers for the other two children. The stubborn and outspoken Emily Donelson created an awkward political situation due to her dispute with Peggy Eaton, the wife of the Secretary of War

Facts about Emily Donelson – First Lady
Emily Donelson undertook the role of First Lady as the niece of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States who served in office from March 4, 1829 to March 4, 1837.  What was the life of Emily Donelson like? The Facts about Emily Donelson covers important information, dates and interesting facts about her birth, her early life, her family, her personality with a biography and the accomplishments of Emily Donelson as the First Lady of the United States of America.

First Ladies US Presidents Index

Facts about Emily Donelson: Fact Sheet of Emily Donelson
Facts and Info: This fast fact sheet provides important information about Emily Donelson, First Lady of the United States of America.

 
Emily Donelson Fact Sheet – The First Lady of President Andrew Jackson

Relationship to President Andrew Jackson: Niece
Date Emily Donelson entered White House as First Lady: March 4, 1829
Term of Presidency: 1829-1837
When and where was Emily Donelson born?  

Picture of Emily Donelson

Picture of Emily Donelson

 She was born on June 1, 1807 in Donelson, Tennessee
What was the name of her father and mother?
 The name of her parents: John Donelson and Rachel Stockley Donelson. Her father was the brother of Rachel Donelson Jackson who became the wife of future President Andrew Jackson. She was educated at the Lebanon School Roadhouse and the Nashville Female Academy in Nashville, Tennessee
What was her relationship to President Andrew Jackson?
 Emily Donelson was his niece by marriage and only 21 when she entered the White House. Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson, had died (ust before her husband became President) on December 22, 1828. The role of First Lady was then assumed by Sarah Yorke Jackson who had married to Andrew Jackson, Jr.
When did she marry?
 The seventeen-year-old Emily married A. J. Donelson on September 16, 1824
What are the names of her children?
 Emily never had any children
When and where did Emily Donelson die?
 Emily Donelson  died on December 19, 1836 in Nashville, Tennessee. She was only aged 29 years old when she died
Emily Donelson Fact Sheet – The First Lady of President Andrew Jackson

Facts about Emily Donelson: Fast Overview of Events in the White House
Facts and Info: Emily Donelson assumed the position of First Lady as the niece of President Andrew Jackson. She witnessed the important events of his presidency that included
the Second Seminole War and the Texas Revolution.

Personality and Character: Emily Donelson Quotes
Facts and Info: An insight into the personal views, character and personality of this First Lady may be obtained from the following Emily Donelson quotes:

"Madam, you dance with the grace of a Parisian. I can hardly realize you were educated in Tennessee"
was a comment made by a foreign diplomat to which Emily replied
"Count, you forget, that grace is a cosmopolite, and like a wild flower, is much oftener found in the woods than in the streets of a city."

Facts about Emily Donelson: First Events
Facts and Info: She was the
first niece of a President to assume the role of First Lady and the first to act as a co-hostess with Sarah Yorke Jackson.

Facts about Emily Donelson, the Niece of Rachel Donelson Jackson
Facts and Info: First Ladies are not elected so have no official role. Their accomplishments are therefore based on their own particular wishes that ranged from political interests, humanitarian and charitable causes or duties relating to their family or social responsibilities. Emily Donelson became First Lady as a result of her support of
her aunt, Rachel Donelson Jackson, the wife of President Andrew Jackson. Due to ill health Rachel Jackson had asked Emily to assist her in some of the forthcoming routine social functions and duties that would be demanded of her when she became the mistress of the White House. Rachel died on 22 December, 1828 before her husband entered the White House on March 4, 1829. President Andrew Jackson followed Rachel�s decision and invited the young Emily Donelson to serve as First Lady in her aunt�s stead.

Facts about the Causes and Accomplishments of Emily Donelson
Facts and Info: First Ladies are not elected so have no official role. Their accomplishments are therefore based on their own particular wishes that ranged from political interests, humanitarian and charitable causes or duties relating to their family or social responsibilities. The causes and accomplishments of Emily Donelson were demonstrated in her support of her uncle and undertaking the social duties of the First Lady. Emily was a supporter of literacy and education which she believed should be available to everyone. She was particularly interested in the education of girls. During her role as First Lady, Emily oversaw the addition of the North Portico of the White House in 1829, part of the White House re-building program following the Burning of Washington DC during the War of 1812.

Facts about Emily Donelson: The Life of Emily Donelson
Facts and Info:
Emily Donelson was one of the few ladies to serve as mistress to the White House without actually being married to the President. Emily Donelson was President Andrew Jackson�s niece by marriage. She was the daughter of Rachel Donelson Jackson�s brother John and his wife Mary on June 1, 1807 at the Clover Bottom Farm in Donelson, Tennessee. She had a wealthy, privileged background and was well educated at Lebanon School Roadhouse and then the Nashville Female Academy. She married her first cousin, important Andrew Jackson Donelson when she was seventeen years old. When young Andrew Jackson Donelson’s mother remarried, the lad Andrew moved to The Hermitage, the home of his aunt, Rachel Donelson Jackson and Andrew Jackson, Andrew’s namesake. Following their marriage Emily Donelson undertook the social duties associated running the Tulip Grove plantation. The couple would raise 4 children of which three would be born in the White House. Emily was a confident and outspoken young women. She understood the political importance of maintaining valuable political support via informal social events. Aware of her young age Emily Donelson showed great respect and adopted a strict sense of propriety when mixing with the older, wealthy women who were wives of Cabinet members – refer to President Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet .

Facts about Emily Donelson: Peggy Eaton and Emily Donelson
Her strict sense of propriety and her outspokenness led to an extremely difficult political situation involving the Secretary�s of War�s wife, Mrs. Peggy Eaton. Peggy Eaton greatly offended Emily Donelson by remarking that Emily�s relationship President Jackson was inappropriate. Emily refused to ever associate with Peggy Eaton again – refer to the Peggy Eaton Affair. The dispute led to Emily and her husband leaving the White House during the summer of 1830. Emily refused point blank to return to the White House if she had to associate with Peggy Eaton. She only relented when Mr. Eaton was appointed the U.S. Minister to Spain  when he and Mrs. Eaton were required to move to Spain to live. Emily returned to the White House as First Lady in September of 1831.

Facts about Emily Donelson and Sarah Yorke Jackson
Facts and Info:
Sarah Yorke Jackson married Andrew Jackson, Jr. (1808-1865, the adopted son of President Andrew Jackson, on November 24, 1831. Sarah Yorke Jackson and Emily Donelson then served as co-hostesses for the President, a unique situation in White House history.

The Death of Emily Donelson:
She continued her social duties   In 1836 Emily Donelson became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Emily left the White House in June of 1836 to return to her home in Tennessee where she died December 19, 1836. 

 


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Video of President Andrew Jackson
The Facts about Emily Donelson provides a fast overview of the key facts and events in the biography about her life and accomplishments as the First Lady of Andrew Jackson. The following video enables you to sit back and listen to the history of the personal and political life of Andrew Jackson, the man she supported. A useful biography and educational resource for kids, children and schools learning about the life and family of Emily Donelson.

 

 

 

Facts about Emily Donelson for kids

 
Interesting facts and history about Emily Donelson for kids and schools
Short Biography with key facts and dates about the First Lady for kids
Family, quotes and accomplishments of Emily Donelson
Short biography about the life, education and family of Emily Donelson
Fast interesting facts about her place and date of birth
The life, quotes and short biography of Emily Donelson

Facts, short biography and life of Emily Donelson and Andrew Jackson for schools, homework, kids and children

 Emily Donelson – First Lady – Summary – Andrew Jackson – Biography – Short � Life – President – American – US – USA – Firstlady – White House – Emily Donelson  – America – Birth – Dates – United States – Kids – Children – Schools – Homework – Important � Interesting Facts – Family – Presidential – History – Presidency – Emily Donelson Achievements – Accomplishments – Fun – Childhood – Education – Birth – Dates – Death of Emily Donelson – Marriage – Names – Quotes – Info on Emily Donelson – Information – Andrew Jackson – Famous – Firstlady – Emily Donelson

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