Rachel's Death

Rachel Jackson died a month after Andrew Jackson was elected President. What should have been a time of celebration became a time of mourning.

Cause of Death

It has been suggested that Rachel died due to a massive heart attack caused by the stresses from the dirty campaign of 1828 and by her heightened anxiety over the imminent move to Washington. However, the true cause of Rachel's death is not known.

Response

Andrew's response to Rachel's death was one of shock, devastation, and perpetual mourning. He believed adamantly that his political enemies had precipitated her death. Once he took office, he sought retaliation for his loss.

The public response to her death was equally overwhelming. The Nashville community went into deep mourning. Nationally, Mrs. Jackson's death received great attention, reported in newspapers across the country. Yet, even in her death her name was still slandered in some obituaries.

A Shrine to Her Memory

But her devoted husband made sure her memory would be honored in the most grand and poetic way. He built a shrine to her, placed it in her beloved garden, and planted weeping willow trees around it to do all the weeping. On her tombstone are inscribed the words he felt captured her essence and deserved to be her lasting memory.


Rachel's Death

In his three volume Jackson biography, Robert Remini wrote—more times than anyone realized, Rachel broke down and cried over what was being said about her during the campaign in 1828.

She found it harder each day to face the criticism of her husband's political enemies. She needed rest. She needed relaxation. In the summer of 1828, she sometimes seemed so weary that she could barely function around the house. She complained of heart palpitations and suffered bronchial distress. It was said that she could hardly walk and often scarcely talked above a wheeze.

Then in June, Rachel suffered a debilitating blow when her son, Lyncoya, died suddenly at sixteen years old. Rachel was grief stricken and never fully recovered. Still, she tried to manage a brave face for her husband. Little did he know that his ambition was slowly turning her into a tired, sick, and weary old woman.

According to "Old Hannah," Rachel's faithful servant, Rachel drew her last breath in "Old Hannah's" arms. James Parton, author of the first three-volume biography on Andrew Jackson, published in 1860, says he learned the story of Rachel's death from "Old Hannah."

"It was Wednesday morning, December 17 (1828). All was going on as usual at the Hermitage. The General was in the fields . and Mrs. Jackson, apparently in tolerable health, was occupied in her household duties. Suddenly she (Old Hannah) heard a horrible shriek, placed her hands upon her heart, sunk into a chair, struggling for breath, and fell forward into Hannah's arms. While messengers hurried away for assistance, Old Hannah employed the only remedy she knew to relieve the anguish of her mistress, 'I rubbed her side,' said the plain spoken Hannah, 'till it was black and blue.'"

The General came in, alarmed beyond description. The doctor arrived. Mrs. Jackson continued to suffer, for the space of sixty hours, during which her husband never left her side for ten minutes. Rachel was concerned about her husband knowing he had to attend a great banquet planned in Nashville to celebrate his victory. After several days in bed, On December 22, 1828, Rachel felt well enough to get up and she begged Andrew to get some rest. The doctor remained in the house, and servants Hannah and George agreed to sit up with their mistress. The General bid his wife good night and retired to the next room. He was gone only five minutes. At her bidding the servants lifted Rachel from her bed to arrange her sheets. While sitting in the chair, supported by Hannah, Rachel suffered another severe attack. She let out a long, loud cry. There was "a rattling sound in her throat." Her head fell forward onto Hannah's shoulder and she died.

Footnotes:

1. James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861) pp. 154-5.

2. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 151.

Sources:
Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) Chapter 8, "Triumph and Tragedy."

James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861)

Katherine W. Cruze, An Amiable Woman: Rachel Jackson (Nashville: The Hermitage and the Ladies Hermitage Association, 1994)

Andrew Mourns

The shock of Rachel's death was almost too much for Jackson to bear.

At first he refused to believe she was dead and asked servants to lay blankets across the dining room table in case she woke up and needed comfort or warmth. Her body was arranged so that Jackson could lie by her side the night she died. In the morning, a colleague found Jackson still sitting in the same position. He remained in the room nearly all the next day, and basically lost his voice. He was barely audible when he spoke for the first time at her funeral.

Jackson spoke first during the ritual and then Reverend William Hume delivered the eulogy. For the first time since her death Jackson broke down and tears ran freely down his cheeks. He quickly gained composure and returned to the house.

In the northeast room he spoke these words:

"Friends and neighbors, I thank you for the honor you have done to the sainted one whose remains now repose in yonder grave. She is now in the bliss of heaven, and I know that she can suffer here no more on earth. That is enough for my consolation; my loss is her gain. But I am left here without her to encounter the trails of life alone. 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, and I shall not go without friends to reward, and I pray God that I may not be allowed to have enemies to punish. I can forgive all who wronged me, but will have fervently to pray that I may have grace to enable me to forget or forgive my enemy who has ever maligned that blessed one who is now safe from all suffering and sorrow, whom they tried to put to shame for my sake!"


She was buried in her garden on Christmas eve. Some have said she was wearing the gown and white slippers she planned to wear to her husband's Inauguration. Jackson never fully recovered from her loss and mourned for Rachel the rest of his life. It is said that he carried around a miniature of her during his waking hours and at night he placed the portrait on his bedside table. He never remarried and was completely devoted to her memory.

After serving two presidential terms, Andrew Jackson returned to the house he and Rachel loved dearly. In his retirement at the Hermitage he spent time with family and friends. In 1838, he finally fulfilled a promise he had made to Rachel many years before. He became a practicing Christian and joined the local Presbyterian Church.

Andrew and Rachel's granddaughter, little Rachel said Andrew visited the garden and Rachel's tombstone every night. He also had her portrait hung above his bed so that she was the first thing he saw every morning when he woke up and last vision before going to sleep.

On June 8, 1845, at 78 years old, Jackson died in his bedroom at the Hermitage. He is buried in the garden next to his beloved Rachel.

Footnotes:

1. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 154.

Sources:

Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) Chapter 8, "Triumph and Tragedy."

James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861) Katherine W. Cruze, An Amiable Woman: Rachel Jackson (Nashville: The Hermitage and the Ladies Hermitage Association, 1994)


Retaliation

Jackson, whose devotion to his wife had been remarkable, never stopped blaming John Quincy Adams or his colleagues for his wife's death.

As was customary at the time the outgoing and incoming Presidents meet to signify a changing of the guard. Jackson refused to call on Mr. Adams 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." In turn, Adams, just as his father had after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson, refused to take part in his inauguration, sneaking out of Washington in the early hours of the night.

Once Jackson took office, according to Jackson Papers scholar Sharon Macpherson, he made sure his enemies paid for the death of Mrs. Jackson "in the most effective way. As soon as he had the power of the Presidency, a lot of perks that the people he held responsible for attacking his wife were taken away. And a good many of them found themselves before federal court."

Footnotes:

1. James Parton, The Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861).

Sources:

James Parton, The Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861).

Nashville Public Television, Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story (Nashville, 2001) Excerpt from Sharon Macpherson interview.


Nashville Mourns

The mayor and the board of alderman voted a resolution urging the people of Nashville to abstain from their ordinary business on December 24 and that church bells be tolled from one to two o'clock during the hour of her funeral.

On the day of her funeral, December 24, 1828, some 10,000 people turned up, according to newspaper accounts, "The road to the Hermitage was almost impassable . Thousands from the city and from all the country around flocked to her funeral. The poor white people, the slaves of the Hermitage and adjoining plantations, and the neighbors crowded off the gentry of town and country, and filled the large garden in which interment took place. One of the slaves was so distraught that she had to be held back from throwing herself into the grave."

At one o'clock, as the church bells began to ring, the casket was carried from the Hermitage to the garden. Sam Houston led the pallbearers. Then Andrew followed. The Donelson family came behind Jackson and the servants followed. They demonstrated uncommon devotion and affection for Rachel Jackson. "I never before saw so much affliction among servants on the death for their mistress," one reporter observed. Old Hannah collapsed at the gravesite and had to be carried off the ground. "My mistress, my best friend, my love, my life, is gone," she cried, "I will go with her."

Footnotes:

1. Katherine W. Cruze, An Amiable Woman: Rachel Jackson (Nashville: The Hermitage and the Ladies Hermitage Association, 1994) p. 26.

2. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p. 153.

Sources:

Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) Chapter 8, "Triumph and Tragedy"

James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume III (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861)

Katherine W. Cruze, An Amiable Woman: Rachel Jackson (Nashville: The Hermitage and the Ladies Hermitage Association, 1994)


Obituaries

Newspapers around the country reported Rachel Jackson's death, the wife of the President-elect.

As in The National Banner obituary, the focus was usually on two points that would come to symbolize Rachel's sixty-one years of life, her basic goodness and the slander that tore her life apart.

Even in death, her name was still slandered, as in this New Hampshire Statesmen and Concord Register paper obituary.

The National Banner:

DEATH OF MRS. JACKSON
We are called on this morning to announce an event of the most awful and melancholy nature. In the midst of preparation for festivity and mirth, the knell of death is heard and on the very day when it was arranged and expected that our town should be a scene of general rejoicing, we are suddenly checked in our career, and are called on to array ourselves in garments of solemnity and woe, MRS. RACHEL JACKSON, wife of General Andrew Jackson, President Elect of the United States, died last night at the Hermitage in this vicinity.

The intelligence of this awful and unlooked for event has created a shock in our community almost unparalleled. It was known, a few days since, that Mrs. Jackson was violently attacked by disease, which however, was supposed to have been checked so as to afford a prospect of immediate restoration to health. This day, being the anniversary of an interesting and important event in the last war, was appropriately selected to testify the respect and affection of his fellow citizens and neighbors to the man, who was so soon to leave his sweet domestic retirement, to assume the responsibilities and discharge the important duties of Chief Magistrate of the nation. The preparations were already made. The table was well nigh spread, at which all was expected to be hilarity and joy: and our citizens had sallied forth on the happy morning with spirits light and buoyant, and countenances glowing with animation and hope - when suddenly the scene is changed, congratulations are converted into expressions of condolence, tears are where, but a moment before, universal happiness and public rejoicing prevailed. But we have neither time nor room at present to indulge in further reflections on this melancholy occurrence. Let us submit with resignation and fortitude to the decrees, however afflicting, of a just and merciful, though mysterious and inscrutable Providence.

New Hampshire Statesmen and Concord Register:

Letters and papers from Nashville, confirm the intelligence of the death of Mrs. Jackson, wife of Gen. Andrew Jackson, at the Hermitage, at 9 o'clock, on the evening of Dec. 22. Her death was quite unexpected at Nashville, though it is said she had been ill for some days. The nature of her disease is not stated. Preparations had been made for a splendid public dinner at Nashville, in honor of the General, on the 23d.

It is far from our wish to disturb the repose of the dead, or needlessly to inflict a wound on the feelings on the living. We would 'tread lightly' on the ashes of the lady whose decease is announced above and would gladly erase from our memory, and from the records that we may have been instrumental of giving to the world, any and every reflections upon the frailties and foibles of her early existence. Of these we have said less than some others, but we have probably said something. Of her maturer life—knowing nothing either for or against it—we have not presumed to speak. If called upon to say any thing, it would, from recent testimony, be decidedly favorable.

After saying thus much, we are constrained to remark, that the maxim, 'nil de mortuis nisi bonum,' seems to us to have been carried in the present case to an unwarrantable extent. We are content that newspaper editors should say nothing of the dead, if they cannot speak well—but that they should task their vocabulary, as on the demise of Mrs. Jackson they seem to have done, to furnish out the most high-sounding and superlative epithets to proclaim her exemplary virtues—and should, as the editors of the Boston Statesman and some other papers have done, dress their sheet in the habiliments of mourning—is at once derogatory to the fearless independence of a free press, and a wanton reflections upon real living worth and excellence. The standard of female character in our country can hardly be thought sufficiently elevated, if Mrs. Jackson, under the known circumstances of the case, is to be spoken of as exhibiting the most "exemplary virtues and exalted character"— or if the inflated panegyric of the Washington Telegraph—contrasted with the unpretending notice of thousands who in truth live and die Mrs. Jackson's superiors in every accomplishment— is to go forth to the world as the test of comparative merit. "A nation," says the Telegraph, "mourns in sympathy with her 'favorite' son. Society has lost one if its brightest ornaments. The friend of the widow and the orphan; the pious Christian, the amiable wife, the consort of Andrew Jackson is no more." But enough of such flummery. In plain truth, Mrs. Rachel Jackson is dead.


Her Memory Honored

While in the White House Andrew built a permanent temple made of limestone resembling a Greek styled gazebo to replace the temporary grave site in her garden.

He also had the following inscribed on her tombstone:

"Here lie the remains of Mrs. Rachel Jackson, wife of President Jackson, who died the 22d of December, 1828, aged 61. Her face was fair, her person pleasing, her temper amiable, and her heart kind; she was delighted in relieving the wants of her fellow creatures, and cultivated that divine pleasure by the most liberal and unpretending methods; to the poor she was a benefactor; to the rich an example; to the wretched a comforter; to the prosperous an ornament; her piety went hand in hand with her benevolence, and she thanked her Creator for being permitted to do good. A being so gentle and yet so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor. Even death, when he tore her from the arms of her husband, could but transport her to the bosom of her God."

Sources:

Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, Volume Two, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) Chapter 8, "Triumph and Tragedy"

National Banner, and Nashville Whig., Tuesday, December 23, 1828, p.3, col. 3

New Hampshire Statesmen and Concord Register, January 17, 1829