Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Emily Donelson, Sarah Jackson

When Andrew Jackson entered the White House in 1829, he entered as a widower. His wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, died shortly before he took office, and his niece, Emily Donelson, handled the hostessing duties during the first few years of his presidency.

Rachel Donelson Jackson was no stranger to the barbs of a hostile press. She had endured attacks upon her character during husband Andrew's presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828—and anticipated even greater tortures upon his inauguration as President in 1829.

More interested in religion than in public affairs, Rachel had begged her husband to withdraw from politics lest a family scandal be revealed. When Andrew Jackson persisted and won the presidency in 1828, Rachel planned to remain in Tennessee during her husband's term, choosing to "be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in that palace in Washington." Despite this declaration and her fears of further verbal abuse, she eventually decided to join her husband in Washington and even bought a dress for his inauguration. It would become her funeral shroud. She died of a heart attack only weeks before her husband assumed his duties as President of the United States.

Like Thomas Jefferson before him, Andrew Jackson was faced with the prospect of finding a substitute to assume the hostessing duties that were now expected of the President's wife. The grieving widower asked his twenty-one-year-old niece, Emily Donelson, to assume the role his dead wife had so feared. Managing a growing family of four children, three of whom were born at the presidential mansion, Emily Donelson handled receptions, welcomed official guests, and arranged dinners. But when Emily was swept up in the Peggy Eaton affair, Jackson dismissed her from the White House.

Peggy Eaton was the daughter of a tavern keeper and the wife of Jackson's secretary of war. Both Andrew and Rachel Jackson had liked Peggy Eaton, and when her private love affairs became public knowledge, enveloping her in scandal, the President lent her his visible support. It was not enough to save her social standing. Although she was a cabinet member's wife and entitled to the civility such a position conveyed, the wives of other cabinet officials and much of Washington society—including Jackson's own hostess—refused to accept her. Jackson was furious. He removed Emily Donelson from the White House and demanded that his cabinet members make their wives accept Peggy Eaton. When this proved unsuccessful, he asked for the resignations of all his cabinet members save one.

Jackson's reaction to the "Peggy Eaton Affair" is not surprising, given the torment his own wife had endured during his two presidential elections. Rachel Jackson had been married once before but had requested a divorce from her first husband after a brief and abusive marriage. A year later she married Andrew Jackson, only to find out that her first husband had not finalized the divorce agreement. Technically, Rachel was an adulterer and a bigamist, and the scandal was one that hurt her terribly at the time and again when it was rehashed during Jackson's election campaigns. Andrew Jackson defended his wife throughout the ordeal and suffered as she suffered at the hands of political opponents and the press. The Peggy Eaton affair no doubt reminded Jackson of the treatment meted out to his own wife. In defending Peggy Eaton, he continued to defend the virtue of Rachel Jackson as well.

After Jackson dismissed Emily Donelson, he asked Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of his adopted son, Andrew Jackson Jr., to assume the hostessing duties. Sarah Jackson was not unfamiliar with the role, having taken on those responsibilities when Emily was ill. Yet Rachel Jackson's death cast a pall over the administration's social calendar, and while Sarah Jackson served as hostess from 1834 to 1837, the events she sponsored were not memorable.

Conflicting accounts remain, however, about Emily Donelson's absence from the White House. While some scholars attribute it to her poor treatment of Peggy Eaton and her dismissal by Jackson, others believe she had to leave her duties because she suffered from tuberculosis. In one version, Emily returns to the White House to resume the position, only to turn it over to Sarah Jackson once again as a result of her deteriorating health. Regardless, Rachel Jackson's death curtailed the social dimension of the Jackson administration, and neither Emily Donelson nor Sarah Jackson influenced the role of the presidential hostess in any lasting way.