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The Gossip against Rachel Jackson:

Could it have been Different?
The story of Rachel Jackson and her relationship with Andrew Jackson (the seventh
President of United States) had been the subject of many forms of public scrutiny since her life
time. She had married Lewis Robard in 1785, but their marriage was short-lived. According to
the White House Historical Association, Lewis unreasoning jealousy made it impossible for her
to live with him. This resulted to their separation in 1790 and her eventual marriage to Andrew
Jackson in 1791. It was this later marriage that stirred the bees hornet of criticism which
scandalized her with the society, on the ground that her marriage to Andrew Jackson constituted
bigamy and an adulterous relationship, having not obtained divorce against Lewis. It calls to
question therefore, whether or not a spouse in the late 18 th century America, must obtain divorce
before he or she could remarry? This is the problem I wish to address in this paper, in the light of
the position of the law on marriage and divorce in the late 18th century America, and in the light
of the facts and circumstances of Rachels case.
According to Apayne, women, in the late 18 th century America, had a right to leave their
husbands and remarry if they were unhappy with their first marriage (2). However, this can only
be done after obtaining a divorce against the other spouse in the first marriage. In fact, a couple
would be divorced because one or the other had so violated a public and legislatively defined
norm that it became important for the moral identity of the innocent spouse to be freed from their
identity with the other (Hartog 112). Thus, until the divorce was obtained, the spouse could not
*Written by: Chukwunonso Nwagu., email:

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remarry, and even if he/she purportedly remarried, the court should always strike down the
marriage as invalid, null and void.
The rule appears to be one of strict application at that time, as some decided cases tend to
suggest. For example, Beverly reported the case of William Baun and Anna

whose marital

history became part of a federal pension dispute in the late 18 th century (58). William and Anna
had been separated for eight or nine years of marriage. He later married Augusta without
obtaining divorce against Anna. William apparently believed that living apart from a wife for
seven years meant that they were no longer married. After Williams death, Augusta applied to be
awarded of Williams pension as his lawful widow. Unfortunately, the Pension Bureau did not
agree with Augusta and awarded the pension to Anna as the legal widow of William, on the
ground that the first marriage was still extant until terminated by divorce.
Similarly, in an early 19th century case of Mrs. Reed, the provident society, of which her
second husband, William was a member, refused to recognize her as the lawful widow of
William (Dubler, 1886). In the trial that ensued, the following story emerged. In 1785, John
Guest, Mrs. Reeds first husband, left his wife for unspecified foreign country. In 1792, when it
was reported and generally believed that Guest had died, his wife married William Reed.
Following the marriage, Guest resurfaced in New York where he lived until his death in 1800,
never objecting to the marriage between William and Mrs. Reed. The court in a unanimous
decision held that the marriage of William and Mrs. Reed was unlawful and void as Guest was
still alive when it was contracted.
This means that Mrs. Reed could not have contracted another marriage until she had
obtained divorce against Guest. However, one wonders how a spouse could be tied to an
unhappy marriage because he or she has not obtained divorce against the other, even when
*Written by: Chukwunonso Nwagu., email:

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circumstances suggest impossibility of obtaining one, as seen in Mrs. Reeds case above. No
doubt, divorce is an equitable remedy provided to severe marriage relationships (Hartog 113).
Therefore, the statute that gave the court of equity the jurisdiction to order divorce, where
adultery is proved, should have left the court with jurisdiction to decide each case on its facts and
merits. Indeed, where it was proved that there was honest and reasonable belief that the other
spouse had obtained divorce, for example where one spouse deceived the other into believing he
had obtained divorce, just to taint her with image of adultery, and she goes ahead to remarry, the
court should uphold the marriage. According to US Legal Inc., if a person is misinformed by a
counsel, or prior spouse that divorce is finalized, after the persons reasonable research for the
facts and is then misled, the persons actions could be justified (1). Similarly, in the case of
State v. Seek, the Court of Appeal of Washington agreed with the argument of Mr. Seek that he
had no wrongful intent to marry another person when the divorce proceeding for his first wife
had not been concluded. The court held inter-alia that intention of the spouse who marries
another believing in good faith that termination of a first marriage had been obtained would be
taken into account.
In the case of Rachel Jackson, there seems to be no evidence whether Rachel took steps
to ensure that divorce proceeding was actually commenced and obtained by Robard. However,
according to the National First Ladies Library, the Donelsons and Jacksons claimed that
Robards had boasted that he had successfully processed a divorce from Rachel, thus leaving her
open to marry Jackson. In fact, the Jackson defenders seems to suggest that Robards had
purposely misled them so that if Andrew and Rachel Jackson did marry and live together that it
would make the union an adulterous, as that was the proof needed for Robards to then gain a
divorce (National First Ladies Library). If this was true, then it is in tune with right reason to
argue that Lewis should not have been granted the divorce he sought, or better still, the court
*Written by: Chukwunonso Nwagu., email:

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could have granted the divorce on other grounds apart from adultery. The law is clear that equity
delights to do justice and not by halves. Also he who comes to equity must come with clean
hands. Equity looks at the circumstance of the individuals in each case and fashion out a remedy
that will do substantial justice to both parties. If the court had looked into these equitable
grounds, supposing the arguments of the Donelsons and Jacksons above were true, maybe Rachel
may have been saved from the public scrutiny, which in the words of Frankie Harris and Kim
Meredith Harris, ostracized her completely from social circles at that time (28). In fact,
Hornsby stated that many Americans viewed this slander as the cause of her fatal heart attack
in 1828 (2).

About the Author

* Chukwunonso Nwagu is a lawyer and holds a Bachelors Degree in Law
(L.L.B) from Nigeria. He has written other legal articles, and has good interest
in writing.

*Written by: Chukwunonso Nwagu., email:

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Work Cited
1. Dubler, Ariella R. Governing Through Contract: Common Law Marriage in the
Nineteenth Century The Yale Law Journal Vol. 107, No. 6 (Apr., 1998), 18851920.
2. Beverly, Schwartzberg. Lots of them did that: Desertion, Bigamy, and marital
Fluidity in Late Nineteenth Century America Journal of Social History Spring
2004, Vol., 37 Issue 3, 57-60.
3. Hartog, Hendrik A. Marital Exits and Marital Expectation in Nineteenth Century
America 80 Georgetown Law Journal 128, 1991-1992, 110 -114 n.d Web 01 Apr. 2015
4. Hornsby, Sarah Jeanine. The Protection of an icon: Nashville, the ladies of
Hermitage Association, and the image of Rachel Jackson 1915-1945, Thesis for
Department of History of Vanderbilt University, April 1994, n.d Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
5. Harris, Frankie and Harris, Kim Meredith. Haunted Nashville, Schiffer Publishing
Ltd., Atglen, PA, 2001.
6. Apayne. Women in Early America and Pennsylvania n.d Web
25 Mar. 2015.
7. US Legal Inc. Mistake of Law or Fact n.d Web 02 Apr. 2015.
8. The WHITE HOUSE. Rachel Donelson n.d Web 10 Apr. 2015.
9. National First Ladies Library, First Lady Biography: Rachel Jackson n.d Web 28
May 2015.
10. State v. Seek, 109 Wn. App, 876 (Wash. Ct. App. 2002)

*Written by: Chukwunonso Nwagu., email: