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How Jackson tried to save his wife's honor

Andrew Jackson blamed his wife's death on the critics who hit their marriage during the 1828 campaign.

Andrew Jackson's tombstone is etched with three simple words and two dates: "General Andrew Jackson, March 15, 1767 -- June 8, 1845."

The inscription on the marker for the President's beloved wife, Rachel, is far longer and more emotional, a 135-word defense of her honor in death against the charges that marred her life.

The two lie side by side at the Hermitage, Jackson's home in Nashville, Tennessee. Their love story defies the boisterous portrayal of the nation's seventh president that dominates the public imagination, an image that is taking a beating during the 2016 presidential campaign as Democrats cast off Jackson and Thomas Jefferson from state party fundraising dinners in search of less controversial standard-bearers.

The Democratic Party is wrestling with Jackson's support of slavery and his ruthless treatment of Native Americans. Politicians as varied as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Ted Cruz have suggested tossing him off the $20 bill to save Alexander Hamilton.

Yet Jackson also has long been seen as a defender of the common man against the wealthy, the banks and the corrupt insiders in Washington -- all anti-establishment ideals that are resonating powerfully in 2015.

A presidential campaign waged in the moment offers an opportunity to look backward, and Jackson, who has surfaced in the news again, is a particularly colorful president. He shot a man to death during a duel and ended up with a bullet permanently lodged in his own chest; his victory against the British at New Orleans catapulted him to war hero status.

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Presidential Places is a weekly series on past presidents and places they loved. Over the next five weeks, we'll take a look at iconic presidential sites from Mount Vernon to LBJ's ranch.

Staff at the Hermitage tell those stories, but the peaceful place off Rachel's Lane -- with its mansion, lovely garden and tombstones surrounded by hickory and willow trees -- reveals a different side of "Old Hickory," as does his romance with Rachel.

In 1889, after Jackson's son "Junior" sold off his possessions, a group of women banded together to buy the President's furnishings back, take control of his property and preserve it. Many of the President's items, including his bathrobe, are here today. The original wallpaper, which tells a story about Telemachus from Homer's Odyssey, still hangs in the mansion's foyer.

The nonprofit Ladies' Hermitage Association, renamed the Andrew Jackson Foundation, opened the property to the public that same year. Over time, they acquired 1,120 acres of land, which still attracts about 190,000 visitors annually and also has become the top wedding venue in Nashville.

A portrait of the dark-haired Rachel hangs in Jackson's bedroom.

"He and Rachel purchased the property in 1804 at a time when his finances were kind of in a low spot and he felt like his career had kind of died," said Marsha Mullin, vice president of museum services and chief curator of the Hermitage. "They moved here, and that's why it's called the Hermitage. He originally called it Rural Retreat because he just was going to retire. But then he got involved in the Tennessee militia, and won the Battle of New Orleans and became very famous and ran for president."

Rachel Jackson had been married before, to Lewis Robards. The marriage was an unhappy one, though the reasons are murky. "There's some rumor that he was cruel and jealous," Mullin said. "It just is a great unknown." Rachel came to Nashville, on the edge of the wilderness, to stay with her mother. While she was still married to Robards, she met Jackson, who was living with her mother as a border.

She and Jackson fell in love -- and gossip about their relationship immediately followed, as did angry confrontations between Robards and Jackson. The timing of her marriage to Jackson is unclear, but it was almost certainly before she finalized her divorce from Robards. When Jackson revived his political career, his opponents quickly seized on his marriage as a major character flaw.

Elopement and a lot of controversy

Ann Toplovich, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Society, documents the saga in fascinating detail in a 2005 article in the journal Ohio Valley History. She notes that John Quincy Adams' presidential campaigns targeted Jackson's "passion and lack of self-control" in both 1824 and 1828, "making it central to the argument that he would devastate the integrity of the Republic and its institutions.

Jackson's elopement with the married Rachel Robards was a perfect example of his rampageous personality, and the nature of the marriage became a wedge issue for the elections."

Adams eked out a controversial victory in the House of Representatives, and in 1828 Adams' allies again picked up the charges. This time, Jackson supporters pushed back with a more organized defense of Rachel Jackson's divorce and remarriage and blurred the timing of her divorce, which had taken about four years to finalize through multiple states as Kentucky split from Virginia.

"The story is really convoluted because when Jackson ran for president in 1828, (his allies) were trying to kind of clean up the story a little bit and make it more acceptable for the morals of 1828, which were a little bit different than they had been in 1788," Mullin said. Jackson's detractors "latched onto this story about Rachel being another man's wife and Jackson stealing her from him, and it just became a huge part of the campaign."

The Jackson team's efforts at spin control did little to halt the media assault against his wife.

"There is pollution in the touch, there is perdition in the example of a profligate woman," the Massachusetts Journal thundered in an 1828 editorial.

Throughout the election, Jackson tried to shield Rachel, who already loathed the idea of leaving the Hermitage for Washington, from the worst of the charges against her. But afterward, as she waited for her carriage in a newspaper office owned by a relative, she glanced down and saw a pamphlet that described her in extremely unflattering terms.

"To her shock, she found descriptions of herself as a Jezebel, an adulteress, a bigamist, rehashing all the horror of her marriage to Lewis Robards and her flight with Andrew Jackson," Toplovich wrote in her article, "Marriage, Mayhem, and Presidential Politics: The Robards-Jackson Backcountry Scandal."

'A being so gentle'

Distraught, Rachel Jackson fled Nashville in tears, stopping at a creek to wash them away, an action that appears to have triggered a dangerous cold, according to Toplovich. Here, again, the facts are murky. Adds Mullin: "She came down very suddenly with some kind of heart problem. It's very hard to diagnose as to whether it was congestive heart failure of some kind or an actual heart attack."

Rachel Jackson died four days later on December 22, 1828 -- days before she and her husband were to leave for Washington and the presidency. She was buried on Christmas Eve in the white, satin gown she had planned to wear at the Inaugural Ball.

Jackson placed her in the garden she loved, erecting a temporary shelter over her grave while her final resting place was built. Then, mourning her loss, he left his wife of nearly 40 years and headed for Washington.

Several years later, he brought in architect David Morrison to design a stately Greek Revival tomb, incorporating the images of ancient Greece that symbolized both political and moral virtue. Jackson, who believed that the slurs against Rachel had caused her death, used her epitaph to defend her.

"A being so gentle, and yet so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonour;" her tombstone reads in part. "Even death, when he tore her from the armes of her husband, could not but transport her to the bosom of her God."

For Jackson, who returned to the Hermitage after his two terms as President and visited Rachel's gravesite daily as long as his health allowed, the pain of loss continued unabated.

"My mind is so disturbed," he wrote to a friend, "... that I can scarcly write, in short my dear friend my heart is nearly broke."

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