Andrew Jackson Donelson
323 pages

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Andrew Jackson Donelson


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323 pages

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This richly detailed biography of Andrew Jackson Donelson (1799-1871) sheds new light on the political and personal life of this nephew and namesake of Andrew Jackson. A scion of a pioneering Tennessee family, Donelson was a valued assistant and trusted confidant of the man who defined the Age of Jackson. One of those central but background figures of history, Donelson had a knack for being where important events were happening and knew many of the great figures of the age.

As his uncle's secretary, he weathered Old Hickory's tumultuous presidency, including the notorious "Petticoat War." Building his own political career, he served as US chargé d'affaires to the Republic of Texas, where he struggled against an enigmatic President Sam Houston, British and French intrigues, and the threat of war by Mexico, to achieve annexation. As minister to Prussia, Donelson enjoyed a ringside seat to the revolutions of 1848 and the first attempts at German unification. A firm Unionist in the mold of his uncle, Donelson denounced the secessionists at the Nashville Convention of 1850. He attempted as editor of the Washington Union to reunite the Democratic party, and, when he failed, he was nominated as Millard Fillmore's vice-presidential running mate on the Know-Nothing party ticket in 1856. He lived to see the Civil War wreck the Union he loved, devastate his farms, and take the lives of two of his sons.



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Date de parution 02 octobre 2017
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9780826521651
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Washington Union to reunite the Democratic party, and, when he failed, he was nominated as Millard Fillmore's vice-presidential running mate on the Know-Nothing party ticket in 1856. He lived to see the Civil War wreck the Union he loved, devastate his farms, and take the lives of two of his sons.
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Andrew Jackson Donelson
New Perspectives on Jacksonian America
Mark Cheathem, Cumberland University
Beth Salerno, Saint Anselm College
series editors
This series examines the period from 1812 to 1861, spanning the decades when Andrew Jackson was a significant figure both in life and in memory. The chronological definition of the series recognizes the importance of the War of 1812 in elevating Jackson to national recognition and his continued importance, even after his death in 1845, to United States politics and society in the years leading up to the Civil War. But while Jackson gives one name to this period, the alternative titles of early republic, antebellum, and age of association make clear how political, economic, sectional, and organizational movements intersected to shape this critical era. The editors are particularly interested in books that address the democratization of the United States, broadly defined, and the many groups that jockeyed for power and influence in that process.
John Belohlavek, University of South Florida
Andrew K. Frank, Florida State University
Lorri Glover, Saint Louis University
Ronald A. Johnson, Texas State University
Stephen A. Mihm, University of Georgia
Kirsten E. Wood, Florida International University
Vanderbilt University Press Nashville
© 2017 by Vanderbilt University Press
Nashville, Tennessee 37235
All rights reserved
First printing 2017
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
LC control number 2016042810
LC classification number E382.1.D57 S64 2017
Dewey classification number 973.5/6092 [B]—dc23
LC record available at
ISBN 978–0-8265–2163–7 (cloth)
ISBN 978–0-8265–2165–1 (ebook)
Dedicated, in an attitude of gratitude, to my mother, and especially, to my father, who would have read every word .
Prologue: A Pleasant Stop in Memphis
1. New Lives in “that land of promise” 1716–July 1820
2. Emily—and a Triumph and a Tragedy August 1820–December 1828
3. The Petticoat War January 1829–August 1831
4. The Rising Politician September 1831–December 1835
5. “Death could not extinguish the light of her spirit” December 1835–August 1841
6. Elizabeth—and Polk and Texas! September 1841–August 1844
7. “The most important mission” September 1844–March 1845
8. “Donelson will have the honor of this important deed” March 1845–July 1845
9. The Fruits of Annexation July 1845–February 1848
10. Märztage February 1848–November 1849
11. “If A. J. Donelson does not please the Democratic Party, who can . . . ?” December 1849–December 1851
12. An Obstacle to Harmony December 1851–May 1855
13. Fillmore and Donelson! June 1855–November 1856
14. Bitter Twilight November 1856–June 1871
Epilogue: The Family and the Legacy
I should begin by stating that I am not a professional historian. I am, rather, a plant physiologist, but I have been a history nut my entire life. While in graduate school at Texas A&M University back in the 1980s, I decided that in addition to whatever contributions I might make to my scientific profession, I owed it to my love of history to attempt a contribution in the field. In my various readings I kept running across Donelson. I decided to undertake his biography, which at the time seemed not to have been done. So whenever I could, I holed up in the Sterling C. Evans Library poring through dusty books or cranking through rolls of microfilm. My post-doctoral work at Duke University allowed me access to the collections there and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Once I landed at my permanent faculty appointment at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa in 1990, I did my best, despite the challenges of its geographic remoteness, to continue working on the book, in fits and starts as imposed by the demands of my “real” job. All in all, Donelson has lived with me for over thirty years.
Along the way I was scooped not once but twice. I discovered early on that the late R. Beeler Satterfield had written his PhD dissertation in 1960 on Donelson, which he published as Andrew Jackson Donelson: Jackson’s Confidant and Political Heir (Bowling Green, KY: Hickory Tales, 2000). Then Mark R. Cheathem published his PhD dissertation as Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007). Mark and I have exchanged e-mails and newspaper clippings on Donelson, but to maintain my interpretive independence I did not read either book until I had finished the first draft of mine.
Meanwhile, the Donelsons found me, starting with Lewis R. Donelson, a great grandson of Andrew Jackson Donelson, now 99, the paterfamilias of the Donelson clan and still an active attorney with Baker-Donelson in Memphis. His cousin, Andrew Jackson (“Jack”) Donelson, MD, of Bowling Green, Kentucky, graciously let me dig through boxes of Donelson family material. I thank them for their support and assistance, and my hope at this writing is that Lewis will yet see the published book.
I would also like to thank Mark Cheathem, the anonymous reviewer, and Vanderbilt University Press for selecting mine as one of the inaugural books of their New Perspectives on Jacksonian America series. Mark’s longtime support is especially appreciated, as he knows that my take on Donelson is frequently very different from his. Thanks to Michael Ames, Joell Smith-Borne, and the rest of the staff at Vanderbilt University Press for patiently guiding me through the publication process.
When I quote Donelson and his contemporaries, I retain their original spellings and orthography, using [ sic ] and corrective square brackets only minimally to prevent confusion. The strong personality of Andrew Jackson, in particular, shines through his inimitable spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Needless to say, the errors that no doubt remain in this work are my entire responsibility.
Research on this book began largely as a solitary activity, but I gradually came to realize what every other writer learns—that even writing becomes a communal effort, involving the help of many people at every level. My thanks go to the dedicated staff at all the libraries and archives I have used over the years. Where individuals have been especially helpful in producing a particular source, I thank them in the appropriate citation notes. Special thanks to Marsha Mullin at the Hermitage for providing a number of valuable Donelson materials. Thanks also to Johnny Summer of Bolivar County, Mississippi, who drove me over backroads and cotton fields to show me the rotting lumber pile amid tangled undergrowth that once was Excelsior Place, Donelson’s last plantation home.
The transition from professional to personal thanks begins with Hubert and Debbie Reddin Van Tuyll, both now professors of, respectively, History and Communications, at Augusta University. They are among my oldest friends from graduate school at Texas A&M; they have provided over thirty years of support, advice, good conversation, and no telling how many games of Diplomacy .
Personal thanks go to all the members of my family who have always wondered about my strange interests. Everything that I owe my parents is, I hope, best expressed by the dedication of this book. Who knows, maybe my sisters, Susan Denson and Gail Necker, can find a use for this book in the history courses that they teach. And maybe now my nephews, Jordy and Garrett Denson, who are both years younger than my involvement with Donelson, can understand why Uncle Doug was always such a rich source of obscure knowledge.
Last, there are all the students whom it has been my joy to have taught in classes over the years. It has been my greatest source of professional pride that in more than twenty years as the University Health Professions Adviser, I have had the opportunity to help place so many aspiring and inspiring young people into medical, dental, and other health professional programs, with scores of them now in practice around the country. Special among these is Jose Meza, now an obstetrician/gynecologist in Lawton, Oklahoma. While an undergraduate here years ago he fussed at me constantly to go finish the Donelson book. Since then he and his wife, Sarah, have adopted me into their family, and their six wonderful children (Cassy, Mason, Jacob, Joseph, Emma, and Philip) call me Papa Spence.
Doug Spence
April 2017
Nearly twenty years ago, Jacksonian-era historian Robert V. Remini lamented the dearth of biographies about the period’s politicians. Scholars, in his view, had mostly ignored men such as Andrew Jackson Donelson, John H. Eaton, Felix Grundy, William B. Lewis, and Hugh Lawson White, to name only a few. In recent years, historians have addressed some of these gaps, with Roderick Heller III’s biography of Felix Grundy being a prime example.
With the publication of Doug Spence’s biography of Andrew Jackson Donelson, another individual on Remini’s list has now had not one but two biographies written on him in the past decade. The first, my own Old Hickory’s Nephew: The Political and Private Struggles of Andrew Jackson Donelson (2007), argued that Donelson was a man who was tortured by his inability to live up to the expectations of his uncle and mentor, President Andrew Jackson. Spence takes a different perspective on Donelson. He sees him as someone who largely followed in Jackson’s footsteps, doing his best to adhere to his uncle’s principles, particularly when it came to preserving the Union.
Why does Donelson deserve such attention? It is difficult to find any nonpresident from the Jacksonian period who was involved in so many different, significant political events. Born in 1799, Donelson became one of Andrew Jackson’s many wards. Fresh out of West Point, he traveled to Florida to assist his uncle in his territorial governorship. He then assisted Jackson in his two presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828. As part of his uncle’s White House, Donelson and his wife, Emily, played a central role in the scandalous Eaton affair that tore apart the president’s first cabinet. Andrew Donelson also helped build the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national levels. One example of his contribution to the Democrats was his significant part in securing James K. Polk’s nomination at the party’s 1844 national convention.
Donelson’s contributions to the Democratic Party earned him respect and, more importantly for his finances, patronage appointments. Donelson served as chargé d’affaires to the Republic of Texas during its annexation phase in the mid-1840s; spent three years in the German states in a ministerial position as they experienced revolution in the late 1840s; and assumed editorial control of the Democratic Party’s Washington Union newspaper as the nation debated slavery, compromise, and disunion in the early 1850s. His most high-profile political position came in the mid-1850s when, having left the Democratic Party, he became the Know-Nothing Party’s vice presidential nominee. Donelson’s lack of success in the 1856 election marked a downward turn in both his public and private lives, as he experienced less political influence, extensive property loss, and significant family suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. His death in 1871 ended a public life that spanned nearly the entirety of the Jacksonian era.
Exhaustively researched for over three decades, Spence’s biography offers the opportunity to see Donelson from a different perspective. He emerges as a principled man and politician who understood the era’s strident partisanship and attempted, like Sam Houston and others, to chart a moderate course in order to keep the Union strong. In this engaging account, Donelson’s life provides a window into the republic’s growing pains as it moved from infancy into the torturous maturity that witnessed its disunion.
Mark R. Cheathem
Cumberland University
A Pleasant Stop in Memphis
Memphis, Tennessee, was booming in the years following what its citizens often called the War for Southern Independence. The war that had spilled so much blood and wreaked so much havoc across the country in the first half of the 1860s had given way to a somewhat ungracious peace by the second half. The rich produce of the Mississippi Valley once again poured through Memphis, carried by steamboats plying the great river and the railroads snaking overland.
No finer symbol of the prosperity of postwar Memphis existed than the new Peabody Hotel. Lawyer, entrepreneur, and railroad magnate Robert Campbell Brinkley had built it and named it after George Peabody, the London banker who had provided the capital to build Brinkley’s railroad from Little Rock to Memphis. The new hotel was located on the corner of Main and Monroe Streets, just a little south of the main downtown area. A luxurious establishment, the Peabody cost $60,000 to build, an extraordinary sum, and boasted seventy-five rooms with bathrooms, a ballroom, a saloon, a magnificent lobby, and a kitchen and dining room located on the same floor, a revolutionary feature for a Southern hotel. The Peabody opened on February 5, 1869, and soon became the place to be for every luminary living in or traveling through Memphis. 1
One gentleman in particular became a regular patron of the Peabody Hotel. He was a large, fleshy man, standing over six feet in height, about seventy years of age with a florid face ringed by a mass of curling hair. He was the owner of a large cotton plantation that his wife styled Excelsior Place downriver in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and a fine farm, Ingleside, east of Nashville in Davidson County, Tennessee. Travel between the two properties brought him at regular intervals through Memphis. Although he owned a house in the city, he was renting it out, so he stayed at the Peabody. His personal warmth and good humor acted as a magnet for the other patrons in the lobby, the dining room, and the saloon. Years later, one lady recalled that he was the only man whom she had ever met “who could & did smile with his eyes . They sparkled with a keen, yet kindly humor” that delighted her. When he laughed, his ample sides shook.
Within a few minutes a good portion of the crowd would have gathered around him. With the great medallion-like portrait of George Peabody gazing down from the lobby wall, and as he enjoyed smoking cigars, the old gentleman would soon be reminiscing before a respectful, spellbound audience. These were fascinating stories, for over the course of his life he had known and worked alongside many of the great men of the age, traveled to foreign countries, and played an important role in a number of the momentous events of his time. He had always had a knack for being where great things were happening. Indeed, Major Andrew Jackson Donelson had quite a story to tell . . . 2
New Lives in “that land of promise”
1716–July 1820
The Donelson family originated in Scotland, an offshoot of the clan whose name is more commonly spelled Donaldson. The first of the family in America were Patrick Donelson and his grown son, John, who settled in Maryland in 1716. John Donelson’s son, also John, was born sometime between 1718 and 1725. This John Donelson “early gave promise of the energy, integrity and executive ability prominent in his after career.” 1
In 1744 the young John Donelson brought his bride, Rachel Stockley, to southwestern Virginia not far behind the frontier of settlement, where they raised eleven children. Over the years he grew prosperous in land and slaves, became a surveyor, justice of the peace, vestryman, colonel of the militia. In 1767, when Pittsylvania County was organized, he was elected a delegate to the House of Burgesses. Nevertheless his attention was directed westward. He helped to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokees, then surveyed the treaty line to open Kentucky to settlement. When war broke out between Britain and the colonies, which ultimately declared their independence as the United States, Colonel Donelson led the Pittsylvania County militia to fight the Cherokees and Shawnees. 2
Donelson inspired respect and confidence, being described as “rather over the ordinary size of men, slightly inclined to be fleshy.” An admiring daughter-in-law recalled him as being “large, noble, & dignified in his appearance—well fitted for embassies & negotiations.” But with the long absences on the frontier and the economic dislocations wrought by the Revolutionary War, Donelson by 1779 was on the verge of financial ruin. With characteristic energy and fortitude, however, he resolved to rebuild his fortune in “that western world, that Land of promise [,] that Terrestrial Paradice and garden of Eden .” 3
Donelson joined two other entrepreneurs, Richard Henderson and James Robertson, to settle the region along the Cumberland River west of North Carolina. Robertson led about two hundred men overland during one of the coldest winters on record to a place on the Cumberland River known as French Lick. Donelson had built an enormous flatboat, which he named Adventure , to carry his family and their possessions, including several slaves. The Adventure led a flotilla of some thirty vessels carrying nearly two hundred men, women, and children. They cast off down the Tennessee River in December 1779 and faced one difficulty after another—smallpox, the rapids of the Muscle Shoals, and harassing Indian attacks that killed some thirty voyagers. Only in April 1780 did the bedraggled survivors reach French Lick, but under the cool leadership of Colonel John Donelson, they had succeeded at what an early historian pronounced “as one of the great achievements in the settlement of the West.” 4
The main settlement at French Lick was named Nashborough. The Donelsons built a stockade ten miles upriver at Clover Bottom. The Cumberland settlers, however, were isolated two hundred miles west of the main line of settlement. Indians raided crops and stock, and killed several people. In 1781 Donelson moved his family to comparatively peaceful Kentucky. Eventually, with the coming of peace and the rudiments of civilization to the Cumberland Valley, North Carolina organized the region as Davidson County. Nashborough became Nashville. Donelson decided to return his family to his Clover Bottom property. In the spring of 1786, he returned from a winter of business in Virginia and North Carolina to find that his family had already departed for the Cumberland under the care of his son John. He set off after them, but along the way he was shot by unknown assailants in the woods. The mystery of who killed him, whether Indians or renegade whites, remained unsolved. Nevertheless, his legacy was clear. As a soldier, surveyor, peacemaker, and pioneer, John Donelson helped to open a continent. 5
After the colonel’s death, the Widow Donelson, as she became known, established the family at the Clover Bottom stockade. Most of the children, even those who were grown and married, stayed close, although Rachel remained in Kentucky with her husband, Lewis Robards. By 1788, the Cumberland Valley boasted three counties. Considering their distance from the main body of North Carolina inhabitants, the State Assembly that year grouped them into the District of Mero and established a separate court district for them. Appointed attorney general for the Mero District was a tall, wiry, hawk-faced young lawyer with a shock of reddish hair and piercing blue eyes—Andrew Jackson. 6
Born on March 15, 1767, in the frontier Waxhaws settlement straddling North and South Carolina, Jackson was the posthumous son of an immigrant from Ulster. His life was hard from the start, and his combative nature developed early. Cornwallis’s army swept through South Carolina in 1781, leaving Andrew orphaned, with his mother and two brothers dead, and Andrew scarred by a British officer’s sword. Jackson grew up without control and developed into a power unto himself. At age twenty, he was licensed to practice law in North Carolina. The next year, he was dispatched to the new Mero District. Life on the Cumberland would never be the same. 7
The young attorney lodged at the Widow Donelson’s stockade, rooming with another young lawyer, John Overton, in a cabin near the main blockhouse. Jackson fit right in with the large, boisterous Donelson clan, and in no time he was one of the household. Complications arose, however, when the widow’s daughter Rachel arrived from Kentucky. Her husband, Lewis Robards, had proved to be “a cruel, tyrannical husband.” Rachel and Jackson soon fell in love. Subsequent events became, and remain, controversial. Word soon arrived in the Cumberland Valley that Robards had obtained a divorce. Jackson and Rachel married in the autumn of 1791, or so they claimed. Then in December 1793, the shocking news reached the Jacksons that Robards had been granted a divorce from Rachel only in September, on the grounds that she “hath and doth Still live in adultery with another man.” Overton persuaded Jackson that a second wedding was necessary. The Donelsons and indeed all Nashville society took the episode in stride. Far from becoming social outcasts, the Jacksons became pillars of the Cumberland community. On the personal side, the episode haunted them. Jackson became overly sensitive to any slight on Rachel’s honor, which led him to kill a man in a duel. Rachel steadily withdrew into a pious solemnity with only her husband, her family, a few close friends, and her Bible for comfort. 8
Meanwhile, Rachel’s brother Samuel Donelson began to take a position in Cumberland society that was to be expected of a son of Colonel John Donelson. Inspired also by his rising brother-in-law Andrew Jackson, Samuel was licensed to practice law in 1794. They purchased land together and even operated a general store, at least until their creditor in Philadelphia defaulted on his notes. The brothers-in-law took a considerable financial beating, but their public stars continued to rise. When Tennessee achieved statehood in June 1796, Jackson was elected as the new state’s congressman and then, for a brief term, senator. Samuel Donelson was also a coming man. Joseph Anderson, a territorial judge and a man whose good opinion was worth having, considered him to be “one of the cleverest young fellows I ever was acquainted with, and whose principles and Mental Virtues do Honor to human nature.” Best of all, Samuel soon fell in love. Her name was Mary Ann Michie Smith, but everyone called her Polly. 9
Her father, Daniel Smith, was a Virginian who was schooled in a little of everything from medicine to law. Like Colonel John Donelson, Smith rose to prominence as a surveyor and militia officer, serving with distinction in Dunmore’s War and surveying the western extension of the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. In 1783 he moved his family to the Cumberland Valley and settled in what became Sumner County. There he built an imposing five-level house whose name, Rock Castle, is all the description needed. In 1790 President George Washington appointed Smith secretary of the Territory South of the River Ohio. Smith drew the first map of the new state of Tennessee and published a book describing its government. 10
When Samuel Donelson met Polly Smith, she was fifteen, fair with blue eyes. They were soon very much in love, but unfortunately, her father objected to the romance. Jackson attempted to intercede on their behalf, but got nowhere. On the night of June 20, 1796, Polly opened her window at a prearranged signal. Samuel waited below with Jackson and a ladder. They rushed to the Jackson home, Hunter’s Hill, where Rachel had arranged for a parson to be present. Jackson begged forgiveness for Polly’s sake, but Smith refused. Others gave the newlyweds their best wishes. Judge Anderson predicted “that a Grand Son, will put a period to the old General[’]s pouting.” Indeed, the birth of a boy, John Samuel Donelson, the next year, 1797, worked wonders on Smith’s attitude. He gave several slaves to Polly, and to Samuel and Polly together a farm in Sumner County, provided they would move there. This Samuel agreed to do, although he already had a 600-acre tract in Davidson County on which he had intended to settle his new family. He set about clearing the Sumner County land, building a cabin and a mill, and planting an orchard. 11
* * *
These improvements took time, however, and Samuel and Polly Donelson were still living in the cabin on his Davidson County tract, not far from Hunter’s Hill, when, on August 25, 1799, a second son was born. In honor of Samuel’s brother-in-law, neighbor, occasional business partner, and best friend, the boy was named Andrew Jackson Donelson. He gained, thereby, among other things, the distinction of being the first of countless men who would be named after Andrew Jackson. 12
The master of Rock Castle eventually saw a grandson named Daniel Smith Donelson, born on June 23, 1801. Samuel’s affairs prospered as his family grew, but he speculated in land purchases beyond his ability to pay for them properly. His debts grew larger, as did the consequent problems. No doubt he trusted that he could untie his knotted affairs, but in July 1804, while visiting the Jacksons at Hunter’s Hill, he fell ill. On July 9, 1804, as can best be guessed, Samuel Donelson died, at about the age of thirty-four. 13
Polly was left a widow at twenty-three to care for three young boys. Both her father and the large Donelson clan were prepared to do whatever was needed, but ultimately she turned to her husband’s most trusted friend. As Samuel lay on his deathbed at Hunter’s Hill, Jackson promised to look after the boys, and he was appointed executor of the estate. What help Daniel Smith could provide diminished when he departed for Washington, DC, in 1805 as senator from Tennessee. “The beneficent disposition you have shown Mr. Donelson’s children gives me very grateful impressions and hopes at some time to make some remuneration,” he wrote Jackson in February 1806. “I acknowledge your friendship and benevolence to my daughter and her children,” he repeated that spring in regard to selling some of Samuel’s property to raise funds. Some parts of Samuel’s affairs were never sorted out completely, and Jackson himself took a great financial loss. 14
John, called “Jacky” by the family, Andrew, and Daniel became Jackson’s wards, and he and Rachel assumed the major duties of raising them, despite their own financial difficulties. In the fall of 1804, Jackson had to sell Hunter’s Hill and moved to the undeveloped Hermitage property, where he built a two-story blockhouse. He was already or soon became the guardian of the four children of his deceased friend General Edward Butler and the three minor children of Edward’s brother, Thomas. It was clear by now that the Jacksons would never have children of their own. Ultimately, they became parents by adoption. On December 4, 1808, Elizabeth Rucker Donelson, wife of Rachel’s brother Severn, gave birth to twin boys, but she was unable to nurse both babies. Severn and Elizabeth turned one of them over to the Jacksons, who christened the baby Andrew Jackson Jr. All these children were welcomed into the Jackson home, but save for their own Andrew Jr., none more warmly than Samuel Donelson’s. Some of little Andrew Donelson’s earliest memories were of being “stowed away for the night in a corner trundle-bed, a pet cat and dog dozing on the hearth,” listening to the affectionate Jacksons. Rachel “sang sweetly, and took great delight in playing on a piano . . . which Jackson had obtained on one of his Eastern trips. He had a flute and violin, and playing duets was a favorite evening recreation.” Little Andrew would drift to sleep listening to “an enjoyable if not artistic concert,” whose repertoire included the ever popular “Money Musk” and “The Campbells Are Coming.” 15
In keeping with the usual practice of frontier society, Polly Smith Donelson did not long remain a widow. On February 26, 1806, she married James Sanders, a prominent widower of Sumner County. Polly’s sons took an instant dislike to their stepfather. According to a family story, Sanders had acquired a nickname, Jimmy Dry, which he detested. One day, young Andrew cut the stirrups of Sanders’s saddle. When caught, he “sassed” Sanders and called him Jimmy Dry to his face. Sanders thrashed him. The tragedy of Polly’s marriage to a man whom her sons disliked was that she became increasingly estranged from them. The Donelson boys came to spend most of their time at the Hermitage. This led Sanders once to complain that “Jackeye,” as he spelled the nickname of the oldest boy, “had been for Several Weaks from home contrary to his mother[’]s Orders[.]” When Polly “Scholded him for Disobeying hur he replied that it was [by] your Orders,” Sanders lectured Jackson, “Was it prudent to order a Child to Disobey its mother[?]” 16
Schooling began for Jacky and Andrew in the spring of 1807 at a local school taught by William Ballard, but in January 1808, Jackson sent them to a school in Nashville. George M. Deaderick, a Nashville merchant and banker, assured Jackson that he was happy to board “your little sons”—a revealing mistake. Jacky’s, Andrew’s, and later Daniel’s schooling evidently proceeded on a normal course, aside from the disputes between their possessive uncle and officious stepfather. Jackson remained on good terms with their grandfather, however. In a typical letter, he assured Smith that “your little grandsons are learning well, and, often speak of you.” When staying at Rock Castle, the boys enjoyed the use of Smith’s library, one of the best in the West. 17
All this time, relations between the United States and Great Britain were deteriorating. Finally, in June 1812, “Warhawks” in Congress goaded President James Madison into asking for a declaration of war. Like thousands of Westerners, Jackson had been waiting years for war. Forty-five now, his shock of red hair was fading to gray, but he was still scarecrow-thin and ramrod-straight. As major general of the Tennessee state militia, he filled mail pouches to Washington with promises to march his force anytime, anywhere, to fight the British, the Indians, or the Spanish. Finally, the secretary of war ordered Jackson, now as major general of the United States Volunteers, with 1,500 men to assist in the defense of New Orleans.
A considerable number of them were Donelsons, or related to them by blood or marriage. Lieutenant Stockley Donelson Hays, son of Rachel’s sister Jane and her husband Robert Hays, was quartermaster general. In command of the cavalry regiment was Colonel John Coffee, who in 1809 had married Mary, a daughter of Captain John and Mary Purnell Donelson. Over six feet tall with a robust physique, Coffee was quiet, modest, and dependable. He was in many ways the antithesis of the volatile Jackson, who fully appreciated his qualities and reposed a special confidence in him. Coffee’s steadying influence grew to become, in Jackson’s life, second only to Rachel’s. There were others in Jackson’s command worthy of notice. William B. Lewis, a neighbor, served as quartermaster. William Carroll was brigade inspector. Thomas Hart Benton, whose rough, burly exterior disguised a sharp intellect, was aide-de-camp. 18
Jackson’s command got no farther than Natchez in January 1813 when orders curtly ended his mission, but his admiring soldiers observed that he was as tough as hickory wood, and thus they bestowed on him an everlasting nickname—Old Hickory. The reputation that he had gained was soon tarnished by his involvement in a quarrel between William Carroll, Thomas Hart Benton, and Benton’s brother, Jesse. In Nashville one day accompanied by Coffee and Stockley Donelson Hays, Jackson happened upon the Bentons. A bloody brawl erupted. Jesse shot Jackson in his left arm and shoulder. Hays stabbed Jesse seriously, and Coffee pistol-whipped Thomas. Jackson was still on his sickbed when shocking news reached Nashville. The Creek Indians had massacred the settlers at Fort Mims, Mississippi Territory. Still weak with his arm in a sling, Jackson led his troops out to crush the Creek Nation. The climax came on March 27, 1814. In the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Jackson’s troops annihilated the Creeks. The Madison administration, happy to find a general who could win battles, promoted Jackson to major general in the US Army. 19
Old Hickory and his victorious army were welcomed home to Nashville in May 1814. Jackson was escorted to the courthouse by the arrangements committee. Congressman Felix Grundy made a speech. Lined up on the steps as a sort of honor guard were the students of Cumberland College dressed in their “college habit.” Among that number of the best and brightest of Tennessee youth stood Andrew Jackson Donelson, now almost fifteen. Pride in his uncle swelled inside him, with “none cheering more lustily” than he. Cumberland College served as both a finishing school for the young gentlemen of Tennessee and a preparatory school for those who would go on to a university. One of Andrew’s schoolmates was Edward George Washington Butler, a fellow ward of Old Hickory. Another was John Bell; over the next half-century their careers would often intersect, for better or worse. 20
Jackson gave as much attention to the Donelson boys as he could during his frequent absences and pressing duties. “Andrew Jackson Donelson is authorised to draw on me at Nashville, Tennessee[,] for such sums of money, as may be necessary to meet his wants, which will be duly honored & paid,” he directed during a respite in the Creek campaign. In November 1814, a man who was interested in buying land near Nashville spoke to Daniel Smith, who recommended a tract that once belonged to Samuel Donelson, provided that Jackson, as legal guardian of the boys and executor of the estate, would take responsibility for the sale. It was strange that Smith, now retired from the Senate with comparatively little to do, would thus impose on a man who was charged with defending half of the United States from imminent invasion. 21
Following a quick, and unauthorized, thrust into Spanish Florida to dislodge the British from Pensacola, Jackson marched his small army westward to thwart a major British attempt to capture New Orleans. On January 8, 1815, his backwoodsmen routed a British army of veterans who had defeated Napoleon, gaining the greatest victory of the war. The news raced across a country that was demoralized by defeat that included the sack of Washington. Hard on the heels of Jackson’s triumph came word from across the Atlantic Ocean that a peace treaty had been signed in Ghent. To Americans, the two events became indelibly linked. Andrew Jackson was more than just Old Hickory now. He was the Hero of New Orleans, the savior of his country. 22
As Jackson relaxed at the Hermitage after the war, he gave thought to the future of his family. Andrew Donelson, for one, was growing into a fine young man—tall, strongly built, with a tumble of dark hair and ruddy complexion. He was graduated from Cumberland College in the spring of 1816. His proud uncle decided that his talents deserved the finest university education that the country could provide. The place for Andrew was the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Edward Butler had already matriculated there, following his own graduation from Cumberland College. Surely, securing an appointment for another ward should prove to be no problem for the Hero of New Orleans. 23
* * *
When Andrew Donelson left the Hermitage, bound for West Point on or shortly after January 12, 1817, he traveled with Major John Henry Eaton, a former member of Jackson’s staff who was on his way to Philadelphia to oversee the publication of a biography of the Hero of New Orleans. Young Donelson carried a letter from Jackson introducing him to General Joseph G. Swift, chief engineer of the US Army and superintendent of the US Military Academy. “This youth is young and inexperienced,” Jackson informed Swift, “but possessing an amiable disposition—from which I trust & hope he will conduct himself with such propriety as will not only merit your Esteem & friendship, but that of his professors & fellow students.” 24
A wintry coat of snow blanketed Washington, DC, when Eaton and Andrew arrived on February 1, but they were nevertheless disappointed at the sight. The District of Columbia was still a sparsely populated tract of forest, field, and swamp. The avenues of the city were unpaved and, at this time of year, seas of muck. Moreover, Washington still showed the scars of the British raid in 1814. The Capitol, President’s Mansion, and most other public buildings had been burned. Reconstruction was under way, but President Madison was living out the last weeks of his term of office in an unusual eight-sided house called the Octagon. Congress sat in a temporary brick hall. Still, Eaton and Andrew took in all the sights. Congress, they decided, was deadly dull. They remained in town “only for the opportunity & honor” of attending one of Dolley Madison’s famous levees. 25
Their stay in Washington did involve business. The next class entering the military academy would not begin until September. Andrew and Eaton spent several days seeking a warrant letter so that he could begin his studies at the academy immediately upon his arrival. They were shuffled in and out of offices until Eaton enlisted the services of George Washington Campbell, a fellow Tennessean and ex-secretary of the Treasury. Campbell took them to see Secretary of State, and President-elect, James Monroe. They all trooped over to the Octagon to see Madison. It must have been thrilling for Andrew to meet these luminaries, while embarrassing that such important men were cheerfully going to so much trouble for a youth seeking a warrant. But then, not every young man was the nephew, ward, and namesake, all rolled into one, of the Hero of New Orleans. At last young Donelson received notice of his appointment as “a cadet in the service of the United States.” He was instructed to “repair to the Military Academy at West-point . . . where after having passed an examination, you will receive your warrant.” Andrew was already on his way. He and Eaton set out immediately and were in Philadelphia by February 6. 26
Back at the Hermitage, Jackson was pleased to hear that Andrew had obtained the warrant and was proceeding to West Point, “where you can become acquainted with the rules & regulations of the academy, [and] prepare yourself for your examination.” Recalling that Andrew was on his own now, Jackson gave his nephew some fatherly advice. “My Dear Andrew, you are now entered on the theatre of the world amonghst stranger[s]. . . . I have full confidence in your Judgment, when ripened with experience [and] . . . in your morality & virtue, I well know, you will part with existance, before you will tarnish your honor, or depart from the paths of virtue & honesty.” He then turned to a subject that was certain to be on the mind of a young man: “Amonghst, the virtuous females, you ought to cultivate an acquaintance, & shun the intercourse of the others as you would the society of the viper or base charector.” “I think you may rest satisfied,” Eaton assured Jackson, “I have seen few young men in my life whose reflections conduct & deportment were as correct.” Jackson needed no reassurance. In a recent conversation with grandfather Daniel Smith and Stockley Donelson Hays, each remarked favorably on Andrew’s lack of vices regarding “drinking, gaming &c.” 27
Donelson stepped off the steamboat at West Point, New York, near the end of March 1817. At the time of his arrival, the academy was still a smallish, spartan affair with only a few buildings and about two hundred cadets. He presented himself to Captain Alden Partridge, the acting superintendent. Partridge welcomed Donelson with great pleasure and granted him the privileges of quartering with the cadets and using the library to prepare for his examination, scheduled for June. In a week or so, Andrew wrote his uncle, in the first of his surviving letters, “Since my arrival here I have done little else than acquaint myself with the rules and regulations of the institution, & also with the cadets.” 28
Andrew was hardly settled when shocking news arrived from home. His older brother, Jacky, was dead. Following in the footsteps of both grandfathers, John Samuel Donelson had become a surveyor. Late in 1816, he went on a surveying expedition led by W. Purnell Owen into the former Creek country of Alabama. “He was attacked by a desperate cough and high fevers and that in the wilderness where medical aid could not be procured in time,” Owen recounted, and died on February 22, 1817. “This was a shock, to my feelings,” Jackson wrote Smith. “Prepare the mind of his tender mother for the shock, before you communicate it, & keep from her [the] knowledge, for the present, that he wanted for any thing in his illness.” The manner in which Mary Sanders handled the news of Jacky’s death provides a striking example of the distance that had grown between her and her sons. She left it to Smith and Jackson to break the news to Andrew, then waited nearly two weeks before writing herself. Even then, the tragedy merited one sentence in a short letter that was otherwise devoted to trivial family gossip: “You know [ sic ] doubt my dear Andrew have heard the fatal news of your Brother’s death, that news which has and will be forever a source of regret to your Mother.” This is the only known letter between Polly and any of her sons. Any others were apparently very few. Smith was closer to the boys, and more consoling. The young man at West Point was the family’s hope now: “One of the principal cares of my life will now be to try to promote your durable welfare.” 29
Returning to his studies, Andrew prepared for the entrance examination. He could not have found it to be difficult. “Each cadet, previous to his being admitted a member of the Military Academy,” read the Rules and Regulations, “must be able to read distinctly and pronounce correctly; to write a fair legible hand; and to perform with facility and accuracy the various operations of the ground rules of arithmetic, both simple and compound; of the rules of reduction of single and compound proportion, and also of vulgar and decimal fractions.” Donelson’s spelling was already better than that of most of his contemporaries, although he tended to omit apostrophes in possessives and retain British spellings (“honour,” “realise,” “defence”). He had received instruction in Latin and evidently even Greek, probably at Cumberland College, for his grandfather admonished him to follow “the strict rules of morality” in the New Testament, “which you have read in the original language.” As easily as he passed the examination, he probably clenched his teeth when he read that “ Andrew Donaldson ” was formally appointed as a cadet. He would endure countless and varied misspellings of his name his whole life. 30
Cadet Donelson entered the military academy precisely at one of the most important points in its history. Partridge had proved to be a martinet and lax administrator, and allowed academic standards to fall. The faculty, which included some first-rate educators, eventually revolted against his erratic policies. In June, while Donelson was busy with entrance examinations, Swift and President Monroe came to investigate. Changes came quickly. Monroe appointed the new superintendent, Brevet Major Sylvanus Thayer. A taciturn Massachusetts Yankee, Thayer was the model of the exacting professional soldier. He instituted reforms that were thorough and far-reaching. He enforced regulations strictly, but he was scrupulously fair. Thanks to Thayer, a cadet boasted, “the academy became a great school of military science, and from that date competed with the best in the world.” 31
Donelson was therefore one of the first victims of Thayer’s new rule that cadets could begin only when the academic year began in September. Still, he did so well on his examinations that he placed in the Third Class, joining Edward Butler. Classes at West Point are numbered by seniority; the upperclassmen are the First Class, while the entering “plebes” are the Fourth Class. Resplendent in his new gray uniform boasting three rows of gilt buttons, Donelson was described by a classmate as “one of the handsomest of the Cadets.” 32
In bypassing the Fourth Class, Donelson avoided the introductory courses in English grammar and composition, French, and basic mathematics. The Third Class endured more mathematics—plane and spherical geometry, conic sections, and drawing—and French, which consisted primarily of translating French mathematical and military texts into English, and only secondarily of “pronouncing the language tolerably.” The cadets’ day was full and rigidly controlled. Reveille woke them at dawn. Summers they drilled until breakfast; during winter, drill was not held. Classes began at eight in summer, nine in winter, until dinner at one o’clock. Classes resumed at two and continued until four, when afternoon drill was held, followed by supper. Lights were extinguished at nine. 33
His uncle had seen to Donelson’s finances, arranging for him to draw on Thomas Kirkman of Philadelphia for any amount of money that he needed. Jackson was not stingy with the funds that he provided. “I wish you to oeconomise but . . . you should draw a true distinction, between oeconomy and parsimony,” he advised. Time would reveal that Donelson learned the lesson of shunning parsimony only too well. These letters show Andrew Jackson at his best, as an affectionate surrogate father to a young man in whom he saw great potential. “You must, nay, will, become a great, good, and usefull member of society. This my son will be an ample reward to me.” He wished Andrew to “merit by your good conduct the friendship of your fellow students, and by your attention to your duty, and obedience to your superiors, the Esteem and good opinion of all.” Rachel wrote, too, assuring Andrew that “thus far you meet our highest expectations, and may you go on and prosper in every laudable undertaking is the sincere wish of a Second Mother.” With Rachel, exhortations to piety were never lacking. “Permit me Andrew as a Mother to drop you a few hints. . . . That is, experience convinces me that pure and undefiled religion is the greatest treasure on earth, and that all the amiable qualities hang on this.” 34
Andrew did merit the friendship of his fellow cadets. In addition to Edward Butler, there was Donelson’s roommate, Joshua Baker of Louisiana. He entered the academy at the same time as Donelson, also earned a place in the Third Class, and was soon progressing through courses even faster than his roommate. That fall, Donelson met a plebe, Nicholas P. Trist, a Virginian who would become among his closest friends. 35
Donelson’s first year at West Point otherwise proceeded uneventfully. He did so well on the January, then the June, examinations that he ranked second in his class after only one year. “The proficiency you have made fills me with delight,” Jackson crowed, “and is a sure presage, with a continuation of your application that my best hopes will be reallized.” Apparently the “near-perfect” Andrew’s only flaw was a disinclination to write home. Jackson repeatedly chastised him for not writing more often. No doubt classes and drills kept him busy, but Donelson was falling into a slothful habit that later in life could become an avoidance mechanism for a disagreeable task. 36
Donelson ended his first year at West Point on the same sad note with which he began it, with a death in the family back home. In the letter breaking the news about Jacky, Smith had noted that neither he nor Grandmother Smith was well. By December 1817, Jackson was alarmed that Smith “may not survive the winter,” telling Andrew that “he is wasting away very fast.” “Grandfather is in a very low state of health and considerably worse than when you left him,” his brother, Daniel, wrote in March 1818. The next day Smith mustered the strength to write a last letter to the grandson of whom he was so proud: “Your welfare you may believe I have very much at heart—therefore I give you the best advice I can.” He urged Andrew “to be remarkably industrious in your studies . . . and also find time to read other useful books—particularly law—the study of which ’tis now almost time for you to commence—and as you truly observe is the surest road to eminence if pursued with perserverance.” Smith lingered through the spring, dying on June 16, 1818. “Our principal gu[i]de is gone,” Daniel sighed. Jackson was untactful enough to comment, “I regret my Dr. Andrew that you had not wrote more frequently to your grand father before his death. I am told he repined much at your silence.” 37
In September, Donelson advanced to the Second Class, considered to be the most difficult academically, focusing on the physical sciences, engineering, and military drawing. The course in natural and experimental philosophy, as the sciences were still called, covered “mechanics, hydraulics, pneumatics, optics, chemistry, magnetism, and astronomy.” It was taught by Jared Mansfield, a distinguished physicist specializing in ballistics, and was held to be the most difficult at the academy. Donelson’s class had the dubious privilege of being the first to use the new textbook, A Treatise on Mechanics, Theoretical, Practical and Descriptive , by Olinthus Gregory of the Royal Military Academy. It was at least in English, but so difficult that until he ran hard into the academic rigors of “Gregories Mechanics,” Donelson was sure that he could graduate in only two years. “I shall not as before claim the merit of passing through the last two year[’]s study in one,” he apologized to his uncle. 38
Donelson had more to worry about than Gregory’s Mechanics , for events soon shook the academy. To the position of commandant of cadets, who trained them in tactics, oversaw their discipline, and issued demerits, Thayer appointed Captain John Bliss. Disagreeable and short-tempered, Bliss verbally or physically abused the cadets for the slightest infraction. Minor but escalating incidents through the fall of 1818 reached a climax on November 22 when Bliss lost his temper at Cadet Edward L. Nicholson, cursing and cuffing him. The other cadets were outraged. Being largely from established or upwardly mobile families, they viewed themselves not as lowly enlisted men but as future officers, and officers were gentlemen. That evening the cadets chose a grievance committee to protest Bliss’s behavior. Donelson described the five cadets who were selected to Jackson as “distinguished on the rolls of this Academy, and exemplary in military deportment.” The grievance committee composed a petition, which some 180 cadets signed, including Donelson. Afterward, he expressed his feelings to his uncle, in the process going overboard, as is the wont of youth, into a diatribe about having “more respect paid to the character and feelings of cadets as gentlemen” and expressing outrage over “the last deprivation of natural right,” “atrocious deeds,” and “oppression.” 39
Thayer was not about to tolerate something as unmilitary as the cadets’ actions. He first refused to see the grievance committee, then ordered them to vacate West Point. They were not given time to collect their clothes or any money, but several cadets pitched in to help. Donelson gave them $80 of the $150 that he had recently received from Kirkman. “I think you will commend me for this,” he wrote his uncle confidently. Once the grievance committee was gone, Thayer then lectured the corps on correct military deportment. The corps refused to stand for this. Another petition was drafted and signed by 145 cadets, including Donelson, protesting Thayer’s actions. 40
“By what rule of justice or Military law, Thayer, has been governed, you may perhaps say,” Donelson put to his military uncle, but Thayer’s conduct “differs from my idea of a good officer.” He did understand the implications and possible results of his actions. “I think it therefore advisable that I should have your permission to resign . . . as resistance would be dismissal.” Jackson boiled with indignation when he read Andrew’s letters. No man was more sensitive to the demands of “honor,” nor had he ever cared much for regular army types and procedures. Following orders was necessary to military discipline, but superior officers must always treat junior officers as gentlemen. This Bliss did not do. Jackson gave blanket approval to whatever his nephew decided to do, including “you have my permission to resign.” Resignation was a proper course in protesting most offenses, but his remedy for an attack on a gentleman’s person was pure Jackson: “But if the superior attempts either to strike or kick you, put him to instant death . . . never my son, outlive your honor—never do an act that will tarnish it.” 41
By now, Thayer had told the War Department his side of the story. Cadets who had been spoiled by Partridge’s laxity had rebelled when Bliss tried to restore discipline and had even acquired “the erroneous and unmilitary impressions” that “they had rights to defend” and “liberty to intrude their voice and opinions with respect to the concerns of the academy.” When the five cadets arrived in Washington, they were ushered into the office of the formidable secretary of war. At age thirty-six, John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina was already one of the country’s leading politicians. Tall, gaunt, with a leonine mane of hair and brooding countenance, his most riveting features were his dark, deep-set eyes illuminating the vast, yet remote and inflexible intellect that was his driving force. Cold, forbidding, and intense, Calhoun had the intimidating presence of a gathering thunderstorm. Glaring across his desk at the nervous cadets, he was cool and unsympathetic. He told them only that the president was investigating the matter. Monroe ruled that Thayer’s conduct was “satisfactory and approved.” Nevertheless, he concluded that “Captain Bliss does not appear to have sufficient command of his temper” and relieved him of his command. Finally, attributing “youth and inexperience” as causing “their irregular conduct,” Monroe ordered that the five cadets be reinstated at the academy. Thayer was the clear winner in the president’s ruling. 42
The cadets returned to their books and drills. The winter examinations were held in January 1819, then classes for the spring session began. For Donelson, it was a relief to finish Gregory’s Mechanics and begin the easier Enfield’s Natural Philosophy for the second part of Mansfield’s course. The session was rounded out with a course in military drawing that taught future engineers how to use surveying instruments and draw maps, fortifications, and topographical plans. 43
Donelson and Butler soon learned that their guardian was in the East. Seminole Indians had been raiding settlements in Georgia and Alabama using Spanish Florida as a refuge. Never one for diplomatic niceties, Jackson in the spring of 1818 gathered his division, interpreted his vague orders to suit himself, crossed the international border, seized Pensacola, executed two British subjects as spies, and chased the Indians deep into the peninsula. Madrid and London were outraged. In January 1819, Old Hickory appeared in Washington to defend his actions before a congressional inquiry led by a highly vocal critic, Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky. Thayer granted Donelson and Butler the rare privilege of a leave from the Point in February to meet their guardian in New York City, where they became part of his entourage caught up in the celebrations given in Jackson’s honor. 44
“Edward & myself upon our return to West-Point,” Andrew afterward wrote to his uncle, “found ourselves a little in the rear of our class, and have not a moment to lose between this [time] and the Examination” in June. He was unduly pessimistic, for he still stood second in his class and could even have elected to graduate in June, as did his roommate, Joshua Baker, except that he decided, with Jackson’s approval, to spend an extra year “to learn the principles of war and Fortification.” Indeed, as the spring of 1819 progressed, Donelson’s and Butler’s schoolwork gave them less worry than their financial situation. The country had suffered an economic panic and money became tight. Kirkman informed Jackson that he could no longer meet Donelson’s needs because of his own distress. Jackson was barely able to raise the $100 that his nephew requested above his usual allowance to get him through the year, but promised to raise $200 more. 45
Before classes began in September 1819, Thayer ordered the cadets on a cross-country march along the Hudson River. Butler was the “Cadet Commandant,” while Donelson was captain of a company. Stopping at Clermont, home of the statesman Robert L. Livingston, they paid their respects to Janet Livingston Montgomery, widow of General Richard Montgomery, the Revolutionary War hero who had been killed in the American attempt to take Quebec. Shortly after their return, Donelson was captain of a battery that fired a salute to Major General Jacob Brown on his visit to the academy. To Donelson’s mortification, the plebes who were working a six-pounder got out of sequence, the gun fired prematurely, and one of his charges narrowly missed having his head blown off. 46
Donelson’s last year at the academy included courses in, as he reported to Jackson, “Descriptive Geometry, The science of War and Fortification with drawings in Topography & Fortifications.” These courses were taught by Claude Crozet, a graduate of the prestigious École Polytechnique and late engineer in Napoleon’s army. 47
In August 1819, Joshua Baker, now Second Lieutenant Baker of the Artillery Corps, visited the Hermitage while on leave. “I need not say to you,” Jackson wrote Donelson, “the gratification I felt on seeing your name announced so honourably, by the superintendants & staff of the academy.” His ambitions for his nephew grew accordingly. “I am unwilling [that] you should serve in any other, than the Engineering corps—” the elite branch of the army. And he was looking even further, because a junior officer could stagnate in the tiny peacetime army, so “in time of peace your mind can be better employed [in a] professional pursuit [other] than in the army.” Despite Jackson’s evident pride in his nephew, Andrew still did not write home often enough. He even failed to acknowledge receiving the $100 that Jackson had gone to considerable trouble to scrape up in the hard times of 1819. By November, the Jacksons had gone three months without a letter from their nephew. 48
Soon there was something to write about. The five cadets of the grievance committee had refused to accept President Monroe’s mild reprimand and took their case to Congress. They still enjoyed the support of the cadets back at West Point, and many in high levels of the government looked on their cause favorably. From Tennessee, Jackson declared that “their conduct fully meets my approbation.” The petition that they presented to Congress included a number of complaints that they collected from cadets at West Point. The tone of the petition was haughty, and many of the complaints were trivial. Nevertheless, Donelson and Butler signed two of them, and there were reasons why. They were both First Classmen now, stood near the top of their class, and their records were exemplary, so their status leant weight to these documents. Even more, everyone at West Point and many of the officers and officials in the army and War Department were well aware of their relationship to the second-ranking general in the US Army and the most popular man in the country. This, no doubt, became known to members of Congress. By signing these complaints, Donelson and Butler implicitly provided an endorsement by Andrew Jackson. Their only excuse is the zeal of youth. The episode eventually died with a whimper. The House Committee on Military Affairs rubber-stamped Monroe’s original decision and reaffirmed Thayer’s “fitness for the station in which he is placed.” 49
For the cadets, the only good result was the appointment of Captain John R. Bell as commandant of cadets. Bell was popular with his charges but confessed that “I dislike a garrison life.” He was soon assigned to an exploratory expedition into the Rocky Mountains. On March 19, 1820, the day before his departure, a small committee led by Cadet Donelson waited on him. Donelson read “an address in behalf of the Corps of Cadets,” Bell recalled, “expressing sentiments of satisfaction, and warm wishes for my future happiness and prosperity.” “I received the address with pleasure—and it was truly gratifying to my feelings” to have “secured the undisguised friendship of this scientific Corps of young officers, composed of the best blood & best hopes of the Nation.” 50
For Donelson it was time to think about life after West Point. Jackson was even more impatient than his nephew. Another campaign in Florida loomed. “I have wrote the Sec. of War to grant you an examination by the first of April next,” he confessed at the end of 1819, “and should you pass examinations to order you to report to me. . . . Should I take the field I should like you to be with me . . . to obtain a little experience of active military operations under my own eye.” The methodical Calhoun, however, balked at Jackson’s plea that Donelson’s impressive academic career be pushed to a hasty end. “I have received your private letter in relation to your Nephew Cadet, Andrew J Donelson, now at West Point,” he replied, “. . . and if you would permit me to offer my advice . . . Your Nephew Stands very high, and will, if he continues till the regular examination, be placed, in all probability, among the first of the Cadets, which will give him the right to select the corps in which he may choose to serve. Should he leave the academy before the examination, he will loose [ sic ] this advantage.” 51
Calhoun had been keeping his eye on this nephew of Old Hickory’s and was impressed with what he saw. “I do hope,” he wrote Jackson, “he will realize your warmest anticipations, and that his conduct through life will prove highly honorable to himself & useful to his country.” Jackson was delighted, he wrote his nephew, that the secretary of war “was pleased to make mention of you in very flattering terms.” He ultimately agreed that Donelson should stay and obtain the best appointment available, but “if peace continues, I have no idea of you wasting the prime of your life in the army, when you could employ time much better for yourself and country in the pursuit of the study of law & civil Government.” If at some future time “your country became involved in war, or Demagogues arose, to trample under foot our constitution & our laws,” Donelson would be well “prepared to resist them; both in the councils, & in the field.” 52
As the final examinations approached, Calhoun assured Jackson, “Should your nephew be assigned to the Engineer Corps, there will be no difficulty in attaching him to your Division.” The final examinations began on June 5, 1820. If Donelson wrote Jackson “a gratifying account of his exam[ina]tion,” as Edward Butler promised that he would, it has not survived. What mattered to Donelson was that on June 24 the academic staff and the board of visitors determined that he “has been judged worthy to receive the degree required by law preparatory to his advancement in the United States Army.” When the final tallies were complete, Donelson ranked second in a class of thirty, edged out of first by Stephen Tuttle. Graduation day was, appropriately, July 4. The next day, he received his commission into the US Army with the rank of brevet second lieutenant, Corps of Engineers. Butler was graduated ninth in the class and received his commission in the corps of artillery. 53
What did Brevet Second Lieutenant Donelson think of West Point as he steamed down the Hudson River toward home in July 1820? Some historians, basing their judgement on his part in the Bliss episode, have suggested that Donelson “left the academy with a feeling of resentment toward Thayer.” Thayer’s resignation from the superintendency in 1833, during Jackson’s presidency, has been attributed in part to Donelson’s alleged grudge against him, although years later, an officer in the engineer’s office expressly denied it. Donelson’s later actions and words, moreover, testify to an excellent opinion of both Thayer and the academy. “I have learned with a great deal of pleasure,” he wrote Thayer three years after his graduation, “that your exertions have extended the course and given more perfect organization of the school.” Over the years, he wrote several letters of recommendation for cadets. Thirty years later, he opposed a bill in Congress that would reduce the superintendent’s salary. Most important, he soon saw his brother enter the academy, and in another quarter century, his oldest son. West Point had given Donelson one of the best educations available in the country; he returned the privilege with a lifetime of support. All benefited from his time there. 54
Emily—and a Triumph and a Tragedy
August 1820–December 1828
The long-awaited family reunion took place in August 1820. Brevet Second Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Donelson, just turning twenty-one, must have been an impressive sight in his new blue uniform. He stood over six feet in height, was “of commanding and superb presence,” with a ruddy complexion and dark hair, which grew generously and tended to curl. Andrew Jackson’s shock of hair was growing steadily grayer. Rachel Jackson had grown quite fat, but she was still kindness and piety incarnate. The Hermitage was entirely new. A log blockhouse was not appropriate as a residence for the Hero of New Orleans, so in 1819 Jackson built a large, two-story brick house. Donelson even paid his mother a good visit. 1
Andrew’s brother, Daniel, soon departed for West Point. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun was pleased at the prospect of another Donelson at West Point, “who I hope will equal his brother in his standing at the institution.” By this time, Andrew had begun his new career in the army. On September 14, 1820, Jackson set out for the Choctaw Treaty Ground in Mississippi and took the young officer with him. On September 20, he appointed Lieutenant Donelson as aide-de-camp, Southern Division, and on October 1, the War Department promoted him from the brevet to permanent rank of second lieutenant. Donelson’s duties were routine, mostly handling Jackson’s military correspondence. He shared the duties of headquarters with several other aides, including Colonel James Gadsden, a native of South Carolina, and Captain Richard Keith Call. 2
The young lieutenant struggled on his army pay. Back from visiting the Choctaws, he thanked Nicholas P. Trist for sending a book catalog from West Point. “I wish my situation warranted my inclination, to purchase all the books detailed,” he sighed. “But the fact, Trist, is this, I possess but little property and am dependent for that little upon another,” meaning his stepfather, James Sanders. “It becomes me therefore, to live and act within my means,” although he then instructed Trist to order for him books on algebra, trigonometry, a “complete course of astronomy,” and, in history, “all Bonaparte[’]s Campaigns . . . the wars of Frederic[k the Great], and . . . an universal Atlas.” After his list, Donelson added, “I bind myself to a prompt payment of the cost and commission as soon as you can remit me [the] bill or your probable estimate of cost.” This letter set a precedent. Many times over the years, Donelson would profess poverty, then spend extravagantly anyway. 3
Jackson’s campaigns in Florida had convinced the Spanish to cede the territory to the United States. This ruined Jackson’s hopes that Donelson would learn the art of war at his side, and he had no intention that his nephew’s army career would consist of shuffling papers at headquarters. Accordingly, he soon ordered Lieutenant Donelson to “proceed to New Orleans,” to receive a “report of a proper scite [ sic ] for a Garrison on the Sabine” River, then the boundary between American Louisiana and Spanish Texas. Donelson would then “remain in New Orleans until I arrive, or until further orders.” Such were his orders, but Jackson was also sending him, unofficially, on a study leave. While in New Orleans, the young officer was to polish his French. 4
After “a quick and pleasant passage of seven days from Nashville,” Donelson’s steamboat arrived in New Orleans on February 27, 1821. A letter of introduction from Jackson to Colonel Benjamin Morgan described him as “a youth of fine morals, high sense of honor and of fair education for his age.” “Lieut. Donelson is young,” ran the letter to a Captain Fenton, “but I trust you will find him modest and unassuming . . . of good moral habits, and entirely clean of all the dissipation too common to the youth of the modern day; and as such I beg leave to make him known to you and your family.” Jackson asked Governor Jacques Villeré to find a French-speaking family to board his nephew. 5
Choosing a “respectable part” of New Orleans, Donelson settled into the home of a family named Duncan. Staying there, too, was Joshua Baker, his roommate from West Point. Baker had resigned his commission, was now studying law, and became Donelson’s companion in the French lessons. Staying at the Duncans’ also was one of Donelson’s new relatives. Ralph E. W. Earl, an itinerant portrait painter, arrived at the Hermitage one day in 1818 to paint the general’s portrait, then stayed to woo and marry Jane Caffery, one of Rachel’s nieces. When Jane died, Rachel insisted that Earl stay. Over the years, he painted portraits of all the Jackson, Donelson, Butler, and Coffee relatives at “fifty dollars a head.” Through sheer repetition and familiarity with his subject, Earl’s stiff portraits well captured Old Hickory’s simple majesty. He had begun one of Donelson but had not finished it before his subject left downriver. From New Orleans, Donelson requested that if Earl could “make a tolerable likeness without farther sitting, I shall thank you to do so, and present it to my mother”—perhaps as a peace offering. Earl soon arrived in New Orleans with a portrait of Jackson. Donelson assured his uncle that the portrait “is pronounced by all who have seen it, the best likeness ever exhibited in the city.” The naturalist and artist John James Audubon disagreed: “I Never Saw a Worst painted Sign in the streets of Paris .” 6
Talks with Baker reminded Donelson of the futility of remaining in the peacetime army. “I calculate upon resigning my commission,” he wrote Trist, “and bettering my condition in the Law; or perhaps I had better say, in marrying some lovely girl and digging the Earth.” As an omen, Congress had reorganized and reduced the size of the army. The two major generals were reduced to one, and Major General Jacob Brown held seniority over Jackson. President James Monroe eased Old Hickory’s enforced retirement by appointing him as governor of the newly acquired Florida territory. Jackson agreed, reluctantly. “I sincerely regret that I did not adhere to my first determination not to accept the Government of [the] Floridas,” he confessed to Donelson. Nevertheless, Jackson, Rachel, Andrew Jr., and Narcissa Hays, another of Rachel’s nieces, boarded a steamboat at Nashville and, on April 22, 1821, met Donelson at New Orleans, then proceeded to Mobile. Weeks passed, as the wheels of Spanish officialdom turned slowly. Jackson, increasingly impatient, lashed out at the vulnerable. Rachel had decided that her slave Betty was “guilty of some improper conduct,” and Old Hickory directed his nephew “to observe her conduct and at the first disobedience or impudence order” their steward was “to give her fifty lashes.” The punishment seems never to have been administered, for on July 17 the Jackson entourage was finally able to enter Pensacola for the transfer ceremony. 7
Pensacola was a rather backward Spanish town whose “greatness is much overrated,” Donelson frowned, but the younger set made the best of things. Donelson escorted his cousin Narcissa to a number of parties. Jackson soon sent him to New Orleans, where he worked with an engraver to design the seal of office of the governor of Florida. 8
The reorganization of the army soon reached Donelson. Officially, his duties as aide de camp ceased with Jackson’s retirement from the army. “I have been compelled to keep Capt. Call and my nephew Lt. Donelson with me,” Jackson explained to Calhoun, because Monroe’s appointees had not arrived. Fearing that none of Jackson’s staff cared to remain in the service if they were unable to serve under him, Calhoun worked cautiously to reassign them without precipitating their resignations, in particular the promising Lieutenant Donelson. “I hope he will make up his mind to remain permanently in the service,” he wrote Jackson, “where, I am sure, if an opportunity should offer, he will distinguish himself.” As soon as Monroe’s appointees were in place, the Jackson entourage, including Donelson, departed for home, from where Jackson submitted his resignation as governor. 9
In a last attempt to keep Donelson in the army, Calhoun appointed him to one of the most lucrative assignments that were available. “Lieut Donaldson has been attached to the Board of Engineers in order to give him the best opportunity, which the service offers at present for improvements,” he explained to Jackson, “. . . as he is considered, as one of the most promising young officers of his corps.” Donelson nevertheless submitted his resignation. Calhoun hesitated to accept it. “The Sec of War is unwilling to loose Lt Donaldson[’]s services & talents,” Gadsden, now adjutant general, observed to Jackson: “The reputation with which he graduated at the Military Academy promised a military life of usefulness.” Even had he accepted the appointment, there was little for a man of Donelson’s talents to do in the army. “Could I see that his services to his country could be useful at present,” Jackson explained to Calhoun, “my advice to him would be, to remain in its service. . . . But until Congress does make the necessary appropriations to complete the Fortifications, the Engineers Corps must be measurably idle.” Calhoun and Gadsden bowed to the inevitable. On January 22, 1822, Gadsden issued the acceptance of Donelson’s resignation. 10
In March, Donelson, accompanied by Jackson’s slave George, rode into Lexington, Kentucky, home of Transylvania University. He carried a letter from his uncle introducing “my adopted Son, A. J. Donelson,” a rare instance of Jackson referring to his nephew thusly. Donelson “visits Lexington, for the purpose of studying law.” The days were disappearing when a man could pick up enough law merely studying in the office of an attorney—“reading the law,” it was called. Some formal study was now desirable. Transylvania had been the first institution of higher learning west of the Appalachian Mountains. Always ambitious for his nephew’s career, Jackson was frank that “one of my objects in placing you at Lexington was that you might become acquainted with the young gentlemen from various parts of the south & west—that when you enter in to professional life, which may be a prelude to political; you may be known—for I will not disguise, I look forward . . . to the time when you will be selected to preside over the destinies of america.” 11
George returned to the Hermitage and Donelson began his studies. His classmates included two sons of Henry Clay, Theodore Wythe and Thomas Hart Clay, and he was soon a welcome guest at the Clay home, Ashland. “I am happy to find you have been treated with attention by Mr. Clay and his family,” Jackson wrote, demonstrating that he bore no grudge against Clay for leading the congressional investigation of his Seminole campaign in 1819. “Your attention to them in return, is certainly proper; and in all your intercourse with Mr. Clay and his family, your conduct ought to be as though there never had arisen a coolness between him and myself.” 12
Jackson hoped that eighteen months would suffice to complete Donelson’s studies at Transylvania, after which “you can return to enter into your profession, and remain with us.” Donelson exceeded this schedule, placing immediately in the senior class. Joining the debating society, Jackson advised, “will give you a habit of public speaking that you will find very beneficial when you come into public life.” Everything that Jackson wrote exuded his hopes that Donelson would aspire to a life of public prominence. Much of the advice repeated what he had written Cadet Donelson at West Point. He advised on details, but never lost sight of the future: “your virtue and moral course, with your talents . . . will lead you to fill the highest stations in our government, and honour to yourself.” 13
As summer opened, Donelson was stricken with a chronic pain in his side. He joked that it was caused by “the rod of old Blackstone,” but he continued to make good progress. He appreciated all that his uncle did for him. “As far as my capacity will enable me, and as soon as you can place your confidence in me,” he wrote, “it shall be my greatest happiness to relieve you of all business, and manifest that sense of gratitude which I have never expressed, and never can, for the many kind and fatherly services which you have rendered me.” Still, a desire for financial independence pushed Donelson to finish his schooling. “I hope you will bear with me,” he wrote Jackson apologetically, “until my appearance at the bar. . . . Hence my anxiety to commence some responsible career, and correct my natural faults.” 14
During the fall term, Donelson engaged with other law students in moot courts, where they practiced their knowledge and honed their courtroom skills. In one case, he prosecuted for and successfully recovered a debt. Jackson was pleased at this success, but disappointed that the mode of payment was paper money issued by the state of Kentucky. As a hard money man, Jackson asked, “Can Kentucky as part of the union, make paper money [?]” 15
Despite his year at Transylvania, there is no record that Donelson received a law degree; apparently that was never his purpose. In March 1823, the session ended, and Jackson dispatched George with the horses. Donelson’s formal schooling was now complete. Few men in Tennessee could boast a more thorough education than he had received first at West Point and then at Transylvania University. It was time to seek his fortune. 16
On April 21, 1823, John Haywood and Robert Whyte, justices of the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals of the State of Tennessee, finding that Donelson had passed his legal examination, and “that he is a man of honesty, probity and good moral character,” granted him a license “to practice as an attorney and counselor at Law in the several courts of Law and Equity in the State of Tennessee.” Thus, Donelson entered the ranks of an exclusive Southern institution. As an attorney, he was officially a gentleman. By summer, he was commissioned an officer in the obligatory society of gentlemen, the state militia, and was properly addressed as Captain Donelson. He soon formed a law partnership with another young attorney, Thomas A. Duncan. They opened an office on Deaderick Street, “first floor below Shall’s corner,” and began advertising for business in Nashville newspapers. 17
Donelson split his time between his law practice in Nashville and the Hermitage. His uncle had need of him now more than ever. Slowly, inexorably, and (so he said) against his wishes, Jackson’s friends were pushing him into politics. He did pay keen attention to local and national affairs. What he saw disturbed him deeply. The Era of Good Feelings that characterized the Monroe administration hid a growing tendency of government officials, no longer watched by partisan rivals, to use their positions to obtain a share of the public spoils. To men like Jackson, who could remember the Revolution and formed their ideas of government in the republican school of Thomas Jefferson, government was a necessary evil that tended toward corruption unless it was rigidly restricted. After the war, the Federalist Party that had advocated a strong, expansive government had not so much disappeared as been absorbed into the triumphant Republican Party, along with many of its doctrines. Most notably, in 1816 Congress established the Second Bank of the United States with headquarters in Philadelphia. The cumulative result was a government that was increasing in size, power, centralization, and corruption. “I weep for the liberty of my country,” Jackson sighed to his old friend John Coffee. 18
Tennessee politics was in the hands of two factions. Jackson’s friends John Overton, John H. Eaton, and William B. Lewis led one faction. Eaton secured election in 1819 to the US Senate. Lewis was Eaton’s brother-in-law and a wealthy planter who made a point of visiting the Hermitage almost every day. The other faction was led by Andrew Erwin. The two factions had formed largely along financial interests and personal friendships, but the Panic of 1819 galvanized them along political lines. Overton’s faction defended established banking and mercantile interests. The Erwin faction became the relief party, gaining in the process two popular adherents, Felix Grundy and William Carroll, who in 1821 was elected governor. There were inconsistencies in these alignments. Although a member of the relief party, which favored paper money to ease the monetary squeeze, Carroll was a hard money man. In that, his views meshed with Jackson’s, whose lifelong financial troubles fueled his suspicion of banks. For now, to counteract Carroll’s triumph, Overton, Lewis, and Eaton arranged for the Tennessee state assembly to nominate Jackson as a candidate for the presidency of the United States in the election of 1824. “Believe me my Dr Andrew that I never had a wish to be elevated to that station,” Jackson assured Donelson. The nomination of Old Hickory was intended merely as a power play at the state level, a popular action that the Erwin group dare not oppose. To everyone’s surprise, Republicans throughout the South and West endorsed the nomination. When Pennsylvania declared for Jackson, it became clear that his candidacy had national support. The Jackson bandwagon obliged the Overton group to take the next step. To prevent the office going to an Erwin partisan, in 1823 it arranged for the legislature to elect Jackson as Eaton’s colleague to the US Senate. 19
Reluctantly, the new senator departed for Washington in November 1823, accompanied by Eaton and Richard K. Call, now the congressional delegate from Florida Territory. Donelson would look after the Hermitage. “I sincerely thank you for your attention to my business,” Jackson wrote Donelson; “I assure you it gives me pleasure to find that my private concerns is [ sic ] kept so snug & all my debts are paid, & accounts so nearly closed.” 20
Donelson’s social life did not suffer from watching his legal practice and uncle’s farm simultaneously. Described approvingly as “a well-informed man and a fluent talker,” his circle of friends and associates grew. One colleague was a serious young attorney from Columbia, James Knox Polk. Polk’s large, deep-set grey eyes and firm jaw projected his determination as he drove himself with unremitting hard work. His gravity did not clash with Donelson’s warm good humor. They formed a friendship based, at least, on mutual appreciation, if not on genuine personal closeness. When Polk married Sarah Childress of Murfreesboro on New Year’s Day, 1824, Donelson’s presence was “particularly solicited.” Quite the opposite of the dour Polk was the hard-drinking roustabout, Sam Houston. A magnificent giant of a man who towered over even Donelson, Houston had an actor’s flair for the dramatic and a penchant for flashy clothing ranging from Indian buckskins to Roman togas. Earning Jackson’s attention during the Creek war, under Old Hickory’s mentorship, Houston had come far. His abilities were real, but if he was a true genius, he was an erratic one; in expansive moods, he spoke and wrote in grandiose phrases, but he could also keep his counsel with the silence of the ages. His actions hinted at great things to come, if only he could control his reckless behavior. 21
Donelson knew enough of social pleasures to advise his cousin Stockley Donelson, who followed him at Transylvania University, “against the too common resort to parties, private or public.” In the same letter, he waxed poetic about his year in Lexington. “It’s winter is like Horace’s spring,” he wrote, “. . . and if we form out of Luna, nymphs, satires [satyrs], one word and call that word woman, it is pretty much the place that Horace would have selected to celebrate the Bachanalia, or drink his two wines.” Such mush, quite uncharacteristic of the sensible Donelson, is excusable when it is realized that he was deeply in love. The young lady was Stockley’s sister and his own cousin, Emily Donelson. 22
* * *
Captain John Donelson was the namesake son of the colonel who had first opened the Cumberland Valley to settlement. He and his wife, Mary Purnell Donelson, continued the family tradition of raising a large passel of children, eleven in all. Over the years, the captain acquired land and slaves and built a large house that was dubbed the Mansion. The last child was Emily Tennessee Donelson, born on June 1, 1807. Her unusual middle name reflected the pride that her parents felt in the state that they had helped to settle. 23
In the close-knit Donelson clan, Andrew Donelson and Emily grew up seeing each other frequently. Family tradition holds that their romance began early. As a young girl, Emily attended a school in the Hermitage district. One day after school in 1816, having recently graduated from Cumberland College and awaiting his appointment to the military academy, Andrew happened upon the “little redhead,” escorted her home to the Mansion, and even carried her across a stream. Years later, he claimed, he fell in love with Emily that day. 24
During the years that Andrew was away, Emily attended the Nashville Female Academy, where she received the finest education a girl could get in that part of the country. By the time Andrew returned home from Lexington, she had grown into a young lady. “She was of medium height, and slight and graceful form,” her daughter recalled, “with dark brown eyes, auburn hair, complexion like a wild rose, and was said to resemble the pictures of Mary Queen of Scots.” According to family tradition, Emily counted among her suitors the most eligible bachelors in Tennessee. At a dinner at the Hermitage in July 1823, “Miss E. T. Donelson” swept Sam Houston off his feet. “She is lovely, young, intelligent, rich, &c.,” he gushed. He considered proposing marriage, but concluded that only a steadier man would make “a prospect suited to all her Ideas of domestic bliss.” 25
As Andrew established his law practice, the courtship began in earnest. “She has many suitors, and among [them] she has chosen one,” was the message that went around the Donelson clan. Andrew Jackson was delighted, and soon he was mentioning “E.” or “Miss E.” in virtually every letter home from Washington. He, John H. Eaton, and Richard K. Call lodged in Washington at the boardinghouse of William O’Neale. Jackson, however, decided that when Congress reconvened in December 1824, Rachel would accompany him, as would Andrew and Emily. His former aide-de-camp would be indispensable in handling his correspondence. “I have been this winter at a great Loss for some confidential friend to aid me,” he confessed to Donelson. 26
Difficulties impeded announcing the engagement and finalizing wedding plans. Emily’s health was poor during the winter of 1824. Even as summer began, her father reported that she was still “not pretty well (A Dangerous Complaint).” Her parents objected to her marrying so young. Worse, her father had misgivings about first cousins marrying. Here, Andrew and Emily could point to a precedent among the captain’s other children, for William had married Rachel, daughter of the captain’s brother Severn Donelson. Wedding plans resumed, and Emily spent the summer of 1824 running up a bill of $600 for her trousseau. Andrew got his first chance as a public speaker, delivering the Fourth of July oration in Nashville. It appears that Jackson, who had arrived home from Washington in June, was asked first, but declined, suggesting instead his promising nephew. It was a typical patriotic speech of the time—impassioned, flowery (“refulgence of heaven”), and lengthy. Captain John Donelson gave his son Stockley a short account: “Your cousin Andrew made a speech . . . which was very fine.” 27
Wedding days are inherently eventful. This one, September 16, 1824, was especially so. Donelson had obtained the marriage license in Nashville the day before and stayed the night in the city. The next morning, while still in town, he chose the day of his wedding to increase his social standing by presenting himself before the Cumberland Lodge Number 8 of Free and Accepted Masons. He then rode out to the Mansion, where his bride, family, and friends waited. There, Andrew and Emily were married by the Reverend William Hume, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. The groom was twenty-five years old, the bride seventeen. The wedding festivities were muted by a family tragedy. “I have the moloncholy task to inform you,” Jackson wrote John Coffee, “that Rachel Donelson, wife of William,” Emily’s brother, “is no more; she departed this life on the 16th. instant—the very day on which A & E. Donelson were to be married . . . all things prepared for the marriage—what was to be done in this distressing circumstance, was very perplexing; It was at length concluded to let the parson perform the ceremony, & it was done .” 28
The trip to Washington would in essence be the honeymoon. The presidential campaign revealed that the Era of Good Feelings was over, with interest groups gathering around four major candidates. Jackson, the rough-hewn military hero, was the least traditional of them. The other three, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay, were all men of long public service. Eaton and William B. Lewis did the daily work of running Jackson’s campaign. In this, they were ably assisted by Donelson, who, if in a subordinate position, already wielded a facile pen and could make a sensible argument with logic and wit. His talents were needed, for Jackson’s enemies dredged up his controversial and violent past, among them Jesse Benton, who with brother Thomas Hart Benton had nearly killed Jackson in a brawl in 1813. Donelson and Lewis wrote “elaborate and able replies,” while Governor William Carroll, whose feud with Jesse Benton had precipitated the brawl, rushed to tell Donelson his side of the story. He thus ingratiated himself into the Jackson camp. 29
Donelson, meanwhile, underwent the usual transformation of his private life that results from marriage. James Sanders transferred to him his half (320 acres) of the land next to the Hermitage that had once been owned by Samuel Donelson. Jackson purchased as a wedding gift for the young couple an adjacent farm of 348-1/4 acres that already boasted a comfortable cedar cabin. Donelson named the combined farm Springdale. Jackson also gave him a ten-year-old slave boy, John Fulton, who would grow up to be Donelson’s valet and major domo of his household. His marriage better familiarized Donelson with a host of in-laws, many of whom were already acquaintances. John Coffee had for years been Jackson’s oldest friend; that his wife, Mary, was Emily’s sister meant that Donelson and Coffee were now brothers-in-law. Emily’s brother John (“Jack”) Donelson was married to Eliza Butler, sister of Edward G. W. Butler. John Christmas McLemore, husband of Emily’s sister Elizabeth (“Betsy”), was an irrepressible speculator and assiduous cultivator of important men, not the least of whom was “Uncle” Andrew Jackson. His appeals to Donelson to join him in some business deal or efforts to borrow money could make him a pest, but his support of Andrew and Emily Donelson in future rough times would prove to be invaluable. 30
Before setting out for Washington, Donelson hurried to complete his initiation into the Masonic order. Using his imminent “departure for the eastward” to be “considered a case of emergency” for a series of meetings that were obviously called for his benefit, he was duly “raised to the Sublime degree of Master Mason.” He and Thomas Duncan dissolved their law partnership, as Donelson’s involvement in his uncle’s political career, capped by the lengthy absence in Washington, simply made the partnership too unwieldy to continue. 31
For Emily, the trip marked a real departure. “Although curious to see the world, and debut from the little sphere in which she has passed her youth,” Andrew wrote her brother Stockley, she was “yet reluctant to say farewell to Mother & Father.” The Jackson party, nine strong including three slaves, departed the Hermitage on November 7, 1824. Seated in the carriage were Rachel Jackson, Emily Donelson, and Mary Kirkman Call, Richard K. Call’s bride. The husbands rode alongside. Everywhere they were pressed by adoring crowds who were eager to see Old Hickory. They finally arrived in Washington on December 7. The O’Neale boardinghouse was not well equipped for families, so the Jacksons, Donelsons, and Calls roomed at the Franklin House Hotel, owned by John Gadsby. “We are very comfortably situated here,” Emily wrote her mother in an initial burst of enthusiasm. Her husband agreed that Emily “has enjoyed uninterrupted health, & expresses perfect satisfaction with everything around her.” She was soon, however, complaining to her sister Betsy McLemore that her room “is very disagreeable being hardly large enough to hold a bed.” For that room, the weekly rate was an astonishing $30. 32
They were lucky to get a room at any price. The session of Congress marked the Washington social season. This winter, there was an even grander attraction. The Marquis de Lafayette was wintering in Washington on his celebrated visit to the United States. He was also staying at Gadsby’s, and soon the Jacksons, Donelsons, and Calls were well acquainted with him. Emily reveled in Washington society, reporting to Betsy that “we are invited to a party every evening but I have not attended many,” as though she were showing admirable restraint. All this merriment offended the sternly pious Rachel Jackson, who complained in a letter to Emily’s mother that “while I am at meeting they are at the theatre and parties & &.” Donelson attended parties with his bride, but he was in Washington to assist his uncle. Jackson’s hotel suite doubled as an office, where he and Donelson struggled against the flood of people and paper. Uncle and nephew developed a smooth working routine. Between stints of screening visitors, Donelson composed letters for Jackson’s signature. Jackson typically wrote a note or scribbled on an incoming letter the gist of a reply, all the while observing established rules of polite formality. An example of this system is a scrap of paper on which is written in Jackson’s bold scrawl, “Mr. A. J. Donelson will prepare a letter to Mr. Monroe enclosing the letter of Judge Murphy in which [he] will bring to his view . . . the respectable citizens of Carolina.” And in Donelson’s smaller, neater hand: “Letter prepared, & sent to Mr. Monroe agreeably to the above. Andr. J. Donelson.” 33
Whether attending parties or assisting Jackson, Donelson made acquaintance with the politicians in Washington. One of these was, of all people, Thomas Hart Benton. After the infamous brawl, he fled to Missouri, where he rose to prominence and was elected a senator from the new state; now Jackson and Benton reconciled and became allies. Another was Senator Martin Van Buren of New York. Short, stout, with thinning red hair and a fringe of muttonchop whiskers, he was viewed with suspicion by many who believed that his pleasant face masked an incorrigible intriguer—hence his derogatory nicknames, the Red Fox and Little Magician. He certainly was that, but he was also a bold political thinker. Van Buren had concluded that the Founding Fathers were in error for believing that political parties were inimical to the liberty of a democratic republic. Rather, organized and properly led parties based upon specific principles could function as organs for expressing differences of opinion and prevent one another from assuming complete dominance over the government. 34
The election proved to be between Jackson and Adams; Crawford had suffered a debilitating stroke, and Clay’s candidacy fizzled. By December, the results were clear: Jackson polled more popular votes than any of his opponents and a plurality of electoral votes, 99, against Adams’s 84, Crawford’s 41, and Clay’s 37, but he failed to gain a majority. Thus, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives from among the top three candidates. Clay was eliminated as a candidate, but as Speaker of the House, he was in a powerful position to influence the result. 35
Jackson remained righteously aloof from any maneuverings, but he could not control his enthusiastic supporters. One such aspiring kingmaker was a Pennsylvania congressman, James Buchanan. He suffered the curious malady that one of his eyes was nearsighted and the other farsighted. The result was a habitual tilt of his head with often disconcerting squinting and winking. Buchanan met Jackson one day and asked him whether, if elected president, he would appoint Clay as secretary of state. At this time, Jackson scarcely knew Buchanan, whose winking appeared to be suggestive, so he replied that if he were elected president, “it would be without solicitation or intrigue on his part.” The incident passed, but deep down Jackson never regarded Buchanan as more than an officious opportunist. 36
On February 9, 1825, the House met to elect the president. Seven states voted for Jackson, four for Crawford—and thirteen for Adams, who was duly declared president. Having witnessed the proceedings from the public galleries, Donelson was under no delusion that the Speaker had engineered the result. “Clay will be regarded as the Judas of the country,” he spat to Edward Butler. Jackson, in turn, was outraged a few days later when Adams appointed Clay secretary of state. Elaborating on Donelson’s metaphor, he fumed to William B. Lewis, “So you see the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. . . . Was there ever witnessed such a bare faced corruption in any country before[?]” “What a farce!” Donelson sniffed to Coffee. Still, he perceived how “this nefarious drama” would play out once “Mr. Adams is to seal with his oath all his corrupt bargains.” Whether Donelson coined the pungent phrase or simply picked up what was already current, “corrupt bargain” became the rallying cry of Jackson’s supporters. 37
The trip back to Tennessee was a nonstop adulation as crowds turned out to see the man whom they thought should now be president. Once home, Andrew and Emily Donelson finally had their opportunity to set up house at Springdale. “Andrew Donelson and Emily . . . begin the world full handed,” Captain John Donelson mused to Coffee, “and I hope they will do well, Andrew seems very industrious.” He was indeed busy overseeing the planting of crops and the construction of slave quarters, some of the slaves being a gift from Emily’s father. Emily started a garden with geraniums and crape myrtles. 38
There were pleasant diversions from the hard work of establishing a household. In May 1825, Lafayette arrived in Nashville to the usual ovations and banquets. He stayed with the Jacksons at the Hermitage and the Donelsons saw him frequently. An even happier event that summer was the return of Daniel Donelson, who had graduated a respectable fifth in his West Point class. Unhappily, a feud soon pitted the Donelson brothers against their stepfather. Upon Daniel’s return, James Sanders refused to turn over to him the 640-acre Sumner tract that Daniel Smith had given to Samuel and Polly Donelson after their marriage and willed to Daniel. Andrew and Daniel were outraged. Polly was in a quandary. She believed that Daniel was entitled to the land, but she would not oppose her husband. To focus on the lengthy legal battle that ensued, Daniel was obliged to resign his commission in the army. Finally in November, two Nashville judges serving as arbitrators awarded the tract to him. The dispute demonstrated that Sanders was as disagreeable as ever. Happily, the estrangement did not extend to the Sanders half-sisters, and as they took husbands, Andrew and Daniel became friends and associates of their brothers-in-law. Robert Looney Caruthers, a rising jurist, married Sally Sanders in 1827; Dr. Thomas G. Watson married Martha in 1829; Dr. James W. Hoggatt married Mary Ann in 1831; and Meredith P. Gentry, a lawyer and aspiring politician, would marry Emily in 1838. 39
In October 1825, the Tennessee State Assembly again nominated Jackson for president. Not wishing to appear to be running overtly for office, he resigned his Senate seat. There would be no return to Washington that fall. The reprieve allowed Donelson to resume his law practice. Being Old Hickory’s nephew probably brought him “more cases than the average planter-lawyer of his age and experience,” and he was soon appointed acting state attorney. Even then, most of his cases concerned only the collection of debts. 40
After the dispute with Sanders, Donelson was in need of good family news. It came with the confirmation that Emily was expecting a child. The news, however, revived her father’s worries about Andrew and Emily being first cousins. The baby, born June 6, 1826, in the cedar cabin on the Springdale farm, proved to be a healthy boy. The proud parents named him Andrew Jackson Donelson, Junior. As little Jackson, as he was called, grew into an exceptionally bright child, the happy grandfather boasted that his newest grandson was blessed with “Donelson blood” in double quantity. 41
Donelson soon began to indulge in another luxury of the southern gentry, horse racing. He bought horses under the discerning eye of his uncle, renowned as one of the best judges of horseflesh in Tennessee. When he sought to hire a trainer, Jackson helpfully wrote Houston, “Capt. A. J. Donelson who has engaged my stud coalts, desires me to say to you, if a faithfull good keeper of race horses can be got, he will give them good wages, a freeman of colour, who could be well recommended for his capacity & honesty would be preferred.” Captain Timothy P. Andrews, Paymaster of the Army, recommended to his army friend Donelson a trainer who was, in addition, “as good a Jackson man as any in the country.” 42
Tying political beliefs to horse training was only one example of how the presidential contest in 1828 dominated every topic of the day. Early on, it was clear that this campaign would be far different than any that had gone before. In Congress, Jackson’s friends worked to gather support. In the Senate, there were Thomas Hart Benton, John Eaton, and Hugh Lawson White, an East Tennessean and brother-in-law of John Overton who had succeeded Jackson. In the House, there were Sam Houston, James K. Polk (both now congressmen), and virtually every other congressman from the West and the South. Vice President John C. Calhoun was ambitious for the presidency, but Adams’s choice of Clay as secretary of state told him that Clay had been selected as the heir apparent. “An issue has been fairly made, as it seems to me, between power and liberty ,” is how Calhoun announced that he was pleased to join Jackson. Martin Van Buren also decided that Jackson was the coming man. To Thomas Ritchie, editor of the powerful Richmond Enquirer and leader of the old Jeffersonian republicans in Virginia, Van Buren proposed an alliance toward Jackson’s election “as the result of a combined and concerted effort of a political party,” and met with Calhoun to make the same proposal. From their handshake the Democratic Party eventually developed. 43
The Jackson campaign was run by the Nashville Central Committee, headed by John Overton and William B. Lewis. Donelson’s discretion and personal closeness to Jackson made him indispensable. His most important contribution was as his uncle’s secretary. “I receive at least one hundred letters a week,” Jackson groaned to Coffee, “. . . and was it not for the aid of Capt. A. J. Donelson I could not reply to half of what are necessary to be answered.” Once people realized the importance of Donelson’s proximity to Jackson, he began receiving political mail of his own. “Some of the Jackson men here do not like the conduct of Van Buren,” Andrews brooded from Washington. “It is said he wants to extort favorable terms for himself from the Jackson party.” As with so many Jackson men, reports like this planted the seed in Donelson’s mind that Van Buren was not to be trusted. Calhoun’s supporters pushed their man’s claims, too. Duff Green, editor of the Washington Madisonian , Calhoun’s political organ, became alarmed at reports that Jackson took little interest in Calhoun’s position. Houston and Donelson assured Green that “the Jackson party wou[1]d support Mr Calhoun in opposition to any other candidate as vice President,” but this was not the last time that Donelson would have problems with Duff Green. 44
Soon, legitimate political differences between the candidates were buried beneath the ocean of mud that was being slung. Jackson’s duels and executions of soldiers and spies were all resurrected. Inevitably, accusations arose about Jackson’s marriage to Rachel. The years had not been kind to her. A sympathetic visitor to the Hermitage, Henry A. Wise, perceived a lady who “was once a form of rotund and rubicund beauty, but now was very plethoric and obese,” who wheezed when she breathed and spoke. Still, she was “the very person[ific]ation of affable kindness.” No accusations of treason or murder infuriated Jackson more than these attacks upon Rachel’s “Sacred Name.” He decided that Clay was behind the assaults. Clay was “certainly the bases[t], meanest, scoundrel, that ever disgraced the image of his god. . . . Even the aged and virtuous female, is not free from his secrete combination of base slander.” 45
In October 1828, Emily and two-year-old Jackson traveled to Florence, Alabama, where John Coffee and his wife Mary, Emily’s sister, had moved in 1819. Andrew, busy with the campaign now approaching its climax, stayed home. He joined his family in Florence briefly, and by the time they returned home in mid-November, enough election results were known to show that Jackson had scored an overwhelming triumph. The common people across the country, especially from the West, South, Pennsylvania, and New York, had flocked to the polls to elect Old Hickory their president. For Jackson it was a personal vindication against treachery, corruption, and slander. “How triumphant, how flattering to the cause of the people!” an exultant Donelson wrote Coffee as soon as he arrived home to the news. 46
Plans were soon underway for the move to Washington. Donelson would serve as President Jackson’s secretary. Emily would assist Rachel in the duties as hostess of the President’s Mansion. Everyone was in high spirits, except Rachel. Her loneliness, depression, and fervent piety had increased with each stage of her husband’s public career. Now, she faced the agony of living at the very center of the national stage. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to live in that palace in Washington,” she told Wise. Jackson had largely succeeded in shielding his beloved wife from the slanders. Thus, it came as a shock when Rachel discovered their pervasiveness. According to a Donelson family tradition, she went into town one day to shop for the move. There, she overheard several ladies gossiping and was deeply wounded. “Listening to them,” she later told Emily, “it seemed as if a veil was lifted and I saw myself, whom you have all guarded from outside criticism and surrounded with flattering delusions, as others see, a poor old woman, unsuited for fashionable gayeties, a hindrance instead of helpmeet to the man I adore.” 47
While Eaton and others insisted that she must go to Washington for appearances’ sake, Rachel’s poor health and misery wore her down. On December 18, her overburdened heart failed. A rider rushed into Nashville to fetch a doctor. Emily raced over from Springdale. Four days Rachel lingered. Her distraught husband scarcely left her side. On December 22, Rachel Donelson Jackson found the peace that she had sought for so long.
No event of Andrew Jackson’s life came so close to breaking his iron will as the death of his beloved. He looked “the very picture of despair.” The funeral was held the afternoon of Christmas Eve in the garden beside the house. Hundreds converged on the Hermitage. Jackson, ashen and haggard, leaned on the ever-faithful Coffee, followed by a cloud of grieving Donelsons, Andrew and Emily among them, and then the servants of the Hermitage, moaning the loss of their beloved mistress. Jackson would never forget the vicious attacks that drove his beloved to her grave. “In the presence of this dear saint I can and do forgive all my enemies,” he vowed at her funeral. “But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.” 48
The Petticoat War
January 1829–August 1831
Andrew Jackson and his party departed Nashville aboard the steamboat Pennsylvania on January 19, 1829. Andrew Jackson Jr., now twenty, accompanied his adoptive father. Andrew and Emily Donelson naturally had along their son, Jackson. Mary Eastin, one of Emily’s nieces, would help with her duties as hostess at the President’s Mansion. William B. Lewis tagged along, so he said, just to see his old friend inaugurated president. Wherever the steamboat docked, crowds cheered their hero. The grieving Jackson made a brave show of greeting his admirers. They arrived in Washington on February 11 and took lodgings in Gadsby’s Hotel. Their suites were immediately swamped with people. Donelson and Lewis did their best to handle the crowds. 1
While Emily and Mary shopped for inaugural dresses, politicians met with the men to plan the new administration. The most pressing business was the selection of the cabinet, a delicate balancing act to reward the different factions and geographic sections. Martin Van Buren was appointed secretary of state and Samuel D. Ingham of Pennsylvania was appointed secretary of the Treasury to acknowledge their important states. Jackson wanted a close friend in the cabinet, so for secretary of war he chose John H. Eaton. John Branch, once governor of North Carolina, became secretary of the navy. John McPherson Berrien of Georgia became attorney general. William T. Barry of Kentucky was chosen postmaster general. 2
Otherwise, Donelson was swamped with that bane of American democracy—office seekers. Jackson’s declared intention of “cleansing the Augean Stable” of corrupt Adams bureaucrats was the signal for a legion of hopefuls to descend on Washington to seek a government position or appeal that some perceived wrong be righted. These people learned quickly that access to Jackson was through Donelson. Thomas Ketcham claimed that “A. J. Donaldson” had once promised him an office “when the time arrived.” R. W. Hill asked for help obtaining a “Just claim” of $2,000 for retired mail contractor Jonathan Donly. Many were friends or relatives. His uncle George Smith, the brother of Donelson’s mother, warned that the postmaster at “Murphreesborough” be removed as “an enemy of the Gen’l,” and “James C. Moore appointed in his place he is the son in law of Genl Purdy’s, of course possessing the right qualities.” Robert L. Caruthers recommended for a district attorneyship “our relation,” Robert M. Burton, a Lebanon lawyer who had married Martha Donelson, another of Rachel Jackson’s nieces. Relatives received no special favors. “Looking at the state of the party,” Donelson explained to his brother-in-law about Burton, “you can readily perceive how the circumstance of his being the nephew in law of Mrs. J. might have been seised [ sic ] upon” by unsuccessful office seekers. 3
Inauguration day, March 4, 1829, dawned cool and sunny. Jackson and a group of friends stepped out of Gadsby’s Hotel into a vast crowd of farmers, mill workers, and common people of all types. “Persons have come 500 miles to see Genl. Jackson,” Daniel Webster gasped; “& they really seem to think that the Country is rescued from some dreadful danger.” In plain republican fashion, Jackson walked to the Capitol, with Donelson and Lewis squeezing a path through the crowd. Old Hickory, in the black of mourning, stood tall and straight with his hat off, his shock of whitening hair nodding as he acknowledged the cheers. On the East Portico, he read his inaugural address to the crowd in a voice so low that virtually no one heard. The address, drafted by Jackson, had been polished by Donelson, Lewis, and Eaton. Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath making Andrew Jackson the seventh president of the United States. 4
Jackson was swept along by the crowd to the President’s Mansion, where Steward Antoine Giusta had prepared a dignified reception for a select group of invited guests. A wave of people burst through the doors. Food and drink were spilled on the carpets, crystal glasses and fine china were broken, ladies fainted, and men stood on damask chairs with muddy boots. “The Majesty of the People had disappeared,” sniffed Margaret Bayard Smith, one of the cream of Washington society, “and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negroes, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping.” They pressed upon the president with so much fervor and affection that he was pinned against a wall. Donelson, tall and strong, and others pushed through the crowd to rescue him. Linking arms, they formed a shield around him and eased him out a window onto the south portico and into a carriage. 5
The inaugural ball that evening was more dignified. The mourning Jackson remained in his suite at Gadsby’s. Andrew and Emily Donelson and Mary Eastin represented the president. Emily, recalled Cora Livingston, daughter of Louisiana senator Edward Livingston, was “a beautiful, accomplished and charming woman, with wonderful tact and delightfully magnetic manners,” and everyone was impressed with her. As the night progressed, however, Emily observed that the leading ladies of Washington society were ignoring the new wife of the secretary of war, Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton. 6
Margaret was the daughter of William O’Neale, in whose boarding house Jackson, Eaton, and Richard K. Call had stayed during the congressional session of 1823–1824. Pretty, vivacious, and forward, she grew up a notorious flirt and a pampered favorite of her father’s politically prominent boarders, even after she married John B. Timberlake, a navy purser. Timberlake was often away at sea, and Washington gossip was rife with Margaret’s alleged affairs, including with Eaton, a widower. In 1828, word arrived that Timberlake had died aboard the USS Constitution , a rumored suicide upon hearing of his wife’s infidelities. Then, with discomfiting rapidity, Eaton married Margaret on January 1, 1829. Washington society ladies were aghast. A tavern keeper’s daughter with a bad reputation was now the wife of one of the highest officials in the government. The new Mrs. Eaton, they decided, simply would not be allowed into the ranks of genteel society. 7
Several days were required to clean up the mess that had been made by the crowds at the Executive Mansion—people were only just beginning to call it the White House—before the new president and his family could move into their opulent new quarters. Andrew Jr. soon departed for home. Well-intentioned but feckless, he could never quite get things right. Now his optimistic father put him in charge of the Hermitage where, with competent overseers and a routine that had run smoothly for years, it was hoped that he would grow into responsibility. William B. Lewis also announced his intention to return home. “Why, Major,” Jackson exclaimed, “you are not going to leave me here alone , after doing more than any other man to bring me here?” At least that was Lewis’s version. At any rate, Jackson provided him a sinecure as second auditor of the Treasury and even a room in the President’s House. 8
The rooms on the second floor were parceled out as offices and private quarters. Jackson took rooms on the southwest corner. The Donelsons were across the hall in the northwest corner room, facing Pennsylvania Avenue. A small side room became a nursery, at first for little Jackson, but it soon became evident that Emily was expecting another baby. Ralph E. W. Earl soon arrived; out of his room came a steady stream of portraits of the president, family members, friends, and associates. The president’s office suite consisted of three rooms along the southeast side. Donelson’s office was across the hall in the northeast corner. Visitors milling around the central corridor waiting to see the president had a full view of the bedrooms. Emily and Mary Eastin were so discomfited by the lack of privacy that Jackson had partitions and glass doors installed to separate the official east end of the floor from the private west end. Snoops were common enough that Donelson locked his office door whenever duty required him to be elsewhere. 9
Donelson was not formally the president’s secretary. Congress authorized the position and appropriated a salary only in 1861 during Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Earlier presidents either paid their secretaries out of their own pockets or appointed the putative secretary, officially, a clerk in some executive department but with light duties so that he could spend most of his time as the president’s “private secretary.” Donelson was appointed a patent clerk at the standard salary of $1,500 per year in the Department of State. There he signed patents for the sale of public lands, which under ordinary circumstances occupied only a few hours of his time each week. 10
Accustomed to assisting his uncle, Donelson settled into his duties easily. Every morning he and Lewis perused the newspapers to keep their fingers on the political pulse, then he screened callers, including the ubiquitous office seekers, sifted the president’s mail, and exchanged communications with the executive departments. After noon he attended meetings as needed with government officials and addressed presidential correspondence. When Congress was in session, he usually made a daily trip to the Capitol to transmit communications between the president and department heads. If Congress was in a hurry for a requested report, he could be considerably inconvenienced. His old friend from West Point, Nicholas P. Trist, was now a clerk in the State Department, a sinecure that he received during the John Quincy Adams administration for having married one of Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters. Trist was always willing to assist Donelson when needed. 11
Donelson complained to John Coffee, fairly, of the “exceedingly laborious” work of the president’s office. Beyond his secretarial duties, Jackson entrusted the purse strings to him. Jackson, who received as president an annual salary of $25,000, could spend lavishly. By September he had issued checks to Donelson totaling over $5,000, but he did economize whenever possible. Unpaid slaves from the Hermitage steadily displaced lower staff. As slaves went, Jackson’s were quite pampered; Steward Antoine Giusta complained that he could not enforce discipline because their indulgent master invariably took their side. 12
Donelson served his president well and impressed people in the process, sometimes in curious ways. “By the way this Maj Donelson is the very handsomest man I ever saw,” one visitor gushed, “a most intelligent face & elegant manners, educated at West Point . . . a very different man than I expected to see.” 13
Unlike her husband, Emily enjoyed no familiarity with her duties. As official hostess of the President’s Mansion she was thrust immediately into the top social position in Washington. It was a daunting task for a Tennessee girl not yet twenty-two, but she came with useful experience. Raised among house slaves and numerous siblings at the Mansion, she had grown up directing domestic work and could handle large groups of people. She was ably assisted by Mary Eastin. “Unaffected and graceful in manners, amiable and purely feminine in disposition and character, and bright and self possessed in conversation,” a charmed Van Buren described them. Senator John McKinley of Alabama reported to his friend Coffee that “Mrs. D & Miss Easton [ sic ] . . . are very much liked by all the ladies who have become acquainted with them.” A young Boston Jacksonian, George Bancroft, was also “quite charmed with Mrs. D.” Emily naturally was uncomfortable in her role at first. “I am sure from appearances that company is painful to Mrs. Donaldson,” noted David Campbell, a Virginia politician. The mistakes that she made were minor. When Martha Jefferson Randolph, daughter of the late president, visited Washington, Emily called upon her first, when protocol specified the reverse. 14
Together, Andrew and Emily Donelson had an important role to play. “Major Donelson, as the private secretary of the President,” judged an early historian, “was also a personage of some importance . . . in the society of Washington.” The judgment went double for Emily, especially as there was no first lady. With whom the Donelsons associated could be not only important social but political indicators. 15
For a short time after the presidential family settled into the Executive Mansion and their routines, things were quiet. Donelson’s desk-bound job produced one common result. “My Husband is in fine health and has grown quite fleshy,” Emily wrote her sister Mary Coffee, pleased at that nineteenth-century measure of prosperity. “The only embarrassment felt is in the social walks here,” Donelson wrote breezily to Coffee, “arising from the unhappy prejudice which from some cause or other prevailed against Mrs. Eaton previous to her marriage. We have nothing to do with it, but . . . at the same time not seeking to disturb the sentiments of others.” Donelson’s hope that he and Emily could stay clear of the deepening Eaton difficulties, however, was quickly crushed. 16
For one, Emily made her views plain immediately. “There has been a good deal of discontent manifested here about the cabinet and particularly the appointment of Major Eaton,” she wrote her sister Mary Coffee, “his wife is held in too much abhorance [ sic ] here ever to be noticed or taken in society. The ladies here with one voice have determined not to visit her. . . . I am afraid it is to be a great source of mortification to our dear Old Uncle. I think if Eaton had felt any disinterested friendship he never would have accepted the appointment.” Her mention of “disinterested friendship” reminded her of another irritant. “I believe there is very little of that article to be found,” she continued, for “here is that sycophant Lewis that has got himself a fat office and to save himself all expense has taken his quarters here for the next 4 years.” 17
The Donelsons deeply resented Lewis’s presence in the President’s House. Although one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee, the big, balding Lewis seemed to be content to be Old Hickory’s lackey. Donelson, like many Tennessee politicians, including William Carroll, Hugh Lawson White, and James K. Polk, regarded him with suspicion. They were all sure that behind his bland mask, Lewis was up to no good. Lewis, of course, took Jackson’s side in the growing quarrel over Margaret Eaton, but was careful to stay in the shadows, which only reaffirmed suspicions that he was manipulating events. Van Buren, himself a master of the art, noticed immediately that there existed “a suspicion to the minds of many of General Jackson’s friends” that Eaton and Lewis exerted too much “influence” on Jackson. “Major Donelson . . . partook largely of this feeling.” Donelson’s disregard of Lewis and Eaton was fully reciprocated. Margaret Eaton recalled that “my husband had no confidence in . . . A. J. Donelson, against whom [he] had cautioned the General.” For his part, Jackson’s reasons for siding with the Eatons were simple. First, he was immovably convinced that Margaret was innocent of all the charges that had been leveled against her. She became in his mind, infused as it was with memories of the sacred Rachel, the guiltless victim of groundless slander. All his chivalrous instincts rose to defend her. Second was his loyalty to his friends, in this case Eaton, at all costs and in the face of all opposition. These were admirable traits but they blinded him to all practicalities. 18
The Eatons did not stand by passively while Washington society debated their fate. Eaton fired the first volley in their defense, in a letter to Emily. “I have understood that a certain family here,” he began, “have gratuitously stepped forward to become your councellors [ sic ] and advisers, to tell you what to do, and what not to do; and in secret whispers to slander . . . me and my wife.” He hoped “that some recent events which gave pain in your own bosom would lead you to forbear attaching any importance to tales of slander.” The reference to Rachel Jackson was clear. Eaton sent a second letter the next day, asking Emily to tell him precisely what several Washington ladies had said to her about Margaret. He desired “you to bring this request to the consideration of your husband, that he may decide if you can properly and with propriety afford me, what is requested.” 19
Eaton had underestimated Emily Donelson. She did not need to consult her husband; she could handle Eaton herself. In what a recent historian has described as “a polite but steely letter,” she ably defended herself. “As to the probability of my being a victim of the slanders of this or any other place,” she retorted, she hoped that “at the close of my Life that I shall have the satisfaction of knowing my character has not only been pure but unsuspected.” Emily’s letter went to Eaton under cover of one by her husband, to which Donelson added that if his wife had not been “explicit enough,” then “I have taken the liberty to accompany her note herewith enclosed, with this explanation.” Nevertheless, he assured Eaton, “I take pleasure in adding as an individual that no one can be more ready than myself to pay to yourself and to Mrs. Eaton every proper mark of respect, and by my example to recommend the sentiment which justifies it to my family.” A century later, a historian frowned that Donelson’s note “read like a lawyer’s brief—clear in parts, but in most instances as lucid to the casual reader as the lines of an insurance policy.” Nothing in it, however, suggested that he did not fully support his wife’s decision. He acknowledged Eaton’s right to know what was being said about his wife, and at this point, he himself was willing to pay Mrs. Eaton the respect that she was due as the wife of a cabinet officer. Otherwise, Donelson’s duty was to support his own wife. A passage following the above section did not appear in the note that he sent to Eaton, but a draft survives that clearly revealed the depth of his indignation: “But beyond this my regard for them [my family], and my duty to society does not require me to go.” For the sake of making his feelings clear, Donelson should have included it. 20
Eaton briefly considered resigning his cabinet seat. Emily sniffed to her mother that “it seems the most proper course for him to pursue.” He kept his office, but otherwise faded into the background. His wife now took up the attack. Margaret drove to the White House and harangued the president on the way in which she was being treated. She thought nothing of using Jackson to force her way into society. She felt nothing but contempt for the ladies who sought to shut her out, dismissing Emily as “a poor, silly thing.” 21
Van Buren quickly assessed what was at stake. Jackson’s age, uncertain health, and perceived political inexperience meant that groups soon formed to influence the policies and ideology of his administration and push their claims for the succession. Vice President John C. Calhoun held the initial advantages. In the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Ingham, Attorney General Berrien, and Secretary of the Navy Branch were all his associates. Still, knowledgeable men expected Van Buren to jostle for the succession. In the cabinet, only Eaton was clearly his friend, but among the president’s informal advisers nearly all, including Lewis, favored him. Donelson was the only one close to Jackson who was associated with Calhoun. He felt a special regard for the South Carolinian who had taken such interest in his career since his days at West Point. His antipathy to the Eaton-Lewis clique reflexively repulsed him from Van Buren. The Red Fox even recalled that Donelson once told him that “his dislike of me was so strong that ‘he could have drowned me with a drop of water.’ ” 22
Jackson was becoming daily more obsessed with what Van Buren dubbed the “Eaton Malaise.” “I did not come here to make a Cabinet for the Ladies of this place,” he barked, and declared his belief “that Mrs. Eaton is as chaste as those who attempt to slander her.” He was quick to see conspiracies against him, and for now he blamed the difficulties on “Clay and his minions,” as he told Coffee. There was, in truth, no political facet to the Eaton Malaise—at least not this early—but Van Buren immediately saw the possibilities. As a widower, he had no female restrictions on whom he visited, so he soon paid a call on Margaret. As intended, this immensely pleased Jackson, who had less success under his own roof. He welcomed Margaret’s visits, but Emily was never more than minimally polite. Her embarrassed husband stood loyally behind her, while Jackson, inwardly fuming, pretended for appearances’ sake that nothing was wrong. 23
Early in July, Jackson left Washington for Norfolk, Virginia, to inspect the recently completed Fortress Monroe and the Gosport Navy Yard. Aboard the steamboat was most of the executive family, including the Donelsons and Eatons. While strolling on the deck, Emily, nearly seven months’ pregnant, swooned. Margaret rushed to her assistance and offered Emily her fan and cologne bottle. Emily preferred to faint. Margaret, with much justification, was deeply offended. Donelson first made his wife comfortable in their cabin, then attempted to smooth things over with Margaret. He even proffered his arm at the landing. Margaret not only refused but, displaying “an extraordinary discomposure of temper,” railed at him about the conduct of his wife. She further told him that Jackson had already promised her that he would send Andrew and Emily back to Tennessee if their attitude did not improve. Whatever his wife’s feelings, Donelson had until this moment tried to be friendly to Margaret. Now he was “satisfied” that “no partial intercourse” with the Eatons “could save me from exposure to fresh insults,” he announced to his uncle. “I feel it therefore to be my duty . . . not to permit her [Emily’s] further intercourse with Mrs. Eaton.” The Eatons had gained another opponent. 24
In August, Jackson departed for the Rip Raps, a seaside resort near Fortress Monroe. The Donelsons remained in Washington, as Emily was now too close to delivery to risk traveling. Donelson took the opportunity to unburden himself about the growing difficulties that he and Emily were experiencing with their uncle. “You are aware of his sensibilities,” he reminded Coffee, “—how all absorbing they are when excited by friends and especially by such collisions as here.” Still, his loyalty to his uncle was unshaken. “My situation has been a little embarrassed,” he admitted, “but as long as I can be useful to the Genl. I shall not think of abandoning it.” 25
Emily’s doctors had calculated that her term would be reached about the middle of September, but the baby arrived about two weeks early, on August 31, 1829. This time Andrew and Emily were the proud parents of a daughter, who was named Mary Rachel Donelson. All her life Mary would claim that she was the first baby to be born in the White House, although that honor was already held by a grandson of Thomas Jefferson. 26
Mary’s birth was a happy diversion from the Eaton quarrel as well as other worries. Jackson and the Donelsons kept in close touch with family and friends back home, where the news that year was frequently bad. In August, William Eastin, Mary’s father, died. Jackson and Donelson, trying to keep a close eye on their farms, received conflicting information. James Glasgow Martin, husband of Emily’s sister Catherine, reported that their overseer, Graves Steele, “keeps all things in fine order” at the Hermitage, but trouble brewed at Springdale. Steele had “but little trouble with the Genl[’s] hands yet some with yours,” Martin wrote Donelson. Charles, a field hand, “should not stay on the place” if Steele “could sell him & buy another” before Charles ran away. 27
The most shocking news reached the President’s Mansion in April just as Jackson closed a letter to John C. McLemore. “I have this moment heard a rumor of poor Houstons disgrace” he gasped. “My god, is the man mad [?]” Sam Houston had always been erratic, but others, too, were repeating Jackson’s question. Recently elected governor of Tennessee, Houston in January 1829 married the daughter of a prominent Gallatin planter, seemingly another step up the ladder of success. His fall was swift and spectacular. Within months he returned his bride to her father, resigned the governorship, and left the state to take refuge among his beloved Cherokees in Arkansas Territory. All Tennessee howled in outrage. Houston “has been burned in effigy, & is disgraced forever!!” John Overton shrieked at Donelson. “It had often occurred to me that Houston’s character rested too much on impulse,” Donelson conceded, “. . . but that he should be tumbled so suddenly from the commanding situation which he occupied” was still shocking. Everyone had a pet theory as to what had happened. Daniel Donelson related to his brother “(enter nos)” what Houston had confided to him, “I mean the revolution of Texas.” Daniel denounced Houston’s “grand scheme,” and Houston himself as “a scoundrel ;” the marriage was another of Houston’s shams in his reach for glory. “I may be mistaken; may I be?” 28
For Andrew and Emily, the birth of their daughter ameliorated all of these bad tidings. In a city that needed a happy social occasion, Mary’s christening was a grand affair. The cabinet and diplomatic corps, all with their wives, gathered in the East Room. Mary’s godmother was Cora Livingston, Emily’s best young friend in Washington. Curiously, her godfather was Martin Van Buren. Perhaps the Donelsons were already warming to his efforts at friendship, but the hand of their formidable uncle may still be discerned in such a notable symbolic gesture. Among the guests was Mary Custis, whose father, a grandson of Martha Washington, owned the stately Arlington mansion across the Potomac River. Her escort was her fiancé, a handsome young lieutenant recently graduated from West Point, Robert E. Lee. The proud great-uncle held the infant, and Jackson was soon engrossed with little Mary. At the appropriate moment the Reverend James Gallagher turned to the godparents and asked, “Do you in the name of this child renounce the Devil and all his works and pomps?” Jackson came to himself with a bump and announced, “I do, sir. I renounce them all!” Thus were all devils cast out, under threat from Andrew Jackson. 29
* * *
On August 29, with Jackson at the Rip Raps and two days before Mary was born, the Reverend John Campbell, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, called on Donelson. Campbell claimed that some years previously a doctor, now deceased, told him that Margaret Eaton, when still Mrs. Timberlake, had suffered a miscarriage at a time when her husband, absent at sea, could not have been the father. Campbell asked Donelson to present this evidence to Jackson. Whatever he now thought of Margaret, Donelson wisely declined. Campbell therefore saw the president on September 1 after his return. Jackson exploded in outrage, dismissed Campbell, and forsook most of his official duties the next day, wasting valuable presidential hours investigating Margaret’s virtue. A week later the president of the United States held a cabinet meeting to consider the case against her. Eaton was excused, but Donelson and Lewis were present while Jackson interrogated Campbell and the Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, who had similarly approached him. Old Hickory concluded this deplorable spectacle over Margaret’s alleged misdeeds by pronouncing, “She is as chaste as a virgin!” 30
“It is a pity that Eaton was brought into the cabinet,” Donelson sighed afterward to Coffee. From home, Coffee and McLemore followed events in Washington with growing alarm. Coffee knew as well as anyone how Jackson could overreact to situations in which honor was involved, but even he found Old Hickory’s actions hard to believe. “I knew the warmth and ardour of his feelings to his friends were great,” he exclaimed to Donelson, but “this impression was more strongly impressed on me by his own letter to Mr. McL. than any thing else I saw or heard.” Donelson’s brothers-in-law decided that McLemore would go to Washington in hopes that he could repair the widening rift. Willing to try anything, Donelson urged him to hurry, “in time to be here by the meeting of Congress.” 31
The arrival of congressmen inaugurated the Washington social season, with the potential for the Eaton difficulties to be magnified. The first disaster was not long in coming. According to protocol the president hosted the first large dinner of the season. With all the money that Jackson lavished on entertaining and Emily’s talents as hostess, the dinner was, on the surface, a splendid affair. Everyone was there, including the Eatons. Despite the glitter, a pall hung over the party. Jackson, trying to be courteous and affable, watched with increasing “mortification at what was passing before his eyes.” Emily overcompensated with good spirits to the point of calling attention to the side glances that she and the other ladies cast toward Mrs. Eaton. McLemore’s visit to smooth over family feelings was unsuccessful and he was gone by mid-December. Next it was Van Buren’s turn. Happily for his party, all the cabinet ladies, including Margaret, found excuses not to attend. Unwisely pushing his luck, he held a second party, which Margaret did attend. On the dance floor, she picked a quarrel with the wife of General Alexander Macomb, which only reinforced what Washington society thought of her. 32
The social pattern was thus established. As the year 1830 began, the Eaton scandal spread into the political realm. A series of trends and coincidences, many of which had nothing to do with the Eatons directly, began to nudge people into distinct groups, one clustered around Van Buren and the other around Calhoun, on opposite sides of the affair.
Floride Calhoun was among those who had snubbed Margaret at the inauguration, but after Congress adjourned, the vice president and his wife left for home in South Carolina. Jackson thus gave little thought to their attitude toward Margaret, but he was drifting away from Calhoun on other grounds. The rift began with the high tariff of 1828. Calhoun balked, and the great nationalist inside of him died. His agricultural South Carolina depended on cheap, imported manufactured goods. In the South Carolina Exposition and Protest , Calhoun asserted as a constitutional right that an individual state might, to protect its own vital interests, declare a federal law to be “null and void.” Jackson was no political philosopher, but his ample common sense told him that if a state could nullify any law that displeased it, then the federal government would soon be unable to enforce its authority. Old Hickory had spent too many years working to enlarge the union of states. He was not going to preside over its dissolution. Then, although Floride remained at home in South Carolina, when Congress convened in December it seemed that it was Calhoun’s friends who were snubbing Margaret Eaton. “I have a right to believe that most of the troubles, vexations and difficulties I have had to encounter, since my arrival in this City,” Jackson concluded by the end of 1829, “have been occasioned by his friends.” 33
The Eaton affair spread with increasing viciousness. Enjoying the disarray among his political enemies, John Quincy Adams snickered that Jackson made Margaret “doubly conspicuous by an over-display of notice.” Donelson dreaded the growing storm. “The adumbrating cloud continues where you saw it,” he wrote McLemore after his departure, “and I trust in God that I may not become visible to the politicians either for or against us.” Nevertheless, the participants in the petticoat war were fast polarizing along political grounds that were not necessarily favorable to the Donelsons. 34
“Calhoun heads the moral party,” Adams quipped, “Van Buren that of frail sisterhood; and he is notoriously engaged in canvassing for the Presidency by paying his court to Mrs. Eaton.” The Eaton affair placed Calhoun in a difficult situation. Indeed, he was too clinical, too cerebral, too separated intellectually from the mass of human passions to understand well what was going on. He was thus driven along by the flow of events toward his unperceived doom. In stark contrast to the uncomprehending Calhoun, Van Buren was in his element. “Van Buren glides along as smoothly as oil and as silently as a cat,” newspaper editor Amos Kendall reported. “If he is managing at all, it is so adroitly that nobody perceives it. He is evidently gaining from the indiscretions of Calhoun’s friends. He has the entire confidence of the President and all his personal friends, while Calhoun is fast losing it.” 35
To his credit, Van Buren was genuinely distressed at the anguish that the scandal was causing in the president’s household. While visiting Emily and Mary Eastin at the White House in February, Emily explained to him that her objection to Margaret was on social rather than moral grounds. She detested Margaret’s “bad temper” and “meddlesome disposition,” which made “her society too disagreeable to be endured.” Van Buren agreed that Margaret was a graceless boor. Still, larger issues were at stake. He pointed out that Emily’s position as the president’s hostess prevented her from snubbing Margaret. He urged her to see the situation from the point of view of her uncle, “whom she dearly loved, the difficulties he had to contend with in the performance of his public duties, to the value he placed upon the peace and harmony of his family and misery he suffered in seeing them destroyed” by the affair, and how the Eaton scandal was being “used by his enemies to injure him; &c. &c.” In pushing his argument, Van Buren became overexcited. Mary, “who had sought to hide her emotions,” retreated to a window and began sobbing. Van Buren realized that he had gone too far and apologized. Emily assured him that she was not offended. Hearing of the episode, Adams’s sympathy went out to Emily. Van Buren, he frowned, “urged her with pathetic eloquence to visit Mrs. Eaton; that she defended herself as well as she could her own course, but being no match for him at sophistication she at length said, ‘Mr. Van Buren, I have always been taught that “honesty is the best policy.’ ” Upon which he immediately started up, took his hat and departed.” 36
Afterward, Van Buren “became convinced that Mrs. Donelson’s earnest feelings on this occasion and in reference to this affair were less the effects of anything that she had heard or believed than of natural sympathy for her husband who was deeply interested in the quarrel—differing widely in opinion and feeling from his Uncle, the President.” He did Emily an injustice. She had enough intelligence to make her own decisions and the gumption to act on them. In fact it was her husband who tried to steer a middle course and, when that failed, it was he who supported his wife, whose opinion it was that differed widely from that of her uncle, the president. Nevertheless, after Van Buren’s talk, Emily and Mary made an effort to be civil to Margaret, at least under Uncle’s roof. At a cabinet dinner that was held at the President’s House, Postmaster General Barry noted that “Mrs. Eaton and Mrs. Donelson and the other ladies were present and exchanged the usual civilities.” 37
Even as one cloud thinned, another formed. Daniel Donelson visited Washington in February and became smitten with, and then engaged to, Margaret Branch, daughter of Secretary of the Navy John Branch. However happy a wedding normally would have been, the Donelsons were about to be linked by marriage to the family that Jackson had already fingered as among the worst transgressors against the Eatons. 38
Nevertheless, for a while the petticoat war slipped into the background as truly more important events captured attention. In Congress, a seemingly innocuous resolution on the sale of public lands grew into a debate on the growth of the West, the spread of slavery, the rights of states, and the nature of the Union. Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina defended the doctrine of nullification and asserted the right of a state to secede from the Union to protect its liberties. In front of packed galleries, “God-like Daniel” Webster replied, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” 39
Everyone wondered where Jackson stood on this vital matter. Many presumed that he would side with the nullifiers. He always said that the growing power of the federal government was the greatest threat to liberty. He held his peace, however, awaiting the right moment. Every year the Republicans in Washington held a Jefferson’s Day dinner on April 13. Van Buren was filled with “morbid speculation” that the dinner this year was managed by Calhoun’s friends to trumpet states’ rights and nullification. The president nonetheless accepted the traditional invitation to attend and set about writing a toast that would express succinctly and dramatically his views on the subject. On the morning of the dinner, he handed Donelson and Lewis three drafts. Both chose the same one. Jackson agreed. That evening, Van Buren arrived to accompany Jackson and Donelson to the dinner.
Hayne, the formal host, delivered a long speech praising states’ rights. Most of the two dozen regular toasts did the same. Jackson, as president, had the honor of giving the first of the volunteer toasts. The moment was at hand. He stood, eyes fixed on Calhoun: “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved .” A “sensation . . . was witnessed throughout the large assemblage,” Van Buren recalled. Now it was Calhoun’s turn. Glaring back at Jackson, he asserted, “The Union: Next to our liberty, the most dear.” He paused, then added, “May we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and by distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.” Brevity was never Calhoun’s virtue. The force of his toast dissipated anyway after Old Hickory spoke. Chastened nullifiers began to trickle unobtrusively from the hall. 40
Calhoun’s position on nullification made Donelson’s with respect to his uncle even more difficult. His and Emily’s stand against the Eatons had made them allies of Calhoun, at least in Jackson’s eyes. Donelson’s position, however, derived more from his suspicions of Van Buren than from agreement with Calhoun’s theories, and he rejected nullification outright. Growing up in the Hermitage, he had absorbed Old Hickory’s strong stance on the Union. Still, he took pains to remain on good terms with Calhoun. Donelson’s toast at the dinner—“The true American system: Hard fighting in war, low taxes in peace.”—was almost ludicrously irrelevant to the occasion and probably resulted from a desire to avoid antagonizing either side by taking refuge in patriotic banality. 41
Jackson’s break with Calhoun was soon complete. In May, Lewis handed Jackson a letter from William H. Crawford that accused Calhoun, back when Crawford and Calhoun were members of Monroe’s cabinet, of recommending that Old Hickory be arrested and punished for his seizure of Florida. It was Donelson’s sad duty to hand the vice president a letter from the president demanding an explanation. Calhoun’s fifty-two page reply was encapsulated in the final sentence: “I cannot recognize the right on your part to call in question my conduct on the interesting occasion, to which your letter refers.” Jackson and Calhoun were implacable political and personal enemies from that point. 42
Uncle, Donelson told McLemore, now “thinks in the goodness of his heart that Mrs. E. has obtained a triumph.” Worse, the president was making acceptance of the Eatons a test of loyalty to the administration. “Can it be possible that an idea so unworthy of the great fame of Uncle will find a place on the page of his history[?]” Donelson gasped. He believed that Jackson’s reputation had been sustained through the affair only by those few, such as himself and Emily, who truly cared for him and had nothing to gain from any power play. “As for myself & Mrs. D.,” he sighed, “we . . . shall be mindful of the intense delicacy of our situation.” McLemore was alarmed at Donelson’s sense of resignation. On a letter that Daniel Donelson wrote to his brother, McLemore scrawled a note of encouragement: “My Dear friend never permit yourself to think for a moment of leaving the Genl. for he is in more danger now than ever and it is time to go in for our friend right or [w]rong.” 43
After more than a year, nerves were strained. Even Margaret Eaton was avoiding potentially embarrassing situations, turning down an invitation from Jackson to the White House with her characteristic gracelessness. “I could not expect to be happy at your house for this would be to expect a different course of treatment from part of your family,” she pouted. Outraged, Jackson plopped this letter down in front of his nephew. Donelson was uncowed. “The only unkind treatment which my family can have p[r]acticed towards Mrs. Eaton is their refusal to acknowledge her right to interfere with their social relations,” he retorted. Donelson’s outburst was understandable. For over a year he had tried to take the high road in this ignoble feud. Now he was sinking to the level of the other participants; if he realized that he was, he made no effort to arrest it. 44
Simply put, they had all had quite enough. Congress adjourned on May 31, and within days the city was half-deserted. Perhaps back home in Tennessee, away from Washington politics and gossip, they could restore family harmony. As they departed on June 17, Jackson made his views plain by leaving Lewis and his daughter Mary Ann in charge of the President’s House. The traveling party included the president, the Donelsons and their two children—Jackson, now four, and Mary, ten months—Mary Eastin, and Ralph Earl. It was a typical Jackson trip, with cheering crowds everywhere—the people heartily approved Old Hickory’s stand against nullification. They arrived at the Hermitage on July 6. For Emily, it was a sad homecoming. Her father, John Donelson, had died on April 21. Andrew and Emily hurried to the Mansion for a tearful reunion with her widowed mother. Even the old captain’s death became involved in the petticoat war, for Jackson petulantly interpreted their long stay there as avoiding the Eatons once they arrived. 45
The difficulties between Jackson and the Donelsons over the Eatons were an open secret among family and friends at home. Worse, when the Eatons arrived most of the Donelson clan and Nashville as a whole joined Andrew and Emily in snubbing Margaret. Even in Tennessee, Jackson attributed the response to Calhoun’s partisans, whom he accused of “holding up & making my family the tools to injure me, disturb my administration, & if possible to destroy my friend Major Eaton.” Worst of all, “that my Nephew & n[i]ece should permit themselves to be held up as the instruments, & tools , of such wickedness, is truly mortifying to me.” “I found affairs so bad that I could not undertake to describe either their bearing upon me or others,” Donelson, for his part, admitted to Secretary of the Navy John Branch. 46
A stop had to be put to this madness. “My Dr friend I am anxious to see & converse with you,” Jackson wrote the steady, reliable John Coffee. When Coffee arrived, accompanied by his daughter Mary, she was inundated by the gossip. “I never heard so many different opinions on one subject in my life,” she reported back to her mother. Within days, Jackson was able to report proudly to Eaton, “Genl Coffee has, since here, produced a visable, & sensible change in my connections,” but he had better cause for satisfaction than did his nephew and niece. Coffee was Donelson’s brother-in-law, but despite the best intentions, he inclined to his old friend’s views. His prestige among the Donelson clan even induced a few defections, but most of the family remained loyal. Emily’s brother Stockley, who since their father’s death had become head of household at the Mansion, offered room for her and the children should it be decided that they remain in Tennessee. And McLemore remained true. He had observed the petticoat war firsthand in Washington, and denounced the Eaton-Lewis group to Coffee as “the most rascally combination of Scoundrels under the garb of Fri[e]ndship” he had ever seen. 47
It was soon clear that Emily would not be returning to Washington. The only question was whether her husband would resume his duties. The issue was so doubtful that Jackson wrote Lewis, “On this event I shall want a Secretary,” and asked him to make inquiries. After a week of Coffee’s patient if not wholly objective diplomacy—Old Hickory gloated that “Genl Coffee . . . has perfectly accorded with me in my course”—the situation was unchanged. “I shall have no female family in the city the ensuing winter,” Jackson informed Lewis, “Mrs. D. remains with her widowed mother—and it is probable Mrs. Eaton may remain with her mother[-in-law]. . . . Whether Mr. Donelson will or will not accompany me to the city has not as yet been determined on by him, whether he will leave his wife & little ones to whom he is greatly attached, he will determine to day or tomorrow.” 48
The final decisions were made accordingly. The ladies would remain in Tennessee, in Margaret’s case against her will. Donelson would return to Washington with his uncle. He was deeply unhappy to leave Emily and the children, but concluded that he dare not abandon his uncle, for he regarded himself as the only truly selfless servant whom the president had. “No Ladies will return with me,” Jackson informed Lewis. “Major A. J. Donelson, my son & Mr. Earle will constitute my family, & I hope Major Eaton will . . . leave his Lady. . . . To this the Major is willing, whether Mrs. E. will finally consent to this arrangement (she says she will) I cannot say.” 49
With everybody unhappy at the arrangements, Donelson bid his family a sad goodbye and joined Jackson, Andrew Jr., and Earl on the return trip to Washington. They left September 1, taking the overland journey through East Tennessee. From Knoxville, Andrew wrote Emily to reassure her that she was right, “exalting you still higher in my Love and honor. You have too true a sense of what is due to virtue ever to pine at your own conduct. . . . In relation to this subject you have only to remember that whatever others do, you cannot change your position—you cannot visit the Madam.” 50
* * *
The journey back to Washington was an ordeal. The mountain roads were rough. Initially a drought plagued the travelers, then “constant & heavy falls of rain.” By the time they reached Washington, “much fatigued,” on September 25, 1830, moods were sour and tempers were short. An explosion seemed to be inevitable, but first, happy events prevailed. From her exile in Tennessee, Emily sent cheerful letters full of the children’s antics. Little Jackson “is in fine health,” but so rambunctious “that I can scarcely confine him to his book long enough to say a lesson.” Mary, past her first birthday, “walks very well by holding my fingers & I think will run all about as soon as she acquires a little confidence in herself.” In Washington, Daniel Donelson married Margaret Branch on October 19. The next morning the couple left on a honeymoon trip to New York. Andrew Jackson Jr. tagged along as far as Philadelphia. 51
While Daniel and Andrew Jr. were staying at the White House, the president and his secretary put on their best faces. With the relations gone, they could lower their masks. Donelson’s resentment over Emily’s exile smoldered. Old Hickory was irascible and self-righteous. Uncle and nephew began to withdraw from each other. Donelson had originally been entrusted with the household finances, but Jackson now handled these himself. Then, in late October, Margaret Eaton returned to Washington with her husband, a flagrant breach of the agreement that had been negotiated in Tennessee. 52
The explosion was ignited by a letter that Jackson wrote on October 24 to Mary Eastin, who was staying with Emily at the Mansion. “Major Donelson has informed you that the House appears lonesome,” he admitted, “and on his account it would give me great pleasure that you & Emily with the sweet little ones were here.” Had Jackson stopped there all might have remained quiet. Instead, playing alternately the lecturer and martyr, he bemoaned that Emily and Mary had fallen in with the minions of Calhoun and subjected Mrs. Eaton to slanders that were as bad as those that had been leveled against the sacred Rachel Jackson. Unless they agreed to socialize with Mrs. Eaton, it was “better to put up with the separation” than “to come on & introduce again those scenes here that has cost me so much pain,” and that from “my dearest friends, uniting with & pursuing the advice of my worst enemies.” The letter was full of things that were better left unsaid, but Jackson considered it to be his definitive pronouncement on the subject. In that spirit, he compounded his error by showing the letter to Donelson. 53
Donelson was outraged. That Jackson could dictate to Emily her social relations was bad enough. That he could accuse her of willfully associating with his enemies was unbearable. The break between uncle and nephew over that Eaton woman was complete. So angry was he that Donelson dared not speak to Jackson. “Reflecting upon the delicate subject of our morning[’]s conversation,” he instead wrote him stiffly, “. . . I have thought it best to give you my views in writing as the least painful mode of communicating them.” Donelson accordingly recounted a full defense of his and Emily’s actions respecting Margaret Eaton from the moment “this petticoat affair” began. He himself had never cared about the “facts touching the general character of Mrs. Eaton,” but his duty was to his wife, “who possesses my love and is the mother of my children.” Despite the overall formality, he unbent a bit toward the end. “Affection can have no purer link than that which binds me to your interests, to your private happiness, to the honor and glory of your public services,” he assured his uncle. He laid this note on Jackson’s desk on the morning of October 26. Seeing the manner in which his nephew chose to debate, Jackson responded in kind. An equally formal note appeared that day on his secretary’s desk: “Genl A. J. with his respects informs major Donelson that he has recd his note & will to night make in writing a reply to it with candeur & in friendship.” 54
And so began an absurd new campaign in the petticoat war. Two intelligent men, the holders of great public responsibility, engaged in a quarrel that was waged with handwritten notes like bickering schoolboys. For the next week, the president of the United States and his private secretary went about their official business, scarcely speaking to each other. The notes always bore a superficial formality, but petulance often broke through as frustration mounted. As many as four notes were exchanged in a day, and the drain on profitable time and energy must have been enormous.
In his reply, Jackson asserted that Donelson’s note merely confirmed his suspicions about “the slanderers of Mrs. E.” and maintained that “every head of a family have a right to govern their House hold.” Jackson handed this note to Donelson on the morning of October 27. Later, deciding that he might have been a little too harsh, he told his nephew, again in writing, “I wish to have a free, friendly, & full conversation with you on the subject of your letter to which mine was intended as an answer.” The conversation never took place. Donelson made clear that the exchange would continue on paper. “You have decided the question as you have a right to do,” he conceded. “The only remaining one for me to consider is also depending in some degree upon your decision, how long shall I remain seperated from my family?” For the first time, he wrote of quitting his position—“it may be best for you to look to some one to take my place”—and going home. Such a bald threat would usually precipitate a quick response from the combative Jackson, but he merely noted that he was exhausted from the press of business and suffering “a bad head ache.” 55
The resulting lull gave Andrew the opportunity to write Emily that “the demand is now pressed with more boldness than ever that before you can return a pledge must be given to hold a social official intercourse with Mrs. Eaton as a visitor and otherwise.” He would have been pleased at the letter of support that Emily was writing him. “You cannot regret this seperation more my Dear Andrew than I do,” but she agreed that “you should not come to me if you can possibly avoid it. . . . It would be the most gratifying thing to your enemies as well as the Genl’s that could happen.” 56
After recuperating for three days, Jackson returned to battle. He called his nephew’s bluff to resign, if bluff it was, asking only that Donelson stay until after Congress convened in December, as preparing the President’s Annual Message required so much work. “I have found for upwards of a year, that you appeared to be estranged from me, & entirely taken up with strangers,” he lamented in closing, “but what I most regretted was your constant malancholy, & abstraction from me, which under my bereavements made my tears to flow often.” Whether from his “constant malancholy” or bitterness over the separation from his family, Donelson rebuffed Jackson’s overture. “In your house, my dear Uncle,” he retorted, “as your guest” he accepted Jackson’s rules, but outside the White House, “I claim only the same general discretion in behalf of my family that is possessed by all others.” This was a most ill-judged statement. “When my Dr Andrew were you my guest or how & when treated only as such[?]” a deeply hurt Jackson moaned. “You & Emily with mary [Eastin] was considered by me as my family.” This plaintive note was penned at 11:00 p.m. and sitting on Donelson’s desk the next morning. Donelson rightly apologized immediately, although it, too, was in writing. 57
Whether from anger, shame, or emotional exhaustion, both men lapsed into silence. Daniel and Margaret returned from New York and stayed at the White House, but no doubt the newlyweds felt the tension. The truce lasted a week. On November 8, another argument erupted. Jackson repeated that Emily could not return to Washington until she agreed to socialize with Mrs. Eaton, not only in the President’s House but anywhere else they met. The next day Donelson replied, in writing, that “such terms cannot receive my approbation.” So as not to precipitate another round of letters, he added, “I do not wish another correspondence on the subject.” 58
Taking Donelson at his word, Jackson appeared before his nephew the next day. He had not softened his stance. He would never part with Eaton, especially as that was what his political enemies desired. Donelson replied that he looked only toward Jackson’s fame “and the protection of my own honor and character.” He insisted that the refusal to see Mrs. Eaton socially did not imply political hostility to her husband. “It is evidence of hostility to me,” Jackson retorted. He threatened to dismiss the obstreperous cabinet secretaries. “This will be a fatal step,” Donelson warned. “It is that which your enemies are looking for.” Jackson again denied that he was trying to coerce Emily into seeing Margaret, then in the next breath repeated that she could not return until she agreed to do just that. He complained that his leadership was being ridiculed. How could Old Hickory govern the country when he could not govern his own house? 59
Several days later, uncle and nephew argued again. Afterward, Donelson penned such a vituperative letter that Jackson committed it to the fire in his presence. For the last time, uncle took pen in hand to address his nephew. “One remark & I am done writting to you upon this subject—you must hereafter speak, not write me upon it.” He reminded Donelson of all that he had done for him, only to be repaid thus. “To think that you who[m] your father called for & bequeathed to me, that I had raised & loved as a child, should under the same roof be carrying on a written correspondence filled me” with sorrow. Whenever Donelson wished to depart for home, “you have only to name the day,” but “when you retire from me, you will still carry with you, my prayers for your welfare & that of your family.” Old Hickory then closed his part of the paper war: “yours affectionately, Andrew Jackson ” 60
If the letter was intended to make Donelson feel small, it worked. The next day, November 17, he and Jackson actually talked, although each man’s position remained firmly fixed. Jackson was certain that his political enemies were bent on destroying him and, through false friendship, had turned his nephew and niece against him. Donelson was equally convinced that an unscrupulous faction led by Van Buren, Eaton, and Lewis were intent on driving away the president’s true, selfless friends. They had succeeded in exiling Emily to Tennessee but, as he asserted to John C. McLemore, he remained willing “to risk a most unequal battle.” 61
The rift between the president and his secretary could not be kept a secret. Calhoun’s followers, especially, watched with foreboding the impending fates of Ingham, Branch, and Berrien at the hand of Van Buren’s forces. “That Mrs. Donelson has been left in Tennessee & that Donelson will be driven from the President as a preparatory step I have no doubt,” Duff Green told Calhoun. “If this bold movement be made it will be the consequence of a belief that nullification has nullified you , and as preparatory to a declaration of war upon you & your friends.” 62
By now Jackson’s letter to Mary Eastin that had precipitated the paper war in Washington had reached its addressee in Tennessee. Mary was so upset by it that she and Emily rode into Nashville to consult McLemore. Mary’s reply was restrained but rejected Jackson’s conditions. Emily also wrote Jackson in which “I expressed my willingness to stay here” rather than visit “Mrs. E.” 63
Emily’s letters of support sustained her husband’s flagging spirits, being, as he assured her, “worth more to me than the favor of all the world without it.” But she then revealed that she was willing to make a concession. “I would be willing were I to return to the City, to visit Mrs. E. sometimes officially, this I do not think would be inconsistent as I have done it before. I am willing to make this apparent change of opinion to please dear old uncle . . . who has always been to you a kind father and whose feelings to you are still unchanged.” In reply, however, Andrew would not hear of it, refusing to make “the slightest concession of principles which have governed me.” 64
The president soon cut his last ties with the vice president, including Duff Green’s United States’ Telegraph . At the behest of Amos Kendall and William T. Barry, Francis Preston Blair, editor of a Frankfort, Kentucky, newspaper, came to Washington to establish a new organ, the Globe . Blair arrived on December 1. Showing him around the White House, Jackson indicated his secretary. “There’s my nephew Donelson; he seems to be leaning toward the nullifiers. But he’s my nephew. I raised him. I love him. I can’t help it. Treat him kindly, but if he wants to write for your paper, you must look out for him.” Such patronizing remarks were infuriating. The departure of Daniel and Margaret for Tennessee before Christmas increased Andrew’s loneliness. He pined for his family. “Tell Jackson that his papa expects him to learn his book,” he wrote Emily in a letter that Daniel carried, “and by this means entitle himself to the praise of being a Jackson boy. . . . Does Mary R talk any—does she grow much? answer these and a thousand questions about them.” 65
Donelson had to get some things off his chest that he dared not say to Emily for fear of breaking her own spirits. On December 14, he began a long letter to McLemore, because “you understand the bearing of my own views, and the motives of my conduct better than anyone else.” He regretted most that the Eaton affair had divided the administration and alienated friends who wished to serve the Jacksonian program. In his own case, the president must decide whether the Eaton affair “has deprived me of the capacity to serve him.” Donelson now blamed meddling friends in Tennessee as being responsible for his current situation, in particular, “I cannot conceal from you the change of opinion which my mind has undergone in regard to Coffee.” He and John Overton “have banished Mrs. Donelson from the President[’]s house” and demonstrated “to the public that there is a price for General Jackson’s favor which neither my duty as a son, my fidelity as an officer, nor my honor as a friend could pay.” He filed the letter for six days, then resumed it. “Our friends in congress are a good deal chop-fallen . . . in relation to the Eaton & Lewis influence” in the White House. A mention of “secret influence” turned Donelson’s wrath on Lewis. “Jealous, untalented and mean,” he spat about the man whom Jackson regarded as one of his best friends. Still, he hesitated to mail a letter that was so full of bile. The next day, he wrote another section. Then he gave up entirely and filed the letter but, perhaps significantly, he did not destroy it. 66
Christmas 1830 was not merry at the White House. To Mary Eastin on New Year’s Day, 1831, Jackson nursed his conviction that the Donelsons had deserted him for Calhoun. Van Buren noted that Jackson was miserable. “I have scarcely ever known a man who placed a higher value upon the enjoyments of the family circle or who suffered more from interruptions of harmony in his own.” Feelings remained as cold as the snowstorm that kept the occupants of the White House indoors for five days in January. “Altho we have been visited by a vast number of ladies & Gentlemen, and inundated as usual, by office hunters, still we have appeared loansome,” Jackson confessed to Emily. With Jackson feeling so, when Donelson shortly after inquired again about the conditions for Emily’s return to Washington, to his surprise his uncle did not mention her visiting Margaret Eaton. Heretofore those had always been the first words out of Jackson’s mouth. 67
Several days later, Jackson made an unexpected concession. Congress would adjourn on March 3. After that, Donelson was free to go to Tennessee and bring Emily, Mary Eastin, and the children back to Washington. Again, he did not mention visiting Margaret Eaton. “Nothing could be more gratifying to me than the expression of such a sentiment,” an obviously pleased Andrew reported to Emily. The good news did not come too soon for Emily. “My patience is worn quite threadbare,” she admitted. Once the decision was made to let Emily return to Washington, the family feuding vanished. Plans developed to have the Coffees and McLemores join her. “If you should agree to come on with [your daughter] Mary,” Jackson wrote Coffee, “I have no doubt but Mr. MLamore will bring on his daughter with you & you could come with Mrs. D. & Mary Easton.” After a cold winter of grumpy bachelors, the White House would sparkle with beautiful ladies. 68
Coffee was pleased at the bright turn of events. Andrew and Emily “cannot have any other, than the best feelings toward you,” he assured Jackson, “but they have heard bad counsel, and under a mistaken notion of endangering their own honor, they have fallen into the opposite extreme, before they knew or suspected it.” He also wrote to his younger brother-in-law. “I know you love him as a son loves his father,” he noted in reference to Jackson, “therefore I take the liberty to speak so plain to you . . . let nothing but the forfeiture of your sacred honor (which never should be abandoned) ever to induce you to oppose his views and wishes.” 69
Emily’s return would not put a stop either to the problem of Margaret Eaton or the political games. Mrs. Eaton “may have her imprudencies,” Jackson conceded to his exiled niece, but he still saw the petticoat war as being “a political maneauvre” to “lessen my standing with the people, so that they would not again urge my reelection.” Donelson feared that Jackson could not politically afford a rupture with Calhoun. Our friends, he wrote McLemore, “admit that a quarrel with Calhoun was uncalled for by the facts, impolitic as it regarded the administration, and if not disadvantageous certainly not beneficial to the General’s personal fame.” He emphasized that his political views were never to be taken as a criticism of Jackson himself. “I see only the interests of Uncle. I am no man’s man who is not for him up to the hub .” 70
Donelson chafed until Congress adjourned. His daily routine had become dull. “I go generally to the capitol with a message in the morning,” he wrote Emily, “am engaged in my office until dinner, and the remainder of the day and evening divide my time as well as I can between my friends and my books.” To cheer her, he recounted social events. “I dine tonight with Mr. Van Buren. . . . I dined with Mr. Ingham yesterday and am billeted two weeks ahead. So you see the requisition upon my good humour is too intensive to allow it to be lost entirely in despondence at our separation.” Emily did not appreciate his strained attempt at levity. “I am sometimes afraid you do not feel so sensibly as I do our separation,” she frowned. Finally, March 3 came, Congress adjourned, and with the president’s lightened duties, Donelson set out on March 8 for Emily, the children, and home. 71
In late March, Donelson rode up to the Mansion and was reunited with his family. How the children had grown! Jackson, nearing five, was learning to read and spell. Mary at nineteen months shared her mother’s Titian hair, and her father dubbed her his “little red bird.” Added to the joy of seeing his loved ones was the chance to see how his farm had fared. While home in the summer of 1830, Donelson had released Graves Steele, who had hitherto overseen both the Hermitage and Springdale, and hired his own overseer, Ray, another separation of interests resulting from the Eaton quarrel. Emily’s brother William Donelson kept an eye on Ray, but the results were not satisfactory. Billy visited one day in January and found “the negroes doing just as they please.” 72
“At Washington every thing was quiet and peaceful,” Donelson beamed to Coffee, his bitterness toward his brother-in-law now evaporated. The anticipation of a happy return to the city only made worse the shock that was produced by the arrival of a letter from Jackson the first week of April, almost as they were loading trunks onto the carriage. The president related a conversation “with some of my advisors” that precipitated a stunning announcement: “I wish you were here but my dear Andrew . . . as much as I desire you, & your dear little family with me, unless you & yours can harmonise with Major Eaton & his family, I do not wish you here.” Upon reading the letter, Emily refused to leave home. 73
Donelson instantly fingered Lewis as having poisoned Uncle’s mind against him and Emily in his absence. His loathing of the second auditor was shared by many. “Send him home,” General Richard G. Dunlap of Knoxville, an old war comrade, warned Jackson, because keeping Lewis in Washington “holds you responsible for his silly conduct.” An increasingly angry Donelson could no longer allow Lewis to ingratiate himself with his uncle, who had already demonstrated his hazy perception of who his real friends were. Accordingly, on April 18 he wrote what was probably the most extraordinary letter of his life to date. The letter does not survive; Jackson called it “a vindictive philippic,” and it is a reasonable assumption that he burned it, but from his comments to Coffee and his own reply to his nephew, its substance may be inferred. Donelson denounced “Lewis & Co, as a set of intriguers” and used “the epithet & language, of that unprincipled tool of one of the most hypocritical & intriguing men on earth,” by whom Jackson meant Calhoun. 74
On the same day on which Donelson wrote his “vindictive philippic,” Coffee arrived from Florence. Donelson showed him Jackson’s letter, but evidently not the “vindictive philippic,” for Coffee assured Jackson that Andrew “breath[e]s the spirit of friendship and kindness throughout” toward his uncle. Coffee leaned toward Jackson’s view of the Eaton affair, but he understood, too, Donelson’s unique importance. There were “so few men of suitable qualifications” as Donelson possessed. “You have reared him with paternal affections,” Coffee continued, “and he aught never to seperate from you. . . . I hope my dear Genl. what I have said on this subject, will be received by you, in the same spirit, which I offer it, and if so I am sure no harm will have been done.” At last Coffee had spoken bluntly to his old friend, and there was much truth in what he said. Certainly Jackson realized by now that Donelson was invaluable. Andrew Jackson Jr., back in Washington after his tour of the Eastern Seaboard, was filling in as private secretary, with bad results. He was eager to please, but he lacked the self-discipline for this responsible but tedious position. The president’s office was soon far behind in its paperwork. Jackson confessed to Donelson that “I have great need of your aid.” He at last called in Nicholas Trist and released Andrew Jr. back to the Hermitage. 75
Meanwhile, Donelson decided that he would return to Washington alone to counter Lewis’s influence and arrange for Emily’s return. On May 4, he was in Nashville on the first leg of his return. Stopping at the post office, he found a letter just arrived from Jackson, dated April 19. Again, the information was startling. “Mr. Van Buren, & Major Eaton have both tendered their resignations,” he informed his nephew. He expected the other cabinet officers to follow suit. The letter provided no clues as to what had happened, but it was clear that the situation in Washington had changed suddenly. Briefly Donelson considered returning home to pack the family, but decided that he would continue alone and assess the situation. He covered the distance in only twelve days. Jackson was surprised to see him, as Donelson’s last letter had stated his and Emily’s decision to remain in Tennessee. He also was reluctant to discuss the “circumstances” that precipitated the cabinet resignations, but over the next several days, Donelson learned what had happened. 76
Van Buren had concluded that his position as Jackson’s heir apparent was now secure. To ensure that he was not destroyed by a backlash, he had to end the Eaton affair. In an act of calculated selflessness, he announced to the president his decision to resign. Jackson was skeptical; a meeting that included Eaton, Lewis, and Postmaster General Barry was required to convince him. As the three cabinet officers departed, Eaton exclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is all wrong!” “Why should you resign?” he asked Van Buren, continuing, “I am the man about whom all the trouble has been made and therefore the one who ought to resign.” Had Eaton taken such disinterested action two years earlier, a quarter century of American politics might have been radically different. Tellingly, neither of his companions tried to talk him out of it. Van Buren asked only “what Mrs. Eaton would think of such a movement he proposed.” Eaton said that she would approve. His and Van Buren’s resignations gave Jackson the excuse to demand the same from Ingham, Branch, and Berrien. 77
Despite her husband’s assurances, Margaret Eaton responded with her characteristic gracelessness. Shortly after all the resignations were in, Jackson and Van Buren paid her a visit. “Our reception was to the last degree formal and cold,” Van Buren noted, “and what greatly surprised me was that the larger share of the chilling ingredient in her manner and conversation fell to the General.” 78
By the time Donelson arrived in Washington, most of the new cabinet appointments had been made. Edward Livingston was the new secretary of state. Van Buren was appointed minister to Great Britain to succeed Louis McLane, who was called home to become secretary of the Treasury. After Jackson’s first choice to replace Eaton as secretary of war, Tennessee Senator Hugh Lawson White, declined to serve, he settled on Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan territory. Levi Woodbury of New Hampshire replaced Branch as secretary of the navy. Roger B. Taney of Maryland became attorney general. Only the innocuous Barry retained his place as postmaster general. 79
Donelson hoped to reconcile past differences “without injury to myself and without the slightest detraction from the character and true interests of Uncle.” Relations between them had been strained for so long that this was not guaranteed to be instantaneous or smooth. “Whether I am to remain or not the Private Secretary will depend entirely upon the will of Uncle,” he informed Coffee. Jackson had not changed his mind as to where his nephew had gone wrong. Conversations remained tense, and progress slow. The week that Donelson hoped would settle matters grew to a month. In his letters to Emily, he could only counsel patience. 80
Worse, recriminations over the Eaton affair had begun. Jackson was accused of carrying out a purge. “Donelson[’]s return has been countermanded,” Ingham reported to Berrien, “. . . and I w[oul]d not be surprised if he [Jackson] would empty Washington of all who have not made their wives submit to the lady.” Eaton and Ingham came near to a duel until Ingham fled town. The quarrel involving John Branch was especially embarrassing to Donelson because Branch was now his brother’s father-in-law. Donelson “appears to be greatly solicitous I think for a reconciliation between yourself & the Genl,” a mutual friend wrote Branch. Instead, Branch sent letters to friends denouncing Jackson and Van Buren that appeared in the newspapers and produced the expected outcry. 81
Despite these quarrels, Old Hickory’s friends were pleased, or at least relieved, that the ordeal was over. Coffee told him, “We hail this as a triumph over your newly avowed political enemies.” For many politicians, however, the split in the Jacksonian ranks was irreparable. Especially in the South, they laid the blame squarely on Van Buren. “ ‘The great magician’ will evermore be looked upon with an eye of jealousy and suspicion by the public here,” declared Senator John Tyler of Virginia. 82
For Donelson, the immediate problem was bringing his family back to Washington. Mary Eastin hoped that Jackson and “Uncle Andrew,” as she referred to Donelson, would still be able to come to a “satisfactory understanding.” Fueled by the bickering among the ex-cabinet officers, Jackson stood his ground. “Uncle,” Andrew sighed to Emily, “. . . is as kind and affectionate as ever but still embarrassed” that “our not visiting Mrs. Eaton may . . . confirm the prejudice against her and thus served indirectly to injure him.” Not knowing what else to do, Donelson prepared to return to Tennessee. “I cannot take leave of you,” he wrote his uncle both gratefully and hopefully in a parting note, “without giving you a written assurance of my readiness to resume the relation which I have maintained near you, for so many years, whenever you may think that my services can be of any avail in facilitating the discharge of the many arduous duties which are devolved upon you in your present office.” 83
Donelson departed on June 19, reaching home in early July, not knowing whether he should prepare his family for a return to Washington or settle in for the foreseeable future. Letters that soon arrived from Jackson showed that he was as upset as ever. Branch “is acting the part of a base & unprincipled man, & his hypocracy to you, adds to his mean[n]ess.” Particularly galling was a Fourth of July celebration in Washington that was hosted by Calhoun’s friends. “The[y] Honrd Mrs. Calhoun, Mrs. Ingham, & Emily with a toast,” which the gentleman in Jackson deplored as socially inappropriate. As for the Donelsons returning to the White House, he remained adamant. “You cannot but be aware,” he told his nephew, “of the continued friendship I bear for you, and how happy I have ever been to have you with me—and in my present situation how much aid you could afford me—but . . . you will at once see, how improper it would be, under present circumstances to have your family with me.” 84
It was McLemore who finally cut the Gordian knot. He collected two mutual friends, Alfred Balch, a rather meddlesome and self-important attorney who had already decided to speak to Donelson, and Donelson’s schoolmate from Cumberland College and now Congressman John Bell, whom Coffee had rather narrowly described as Donelson’s last friend within the administration. The four men spent July 29 and 30 at Balch’s home outside Nashville. Donelson showed them the correspondence that he had accumulated on the Eaton affair. The three men gaped in disbelief, then pointed out the obvious: Eaton was now out of the cabinet. He and his wife would soon be out of Washington. The question of socializing with them was now irrelevant. Donelson and Jackson were standing stubbornly on obsolete principles. McLemore reported to Jackson that “after a seeing all your recent letters to Majr Donelson and understanding distinctly his feelings and opinions with regard to the difficulties to which you have refer[r]ed—Mr. Bell—Mr. Balch & myself have after the most mature reflection urged it on Majr. Donelson to set out with his family for Washington” immediately. “If in persuing the course advised—Majr. Donelson shall go on to the city contrary to your wishes—we & not him are to blame .” 85
The Eatons were no longer an obstacle to a happy return to Washington, but one did remain—William B. Lewis. Donelson told McLemore, Balch, and Bell of his disgust with all that Lewis had done. “Lewis was continually employed in telling lies to the General concerning all who might by possibility win his favor,” Balch related to Nicholas Trist. Urged by his friends, Donelson decided that Lewis or no Lewis, he would return to Washington with his family. “It is not certain that this step will restore harmony,” he admitted to Coffee, “but there are strong reasons to believe that it will and that it is absolutely necessary to put a stop to the misrepresentations which the Eaton & Lewis men have authorized in relation to the social intercourse not only at Washington but elsewhere.” 86
Preparations got underway. In addition to Andrew, Emily, and the children, Mary Eastin would be returning. McLemore’s daughter Mary, wishing to attend music school in Philadelphia, also would be joining them. Andrew and Emily were disappointed that Coffee and his daughter Mary were not coming along. “I have strong hopes that all will be well and that you and the Genl. will be perfectly at ease, in all your intercourses in future,” Coffee wrote as an optimistic send-off. As Donelson set out in mid-August, escorting a carriage that was loaded with three ladies, two children, and their belongings, he did not know what to expect at journey’s end. He knew that “every cloud is not yet removed,” but he trusted that “my conduct and that of my family . . . will be controuled by too much kindness and respect for Uncle’s comfort and hap[p]iness to leave room to doubt its sincerity.” 87
The Rising Politician
September 1831–December 1835
Andrew Jackson was writing Martin Van Buren on the afternoon of September 5, 1831, when he heard a carriage clatter up the drive of the White House. He raced downstairs to greet the nephew, ladies, and children whom he had so missed. “Major Donelson & his family have just arrived since I began this letter, with Miss Mary Eastin, & Miss [Mary] McLamore,” he wrote upon resuming his pen, “and I hope, with all those feeling[s] which ought at first to have accompanied them hither.” Without missing a beat, he added darkly, “They know my course , & my wishes , & I hope, they come to comply with them.” 1
Otherwise, Old Hickory said nothing to spoil the reunion that everyone so clearly desired. “Uncle seems quite happy & everything is moving on harmoniously.” Emily Donelson wrote in obvious relief to her sister Mary Coffee. “Conciliation & harmony are now the order of the day,” her husband wrote to her brother William Donelson. Andrew Donelson was surprised how easily Jackson brushed off the difficulties. “He has been accustomed to carry weight all his life and possibly it makes him run steadier,” he opined to John Coffee. The arrival of Andrew Jackson Jr. soon completed the family reunion. 2
A series of happy events helped to heal wounds. On November 24, in Philadelphia, Andrew Jr. was married to Sarah Yorke, daughter of a Quaker merchant. His marriage raised a question of protocol. Would Emily remain the president’s official hostess or would Sarah inherit the position? Jackson decided quickly. “You, my dear,” he told his new daughter-in-law, “are mistress of the Hermitage, and Emily is hostess of the White House.” The arrangement had less to do with the ladies than with their husbands. The well-meaning but bumbling Andrew Jr. had already demonstrated that he could never replace Donelson as secretary to the president. On April 10, 1832, Lucius J. Polk, a young Tennessee state senator and cousin of Congressman James K. Polk, was married in the President’s House, as Old Hickory beamed, “to my favorite niece Mary Eastin.” 3
Emily saved the best for last. “Emily presented major Donelson last night with a fine son,” Old Hickory announced after their third child and second son was born May 18, 1832. Initially, there was no agreement on his name. “Andrew and Uncle said he better be called Samuel and I wished him called John,” Emily admitted. They “concluded to join the two names together” as John Samuel Donelson, in memory of his father’s late brother, Jacky. When Johnny, as the family often called him, was christened, Jackson was his godfather. 4
No reconciliation was possible with William B. Lewis so long as he remained a resident of the White House. Friends of Jackson added their voices to Donelson’s that he was a pernicious intriguer who must go. Alfred Balch warned Jackson “that there exists at Washington ‘a power behind the throne greater than the throne itself.’ ” Finally, Lewis and his daughter Mary Anne moved out. If Donelson felt the need to claim a victory, however small, in the whole petticoat war, he would have to be content with that. Lewis retained his office as second auditor of the Treasury, although his influence with Jackson did wane, partly because of reduced access to the president’s ear, partly because his ally and brother-in-law John H. Eaton was gone, and partly because he came to disagree (though silently) with much of the Jacksonian program. 5
The importance of the Eaton affair has been debated ever since John and Margaret Eaton departed Washington. To some historians, the petticoat war split the coalition that made Jackson president, initiated the second two-party system, and drove John C. Calhoun from the presidential succession and deeper into Southern fanaticism. By extension, it was the snowball that precipitated the avalanche toward civil war. James Parton, on the eve of the war, wrote that “the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton’s knocker.” At the other extreme, the Eaton affair has been dismissed as “great silliness” and the “comic relief” of the Jackson administration, views that are frankly difficult to reconcile with an episode that broke the careers of several men, separated families, and caused unquantifiable heartbreak, loneliness, and bitterness. Yet to a remarkable degree, it remained little known beyond the social and political circles that were directly involved. Edward G. W. Butler was stationed near Washington throughout this period, but even his wife’s sister never knew. “Why is Andrew Donelson going to return to Tennessee?” she asked as late as the summer of 1831. “Has any thing transpired between him and the President to produce this step?” 6
The petticoat war was certainly more than just a sex scandal. It eventually became entangled with several major issues of Jackson’s first term, and therefore to a greater or lesser degree, influenced the course of contemporary national politics. True, the Eaton affair remained an episode of personalities, but at times when political alliances and ideologies are in flux, personalities can be important.
The dominant personality in the Eaton affair was not John or even Margaret Eaton, but Andrew Jackson. In the beginning, at least, Jackson was moved by his chivalrous instincts. He saw parallels between the slanders that were directed against Margaret and those against his beloved Rachel, and he supported the Eatons out of loyalty to his friend. Somewhere along the line, however, Jackson’s tendency to personalize problems, his ability to see conspiracies wherever he looked, and his stubbornness overshadowed the matters of Margaret’s virtue and Eaton’s friendship. In his mind, he was the one who was really being attacked. He saw snubbers of Margaret Eaton as conspirators and political opponents. To Jackson, the Eaton affair was no minor irritant. It dominates his correspondence during the first two years of his presidency, and he wasted vast amounts of time and effort to force Margaret upon society. With others caught up in accusations, labored defenses, and general backbiting, the administration at times was virtually paralyzed.
The Eatons nevertheless deserve their share of blame. Rather than playing more demurely the social game, Margaret instead missed few opportunities to demonstrate that the poor opinion that Washington society held of her was well founded. “It is possible that she was chaste,” judged one historian. “It is certain she was vulgar. The President’s chivalry was wasted on her.” In the end, she astonished Jackson, and everyone, with her ingratitude. Eaton’s behavior was equally poor. A more disinterested man would have realized far sooner than he did what a burden he was on the administration and stepped aside. 7
Characteristically, Martin Van Buren’s actions seem to be full of ambiguities. The Little Magician is usually portrayed as being in his element, slyly manipulating events to further his own ambitions for the presidency. Beyond socializing with the Eatons, however, it is difficult to discern what, if anything, he actively did to promote himself. Yet, his role in ending the affair through a cabinet purge, the apparent ease by which this was accomplished once he did act, and the seeming coincidence that the affair lasted exactly as long as it took him to replace Calhoun as Jackson’s successor only reinforced convictions that the affair was under his control all along. Whether it was part of a plan, there is no denying that if anyone came out the winner of the petticoat war, he was Van Buren.
In contrast, John C. Calhoun is almost a tragic figure. Indeed, the Eaton affair revealed what was perhaps Calhoun’s fatal flaw as a statesman—his inability to comprehend that politics are often driven less by reason and principle than human feelings and failings. In Harriet Martineau’s famous description, Calhoun was “the cast-iron man,” who lived in “intellectual solitude.” Calhoun never understood what was going on. He was outmaneuvered by Van Buren at every turn—the tariff, the nullification crisis, and the Florida controversy—and never again was a serious contender for the presidency. 8
At one level, Andrew and Emily Donelson, “following their convictions courageously yet with exemplary correctness of deportment,” as one sensitive historian judged, command sympathy. It can be argued that they suffered more, personally, from the Eaton affair than the Eatons themselves. For six months, they were separated from each other and for two years were at odds with their uncle, whom they adored. As sympathetic as their plight was, however, their conduct was not without error or fault. 9
When the ladies of Washington decided to exclude Margaret Eaton from society, Emily was placed in a difficult position. Her new role as hostess of the President’s House thrust her into one of the most visible and powerful stations that a woman could hold at that time. Her worst error was making her decision to snub Margaret too quickly and irrevocably, without consulting Jackson, who, after all, was head of the house. Occasionally she comes across as a self-righteous snob, and she proved to be every bit as stubborn as her uncle. She took her stand on the principles that she defined as being important and held firm, probably too much so. To her credit, she showed no aversion to taking her punishment, and her exile in Tennessee took on a certain nobility that somewhat expiated her mistakes.
Andrew’s behavior, too, was alternately admirable and deplorable. At first he tried to ignore the difficulties, but Eaton’s letters to Emily in April 1829 accusing her of complicity in a conspiracy of gossip brought him into the fray, loyally on his wife’s side. On the political side, he was equally convinced that he was the only disinterested friend whom his uncle had. His goal became to protect Jackson from the scheming politicians who he believed were using the old man for their own ends. “This man possesses the most honorable feelings and in a word is a true Gentleman,” Alfred Balch observed of Donelson. “But, he has, like the rest of us his imperfections.” As with nearly everyone, the petticoat war exposed Donelson’s flaws. By nature he was open and personable, but like many such people, when driven past his point of equilibrium, he lost his temperamental balance. He reacted with excessive bitterness and sank into carping depressions. Eventually, he was as prone to childish stubbornness and paranoia as was his volatile uncle. A recent biographer of Donelson even concludes harshly that because of the difficulties that arose between uncle and nephew during the Eaton affair, “Jackson never fully trusted Donelson again,” and Donelson’s “confidence in himself and his uncle was never quite the same.” On the contrary, somehow, even through the worst days, the bonds of affection between the two men held, a feature of the Eaton affair that is no less remarkable than any other. “Uncle’s last words to me,” Emily wrote her husband revealingly after the two men returned to Washington, “were that before he would do anything to injure the honor of yourself, who[m] he had raised as a son, he would cut off his right arm.” As the troubles dissipated, Donelson was equally forgiving of his uncle. “I cannot but hope that posterity will say, his fault was a momentary misconception of the claims of friendship,” in which “the noble qualities of his heart were entrapped by an influence which he could not detect.” 10
Last, mention should be made of the two men who came closest to being the selfless heroes of the petticoat war, John Coffee and John C. McLemore. Neither was entirely disinterested—Coffee tended to side with Jackson, McLemore with the Donelsons. Still, they both risked much in their sincere if occasionally clumsy attempts to reconcile Old Hickory and his niece and nephew, and they deserve much credit for their efforts.
In sum, the Eaton affair managed to bring out the worst in nearly everyone who was involved. The Donelsons were fortunate to regain their former place, although this they did, and with a remarkable lack of long-term repercussions. However much the political situation had changed—and Donelson soon admitted that he had overestimated the beneficial effects of the cabinet reorganization—personal relations returned to normal and in some cases took promising new directions. For now, it was time to return to the long-neglected duty of helping as his uncle administered the government. 11
* * *
The cabinet purge changed the personnel surrounding Andrew Jackson, but not his advisory system. “It is, you know,” Donelson explained to Coffee about Jackson’s style, “from such a source as this that Uncle repels assaults with great feeling and he is therefore on this point the most in need of decent and prudent counsellors.” Jackson was accustomed to being the person in charge, so he rarely used the cabinet as a collective decision-making body, and the differences that erupted over the Eaton affair further reduced its role. In its place, Jackson made use of a group of informal advisers that by the spring of 1832 had been labeled by the political opposition as the Kitchen Cabinet. 12
Among the changeable membership of the Kitchen Cabinet, no one provided the president as much practical help as did Donelson. He drafted letters and assorted documents, and saw to minor matters. While advisers such as Van Buren, Amos Kendall, and Francis P. Blair influenced Jackson’s political philosophy and the administration’s program, Donelson was less programmatic. He did little to shape the Jacksonian philosophy, partly because of the nature of his job and partly because his relation with the president, being so personal, was correspondingly apolitical. In most of the major issues of Jackson’s administration, such as Indian removal and the war against the Bank of the United States, Donelson played only a peripheral role as secretary and confidant. In this he was well suited. He was capable, discreet, and more tactful than Old Hickory in handling people. Still, he was no yes-man. He had the strength of his convictions. The Eaton affair demonstrated that he could stand his ground against his imperious uncle. Donelson’s role was respected and appreciated, as much by others as by Jackson. Even at times of political and personal disagreement, Van Buren recognized that Donelson was a man “of much more ability than he had credit for.” 13
Donelson’s role as the president’s secretary nevertheless was not by any means the anonymous one of letter-writer and file clerk. Even while the petticoat war raged, he became involved in another political storm, one that was more directly related to his own actions. In January 1831, he replied with suitably vague suggestiveness to an inquiry from a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, Solomon J. Krepps, as to whether Jackson would accept a nomination to a second term. One of the few perquisites that were allowed public officials in this era of republican simplicity was the franking privilege, whereby their official mail was delivered free. Following what was probably routine procedure, Donelson sent his letter to Krepps under the president’s postal frank. Trouble ensued when Jackson’s presidential frank on the letter was noticed and detractors hurled charges that the White House was using the post office as a medium for electioneering. Donelson’s first instinct was to protect his uncle. Addressing the charges in a letter that was printed in the United States’ Telegraph , he asserted that his letter to Krepps “was written without consultation with the president . . . and, if it was franked by the president, that he did not know anything of its contents .” 14
Jackson’s enemies invoked the franking abuse episode as another example of how the old man was being manipulated by his advisers. Henry Clay was told that the Pennsylvania nomination “was brought about by some juggling management on the part of the Genl’s Sec, Mr D—.” Donelson’s friends attempted to shift the blame onto Krepps, while Samuel D. Ingham, the embattled secretary of the Treasury, loyally asserted that “Major Donelson is an Honorable man, and not more Honorable than discreet.” It is nevertheless difficult to believe that Jackson was ignorant of the contents of Donelson’s letter to Krepps. Conversely, the franking privilege was so overused by all kinds of government officials that some ninety-five percent of the mail consisted of franked materials and political newspapers. No doubt Donelson put the Krepps letter in Jackson’s stack of correspondence to be franked, and the president did so, both without thinking, through sheer repetition and routine. 15
The presidential campaign of 1832 soon diverted attention. In December 1831, opponents of Jackson’s policies, calling themselves National Republicans, nominated Clay for the presidency and staked his campaign on the recharter of the Bank of the United States. Jackson had long been an enemy of the powerful Bank, and by 1831, curtailing its influence formed the nucleus of his reform program. Donelson by now had accepted the inevitability of Van Buren’s succession, admitting that “there can scarcely be a doubt” that he would be nominated as Jackson’s running mate. Nevertheless, many people who were otherwise strong Jacksonians still objected to the Little Magician. Southerners especially distrusted him. Nevertheless, when a convention of Jacksonians, calling themselves Democratic Republicans, or just Democrats, convened in Baltimore in May 1832 to acclaim Jackson their presidential candidate, Van Buren received the vice presidential nomination. 16
Two other of Jackson’s acts crystallized issues for the presidential campaign. Clay introduced a lower tariff that satisfied all but the most doctrinaire nullifiers, and Jackson signed the bill. Prodded by Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank, Clay also introduced a bill for its recharter. For three days Attorney General Roger B. Taney, the most vociferous anti-Bank man in the cabinet, Amos Kendall, and Donelson labored on Jackson’s veto message. “The President was fortunate in his private secretary, Mr. Donelson,” Taney recalled. “He was frank and manly in his character—amiable in his temper—with excellent judgement, good taste, and a political sagacity & tact, not often to be found in a man at his time of life, and with his thus brief experience in public affairs. . . . The President certainly loved & confided in him as if he was his son.” 17
Jackson departed for Tennessee in July after Congress adjourned. The Donelsons remained in Washington. Emily’s health had been fragile since John Samuel’s birth in May, and she was unwilling to risk the journey. From Tennessee, Jackson kept Donelson apprised of his new overseer, Burnard Holtzclaw. “I found your farm in excellent order and well superintended—your manager [is] a good one, altho several of your negroes complain of great severity, which Mr William Donelson & Stockley says is not the case.” 18
The South soon gave more cause for worry than its uneven support of Van Buren. The nullifiers in South Carolina were not mollified by the Tariff of 1832. In September they swept the state elections; the state militia drilled. His war blood up, Old Hickory from the Hermitage peppered Donelson at the White House with orders: “See the Secretary of War & let the officers & men at charleston be relieved by men who cannot be corrupted, and the Forts & defences on that station ordered to be guarded against being taken by surprise.” Jackson’s carriage clattered up the White House drive October 19. By November enough electoral results were in to assure Jacksonians that their hero had won a landslide victory over Clay. The rift with Calhoun, however, muted the victory even within Jackson’s own family. “I am glad to see the overwhelming vote by which the General is elected,” Daniel Donelson assured his brother; “but regret exceedingly the combination of circumstances that have caused V. B. to be the V. President.” 19
There was little time to bask in the glory. In South Carolina, a convention on November 24 passed an ordinance declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be null and void within the State of South Carolina, and declared that any attempt by the federal government to coerce the state would be just cause for secession from the Union. The legislature prepared to raise an army, purchase arms, and defend the state borders. When Congress convened in December, the president’s annual message was admirably restrained. A few days later, however, he issued his Proclamation on Nullification. “Disunion by armed force is treason ,” he asserted squarely to South Carolina. “Are you really ready to incur its guilt?” Never in the short history of the republic had the Union been in as much danger as during the winter of 1832–1833. Fortunately, the other states rallied to the Union, and most national politicians, notably God-like Daniel Webster, swung in beside Old Hickory. 20
As with anything involving Jackson, the nullification crisis had its personal side. Even the family split. John Branch, still bitter, leaned toward the nullifiers. Daniel Donelson stood by his father-in-law. “I do not approve of all the acts of the nullifiers of S. Carolina,” he admitted to his brother, “but my feelings are wholly with them,” while “the ultra federal doctrines” in their uncle’s proclamation “if acted out would make this [country] a great consolidated empire,” against which “I would sooner see revolution itself.” Daniel feared that in his determination to save the Union, Old Hickory would destroy the very things for which the Union stood. 21
Jackson offered a carrot in the form of a bill to reduce the tariff, but then wielded the stick. He pushed through Congress a bill to authorize the use of the military to collect federal revenue and suppress armed rebellion. The whole country held its breath. The last hope was that the nullifiers would yield to this “Force Bill” and accept the compromise tariff. “If this hope should be disappointed & So. Carolina determine[s] to secede or assert the right to nullify,” Donelson told Coffee, “there will undoubtedly be a civil war.” South Carolina, realizing its isolation, backed down and suspended the nullification ordinance. Old Hickory had achieved the decisive victory. The Union had been saved. 22
Amid the cheering that erupted throughout the country, Donelson, who had watched the crisis from the clear view afforded by the President’s House, saw that the last threats of secession had not been heard from the South. “If in the other quarters of the Union there is to be a contest for the honor due to the advocacy and adoption of the principles in those measures,” he opined of Jackson’s proclamations, “and in the south an opposite one to disavow and repudiate them, it is obvious that the influence of the latter is to become permanently adverse.” Through the mists of time, he saw a greater storm brewing. 23
Washington society glittered that winter despite the specter of civil war. The presidential family was happy to welcome, at last, John Coffee and his daughter Mary. Inauguration Day, March 4, 1833, was so cold that the outdoor ceremonies were canceled. Jackson rode to the Capitol in a closed carriage accompanied by Donelson and Van Buren for a simple ceremony in the House chamber. “The President took the seat of the Speaker of the House,” the Globe reported, “with Mr. Van Buren on his left, and his Private Secretary, Mr. Donelson, on his right.” The reception afterward, arranged by Donelson, was more subdued than the one in 1829, partly because the cold kept the riffraff away. The Donelsons, Mary Coffee, and Mary McLemore attended the inaugural balls that evening, while Jackson and Coffee reminisced in a warm White House parlor. The next morning, James and Sarah Polk stopped by on their way back to Tennessee following the adjournment of Congress. Coffee packed his daughter and Mary McLemore aboard the carriage, bade farewell to his old friend and young brother-in-law, and was gone. 24
The passing of the nullification crisis and the rise of Congress in March 1833 gave the presidential family more time for relaxation than they had enjoyed during Jackson’s first term. Uncle and nephew found respite together in their racehorses. In October 1829, Donelson engaged a free black, Archibald Pool, whose duties included “raising, breaking & training of said Donelson[’s] stock” at Springdale. Early in 1832, Pool brought the most promising colts to Washington. While home that summer, Jackson’s keen eye was impressed with Donelson’s racehorses there, urging his nephew, “ You must risque to win .” Donelson took the “risque” in the fall races of 1832 but did not win, either in Tennessee or Washington. Determined to do better in the spring races, in May 1833 he took his horses to the Baltimore races, but they did not run well. 25
The spring and summer of 1833 allowed time for travel, but first Jackson faced another cabinet reorganization. He had decided to withdraw government deposits from the Bank of the United States, but Secretary of the Treasury McLane objected. At the same time, the aging Livingston was drooping under the strain of running the Department of State. To resolve these problems, Livingston was appointed minister to France, McLane was transferred to State, and William J. Duane of Pennsylvania was appointed the new secretary of the Treasury. 26
On June 6, the president departed on a grand tour of the Northeast, accompanied by Donelson, Ralph Earl, McLane, and Secretary of War Lewis Cass. Initially, Andrew considered letting Emily and the children summer at the Mansion, but she decided to stay at the White House with Andrew Jr. and Sarah Jackson, who had come up for the summer. Twelve miles out of Baltimore, the presidential party came upon that new marvel of nineteenth century technology, the railroad. Donelson, who had been this way only the month before, might already have ridden the newfangled “Steam Carrs,” as Jackson called them, but to the rest of the party, a train ride was a novelty, whisking them into Baltimore “in a few minutes.” All along their route—Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York—the crowds numbered in the thousands. From New York, where Van Buren joined it, the tour continued into New England. Donelson soon became worried that the crowds and strain of traveling were wearing down his uncle. When the procession reached Boston on June 21, the president took to bed and within days began to hemorrhage from the lungs. The scheduled festivities were postponed. Donelson hoped that if his uncle’s “health is not perfectly secure I hope [he] will terminate his journey eastward.” 27
Jackson recovered enough strength to press doggedly onward, but at Concord, New Hampshire, he collapsed. The next morning Donelson and Van Buren agreed that it was “highly important” that Jackson return immediately to Washington. It was left to Donelson to explain to disappointed citizens why the tour was canceled, blaming “one of those cold easterly winds from the ice off New Foundland” as the cause of the president’s illness. Avoiding the major cities, Jackson was rushed by carriage and steamboat the five hundred miles to Washington in three days. By the time when they arrived at the White House on July 4, it was feared that he was dying. 28
Old Hickory did not die, but death nevertheless dogged the presidential circle. Before Jackson left on his tour, word arrived from Tennessee that John Overton had died. Within weeks, came news that the Reverend William Hume, who had performed Andrew and Emily Donelson’s wedding ceremony, had also died. The hardest blow came while Jackson recuperated after his tour. John Coffee died on July 7, 1833, at the age of sixty-one. In late June, he had been stricken with asthma, which developed into dropsy and inflammation of the lungs. The final scene was heartrending. Family members gathered round, with wife Mary sobbing and even her brother John Donelson being overcome. Coffee, in his final agony, opened his eyes and surveyed the scene. In a “firm, audible voice,” the old soldier commanded, “Jack Donelson, be a man.” 29
The news hit the White House hard. Jackson had lost his best friend, moaning to Van Buren that “a better or braver man never existed, and I mourn his loss with the feelings of David for his son [ sic ] Jonathan.” Donelson extended his and Emily’s sympathies to the widowed Mary Coffee: “Allow your sister & myself to tender you our humble condolence[s] at the melancholy dispensation of Providence which has deprived you of the best of husbands.” Jackson would compose, with Donelson’s help, Coffee’s epitaph, which reads in part, “He was a brave, prompt and skillful general, a disinterested and sagacious patriot, an unpretending, just and honest man.” 30
Jackson was eventually well enough to travel to the resort at the Rip Raps. Emily and the children, Andrew Jr., Sarah, their daughter Rachel, and Earl accompanied him. Donelson was left in charge of the presidential office, although some time before they all returned to the White House on August 22, he had departed on “a flying trip to Tennessee.” It was his first trip home in two years. Holtzclaw was still overseeing Springdale with his notable efficiency, but there was evidence that he was too hard on the slaves. Distant skirmishes of the Bank War were breaking out in Tennessee. Even die-hard Jacksonians were wary. One, claiming to be no friend of the Bank, told Donelson in Nashville, “The evil arising from the continual meddling with the currency by the State banks, I believe to be greater than any evil which the U. States bank has caused, or that it would be likely to cause.” Such fears were well founded. Nicholas Biddle responded to the president’s threats by withdrawing currency from circulation. The branch in Nashville alone pulled in $3 million, tightening the money supply across the state. 31
Donelson returned to Washington by September 10 to another cabinet crisis. Secretary of the Treasury Duane was resisting Jackson’s efforts to remove government deposits from the Bank. Donelson himself was initially hesitant, but despite being peppered with diverse opinions, he was soon convinced that the destruction of the Bank was necessary. The Bank, by using its power and money, he explained to Livingston, “has excited a spirit” in the people that demanded “the complete prostration” of its power. The impasse was ended by Jackson’s dismissal of Duane from office on September 23. Taney was appointed Duane’s successor and began removing government deposits from the Bank. 32
Biddle responded by tightening the Bank’s financial squeeze on the country. The convening of Congress in December 1833 added to the storm. Amid the economic and political turmoil, the opposition coalesced into a united party that came to be led by Henry Clay. He and his followers spent this “Panic Session” of Congress denouncing Jackson’s policies, labeling his actions as executive usurpation and him “King Andrew the First.” To complete the symbolism, they began to call themselves Whigs, after the British political party that stood opposed to Royalist, or Tory, policies. The Jacksonians in turn solidified their own organization. The coalition that elected Jackson in 1828, through defections resulting from the tariff, nullification, and the Bank War, had by now been honed into a cohesive unit. Jacksonians portrayed themselves as the protectors of the ordinary American farmer and laborer against a wealthy, powerful aristocracy. Thus the Democratic Party was born. From long habit, however, Jackson and many older party leaders continued to use the Jeffersonian “Republican” label. To them the Whigs were still “Federalists.” 33
Biddle’s high-handed actions were better persuaders than Jacksonian rhetoric that the Bank was too powerful. “We are gathering strength politically,” Andrew crowed to Stockley Donelson. Their brother-in-law James Glasgow Martin denounced the “self important . . . Bankers &c &c” who had “abused” and “misrepresented” the people, who in turn “are opposed to the Bank U.S. they are disgusted with allarmists [among] whom they set down clay [and] calhoun [as] the leading majicians.” Business revived once it was clear that the panic was largely a creation of the Bank. In April the House adopted Polk’s resolutions that “the Bank of the United States ought not to be rechartered,” which effectively condemned it to extinction. “I have obtained a glorious triumph over the opposition,” Old Hickory gloated. He had achieved more than that. The Bank War completed the process that began with the Eaton affair and continued with the nullification crisis, galvanizing the competing factions into two distinct parties with opposing political philosophies. 34
In the struggle to purge dissidents and restore harmony among those who remained, Donelson began his rise from a trusted but essentially apolitical secretary to a valued member of the inner core of the new Democratic Party and a politician in his own right. A key component of the orthodox Democratic creed was the recognition of Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s heir apparent to the presidency. For Donelson this meant accepting the inevitable, although he soon demonstrated that he remained unduped by the Little Magician. In June 1834, Secretary of State McLane submitted his resignation. Van Buren’s main concern was that another cabinet scandal would again depict him as meddling to eliminate a rival. Meeting with Jackson and Donelson, he opined that Donelson’s draft letter accepting McLane’s resignation conceded errors on the president’s part. Jackson asked Van Buren to rewrite the letter. In the subsequent discussion, Donelson frankly admitted that he did not like Van Buren’s version. Then, when the Washington Globe announced McLane’s resignation with an editorial profusely praising him, a mortified Van Buren recognized passages from Donelson’s letter. Francis P. Blair admitted to Van Buren that the editorial “was written by Donelson.” Donelson had ensured that McLane departed with so much official praise that the vice president would be unable to demur lest the administration sound hypocritical. Van Buren had no choice but to accept Donelson’s fait accompli. Just as he could not afford to break with the president, so he could not afford to break with the president’s nephew. 35
* * *
Reminded of his feeble health and the deaths of his oldest friends, Andrew Jackson drew his will in September 1833. He was exceptionally generous to “my beloved nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson,” to whom he bequeathed one-third of all the cash that he would possess at the time of his death. And last came a special clause: “I bequeath to my nephew Andrew Jackson Donelson, son of Samuel deceased, the elegant sword presented to me by the State of Tennessee with this injunction—that he fail not to use it, when necessary, in support of the Union and the Constitutional rights of his Country.” 36
Donelson, meanwhile, sank money that he often did not have into his racehorses. He pinned his hopes for the fall 1833 season on Union, a stallion that he had purchased after John Coffee’s death from John Donelson Coffee. Trained by Archibald Pool, Union showed great speed on a short course, but had no endurance and was difficult to manage. “I never saw a faster horse,” Donelson admitted, but Union was never “able to run more than 3/4th of a mile” and “was withal the most ungovernable horse I ever saw.” Indeed, all his horses performed poorly that season. “Out of three nags that I had trained I brought but one to the Poll,” he griped to Mary Eastin Polk. In the spring of 1834, a disgusted Donelson sold Union for $700. 37
In the winter of 1833–1834, the President’s House enjoyed an extended visit by another of Emily’s nieces. Elizabeth Anderson Martin was eighteen, the daughter of James Glasgow and Catherine Donelson Martin, and described by her Aunt Emily as “a very pretty, interesting girl, and I believe more admired than any of my western charges.” “She has become known to the society of this place, and is considered a great accession to its value,” Donelson assured her father. Elizabeth soon caught the eye of Meriwether Lewis Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and the brother of Nicholas Trist’s wife. Lewis, as he understandably preferred to be called over Meriwether, fell “most devilishly in love” with Elizabeth, whom he described as being “very like Miss Eastin, her cousin, (Mrs. Polk) in person, and in manners resembling Mrs. Donelson.” The major impediment to announcing their engagement was Randolph’s lowly government clerkship. He sought the advice of Donelson, who “was very kindly disposed toward me and so is the President.” Nevertheless, he could only accede to “Donelson’s suggestions” to delay the engagement until a more appropriate office could be found. 38
Emily capped yet another Washington social season when, on April 9, 1834, she gave birth to a daughter, who was named Rachel Jackson Donelson. At her christening, James K. Polk stood as her godfather. Old Hickory was characteristically generous. He conveyed to the father, in trust to baby Rachel, two “negro girls, Sophia & Eliza, sisters,” to become hers upon reaching adulthood. Disturbingly, Emily seemed to be unusually weakened by the event. A month after the birth, Uncle worried that she was still “not out of her room,” and Andrew became worried, too, that there was something truly serious about his wife’ health. 39
The “Panic Session” of Congress adjourned on June 30. At the President’s House, everyone looked forward to a vacation following the trials of the preceding year. Tired and bored, Donelson had grown lethargic in his duties. Trist, now in Havana serving as US consul there, had written asking him to speak to the president and the secretary of state about a leave of absence. Donelson neglected to do so. Finally, Lewis Randolph spoke to Jackson on Trist’s behalf. Old Hickory assured him that Trist would be granted his leave and that “Maj. D. would speak to the Sec.” Still nothing happened. An annoyed Randolph griped to Trist that “the Maj. is essentially a procrastinator.” 40
The presidential party, which included Jackson, the Donelsons, Elizabeth Martin, and Randolph, departed for Tennessee on July 8. Emily and the infant Rachel suffered from the heat, so the ladies and younger children remained with Randolph and the William Cabell Rives family at the resort at Warrenton Springs, near Charlottesville. The president, Donelson, and eight-year-old Jackson continued on horseback. Their progress was dogged by “heavy rain, unusual hot weather & bad roads & lastly by a severe attack of sickness” that struck all three of them. They arrived home on August 5, and by the end of the month, Randolph got the ladies and children through. 41
Once home, Donelson implemented several major improvement projects on his Springdale farm. He and Jackson exchanged a set of properties, with Donelson receiving 107 acres east of and adjacent to the Hermitage to round out his farm, which now consisted of about 775 acres. He also began construction on a large plantation house to replace the modest cedar cabin that had been his and Emily’s home since their marriage. Hitherto they had spent as much time at the Hermitage or the Mansion as in their own small house. Now Donelson’s advancing maturity, growing family, and rising station required a larger, grander home. The house was sited amid a shady grove of tulip poplars, from which Donelson bestowed the new name of the house and farm, Poplar Grove. The architects and contractors were Joseph Reiff and William C. Hume. The house was built of red Flemish bond brick, sturdy yet spacious, and elegant in its simple, balanced proportions, while a full-height front portico with four Doric columns gave it a clear Greek Revival influence. 42
On September 9, the president, Donelson, and Randolph started for Washington, but Andrew decided to leave his wife and children at the Mansion until autumn and higher rivers brought better traveling comfort. Emily kept an exacting eye on the progress at Poplar Grove. On October 13, disaster struck when the roof of the Hermitage caught fire. Repairs would require diverting construction from Poplar Grove. With the Hermitage uninhabitable, Sarah and the children joined Emily and her children at the White House for the winter, while Andrew Jr. stayed to oversee the reconstruction. Elizabeth Martin remained with her parents while the president searched for a position for Randolph, ultimately settling on secretary of Arkansas Territory. 43
The White House was crowded with four Donelson and two Jackson children, but the oldest, Jackson Donelson, going on nine, was enrolled in a boarding school in Chantilly, Virginia. Young Jackson’s old godfather in the White House was soon dispensing advice and encouragement as freely as he had to Jackson’s father at West Point nearly twenty years earlier. “To become a great and useful man to your country, you must first become a good scholar. I shall be delighted to learn that your attention to your various studies emanates from this laudable ambition of becoming . . . a great, virtuous, and good man, capable of doing much good to your country.” 44
The Congressional session of 1834–1835 saw the fruition of the political struggles that gave rise to the Democratic and Whig parties. A major rift among the Jacksonians had become evident over the previous year and now threatened the orderly succession of Martin Van Buren. The rift was no less disturbing in its implications as it was surprising in its origin—Old Hickory’s own state of Tennessee. While Jackson retained his universal personal popularity, many of his original supporters had developed reservations over some of the major policies of his administration.
Tennessee politics were in flux as state leaders competed for power and groped for ideology within the Jacksonian system. One trend was the steady weakening of the Overton-Eaton-Lewis clique. They still regarded themselves as Jackson men, but with John H. Eaton’s resignation from the cabinet, William B. Lewis’s eclipse, and John Overton’s death they became marginalized. Jackson’s war on the Bank further alienated them, for many had heavy interests in the Nashville branch of the Bank, as did much of the Nashville mercantile community. Conversely, supporters of the Bank War included the most respected of the original Jackson men, such as Senators Felix Grundy and Hugh Lawson White, and rising younger men, such as Congressmen James K. Polk and Cave Johnson; with his distaste of Eaton and Lewis, Donelson was naturally a member of this group. Initially, the Overton-Eaton-Lewis group supported Van Buren, but once Jackson’s Bank policies became entangled in Van Buren’s ambitions, they dropped their support of the Little Magician. The division among Tennessee Jacksonians became evident when the disenchanted Eaton challenged Grundy for reelection to the Senate. His challenge failed, but as the sentimental president still regarded Eaton to be his personal and much-wronged friend, it was the more embarrassing to Jackson. 45
So far the Eaton-Lewis faction in Tennessee was not an opposition party. They simply sought dominance at the state level and to return the Jackson administration to their views at the national level. Their opportunity arose with the election of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Jackson supported Polk, but an unexpected challenger arose. John Bell represented the Seventh Congressional District, which consisted of Davidson and Wilson Counties. He had long been enough of a friend, along with McLemore and Alfred Balch, to see Donelson’s and Jackson’s correspondence on the Eaton affair. Bell never accepted Van Buren, however, was heavily indebted to the Bank, and had been prominent in Eaton’s run for the Senate.

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