Forgotten First Ladies: Rachel Jackson and Gender Norms in Pre-Jacksonian America
Due to his prominence in United States history, whether it be horrific events like that of the Trail of Tears, or simply his two terms in the American Presidency, Andrew Jackson has become a controversial figure in American society. That controversy has cemented the seventh President in the American collective consciousness. His wife Rachel, however, does not share the same popularity. The remembrance of American first ladies is highly variable. Some—like Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy—share a spotlight in the historical records alongside their husbands, but these first ladies are typically remembered for political contributions. Unfortunately, not all first ladies share this level of popularity, and Rachel Jackson is one of those unrepresented first ladies due to the limiting gender norms of her time. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that despite her lack of prominence in public roles like more popular first ladies, Rachel Jackson’s place in reflecting gender relations of Southern upper-middle class families in the early 1800s deserves greater attention among historians, particularly those who study gender norms. As I will show, her letters to and from her husband, Andrew, qualify Rachel for similar popularity and attention that has been given to other first ladies in United States histories. While her political prominence was nonexistent, these letters are a prime example of gender relations from 1813-1830, and therefore, they deserve more attention from historians.
The historical record of the Jacksons is home to an ongoing debate of the importance of Rachel’s influence on her husband. When Rachel has been included in the historical narrative, it has been in an attempt to detail the motivations of her husband; however, there have been many historians that exclude Rachel from Andrew’s story entirely. Typically, Rachel has been included in histories concerned with the Presidential election of 1828, which saw her name slandered by John Quincy Adams in an attempt to secure his second term in the Presidency and resulted in Rachel’s death, and the Peggy Eaton Affair, which resulted in Andrew Jackson firing his entire cabinet after one of the cabinet wives in his administration received hate that mirrored the previously mentioned slander Rachel experienced. Beyond these two events, Jacksonian historians have focused on Andrew Jackson’s military career, economic policies, his role in the Trail of Tears, and his administration, while paying little to no attention to Rachel’s impact on his life. Needless to say, sources focused on Rachel Jackson’s display of gender relations in her time and region are uncommon as they prioritize Rachel instead of her husband.
However, seen from a broader social and cultural perspective, Rachel Jackson’s role in American history comes into much sharper focus. For example, one of the biggest movements in the early 1800s was the Cult of Domesticity. This belief set dictated the way middle-class women acted both in public and in private. The main point of the Cult of Domesticity was that the mother was in charge of the children and the household duties; however the mother’s did not get to decide their priorities in parenting. A mother parenting under the Cult of Domesticity was specifically responsible for raising good Christian children. Furthermore, there were social aspects to the mindset as mothers were expected to display certain symbols and behavior patterns in their homes, especially when entertaining guests. The state of the home was seen as the state of the family’s morality. This movement also placed a new focus on those in poverty. As the Second Great Awakening swept the United States in the early 1800s, Protestants, the religious group that most commonly adhered to the Cult of Domesticity, grew more convinced that any soul could be saved if it accepted Christianity, and so adoptions of the impoverished became more commonplace among middle class families. From 1800-1850, the Cult of Domesticity penetrated the lives and priorities of millions throughout the United States and determined the role of women in middle class society.
The Jacksons were not exempt from the rapidly spreading movement that was the Cult of Domesticity. Nowhere is this more evident than Rachel’s letters to her husband between the years of 1813-1814. Though Andrew Jackson was fifteen years away from the Presidency, these letters provide insight into the couple’s relationship dynamic. The setting behind the letters themselves give insight into how the Cult of Domesticity impacted the couple’s relationship. The letters from Rachel were written while her husband was stationed in Mississippi; therefore, Rachel was writing from where she was expected to be, inside their Tennessee home while Andrew worked outside of it. However, the contents of the letters also reflected the ideas of the Cult of Domesticity. In each letter Rachel mentioned the status of their children along with the occasional anecdote detailing the upbringing of said children. The unbalanced gender roles, in terms of raising children, were prevalent in these stories. The majority of the stories involved Rachel having to comfort her children because of their father’s absence. This also ties into the motherly role of raising good Christian children as Rachel also includes mentions of “God,” “prayer,” “angels,” and “grace” in all of her letters. It is clear that many people deemed Rachel’s household a moral one because her letters also always include information and news of the Jackson family’s wide variety of friends. The Jackson’s had an extensive network of friends and their approval of the Jacksons’ home reinforces the idea that Rachel adhered to the Cult of Domesticity. All of Andrew and Rachel’s children were adopted as well. The true reason remains uncertain, but the choice to adopt matches the beliefs of the Cult of Domesticity and improves the image of the Jacksons as well.
Rachel may have been motivated to adhere to the Cult of Domesticity due to the expectations of her husband. A common trend in Andrew’s letters to Rachel was that she was responsible for duties within the home, and he was responsible for the external jobs. All of Andrew’s letters discuss his military life, an external affair, and some also discuss the management of the plantation. Andrew had the final say on the selling of his plantation’s crops even though he was away at war. All other external duties on the plantation were left to the Overseer. Andrew explicitly gave instructions for the unnamed Overseer to attend to Rachel and the future president was distraught to learn his employee had not been doing so. The Overseer’s position was to ensure Rachel could focus on her responsibilities within the home. These responsibilities, as outlined by Andrew, mirrored the Cult of Domesticity. Andrew Jackson ended every letter to his wife with instructions for the children, most often Andrew Jr. whom they had adopted five years prior. While these instructions were kind hearted, whether it be to kiss the children or have them write to him, the implication was that Rachel was to fill the nurturing role, or in other words, Rachel was raising the children. This role, as detailed above, was a defining factor of the Cult of Domesticity.
Another movement also swept through the United States during the spread of the Cult of Domesticity and offers context of Rachel’s roles within the household based on her gender. This sweeping movement was known as Romanticism. The main point of Romantic beliefs was to restore full cultural dominance to men. Originating first in Britain before it spread to the United States in the early 1800s, Romanticism encouraged “hyper-femininity” in women. In other words, women were expected to act with heightened emotions. It was believed that women that did not exhibit signs of hyper-femininity were subject to infertility and manic episodes. If a woman exceeded her intellectual or physical limits, she may become useless to her society as the Cult of Domesticity dictated women’s purpose was to raise children. It is important to note that these limits were determined by male doctors. To continue, a woman was seen as valued if a man showed sexual interest in her, but there was a caveat: a woman could only give her heart away once. In order to attract their true love, single women in the early 1800s attempted to appear as innocent as possible to avoid judgements of infertility, as physical and mental scarring was believed to negatively affect women’s fertility. These medical and social myths were supported by countless medical journals in both Britain and the United States for approximately 200 years. In this time, Romantic beliefs and characteristics permeated both British and American societies.
These traits manifested themselves in Rachel Jackson’s letters as well. Rachel’s hyper-femininity was shown through the excessive concern she expressed for Andrew in each of her letters. This heightened emotion was displayed specifically in a letter to her husband where Rachel responds to Andrew’s description of a battle scene as detailed in an earlier letter. Rachel claimed the horror of the scene stuck in her mind, made her cry aloud, and caused sleep to elude her. Of course the battle had threatened the life of her husband, and while she did obviously care for her husband, her reaction did not match the result of the battle. When the smoke had cleared, Andrew Jackson was unharmed and had won the day by leading his soldiers in a successful defense of their position. This is not to say Rachel’s response was entirely illogical, but her letter did reflect the gender norms outlined by Romanticism. By responding with heightened emotion, Rachel practiced hyper-femininity, while her horrified response to fighting also reinforced the belief that women were physically weak. This harsh reaction to battle also displayed Rachel’s innocence to her husband, as previously mentioned, this was how women endeared themselves to men. Another reason Rachel may have been fearful of war was the threat of scarring. Women with physical scars were also judged as infertile, so if Rachel was truly as empathetic as her response suggests, fear of her own scarring may have also motivated her emotional response. Another reason Rachel may have responded so fearfully to Andrew’s description was the fear of becoming a widow. While obviously the vast majority of wives would prefer not to lose their husband, Romanticism did give Rachel more to lose than women of other eras while also proving her an outlet to express those intense emotions. Under Romanticism, society had determined that women could only give their hearts to a man one time in their lives; therefore, if Andrew Jackson were to die in battle, Rachel would be expected to never remarry. This threat of seemingly endless loneliness may have also contributed to Rachel’s inability to sleep. Regardless of speculation, Rachel’s response expressed hyper-femininity, as was common in the Romantic Era, and further consideration of society’s expectations during the era rationalizes Rachel’s worries.
Rachel’s exhibition of Romanticism did, however, extend beyond a single letter. Rachel ended the majority of her letters with the following phrase: “Your faithfull [sic] wife untill [sic] death.” The wording of Rachel’s closing statement implies a subservience to her husband considering he closed his letters with the simple: “Your affectionate husband.” Furthermore, the way Rachel chose to end her letters reflects the ideal of Romanticism, specifically the part dictating a woman could only give her heart to a man one time in her life. Therefore, each of Rachel’s letters to her husband ended with a final reminder of her subservience to Andrew, thus mirroring Romantic Era characteristics.
While women’s behavior was impacted by the Romantic Era, those behaviors were influenced by male expectations, such was the case with the Jacksons. Andrew’s insistence on having Rachel cared for by an overseer, in addition to reflecting the gender roles of the Cult of Domesticity, had Romantic Era implications as well. While Rachel was expected to perform her duties inside the home, the outrage Andrew expresses when he learned his overseer had not been providing Rachel ample attention suggests a deeper frustration. Andrew’s dissatisfaction did align with Romantic Era expectations towards women. Romanticism dictated that a woman was in poor health unless provided social and medical attention by men. Therefore, Andrew’s frustration with his overseer was the result of how he perceived his wife: she was in need of a man’s assistantence. Moreover, Andrew trusted his wife enough to leave her under the attention of another man. This trustworthiness reflects Andrew’s expectations of his wife. By leaving Rachel with the Overseer of the family plantation, Andrew expected his wife to follow the one love trait of Romanticism, suggesting Andrew found his wife to be a moral spouse as defined in their society by the Romanticism movement.
The varying expectations between the Jacksons can also be seen in other exchanges between the couple. Specifically, the expectations of travel favor the husband as was common during the Romantic Era. In an 1813 letter, Andrew urged his wife to come visit him at Fort Stuther, which is located in modern day Alabama, despite the Jackson plantation being located in Tennessee. Jackson’s diction was particularly important as he wrote, “I will send for you.” Andrew’s wording was more commanding rather than inviting and gave little importance to Rachel’s preference of interstate travel. These actions of superiority continue in an 1824 letter from Andrew in which he has been invited to visit a friend in Philadelphia. Andrew wrote of his acceptance of the invitation, implying he would travel from Washington D.C., where his letter was mailed from, to Philadelphia for leisure. Both of the Jacksons claimed to dearly miss one another in their letters, but Andrew never wrote about going out of his way to see his wife. Of course the career of a General during wartime was demanding, but the implication of gendered expectations remains. Rachel was expected to visit Andrew with urgency, while Andrew made time to visit acquaintances in other cities while appearing to not make those same sacrifices for his family. Therefore, the Jacksons further reinforce the wife’s subservience to the husband, a common aspect of relationship dynamics in the Romantic Era.
The internalization of women under the Cult of Domesticity and modern misconceptions of the weakness of Romantic era women are possible explanations for the inconsistent coverage of first ladies in the historic record. While commonly remembered first ladies like Abigail Adams were known for attempting to sway their husbands political opinions, first ladies like Rachel Jackson were more concerned with fulfilling their duties inside the home and meeting the expectations of their husbands and societies. Even less popular first ladies like Laura Bush have pushed to improve women’s rights in the United States, and these women have been remembered for their political contributions. While these women still hold an important place in history, the historians that focus primarily on politics when discussing first ladies have only helped to perpetuate the myth that history is a subject of politics. As fields like gender focused histories gain recognition, this myth loses credibility. Therefore, as new fields of history evolve the subject as a whole, coverage of first ladies who lived during the Era of the Cult of Domesticity and Romanticism gain more importance to history. First ladies like Rachel Jackson typically have more surviving documents than average women of the time; therefore, first ladies are a great source of gender relations information for not only the Jacksonian Era, but for all of United States history. The current lack of coverage of Rachel Jackson not only implies that she did not matter, but also that multiple generations of women did not matter simply because they lived their lives in accordance to popular movements like the Cult of Domesticity and Romanticism, which is of course illogical. Women of the Jacksonian era are just as useful to the historic record as women that were part of more outspoken societies like that of Abigail Adams and Laura Bush. Gender relations and first ladies are a combination that is primed for further research, historians only need to alter their focus.
The letters between Rachel and Andrew Jackson mirror popular gender roles and expectations of the early to mid 1800s, and while Rachel may not have been as politically active as more renowned first ladies, by exemplifying gender norms of her era, she does have a significant importance to the historic record that has gone unrealized. The current historic climate implies a lack of importance to approximately fifty years of women’s history and gender studies. Therefore, historians that conduct further research into this topic could benefit from the lack of coverage that betrays Rachel’s legacy.
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