From the current twenty dollar bill to the remembrance of the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s legacy is rarely forgotten; however, his wife, Rachel, does not share her husband’s level of fame or infamy. Despite other first ladies like Abigail Adams and Elenor Roosevelt being commonly remembered in histories of the United States, other first ladies, or would-be first ladies like Rachel Jackson, are often left on the sidelines of United States History. Historians only mention these mostly forgotten first ladies in an attempt to examine the motivations of their husbands. This is the case in the literature detailing Andrew and Rachel Jackson. Therefore, in this literature review, I will argue the literature covering the Jackson’s mostly focuses on Andrew’s political and military accomplishments, and while some historians prioritize Jackson’s wife more than others, an indepth look at the gender relations between Andrew and Rachel has yet to be provided by historians.
Firstly, the debate on Rachel’s impact on Andrew Jackson must be noted. In Donald B. Cole’s 1994 book entitled The Presidency of Andrew Jackson, the author attempted to provide proper context to the Jackson presidency in order to best examine the administration itself. In order to achieve this, Cole’s first page started by telling the story of Rachel Jackson’s death. While hardly a discussion of gender relations between the couple, its inclusion and its place at the front of the text implies a high importance in the text and in Jackson’s life. However, other historians approach Andrew Jackson with an eye on politics and do their best to avoid his personal life. For example, Richard B. Latner’s 1979 book entitled The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics 1829-1837. Latner, who was cited and served as an advisor in Donald B. Cole’s book, focused his text around the influence cabinet members, legislators, and others involved in government had on President Jackson. Similar to Cole, Latner also chose Andrew Jackson’s victory in the election of 1828 as the starting point of his book, but Rachel Jackson is not mentioned once, therefore implying she had a negligible impact on Jacksonian policy. Edward Pessen’s 1969 book Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics contradicts Latner’s implication. Pessen, along with other historians of similar approaches, have detailed Jackson’s personal life to humanize the president and his actions. Pessen mentioned Rachel Jackson in five separate instances throughout his book: detailing Rachel as an example of Southern gender expectations, covering John Quincy Adams slander of her in the 1828 presidential election, describing her effects on Andrew’s motivations, and connecting her death’s influence to her husband’s way of handling the Peggy Eaton affair. As Pessen’s focus was on society and politics, he did not delve into independent relations between the Jackson couple; however, the author did come much closer than Cole or Latner to a true gendered approach covering the Jacksons. Pessen’s work would later be cited in the aforementioned work by Donald B. Cole in 1994. The importance of Rachel Jackson in the Andrew Jackson presidency has varied among historians, from minimal influence, as seen in Latner’s text, to vast coverages of multiple scenarios involving Rachel Jackson, like that of Pessen’s book, with other historians like Cole lying somewhere between the two extremes.
As evidenced in the coverage of Cole and Pessen, many historians name the death of Rachel as an influential moment in Andrew’s life, Norma Basch and her 1993 article would agree with this significance. Basch’s article focused entirely on the election of 1828, and gave much attention to Rachel’s role in the campaigning process. However, the text makes Rachel out to play a similar role to that of Cole’s book: Rachel’s life and death had impacts on Andrew Jackson’s political life. However there is a key difference between how Rachel is implemented in each author’s texts. Cole mentioned Rachel to establish Jackson’s mindset as he entered his first term in office, but Basch outlines the personal attacks John Quincy Adams launched on Rachel Jackson as a turn in American campaign politics. While Basch does include Andrew Jackson’s increased ferocity following his wife’s death, the scope of Basch’s writing is wider than Cole’s as it details a political system as a whole and not just one presidential administration. Despite this difference, neither text delves into the relationship of the presidential couple themselves due to another more political focus in their writing. However, the inclusion of Rachel’s slander gives Basch’s article more focus on gender than Latner’s book but does not compete with Pessen’s attention to gendered detail.
While many other historians have had more focus on gender in their coverage of Andrew Jackson, Latner’s approach has allies as well. For example, Robert Whaples 2014 article examining economics under the Andrew Jackson administration includes no mention of Rachel. While it may seem natural for an economic historian to exclude a first lady that died before her husband was inaugurated, Rachel Jackson’s death did influence Andrew Jackson’s handling of the Peggy Eaton affair, which resulted in the firing of Jackson’s entire cabinet, as Pessen pointed out. Needless to say, the turnover of an entire executive cabinet would inevitably affect economic policy, yet Rachel Jackson nor the Peggy Eaton affair are mentioned in Wharples article. Therefore, it is clear Wharples’ approach to a history that avoids gender politics with a higher focus on policy is much akin to Latner’s approach thirty-five years prior.
The impact of Rachel Jackson’s death appears to be a point of contention between historians, yet even among those that find importance in Rachel’s demise, none have delved specifically into the couples relationship prior to her death, nor have they compared it to common gender roles of the time period and region. Edward Pessen’s 1969 book has come the closest to this approach, and though it is better than most, it’s scope is too wide to give the attention needed to fully detail the aforementioned subject. Given the fact that the most fulfilling gender history on the Jackson’s was written fifty-one years ago, there is work to be done in terms of writing a gendered history on the Jackson’s marriage.
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“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” X Jarod Markle