National First Ladies’ Library, Canton, OH
One of the great things about moving back to the state of your birth after many years of absence is discovering new and interesting tidbits that you never knew about when you were growing up. Canton, OH has long been known for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the National First Ladies’ Library? Not somuch.
The mission of the First Ladies’ Library is to educate people about the lives, accomplishments and contributions of our nation’s First Ladies. Women in the early part of American history had no right to vote, could not get divorced or inherit wealth, could not hold a job, especially after they were married, own property or have an equal education. They were expected to marry well and to become an asset to their husband in social settings, as well as to raise obedient and well-behaved children.
Most of the First Ladies featured in this library went counter to the traditional norm. They were highly educated for their time, born into wealth, were prized by their families, and married for love. They served as partners to their ambitious husbands.
From now until September 11, 2015, the National First Ladies’ Library is featuring a special exhibit. “Forgotten First Ladies” features fourteen of the more obscure First Ladies from America’s past. Each story is a fascinating glimpse into the history of America, but one holds a high place in the hearts of every romance enthusiast–the love story of Rachel Donelson and Andrew Jackson.
In 1953, a movie was made of their love story. Featuring Charleton Heston and Susan Hayward, it was made by 20th Century Fox and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. In 1996, Irving Stone wrote a biographical novel about the pair, which has been proclaimed “one of the greatest romances of all time.”
Rachel was the ninth child and the youngest daughter of Colonel John Donelson. She was named for her mother, Rachel. When young Rachel was only twelve, the prosperous family sold their Virginia plantation and migrated, along with their slaves, to the wilderness of Tennessee, where John became the co-founder of present day Nashville.
Rachel was a true frontier child and received only home schooling, and only enough of that to be able to read well. When she was 17, she married Lewis Robards. Lewis was extremely jealous of his beautiful wife and the attentions bestowed on her by other men. Finally, Rachel had enough and moved back to her mother’s home. In 1790, Lewis Robards filed for divorce–unheard of at the time.
Rachel met and fell in love with Andrew Jackson quickly, and by 1791 they began to live together as a married couple, which was an accepted custom on the frontier. The divorce was finally granted in 1794, after which time the couple were quietly and officially married. As Andrew Jackson’s political reputation grew, rumors about his illicit affair with Rachel haunted him, and resulted in the first ‘smear’ campaign using a politician’s wife. Jackson’s opponents painted Rachel as an adultress, a bigamist, and a whore. You can watch a snippet from the 1953 movie here:
Jackson shielded Rachel from most of the harsh rhetoric, since she was a deeply religious woman, and well-respected in Tennessee. She was preparing to leave for Washington, following the successful Presidential bid of her husband, when she suffered a heart attack and died on December 22, 1828. She was buried in the gown she had purchased for the inauguration ceremonies. Andrew Jackson never forgave his opponents and mourned Rachel for the remainder of his life. He outlived Rachel by sixteen years.
The National First Ladies’ Library is located in the restored Victorian home of President William and First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley. Tours take about 1-1/2 hours. The house is open for tours Tuesday-Saturday from 9:30-2:30, plus Sundays in the summer, from 12:30-2:30. Tours begin at the Education and Research Center, 205 Market Avenue, S., Canton, OH 44702. Reservations are required for groups of six or more, and the cost is $7 for adults, $6 seniors, $5 for children under 18. Parking is free. For more information, contact 330-452-0876 or http://www.firstladies.org