Patricia Brady is a Louisiana historian who is probably best known for her work at The Historic New Orleans Collection and her biography of Martha Washington. A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) offers a look at the relationship between Old Hickory and his wife.
Brady covers familiar ground in explaining how Andrew and Rachel met, fell in love, had a minor dispute with Rachel’s first husband, Lewis Robards, before he divorced her, then married. She examines their marriage relationship, which was marked by Jackson’s frequent absences, Rachel’s pious pining, and their inability to have children of their own. Ultimately, the questionable circumstances of their marriage came back to haunt Jackson during the 1828 presidential campaign when Rachel died of a heart attack following its conclusion. While she didn’t die of a broken heart because of these attacks on female character, as Jackson family members and supporters argued for decades, they certainly didn’t help her health problems, which were exacerbated by her age and weight.
A Being So Gentle is clearly aimed at the general audience, so critiquing it as a scholarly work might seem unfair. However, Brady is an historian, and there are some issues with the book that readers, scholarly or not, should be aware of. One is that she romanticizes parts of Rachel’s relationships with her husband. For example, she claims that during Jackson’s many trips away from home, “[u]nlike some patriarchal husbands, he also depended on Rachel completely and trusted her to make decisions about money, the plantation, and another other matters of importance” (63). A reading of Jackson’s letters to his wife shows the opposite. He gave her specific directions about almost everything and sent male relatives and neighbors to ensure that those orders were carried out.
Brady’s depiction of Andrew Jackson as a slave owner is also flawed. She argues that “Jackson was never given to wanton cruelty.” That interpretation depends on how one defines “wanton,” though, as she immediately acknowledges that “he was not a man who brooked any signs of independence . . . [and] never hesitated to order slaves beaten when they defied orders or didn’t work to capacity” (91). She could also have added “or if they ran away”; the most well-known story about Jackson’s treatment of slaves is his promise in 1804 to pay for someone to give one of his runaway slaves 300 lashes upon capture. Additionally, she argues that Rachel thought of Hannah, one of the Hermitage’s female slaves, as “a friend” (220), which has no basis in any evidence that I have seen.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, there are other factual errors as well. Based on bills of sale and tax lists contained in the Jackson papers, in 1806, the Jacksons owned at a minimum between 12-20 slaves, not 9 (90). I was puzzled by the mention of a Margaret Walkins living with the Jackson as a ward until I deciphered that Brady meant Margaret Watkins (126). Finally, Andrew J. Donelson was at West Point during the First Seminole War, not serving as Jackson’s aide (169).
None of this criticism detracts from Brady’s main contention that Andrew and Rachel loved one another. They clearly did, and Jackson mourned Rachel’s death until his own in 1845.