Home > 1828 Campaign > By Melissa Lucas–Marital Scandal and Presidential Elections

By Melissa Lucas–Marital Scandal and Presidential Elections

Monica Lewinsky recently published an article in Vanity Fair about her affair with Bill Clinton during his presidency. The article entitled “Shame and Survival” details how she negotiated the press spotlight and what she describes as “global humiliation” after her affair with Clinton became public. [1] Lewinsky wrote she hoped sharing her story would help those who are currently cyber bullied: “Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation. The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?” [2] Many media outlets reported on Lewinsky’s essay in terms of how it will affect Hillary Clinton’s presumed 2016 presidential campaign. One editorial claimed Lewinsky’s story serves a reminder why “Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve female voter support” and Bill Clinton should not be back in the White House. [3]

The policy stances and private lives of candidates are often blurred within presidential elections. Political commentators often argue that with the advent of the Internet, the private lives of presidential candidates are now under even closer scrutiny. Yet, it would be incorrect to assume the emphasis on candidates’ private lives is a recent occurrence. An examination of the 1828 presidential election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams demonstrates that the “private” lives of political candidates have always been a matter of public attention.

Lucas Jackson 2nd Ceremony (3)The details of Andrew Jackson’s marriage to Rachel Donelson caused controversy during the 1828 presidential election. Rachel Donelson married her first husband, Captain Lewis Robards, at 18 years old in 1785. By 1790, the two separated and Robards told Donelson he was filing for divorce. Andrew Jackson and Donelson married in 1791, believing the divorce was final. Two years later, the Jacksons learned Robards never filed for divorce and Rachel was married to two men. In 1794, Robards was granted a divorce on the grounds of adultery. The Jackson’s quietly remarried the same year after the divorce was finalized (left).

This scandal was in the foreground of the 1828 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. The press widely covered the story and Jackson’s opponents argued the scandal was evidence of “his unfitness for station to which he aspires.” [4] Charles Hammond, a critic of Andrew Jackson, wrote a campaign pamphlet entitled, “View of Jackson’s Domestic Relations: In Reference to His Fitness for the Presidency.” He argued that Mrs. Jackson’s past as a “bigamist and adulterer” made her unfit to be First Lady of the United States:

Whatever may be thought or said of other offices, every candid man must agree that the office of the President necessarily brings the immediate family of the officer, into direct connection with the public. . . If the President is a married man, his wife at least, must share the distinction of the station he occupies. [5]

The First Lady, according to Hammond, is a reflection of the nation’s character and if she is morally impure, then it reflects poorly on the entire nation. He wrote: “If her character be stained with suspicion it affects all around her, the community of which she is head” [6]. Jackson was also portrayed as a “seducer” of a married woman with little regard for moral standards. His lack of moral compass in his personal life, according to Adams supporters, demonstrated he was incapable of moral political leadership. Hammond asked the American public: “ought a convicted adulteress, and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” [7]

Lucas Rachel DonelsonThe American people answered yes. Andrew Jackson won the election with 178 electoral votes and almost 56% of the popular vote. Rachel Jackson (right) passed away before ever serving as First Lady. She died December 24, 1828, three months before Jackson’s inauguration. Part of her epitaph read, “A being so gentle and so virtuous slander might wound, but could not dishonor.” [8] The election of 1828 is just one of many in the history American presidential elections that spotlighted the “private life” scandals of nominees and spouses. This may lead us to ponder: Why do the “private” lives of our politicians and their significant others receive so much attention during presidential elections?


[1] “Monica Lewinsky Writes About Her Affair with President Clinton,” Vanity Fair. http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/05/monica-lewinsky-speaks
[2] Ibid.
[3] Linda Stasi. “Monica Lewinsky’s Story Reminds Us Bill Clinton is to blame, Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve Female Voter Support,” New York Daily News, May 11, 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/stasi-monica-lewinsky-story-rings-true-article-1.1787850
[4] Charles Hammond. “View of General Jackson’s Domestic Relations in Reference to his Fitness for the Presidency,” Truth’s Advocate (1828): 1.
[5] Ibid., 2.
[6] Ibid., 12.
[7] Ibid., 3.
[8] “White House History First Ladies: Rachel Jackson,” The White House Historical Association, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/history/white-house-first-ladies/first-lady-rachel-jackson-emily-donelson.html

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