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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1820

Vol. I

(Born Ten.)

Andrew J. Donelson

(Ap'd Ten.)


Andrew Jackson Donelson:​a Born Aug. 25, 1799,​b1 Davidson County, TN.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, Jun. 20, 1817, to July 1, 1820, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1820.

Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, Oct. 1, 1820.

Served: as Aide-de‑Camp to Major-General Jackson, 1820‑21, while in command of the Southern Division, and as Governor of the Territory of Florida; and as Assistant to the Board of Engineers, 1821‑22.

Resigned, Feb. 1, 1822.

Civil History. — Counselor at Law, Nashville, Ten., 1823. Farmer, near Nashville, Ten., 1823‑29 and 1837‑44, and at Memphis, Ten., 1852‑56. Private Secretary to President Jackson, Mar. 4, 1829, to Mar. 4, 1837. Chargé d'Affaires of the United States of America to the Republic of Texas, Sep. 16, 1844, to Dec. 29, 1845. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Prussia, Mar. 18, 1846, to June 9, 1849, — and to the Federal Government of Germany, Aug. 9, 1848, to Nov. 2, 1849. Editor of the "Washington, D. C., Union," 1851‑52. Candidate for Vice-Presidency of the United States, 1856. Cotton Planter, Bolivar County, Mis., 1856‑71.

Died, June 26, 1871, at Memphis, Ten.: Aged 71.

Buried, Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, TN.

Biographical Sketch.

Major Andrew Jackson Donelson, who was born Aug. 25, 1800,​b2 near Nashville, Tenn., died June 26, 1871, at Memphis, Ten., being nearly seventy-one. He was the son of Samuel Donelson, who, dying when his child was but five years old, left him to the care and protection of his uncle, General Andrew Jackson, after whom he had been named.

Donelson, having completed his studies at Nashville College, was appointed before he was seventeen a Cadet at the U. S. Military Academy, from which he was graduated second in his Class and promoted in the Army, July 1, 1820, to be Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. Soon after, he became Aide-de‑Camp to Major-General Jackson, then commanding the Southern Military Division of the United States. Though young he was sent in February, 1821, to procure information relative to the defensive condition of our then frontier, northwest of Louisiana, and to inspect the fortifications on our southern border. On our acquisition of Florida from Spain, he accompanied General Jackson when he took possession, July 18, 1821, of that territory, and remained with him while the old hero continued its governor.

Having resigned his Lieutenancy of Engineers, Feb. 1, 1822, he attended law lectures at Transylvania University, Lexington, Ky., and was  p246 admitted to the bar in 1823; but he soon abandoned this profession to assist in the great popular movement (initiated by the Legislature of Tennessee) which had placed General Jackson in nomination for the Presidency. The election in 1824 of John Quincy Adams causing the failure of his first ardent endeavor, he resolved to make new efforts, and, with a view to be near his uncle, established himself on a plantation adjoining "The Hermitage." In the bitter canvass which ensued, he contributed much by his pen and counsels to the vindication of the General's character and fame. His reply to Jesse Benton's pamphlet was a masterly paper, and conclusively answered that vituperative document.

Donelson, in 1829, accompanied President Jackson to Washington as his confidential adviser and private secretary; his wife, "the lovely Emily," of rare personal charms and superior mind, being the mistress of the White House, over which for four years she socially presided with such refined grace and courtly dignity. Donelson's duties as Secretary during the eight years of Jackson's administration were not those of a mere routine character, nor simply of doing the honors of the "East Room." Being a well-informed man and a fluent talker, he could cope in conversation with the cultivated intellects which frequented the Executive Mansion; and holding the able pen of a ready writer, he conducted much of the correspondence of the President, and materially aided in preparing official papers, messages, etc. Jackson's brief memoranda for his messages, some of a page or two, and others of a few words — perhaps jotted down on the margin of a newspaper — were, at the proper time, withdrawn from the magazine of his capacious white hat, and confided to his faithful and diligent private secretary, whose duty it was to write them out into orderly and graceful English. To the basis of a message thus formed, "the members of the Cabinet," says Parton, "added each his proportion."

Major Donelson, after the retirement of President Jackson, continued in private life till 1844, assisting him in his still onerous correspondence. The Texas question, then the great issue of the country in and out of Congress, brought Donelson again before the public to take an active part in the discussion. The treaty of annexation of that republic to the United States, of Apr. 12, 1844, having been rejected on the following 8th of June by the Senate, President Tyler sent a messenger to General Jackson, stating the difficulties which were likely to defeat the efforts of the friends of that measure, and urging them to induce Major Donelson to undertake new negotiations. He accepted the appointment, Sep. 16, 1844, as chargé d'affaires to the Republic of Texas, a mission which Mr. Calhoun, then Secretary of State, considered, in view of all its consequences, as one of the first magnitude, and of an importance at the time that raised it to the level of the highest in the gift of the Government. Donelson at once entered upon the discharge of the delicate and intricate duties devolving upon him, and with great diplomatic tact and signal ability accomplished the great object of his mission, which terminated Dec. 27, 1845, with the annexation of Texas to the Union.

On his return to the United States he found "The Hermitage" bereft of its tenant, and the nation in mourning for one of its noblest chiefs. General Jackson, his almost father, had died June 8, 1845, bequeathing "as a memento of his regard, affection, and esteem" for this "well-beloved nephew" and "a high-minded, honest, and honorable man" "the elegant sword presented to him by the State of Tennessee," with the injunction that it be used, "when necessary, in support and protection of our glorious Union, and for the protection of the constitutional rights of our beloved country, should they be assailed by foreign enemies or domestic traitors."

President Polk, in consideration of Major Donelson's peculiar fitness  p247 and eminent services, appointed him, Mar. 18, 1846, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Prussia, and Aug. 9, 1848, to the Federal Government of Germany. He held both missions still June 9, 1849, when Mr. Hannegan was appointed to Berlin, but Major Donelson retained that to the German Confederacy till Nov. 2, 1849, when it was abolished, he having made himself so thoroughly acquainted with German diplomacy that President Taylor, though of opposite politics, continued him in office.

Soon after his return from Europe he became enlisted in the effort to secure the settlement of the slavery agitation then growing out of the acquisition of territory from Mexico, which is here given in his own words from a letter of Mar. 6, 1860, to the writer of this notice: —

"I was appointed a delegate to the Southern Convention which met at Nashville. That convention was called before the passage of the compromise measures of 1850, and was supposed to have in view the adoption of a course of action that would quiet the apprehensions of the Southern States in regard to the slavery question. Under this impression I presided over a public meeting at Nashville, recommended the appointment of delegates, and made an address to the people deprecating disunion sentiments, and denouncing all the schemes which looked to remedies outside of the Constitution. This convention was again assembled after the passage of the compromise, and concluded its deliberations by a report and resolutions against which I entered my protest. The ground taken by the convention was that still occupied by many Southern statesmen, and did not differ materially from that taken by South Carolina in 1832. It asserts the right of a State to secede from the Union whenever, in her judgment, a sufficient cause exists. Against this claim of a State I used all the arguments that were employed by the Republican party when the celebrated Hartford Convention made an attempt to break up the Union.

"After these events I yielded to the entreaty of the leading members of the Democratic party, and became the editor of the Washington 'Union.' My object was to reconcile the public mind to the series of measures which had been passed by Congress in 1850. I believed that the Democratic party as it had been organized by General Jackson could be purged of the sectional heresies that had been interpolated into its creed. The columns of the 'Union' attest the character of my efforts in support of this object, and will also exhibit the circumstances which led me to characterize the party as untrue to the old doctrines of the early fathers of Republic, and no longer worthy of the support of a patriotic people."

The tone, vigor, and statesmanlike grasp, which he brought to the columns of the "Union" in that crisis of public affairs, were then fully acknowledged, and to his fearless attitude in the fierce struggle before the country is in no small degree due the postponement of the great battle for the Union begun with Sumter and ended with Appomattox.

Leaving the editorial chair of the "Union" in 1852, and abandoning the Democrats entirely in 1853, after the accession of President Pierce, whose Cabinet appointments he opposed as having a proclivity unfavorable to the doctrines taught by Washington, Madison, and Jackson, Donelson joined the "Americans," or "Know-Nothings," as they were more commonly called. When the convention of that party met in Philadelphia, he was placed, February 22, 1856, in nomination (on the ticket with Mr. Fillmore) for the Vice-Presidency by a vote of 181 out of 205 cast on the first ballot.

After his defeat in this political campaign, he retired altogether from public life, and moved to Memphis, Tenn., to be nearer his planting interests in Bolivar County of the adjoining State, about 150 miles down the  p248 Mississippi. Upon the breaking out of the Rebellion he, being then over sixty years of age, retired with a saddened heart to his plantation near Australia, Miss., where he lived most of his remaining years, loved and honored by all around him, though his antagonistic views on public affairs would often boldly break forth in bitter sarcasms.

Born of a Revolutionary sire, reared by a true Roman hero, educated under the flag of his country, associated with the great men of a great era, familiar with the history of the past, and for nearly half a century intimately connected with many of the stirring events which marked that long and stormy period, Donelson was no ordinary personage. As a diplomatist, his prudence, discretion, knowledge, and ability inspired our Government with confidence. As a statesman, his sagacity and skill are attested by his success in securing to the Union the vast and valuable territory of Texas, despite the machinations of prominent intriguers and the combined opposition of the British and French Ministers. As a politician he had not the arts and finesse of the modern school, but was of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian type, believing that to be venal in public life was to commit official suicide, and to become a trusted leader of the people he must vigilantly guard against every inroad made upon constitutional liberty and free government. As an editor, blessed with a very retentive memory, well versed in passing events, and holding a vigorous pen, he was fully equal to the varied requirements of his responsible position at the head of a leading party journal, and fearlessly gave free utterance to his earnest convictions intensified by a sanguine and ardent temperament. And as a man, he was a sincere friend, a kind neighbor, a hospitable host, a most genial companion, of unimpeachable character, true in all the relations of life, respected as a citizen, and honored as a Christian.

Thayer's Notes:

a The father of Andrew J. Donelson, Jr., Class of 1848.

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b1 b2 August 25, 1799 is the date on his tombstone (q.v.).

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