Friday, March 27, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Andrew Jackson Wages the “Petticoat War”)

March 27, 1829—By appointing longtime friend John Eaton as Secretary of War, President Andrew Jackson set in motion a scandal involving the wife of his new Cabinet member, Margaret O’Neal Timberlake (“Peggy”) Eaton. The resulting imbroglio became the first time in American history that the fate of an entire administration hinged on perceptions of a woman that some gentlemen, far less gallant than President Jackson, would regard as a tramp.

I first heard about the so-called “Petticoat War” in a course at Columbia University taught by one of the history department’s legends, James Shenton. As the professor, a born showman, narrated the course of the affair, I sat agog in my seat, hanging on every word. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The Eaton Affair would not be the first political sex scandal of the American republic—that dubious honor belonged to the Alexander Hamilton-Maria Reynolds affair—but it was the first—and, to this date, still only—instance in U.S. political history when the character and loyalty of every single Cabinet member was judged not so much by how firmly they adhered to Presidential policies but by how they treated one particular woman who not only was not the President’s wife but also was not someone he even regarded in a remotely romantic or sexual way.

My high school classmates would have paid much more attention if they’d been taught about this instead of, say, the Tariff of Abominations. Peggy Eaton, you see, was the kind of fun-loving, pretty, provocatively dressed girl that guys go nuts over. Somehow, however, females, then and now, are much less forgiving of such behavior.

One thing you must understand about Washington, D.C. in the Age of Jackson: the women might have been mature wives of powerful men, but in terms of cliques and the overwhelming force of feminine disapproval, it was Mean Girls all the way. And the Queen Bee of the Mean Girls—at least for a time—was the wife of the Vice-President of the United States. But more on that in a minute.

The obloquy endured by Peggy Eaton reminded the President more than a little bit of what had happened to his beloved wife, Rachel Donelson Jackson, in the prior year’s dirty election campaign.

In a classic bit of mudslinging, followers of John Quincy Adams had cast aspersions on the couple’s character, for allegedly living not only in sin but bigamously. (The charge sprang from the fact that the Jacksons had mistakenly believed that their marriage was valid because Rachel’s no-good first husband had obtained a divorce when, in fact, he had only requested permission to file for one.)

Shortly because Christmas in 1828, Rachel died, probably of a heart attack brought on by the attacks on her. Jackson could do nothing anymore to save her, but he had a powerful memory of those who had slandered her. In effect, Peggy Eaton came to represent for him the injustice inflicted on his dear wife—and he would not abide it.

Some years ago, I rented a film about the cause celebre, The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), with Joan Crawford as the scandalous woman. On the surface, it seemed to have everything you could want in an MGM film of the Thirties: plush sets, great costumes by the ubiquitous studio designer Adrian, a subject of compelling interest, and a terrific cast (including up-and-coming actors James Stewart, Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone and the member of the “Royal Family” of stage and screen, Lionel Barrymore).

My heart fell, however, when Barrymore, playing Jackson, delivered an oration that generations of schoolchildren once knew was the work of Daniel Webster: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

I moaned especially because, with Webster already in the picture, there was no conceivable reason to assign his words to someone else. At the time, I thought of what I usually do when Hollywood mucks about with history: “The facts were amazing enough. Why couldn’t they leave well enough alone?”

MGM not only got the story wrong by adding “facts” that weren’t there but by bowdlerizing the ones that were. Hollywood’s censorship arm, the Hays Office, had the studios quaking over just how much they could reveal about private lives without the threat of boycotts over alleged obscenity. Maybe MGM banked on Crawford’s previous record for playing floozies (Rain) and proletarian working girls (Grand Hotel) to clue the public into the fact that Peggy Eaton was, despite her very young age, a Woman With a Past. But the facts of her life ended up so obscured on the big screen that moviegoers could be forgiven for wonderining what the “hussy” part of the title was all about.

Here’s what the people of Andrew Jackson’s Washington knew—or thought they knew—that filmgoers of the 1930s had a tough time learning from The Gorgeous Hussy: Even before the age of 16, mind you, one boy was rumored to have killed himself over Peggy O’Neale, two others had dueled over her, and a third would have eloped with her, only the damned fool knocked over a flower pot while climbing out the window.

But Peggy soon found herself the object of even more attention. She was the daughter of a DC tavernkeeper, a profession in which one was likely to see the most powerful, interesting men. At first, it seemed that one of these men would be John Timberlake, a Navy purser whom she married. But his heavy drinking and long absences from home were not exactly endearing in the end.

On the other hand, there was the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, John Eaton. Tall and handsome, he was very attentive, even helping her family out financially when Timberlake was totally unable to do so. And he had connections—like General Andrew Jackson, who was grateful to Eaton not just for supporting him in Washington but for writing the first campaign biography about him.

Timberlake’s death in a foreign port might have appeared providential to the merry widow and her admirer, but half of Washington knew enough about their close relationship to suppose that the sailor’s death was a suicide brought on by his wife’s illicit ways. Even Eaton’s acceptance of the advice of Jackson—if you marry her, they’ll come around—didn’t do the trick.

Things came to a head with Eaton’s appointment to the Cabinet, which was made not on the basis of ability or even party considerations, but because of his closeness to Old Hickory. Some were not hesitant about expressing their disapproval, most notably Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice-President John Calhoun.

Floride would have been appalled by the notion, but once she’d been a bit like Peggy Eaton: a beautiful young woman who’d utterly enthralled a man on the rise. John Calhoun remained under her emotional sway--rendering him instantly vulnerable because of Floride's snub.

Before long, all the Cabinet spouses--and, more important, their husbands--refused to have anything to do with the Eatons. Well, almost all: Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower who didn’t have to worry about amrecalcitrant spouse, could be as nice to her as he pleased.
Eventually, matters came to such a head that Jackson was forced to call a meeting of his Cabinet (minus Eaton) over this issue. The President spoke to them as sternly as he later would to the state of South Carolina when it clamored for disunion. Peggy Eaton, he declared, was not only innocent of these charges, but before her marriage to Eaton she was as pure as a virgin.

Imagine you’re a Cabinet member hearing this, faithful reader. Not only can you not believe you’re talking about a woman instead of, say, relations with Great Britain or how you’re going to raise money, but you groan as you recall a fact that the President, in his zeal to defend the honor of this woman, has conveniently forgotten: Peggy Eaton already had two children before she married John Eaton.

Eventually, Van Buren devised a way out of this situation—have everybody (including himself) resign. The President was so grateful that he accorded “The Little Magician” (so named for wizardry in creating the coalition that elected Jackson) America’s most prestigious diplomatic post—Ambassador to Great Britain.

Just one little problem with this: Ambassadorial appointments, then as now, required Senate approval. The Whigs weren’t about to consent. That left the vote tied. The tie-breaker was the Vice-President.

Put yourself in Calhoun’s spot. “Old Hickory” had a well-deserved reputation for not forgetting a slight. But Calhoun’s wife was against it, and the Vice-President might find himself in the doghouse over it.

In the end, Calhoun decided not to risk the doghouse, voting against the appointment. After the vote, Jackson opponent Henry Clay consoled Van Buren by telling him that he might have lost an ambassadorship but he’d gained a Vice-Presidency.

So it proved to be, as Calhoun decided to leave the Vice-Presidency and resume his quest for the Presidency as U.S. Senator from South Carolina, where he became the principal voice for the slaveholding South over the next two decades. Van Buren got the Vice-Presidency, then the Presidency—though, after the Panic of 1837, he may have experienced more than a few moments when he wished he hadn’t.

And Peggy Eaton? Her story is too interesting to end here. I’ll pick up on it again later in the year.

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