On 10 September 1829, President Andrew Jackson called a cabinet meeting to discuss a matter of grave national importance. The nation's capital was paralyzed by a controversy that reached to the heart of his administration. His most trusted advisors were bitterly divided; the whole government stood at a standstill. But after reviewing all of the evidence, exploring all of the charges, and hearing the testimony of witnesses, the president announced the conclusion that he hoped would place the ship of state back on course: Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, was "as chaste as a virgin."26
Today it is hard to believe that the sexual history of a cabinet official's wife would merit such attention. But Peggy Eaton's reputation prompted the first major crisis of Andrew Jackson's administration. Nor was Jackson able to lay the issue to rest with his presidential affirmation of her virtue. The Peggy Eaton Affair would drag on and on for another nineteen months, and end only when Jackson purged his administration and resolved to dump his vice-president at the first opportunity.
Peggy Eaton, born Margaret O'Neale, was the daughter of a Washington, D.C. innkeeper. The O'Neales' hotel was known for its good food and hospitality—but at least part of its popularity could be traced to the young Margaret. By her early teens she had acquired a long list of admirers—one young man was driven to suicide, and two others fought a duel for her affections. By the time she married at age sixteen, she had turned down several proposals. Her husband, John Timberlake, was a seaman. Together they had two daughters.
The plot thickened in 1818 when John Eaton, Tennessee's young new Senator arrived in Washington. He stayed at the O'Neales' hotel—and became a friend of the entire family. He found John Timberlake a job and loaned him money—and when Timberlake was away at sea, Eaton escorted Peggy around town. But in 1828 tragedy struck—John Timberlake died at sea. The first reports blamed illness. But the Washington rumor mill quickly concluded that he had taken his own life, driven to suicide by suspicions of an affair between his wife and John Eaton.
In January of 1829, Eaton fanned the gossip flames by marrying Peggy. He explained to his close friend, the newly-elected President Andrew Jackson, that by marrying her he hoped to protect her from all the vicious talk. Jackson applauded the decision—"Marry her and you will be in a position to defend her," he said.27 But the announcement of the Eatons' marriage only fed the city's appetite for gossip. Jackson's announcement of Eaton as his Secretary of War added political texture to the sensational stories. And soon there were more details—rumors of an adulterous pregnancy that ended in miscarriage and a list of men claiming to have slept with Peggy.
By the time Jackson was inaugurated in March 1829, the "Eaton malaria" had infected his own cabinet members—or at least their wives. At Jackson's inaugural ball, the other cabinet wives refused to speak with Mrs. Eaton. Peggy had anticipated their behavior. Shortly after marrying John Eaton, she had made the customary social calls on the wives of other officials—but none of these visits were returned as protocol demanded. Initially, the leader of the collective shunning was Floride Calhoun, the wife of Jackson's vice-president, John C. Calhoun. But so great was her revulsion, so offended was she by the prospect of associating with the promiscuous Peggy in any way, that she soon left the Washington entirely and returned to South Carolina.
Even without their leader, the other wives managed to maintain their solid front of rejection; they refused to attend any function that included the Eatons, and they insisted that their husbands support their social boycott as well. In response, the president began a campaign of his own, a curiously intense effort to provide Peggy Eaton with a supportive social network. He hosted a series of dinners and parties—and placed Peggy Eaton conspicuously at his side. But Jackson needed allies. He had one loyal supporter in the administration—Martin Van Buren, the Secretary of State. But Van Buren was unmarried, and therefore of limited value in the petticoat war. And so Jackson turned to the diplomatic corps, perhaps believing that the wives of these more cosmopolitan visitors might be more accepting of the Eatons. But he was disappointed; when the Dutch ambassador's wife proved uncooperative, he threatened to deport her.
That the president of the United States would take such an interest in all of this is striking. But for Jackson, the petticoat war was more than a simple social squabble; he took a deeply personal interest in the treatment of Peggy Eaton. He fumed in his correspondence about the pettiness of her accusers, and he carefully monitored who took his side and who slept with the enemy. But Jackson's extraordinary response to the petticoat war only elevated the broader political tensions. Washington's social scene was a critical part of the governing process during these years. The parties and dinners that filled the week were important extra-official sites for networking and coalition building. It was at these events that the wheeling and dealing essential to governance took place. But now Washington society was split into two camps, divided into two mutually exclusive social circles, and consequently the nitty-gritty of governance was severely tested.
Martin Van Buren, the man who had built the Jackson coalition, was the one who found a way out the mess. In April 1831—two years after the inaugural snub and nineteen months after Jackson declared Peggy Eaton chaste—Van Buren proposed that he and John Eaton resign to pave the way for a general cabinet housecleaning. Jackson was reluctant to lose the support of Eaton and Van Buren, his most loyal advisors, but he recognized the necessity. And so on 7 April 1831, he accepted Eaton's resignation; four days later he received Van Buren's. The following week, he confronted the other cabinet officers and convinced them that they must do the same.
Vice-President Calhoun could not be dispatched quite so easily. Protected by the Constitution, Calhoun would be safe in his position until the election of 1832. By that time Jackson's dissatisfaction with Calhoun would be based on much more than the mistreatment of Peggy Eaton. But Jackson's suspicion of his running mate began during this petticoat war; before more profound disagreements over nullification had crystallized, the Calhouns' role in the Eaton affair had soured Andrew Jackson on his vice-president.
Almost two hundred years later, it is still hard to understand why all of this caused so much controversy. How could speculation about a cabinet wife's past behavior bring a government to a standstill? Why would a woman's character occupy the attention of so many powerfully placed people, including the president of the United States?
Part of the answer lies in Andrew Jackson's own personal history. When he ran for president in 1828 against John Quincy Adams, he and his wife Rachel were subjected to a similar attack. Jackson had married Rachel Doneleson Robards in 1791. She had been married before, but had been divorced by Lewis Robards the previous year—or so Jackson and Rachel believed. In 1794, they discovered that Robards had never completed the divorce proceedings; in other words, Jackson had married a married woman. The couple quickly addressed the legal problems and remarried, but that did not stop Adams's campaign from dredging up the old story in 1828 and labeling Rachel a bigamist and both Jacksons adulterers.
During the campaign, Jackson managed to insulate Rachel, tucked away at their home in Tennessee, from the slanderous attacks. But shortly after the election, while traveling in Nashville, she saw a campaign pamphlet containing the charges and she was devastated. Her physical and mental health deteriorated, until on 22 December she suffered a heart attack and died.
Jackson blamed Adams and Henry Clay, an Adams supporter, for her death. And when the charges against Peggy Eaton surfaced just months later he smelled another stink raised by "Clay and his minions."28 But just as emphatically, he blamed Washington's ravenous appetite for gossip—and the women who fed it. "I had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation," he swore to his fellow sufferer, Peggy Eaton.29
Jackson's condemnation of Washington's women converged with older concerns about the influence of women on America's republican form of government. Republics, by definition, required from their citizens a selfless pursuit of the common good, a willingness to set aside their personal interests for the sake of the general welfare. But many men, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that women exercised a harmful influence on men's pubic behavior. Jefferson's years in Europe had convinced him that women corrupted the political arena—that they seduced men away from the common good. And subsequently he warned Americans about the danger of allowing women access to the political arena. Moreover, during his years as president, he eliminated most of the social events that might bring women dangerously close to the decision-making processes of the government.
The belief that women corrupted the ordinarily more virtuous instincts of men was thus an old theme among political theorists. And during the first decades of the nineteenth century, this old theme converged with a new reality—the ascendance of women as a powerful force within the nation's capital.
The women who came to Washington, D.C. during the first decades of the nineteenth century—wives of politicians and government officials—were quite possibly the most powerful in America. They were only part-time residents—the vast majority only lived in the city while Congress was in session, about six months out of the year—but during those months they enjoyed more freedom of movement and political influence than other women in America.While in Washington, they often lived in boarding houses and usually left their children back home. Freed from their domestic responsibilities, they attended meetings of Congress, listened to speeches on the floors of the House and Senate, and sat in on oral arguments before the Supreme Court. They also enjoyed the extensive round of social engagements that filled the Washington calendar. At these events, they mingled with the nation's decision-makers, participating in the conversations that surrounded the work of lawmaking.
Moreover, as women, they presided over these social events that played such a critical role in the day-to-day operations of the government. In charge of scheduling and invitations, they held the keys to the political kingdom. Newcomers to the city quickly learned that accessing political power began by gaining access to the social world controlled by women. Women did not vote and they did not hold office, but they governed the social arena that complemented and completed the machinery of government in the nation's capital.
By the time Andrew Jackson was elected president, Washington's women had dramatically overcome the barriers set up by men like Thomas Jefferson to block their participation in the business of government. One historian, Catherine Allgor, has suggested that they were at the peak of their extra-official power. The great irony is that in 1829 they used this power to crush the influence of a woman they deemed harmful to the body politic; they used their political power to perpetuate, rather than to deny, the old belief that women tended to seduce men away from the virtuous performance of their duties.
Even more ironically, in successfully driving Peggy Eaton from the circle of government wives, Washington's women tore apart the social order that had been the very basis of their power. For the rest of Jackson's presidency, Washington's social life was subdued. The large parties and dinners were replaced by more intimate gatherings, and many public officials went a step further—they decided to leave their wives, and the social complications they threatened, at home.
The Eaton Affair claimed, therefore, more than one casualty. Most dramatically, it brought to an end a brief period in which women exercised a distinctive form of unofficial political power. But in doing so, the affair may have pushed Washington's women toward the recognition that the sort of social-political power they enjoyed before the Eaton episode was a poor excuse for the real thing. The next generation of Washington women would not be content with overseeing the city's social calendar. By 1850, a growing number would argue that the vote, not the guest list, was the real key to the political kingdom.