Andrew Jackson - The eaton affair

Jackson had barely taken office when he confronted his first political crisis. The trouble revolved around Secretary of War Eaton and his wife, Peggy. For various reasons, Eaton's appointment was unpopular with many Jackson supporters. Compounding this difficulty was Eaton's marriage on New Year's Day 1829 to Margaret O'Neale Timberlake. Peggy, the daughter of a Washington tavern keeper, had gained an unsavory reputation for being too forward with her father's boarders when her first husband, a naval officer, was away. Eaton was a frequent guest at the O'Neale tavern. When her husband died at sea, probably a suicide brought on by drinking, Eaton married Peggy after receiving Jackson's opinion that marriage would disprove the charges of impropriety.

Washington society, already fearful that Jackson would have as little regard for its conventions as he had for Indians or British troops, saw Eaton's appointment as a challenge and responded by snubbing Mrs. Eaton. Although some prominent Washington leaders, particularly Van Buren, associated with the Eatons, many did not. Among the families that excluded her were those of Calhoun, Ingham, Branch, Berrien, and Donelson. Doubtless recalling the slanderous attacks against his own wife during the recent campaign, Jackson decried the baseness of those who, in the name of morality, dragged the intimate and private relations of marriage into the public arena. " Our society wants purging here ," he concluded.

Jackson devoted an inordinate amount of time during his first year in office gathering evidence to prove Mrs. Eaton's virtue and laboring to have his family and cabinet harmonize. His efforts had little effect, and the social war against Peggy Eaton continued unabated. Jackson was furious and miserable, but he continued to support the Eatons and insisted that loyalty to them was essential to his own success.

The Eaton affair inevitably spilled over into politics. Initially, Jackson assumed that Clay and the opposition were responsible. However, by the late fall of 1829, he had identified Calhoun as the arch-conspirator. Because Eaton, who was a Van Buren partisan, had refused to back Calhoun's presidential aspirations, Jackson alleged, Calhoun thought it necessary to destroy him, whatever the consequences to the administration.

In retrospect, it is clear that Jackson exaggerated Calhoun's responsibility. The Eaton controversy involved matters of decorum that would have made it difficult under the best of circumstances to harmonize the cabinet. Much opposition to the Eatons also emanated more from political hostility to Eaton and Van Buren than from devotion to Calhoun.

Yet if Jackson simplified, he also struck a core truth. While there is no direct evidence that Calhoun initiated the quarrel to strengthen his claims to the succession, he was doing nothing to put a stop to a scandal that was damaging Jackson's credibility. One close Jackson associate put the issue squarely when he judged Calhoun a "madman" if he promoted the maneuvers against Eaton, and not a wise man if he does not put an end to it."

Soon other difficulties mixed with the Eaton incident to separate Calhoun from Jackson. In the fall of 1829, Jackson learned that, as a member of Monroe's cabinet, Calhoun had recommended that Jackson be punished for defying the president's orders and pursuing the Seminole Indians into Spanish Florida. In May 1830, when Jackson received confirming evidence in written form, he forwarded the material to Calhoun and expressed his "great surprise" at these allegations. Calhoun began a correspondence in which he attempted to blame Van Buren's friends for reviving the issue, but he was still forced to concede his opposition to Jackson's Florida invasion. Jackson denounced Calhoun as a "hypocrite" who had "attempted to stab me in the dark."

Jackson also grew increasingly irritated by Calhoun's political independence, particularly his prominent position among the radical antitariff nullifiers. Their deteriorating relationship came to a head at the Jefferson Day Dinner in April 1830, which some Calhounites intended to use as an occasion to identify nullification with Jeffersonian principles. Jackson suspected that the proceedings would prove irregular, and he made the impending dinner the subject of "frequent conversations" with Van Buren. Having seen the list of regular toasts beforehand, he prepared his own and carefully rehearsed it with aides.

After the regular toasts were given, Jackson rose to provide the first volunteer statement. Tradition has it that he stared sternly at Calhoun and announced, "Our Union— it must be preserved ." The words struck home with great force, and one nullifier rushed to ask Jackson to insert the word federal be-fore Union . Jackson readily agreed, saying that he had written the phrase that way but had inadvertently omitted the word. Even so, Jackson's declaration contrasted starkly with the sentiment offered by Calhoun: "The Union: Next to our liberty, the most dear; may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and distributing equally, the benefit and burden of the Union." This overly long toast did nothing to dispel the idea that he was not in accord with Jackson's convictions.

Jackson's alienation from Calhoun was largely complete by this time. Thereafter, occasional efforts were made to reconcile the two men, but never successfully. In February 1831, Calhoun placed himself totally outside the pale by publishing his correspondence with Jackson concerning the Seminole controversy. The effect was to challenge Jackson in public and to give the impression that Jackson was weak and had been manipulated by Calhoun's enemies. "Mr. Calhoun does not attack the President, he says; yet he makes him out a dupe!" Kendall observed. The administration drew the line against "false friends," and Calhoun was effectively read out of the party.

The final scene of the Eaton drama was played out a few months later, in April 1831, when Van Buren paved the way for a general cabinet reorganization by resigning from his position. While Calhoun had been losing Jackson's confidence, Van Buren had been gaining it. The New Yorker, by showing the Eatons the same social consideration he gave to others and by lending his support to Jackson's political goals, earned Jackson's trust and affection. By January 1830, Jackson had concluded that Van Buren should be his successor. Van Buren's enemies charged him with manipulating the Eaton affair to undermine Calhoun, but the truth is that Van Buren needed only to let events take their course and take advantage of "the indiscretions of Calhoun's friends." Jackson noted approvingly that Van Buren "identified him [self] with the success of the administration." He could not say the same for Calhoun.

Yet Van Buren's prominence placed him in a distressing situation. So long as he remained in the cabinet, he was certain to bring continued attention to himself as a possible intriguer. The public might blame him for the Jackson-Calhoun split and for the disturbances over the Eatons. Van Buren, consequently, hit upon the idea of resigning from the cabinet as a way to restore harmony to the party and cabinet and to remove himself from a precarious position.

Jackson reluctantly accepted Van Buren's resignation, along with that of Eaton, and then discharged Branch, Berrien, and Ingham. Only Barry remained, leaving Jackson with virtually a free hand to select new members who would work better together. Jackson also appointed Van Buren minister to Great Britain, but on 25 January 1832, the Senate rejected his nomination. A tie was arranged so that Calhoun could cast the deciding vote against his rival. It may have been Calhoun's hope that this act of revenge would weaken Van Buren and the administration. One senator overheard Calhoun reassuring his followers that the vote would hurt Van Buren: "It will kill him, sir, kill dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick." But in the end, the rejection made Van Buren a political martyr and the inevitable choice for Jackson's vice president at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

Despite the extraordinary discord and division of Jackson's first two years, he emerged from the fray with a more coherent and loyal following. The loss of Calhoun was more than compensated by the firmer attachment of the Van Buren interest. Similarly, the establishment of Blair's Globe in December 1830, replacing Duff Green's pro-Calhoun United States Telegraph , provided new energy for the administration. To be sure, Blair's arrival from Kentucky was not auspicious: his already thin, cadaverous-looking frame was disheveled and bandaged from a mishap to his coach, leading a disappointed Lewis to comment, "Mr. Blair, we want stout hearts and sound heads here." But Blair and his paper were all that Jackson could wish. Unlike Green, Blair was fully devoted to Jackson and his objectives, particularly on banking and currency matters. Blair also made the Globe a clearinghouse for party information and propaganda, by exchanging copies with over four hundred other papers and by extending its circulation. The paper gave Jackson greater control over his administration, greater authority with Congress, and closer ties to the voters.

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