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PRIMARY DOCUMENTS  |  The Rise of Jacksonian Democracy: Eyewitness Accounts
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PART 2. THE MARGARET EATON O'NEAL AFFAIR  |  ACTIVITIES  |  Bibliography


Image: Margaret Bayard Smith. Library of Congress

Margaret Bayard Smith.
Library of Congress

Background

One attribute that characterized Andrew Jackson was personal loyalty to friends, especially those who had worked hard to advance his political goals. His loyalty to one such friend, John Eaton, a devoted supporter and promoter of Jackson in his two election bids, would cause an uproar that threatened the stability of the president's first administration. Jackson and Eaton had known each other since the days when they both served as senators from Tennessee and had roomed at the same boarding house in Washington, D.C. Eaton was in love with Margaret O'Neal Timberlake, the daughter of the boardinghouse owner, who lived there at the time. A beautiful and flirtatious young woman, she was smart and outspoken. Far from home and family, the gentlemen at the boardinghouse - many of them senators and congressmen - found her beguiling. She would later say, "I was always their pet." At the time Margaret met John, she was married, with her husband often away. Many said her relationship with Eaton was scandalous. Margaret and Eaton described it as a friendship. When Margaret's husband died under suspicious circumstances, the gossips claimed that he had committed suicide over the unfaithfulness of his wife. Just after Jackson's election in 1828, Eaton came to ask Jackson's advice on his decision to marry Margaret, despite the rumors. Jackson told him, "If you love Margaret Timberlake go and marry her at once and shut their mouths."


A Bitter Memory

Not only was the recently widowed Jackson a staunch defender of the "honor of women," but he also had personal reasons for resenting those within the Washington social circles who would malign the name of Margaret Timberlake. His own wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, had been married when Jackson met her. Her husband, Lewis Robards, was a rabidly jealous man who eventually left her and supposedly obtained a divorce. Believing she was divorced, Rachel married Jackson, only to learn two years later that Robards had only just been granted a final decree. To quell the scandal, the Jacksons re-took their marriage vows, but in the presidential election of 1828, the pro-Adams press was relentless: "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land? " ran one editorial. Nashville gossips accused the Jacksons of immorality and bigamy. When Rachel died of a heart attack in December 1828, the president believed that the mental abuse she had experienced at the hands of politicians and Nashville socialites had hastened her death. He was bitter and unforgiving.


"I Will Appoint Him"

Jackson wanted to appoint John Eaton secretary of war in his new administration. Some of Jackson's supporters begged him not to do so, citing the inevitable social and political fallout associated with Mrs. Eaton. Jackson explained that, "When I mature my course, I am immovable," and refused to back down. He told his critics, "Do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my cabinet?" Once his cabinet was in place, Jackson insisted that its members force their wives to receive Margaret Eaton socially, something the wives steadfastly refused to do. One day, when John Eaton was absent, Jackson called a cabinet meeting for the express purpose of defending Margaret's honor, presenting evidence of her morality. The lecture did not achieve the desired results. At the annual cabinet dinner, all wives, except Margaret Eaton, found reasons to stay away. The most adamant was Floride Calhoun, Vice President John Calhoun's wife. Calhoun had seemed to be the man in line to become Jackson's handpicked successor at the end of his term. Yet Jackson's anger at Calhoun's inability to control his wife led to a breach in the relationship and emphasized other irreconcilable differences between the two men on personal and political issues.


A Politic Suggestion

The so-called "Petticoat War" raged on, and began to erode the energy and focus of Jackson's cabinet. Only Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, being a man with presidential ambitions of his own, sided with Jackson. Van Buren, a widow, was not in the same position as the other cabinet members. Furthermore, he saw that the Democratic Party was being damaged by this whole affair, and perhaps recognized that his own political career might be enhanced if he could mend the rift. Knowing that Jackson would not ask Eaton to resign, he convinced Eaton to do so on his own. Then Van Buren resigned. Other cabinet members followed suit, at Jackson's request, thus allowing him the opportunity to be rid of all involved in the controversy, and start afresh.

Washingtonians were amazed and wondered what it all meant. Questions abounded. The Senate had confirmed all of these cabinet officers. By demanding that they resign, did Jackson intend to end the Senate's role and set up a dictatorship? Did Mrs. Eaton's efforts to gain legitimacy in Washington society symbolize the democratizing influences of Jackson, and, if so, wasn't it a dangerous trend? Eventually the displaced cabinet members and others wrote letters to the editors of prominent newspapers, claiming that Mrs. Eaton was influencing presidential patronage. To hear them tell it, she was controlling every government appointment Jackson made, a charge that proved unfounded. Jackson was undeterred by their complaints: the cabinet acted as an advisory body to the president, he said, and the task required harmony. When harmony did not exist - some said harmony meant compliance with Jackson's views - it was time for a change.


A Parting of the Ways

With Eaton and Van Buren already gone, President Jackson replaced every other cabinet member, except one, Postmaster General William Barry. Vice President Calhoun was finding his political views less and less in agreement with Jackson's; he eventually resigned and returned to South Carolina to become a U.S. senator. Van Buren, the one cabinet member who had remained loyal to the president, profited from the Calhoun-Jackson split and would himself become Jackson's successor. Democrats in Washington breathed a sigh of relief when the dust finally settled from this strange event. The so-called "Eaton malaria" inspired the most popular toast of the season: "To the next cabinet may they all be bachelors or leave their wives at home."


Discussion

Ask students to read the Margaret Bayard Smith excerpts in which this Washington society commentator discusses Margaret Eaton. Consider these questions with the class: According to Mrs. Smith, why had she and her husband decided not to attend the Eaton wedding? Why was Mrs. Eaton "left alone" at the president's inaugural ball, and on three other public occasions? Why does Mrs. Smith refer to Mrs. Eaton and Mrs. Jackson as "birds of a feather?" Was this justified? According to these excerpts, does Mrs. Smith believe that Andrew Jackson will win the "Petticoat War?"




ACTIVITIES  |  Bibliography



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