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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Andrew Jackson's Cabinet

On March 10, 1829, President Andrew Jackson moved into the White House. Fifteen years earlier, the British had burned the White House during the War of 1812. Presidents James Madison and James Monroe oversaw the rebuilding of the Executive Mansion, but presidents made important changes and updates to the building over the next several administrations. John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s predecessor, established the southeast rooms of the second floor (where the Lincoln Bedroom is today) as the president’s domain—the location of the president’s office remained unchanged for over seventy years. Jackson also transformed the office of the presidency, including the role of the cabinet, by wielding executive authority that went unmatched until the Civil War.

Jackson made several important changes to the White House as well. In 1829, the East Room on the State Floor remained unfinished. Jackson ordered the space decorated and outfitted with formal furnishings. Jackson also left his mark on the private residence on the Second Floor of the Executive Mansion. When he moved to Washington, D.C., Jackson brought his extended family with him. Jack Donelson, Jackson’s nephew, came to serve as Jackson’s aide and secretary. Because Jackson was a widower, Jack’s wife, Emily, served as the official hostess of the White House for most of Jackson’s administration. Jack and Emily’s ever-growing brood of children romped through the halls and added a touch of levity to the house. Major William Lewis and Ralph E.W. Earl, Jackson’s oldest friends, also lived on the Second Floor.

They each had their own spheres of influence. In the northwest corner of the second floor, the Donelson family shared a suite of rooms (today the Private Dining Room). The yellow bedroom (today’s West and East bedrooms) served as a ladies’ space during larger events. If women needed a moment of rest, to use the restroom, or to freshen up, they retreated to the yellow bedroom, which was outfitted with elegant mahogany furniture, washstands, and “close stools” or chamber pots. Across the hall, was the circular green room which Emily used to host received morning callers (today’s Yellow Oval Room).1

The Great Cheese: Jacksonian Democracy Enjoys a Special Treat, 1837. This painting by Peter Waddell depicts the 1,400 lb cheese gifted to President Jackson by supporters in New York in the newly finished East Room.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association.

Farther down the hall on the north side, Mr. Earl had a bedroom (today the Queen’s Bedroom) where he painted the portraits of the Jackson family and replicas to sell. Next door, Jack Donelson had a narrow room, where he worked long hours before locking the door to his office at night.2

Aside from the green circular room, Jackson controlled the south side of the floor. On the western half of the floor, Jackson had his dressing room, bedroom (today the Master Bedroom), and sitting room. On the eastern half, he had an audience room, his office, and the clerks’ office. These rooms all served very different functions and Jackson generally left the green circular room and the yellow bedroom free for ladies’ use. Jackson welcomed his closest advisors, including Francis Blair, Thomas Benton, Martin Van Buren, and Major Lewis, into the sitting room (today the Living Room) for late-night conversations. Reclined in comfortable armchairs around the fire, the men discussed Indian Removal, the fight against the Second Bank of the United States, and Jackson’s reelection campaign.3

Jackson greeted callers and office seekers in the audience room (today the Treaty Room). This room had a plush carpet, perhaps a dozen side chairs, a few armchairs, floor-to-ceiling curtains, and a decorative fire screen. This space was designed to hold several people waiting to speak with the president but did not provide the familiarity of a parlor or sitting room.

A floorplan of the second floor of the Executive Mansion during Jackson’s presidency.

Created by Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky, 2020.

Jackson also visited Donelson or Earl’s offices whenever he needed to consult with his aides or conduct a more private meeting. For example, in June 1832, Jackson worked with Donelson, Secretary of the Navy Levi Woodbury, Postmaster General Amos Kendall, and Attorney General Roger Taney to draft a veto message concerning the legislation that would recharter the Second Bank of the United States. While his secretaries and aides toiled for three days in Earl’s office crafting the text of the message, Jackson wandering back and forth across the hall, occasionally stopping in to check on their progress.4

Finally, Jackson hosted secretaries and official cabinet meetings in his office. Relatively little evidence remains that describes the furniture or décor used in this space. The 1825 inventory taken after Monroe left office lists a large pine clothes-press, four door screens, and a sheet iron hearth cover.5 Receipts suggest that Jackson purchased silk curtains and gilded-eagle cornices for the windows, and an iron stove stood in the corner to heat the room. There were likely bookcases and cabinets, a long table for members of the cabinet, and maps. An expensive rubber-faced oilcloth covered the floor and wallpaper on the walls.6 When Martin Van Buren took office in 1837, he ordered all carpets pulled up and replaced, and new upholstery for much of the furniture. The 1840 inventory suggests that the “President’s Parlor” had sixteen chairs and a carpet.7 Perhaps the existing furniture in the president’s office had been worn from use.

The January 1, 1849 inventory included “2 sets window curtains and fixtures, 2 presses with drawers, 1 set mahogany bookshelves, 1 office table, walnut, 1 old sideboard, 1 center table, pine, 1 carpet and rug, 1 sofa, 12 chairs, mahogany, 2 arm chairs, 1 mantle glass, 1 clock with glass cover, 1 large map with mahogany rack.”8 While the exact items were updated between Jackson and James K. Polk’s tenure, the 1849 inventory provides a good impression of the room and its purpose.

This lithograph by A. Ducôte is from a drawing by French illustrator Auguste Hervieu of President Andrew Jackson on horseback from 1829. President Jackson bred horses at his home near Nashville, Tennessee, The Hermitage, and kept a racing stable at the White House. Jackson had horses named Bolivia, Lady Nashville, Emilie, and Busiris.

Library of Congress

What do these spaces reveal about Jackson’s presidential leadership and style of governing? Jackson was a demanding, divisive personality. He insisted on complete obedience from his subordinates and took disagreement personally. While slow to trust newcomers, once he accepted someone into his inner circle, he was intensely loyal, even standing by friends and family members when it was politically unwise.9

Jackson's cabinet experience reflected these expectations for his trusted confidants. He had three distinct cabinet phases. The first cabinet came into office after his inauguration and met in Jackson’s office. Gatherings in the official meeting place reflected the institutional role of this advisory body. While all the secretaries were ardent Jackson supporters, the cabinet fractured over Secretary of War John Eaton’s wife, Margaret. Rumors quickly swirled around Washington that “Peggy” and John had engaged in an affair while she was still married to her former husband, John Timberlake, resulting in an unexpected pregnancy.10 After Timberlake committed suicide in North Africa, Margaret and John quickly married before the customary mourning period had passed. Margaret’s personality did not help her reputation. She was notoriously outspoken, flirtatious, and defied nineteenth-century gender expectations. As a result, the elite women of Washington, including the wives of the other secretaries, refused to socialize with Margaret and ignored her at official state events.11

Jackson was outraged at the treatment—John Eaton was one of his closest friends, confidants, and former campaign manager, and Jackson warmed to Margaret’s attention. Furthermore, the attacks on Margaret reminded him of the insults levied against his late wife, Rachel. Rachel died shortly after the election and Jackson blamed John Quincy Adams and his supporters for her early death. He would not allow political opponents to slander another women in his official family. Jackson demanded that the secretaries recognize Margaret and forced their wives to welcome her into the political circle. On September 10, 1829, Jackson convened a cabinet meeting in his office and insisted that Margaret was “as chaste as a virgin!”12 When the secretaries refused to agree, the cabinet could not fulfill is dual responsibilities as the president’s advisors and his official family at social events, and thus was irreparably broken.13

While the cabinet fractured over Margaret Eaton’s reputation and her reception in social circles, Jackson increasingly turned to a group of advisors known as the “Kitchen Cabinet.” The Kitchen Cabinet included current cabinet secretaries, like Van Buren and Eaton, future secretaries, like Taney and Kendall, and then a mix of friends and Democratic Party associates. For example, Francis Preston Blair was editor of the Washington Globe newspaper, which served as Jackson and the Democratic Party’s official mouthpiece. He worked closely with Jackson to craft the announcements that lauded the president’s behavior and attacked his opponents.14 Dependent on Jackson for political connections and prestige, advisors like Kendall and Blair were deeply devoted to the president and his agenda.

Jackson’s interactions with this group reflected its lack of official position or institutional origin—the Kitchen Cabinet did not replace the actual cabinet in the executive branch. As a widower, Jackson sought out warm, familial environments and frequently visited the Blair House right across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, spending the evening in their parlor or holed up in Blair’s office talking political strategy. Blair was also a regular presence at the White House, quietly walking up the back set of stairs and visiting with Jackson in his office or spending the evening in the president’s sitting room.15

An avid horseman, Jackson also conducted business on horseback. He often held his most important conversations with Van Buren on their frequent rides around the city.16 On one of these rides, Van Buren proposed a solution to Jackson’s official cabinet problem. Eaton would resign from the cabinet and run for a Tennessee Senate seat, removing the source of agitation in the cabinet. Van Buren would also resign to give Jackson cover to dismiss the rest of the cabinet. In return, Jackson would nominate Van Buren to serve as United States Minister to Great Britain.17 After initially protesting, Jackson agreed to this plan and Van Buren and Eaton resigned on April 19, 1831. The next day, Jackson forced Ingram, Berrien, and Branch to resign as well.

After Jackson purged his cabinet, he entered the third phase eased by the Eatons’ departure from Washington, D.C. But the president remained stubbornly assured that he was right about Margaret Eaton. Former Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham confessed in a letter to former Attorney General John Berrien that Jackson’s plan was “to have no body about the Govt & neither in his favor who is not decidedly for V.B. & Mrs E.”18

While the secretaries acquiesced to Jackson’s demands that they recognize Margaret Eaton, they proved more intransigent on other political issues. Jackson cycled through a series of appointees trying to find secretaries that would help him defeat the Second Bank of the United States and implement Indian removal without complaint. As a result, Jackson continued to rely on both his official cabinet and advisors outside the administration, depending on the issue at hand. On Tuesdays, Jackson gathered his secretaries in his office for official meetings, although on rare occasions, when he was ill, the secretaries assembled in his bedchambers.19

When Jackson needed assistance the secretaries could not provide or they disagreed with him, he turned to advisors in the Kitchen Cabinet who might be more helpful. He sought their advice at their homes, through written correspondence, and in a number of more private spaces in the White House. Reflecting on the overlapping roles of the official and the Kitchen Cabinet, historian Richard Latner observed that Jackson created a prototype of the modern White House by crafting a “White House staff” that worked alongside, and often competed with, the cabinet officials.20