The Eaton Affair in Andrew Jackson's first term wasn't the original bombshell American political sex scandal. That honor would have to go to the Hamilton-Reynolds fiasco. But the Eaton Affair might be the most consequential, and most revealing. Every one that comes down the pike, even today reminds me of this in crucial ways.

Margaret Eaton

They called her "Peggy," but she preferred the more formal "Margaret." She's a type most people today would recognize, however rare she was in 1830 America. She was voluptuous -- traffic-stopping beautiful -- and she knew it, and she enjoyed the attentions men paid to her. Her work tending bar in her father's inn in Washington, D.C., gave her ample opportunities. She was a brash woman with tremendous social ambition.

She married at age 16 to a minor navy official. It could have been a lonely life, with a husband so often away at sea, but Margaret never seems to have wanted for company. She made a good friend -- a very good friend -- in a middle-aged widower senator from Tennessee named John Eaton, and she was widely known to be his mistress. The paternity of her children was a matter of open speculation. Eaton seems to have loved her, and he helped out her family -- as well as using his clout to make sure her husband was at sea oftener than he would have been otherwise.

Margaret's husband died suddenly in 1828 during one of his voyages, apparently by suicide. How much he knew of his wife's infidelities, and how much it contributed to his despair, is an open question. What is clear is that eight months later, on New Year's Day 1829, Margaret, 29, married John Eaton. Remarriage within a year of the death of one's spouse was considered scandalous. The real scandal, however, was that Eaton, a longtime protege of Andrew Jackson and the campaign manager of Old Hickory's recent presidential victory, was about to become the U.S. Secretary of War.

As one D.C. insider wrote to another, "Eaton has just married his mistress, and the mistress of eleven doz. others!"

Understanding many things from those days requires a modern person to use creative imagination. Washington, D.C., wasn't even a city then. It was a cluster of mean villages around indifferently built government offices in the middle of an unhealthy swamp, with mud in the roads and crops planted over the right-of-way of some of them. Its permanent residents were too few to sustain much of a social life.

The people who flocked there for part of each year to run the government left for home as soon as they could. Many brought their wives and families with them, and the women, especially the wives of Southern politicians, built and carefully cultivated a social order and a social life for a capital that badly needed both. Government then, of course, was entirely the work of men. Men also were the patronage-seekers and hangers-on who clouded about the government like flies. Washington must have been one of the most disproportionately "male" towns in America then, and the men, even the Southern aristocrats, were a coarse, sexual, spitting, catting, cursing set whose bad qualities concentrated as their numbers swelled.

The hostess wives had their work cut out for them.

Cabinet wives customarily headed this embattled minority party, and in Jackson's first administration, the chief among them was Floride Calhoun, wife of the veteran vice president. They did their best to cut Peggy Eaton cold. No other wives spoke to her at the inaugural. Floride would receive her visits, but not return them. Most of the other cabinet wives followed suit. [Foreign diplomats, accustomed to behaviors at the courts at home, didn't understand any of this.]

Floride Calhoun

The dissonance in the cabinet families soon began to intrude on official business (which always is wrapped up in social affairs) and it caught the attention of Jackson. His own wife had a certain scandalous past, and it had been brought out against her, and him, in the nasty campaign of 1828, and when she died shortly before he was sworn in, the bitter, vindictive Jackson blamed her death entirely on the stories told about her.

That may be one reason he instinctively took Margaret Eaton's side, despite what everyone was telling him. He called an emergency session of the cabinet and others concerned in the case (but not the wives) and insisted Margaret was an innocent victim of slander.

As others tried to disabuse him of that notion, he insisted, "She is as chaste as a virgin!" The phrase became a general joke in the capital, though none dared tell the irascible president so. He also explicitly compared her case to his dead wife's, which put the cabinet men in an embarrassing position. Really, for Jackson, this was about his authority. Were his political servants to obey him or not? If he said she was a virgin, that ought to have been good enough for them. She was a virgin. Modern party politics, with their insistence on loyalty over everything, were being born.

The denouement of the scandal is told in the link above. Margaret and John Eaton left town after the Cabinet purge, prompting Henry Clay to quip, echoing Shakespeare, "Age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity." It broke up Jackson's cabinet and cemented his enmity of John C. Calhoun.

The only winner was Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, the wiliest American alive and the first modern politician -- and I don't mean that as a compliment. As a widower, he could freely socialize with the Eatons, and by doing so he proved himself a loyal follower worthy of Jackson's trust. He went out of his way to pay calls on Margaret Eaton. The Jackson-Van Buren alliance created the Democratic Party. If Jackson had been able to work with Calhoun, or even J.Q. Adams (though that chance had passed by 1828), the evolution of American politics would have been strikingly different.

A historian, writing on the eve of the Civil War, could write accurately that "the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton's knocker." Proving, incidentally, that "knocker" did not then have one of its modern slang meanings.

There's something appealingly modern about Margaret Eaton, and her defiance of prudish social conventions. But if you think about it, she is not the feminist pioneer in the story. To find that person, you have to look where you don't expect to find her.

Recent historians, often women, working from a feminist perspective, have seen the Eaton Affair in another light. Here is a summation of their view (though written in this case, by a male historian):

The women who ostracized Margaret Eaton did not act out of mere snobbish rejection of a tavern-keeper's daughter; social mobility was not despised in the Jackson administration. The women saw themselves defending the interests and honor of the female half of humanity. They believed that no responsible woman should accord a man sexual favors without the assurance of support that went with marriage. A woman who broke ranks on this issue they considered a threat to all women. She encouraged men to make unwelcome advances. Therefore she must be condemned severely even if it meant applying a double standard of morality, stricter for women than for men. This conviction was widespread among women, not only in the middle class and regardless of political party. The women who had the courage to act upon it, standing up to Andrew Jackson and risking their husbands' careers, insisted that expedient politics must not control moral principle. They believed that women acting collectively could advance the moral state of society. Theirs was the attitude that justified women's role in contemporary moral reform causes like temperance and antislavery. And although most or all of them would have been shocked if it had been pointed out, theirs was the attitude that would lead in a few more years to an organized movement on behalf of women's rights. [Daniel Walker Howe, "What Hath God Wrought," 2007, p.338]


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