After being elected to the Presidency in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s first term was wracked by a controversy that erupted over the wife of his Secretary of War. Margaret Eaton was, according to Washington’s “political wives,” an “immoral woman to be avoided at all costs,” writes the historian Kristen E. Wood in her fascinating account published in the Journal of the Early Republic.
Margaret Eaton was shunned by Washington society. Women who “had parleyed their vision of female moral purity into a claim for political relevance” wanted no part of the former hotel-keeper’s daughter, barmaid, and widow, whom they assumed to be an adulteress. Most of Jackson’s cabinet members supported their wives’ take on Eaton. The President, however, stood by her, declaring, “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the Ladies of this place.” (Jackson’s own wife was much slandered during the 1828 election. She died right after her husband was elected.)
“For the next two and a half years, the ladies shunned Margaret Eaton, Jackson sought to prove her purity and bring her into society, and his political allies and subordinates tried to justify taking sides,” Wood writes. The Eaton Affair, also known as the Petticoat Affair (and even the Petticoat War), opens a window into the gender politics of the dawn of the Jacksonian Era. Essentially a sex scandal, by 1831 the Eaton Affair was a national political issue, raising questions of manhood, womanhood, Presidential power, politics, and morality. As Wood puts it:
The broad-based economic and social changes of the market revolution brought gender roles into question in households across the country; concomitantly, gendered contests over authority and power shaped the party that emerged out of popular anger at the market revolution and its consequences.
Many of Jackson’s supporters chose him because he championed farmers and mechanics against bankers and manufacturers. In responding to the Eaton Affair, they “identified with the hero who insisted on his right and duty to avenge a defenseless woman and rebuke disloyal dependents.” To Jackson’s enemies, however, “the Eaton Affair proved that Jackson’s party stood less for the will of the people than for moral depravity and ‘executive usurpation.’ ”
Wood continues: “Christian morality and republican political theory both suggested that political and sexual virtue were essential to social order.” Second Lady Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John Calhoun, refused to even be in Washington, DC, while Eaton was a “cabinet wife.” (The Calhoun’s own social order, as planter elites, it should be remembered, depended on slavery.) Emily Donelson, Jackson’s niece and the official hostess at the widower’s White House, likewise snubbed Eaton. They believed contact with a sinner would harm their own reputations, the basis of their moral agency—one of the few ways women could wield power.
Margaret Eaton’s power, her enemies charged, was sexual. With a widowed President as her biggest supporter, she was considered a power behind the throne, a “modern Cleopatra,” in one newspaper’s phrase. “Mrs. Eaton is the President,” another newspaper claimed. Wood’s verdict? “Margaret Eaton’s influence over Jackson was in fact minimal.”
In addition to the cabinet-wide controversy, those opposed to the Jacksonian Democrats hoped the party would consume itself in the scandal. That didn’t happen, but Jackson did use the issue as an opportunity to dismiss his entire cabinet, getting rid of Calhoun’s allies in the process.
Jackson’s main ally in supporting Mrs. Eaton was his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. Another widower, Van Buren didn’t feel any spousal pressure in taking a position. He became Jackson’s successor, taking the VP position from Calhoun after the 1832 election, and then winning the Presidency in his own right in 1836. Margaret Eaton, meanwhile, lived until 1879, and not in quiet retirement, either. In a posthumously published memoir, she wrote about her critics: “I was quite as independent as they, and had more powerful friends.”