So after reading American Lion, I got super obsessed with "The Petticoat Affair" and checked out all the books in the library that I could find on the topic. This was the most recent book specifically dedicated to the topic that I found--presumably because the same sort of obsession came upon the author, and the last known scholar to tackle the subject was Queena Pollock (I read hers too, I'll get to reviewing it) in the 1930's. At the time, several plays were written on the subject, none of which I could find (darn it), and there was even a movie at some point that was very loosely based on it.
“Traditionally, the Eaton Affair is viewed as either a major political event or an inconsequential foolishness. Some historians have insisted that it influenced the choice of Jackson’s successor, while others have ridiculed the notion. Almost without exception, however, historians have seen this affair as political intrigue.”
There's a hilarious quote about it from one James Parton: “The political history United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton’s knocker.” UH-HUH.
Here's the author's point of view: “In this book, I argue that the Eaton Affair cannot be fully understood outside the social context of the Jacksonian Age. The battle over whether or not Margaret Eaton was a worthy female began with, and was impelled by, the period’s attitude toward women in general.”
“Women were to be properly submissive, and Margaret Eaton was both forthright and open with men and thus unwomanly. She was not what society demanded a genteel woman should be, so society had to exclude her.”
The author refers to her as Margaret (rather than the popularized "Peggy" you'll see in the title of other books) since she said she was never called that. While she wasn't "as chaste as a virgin!", she wasn't exactly a super bad girl either.
“Her cardinal sin was thinking and acting in ways that the society of her day considered improper for a woman. Society viewed her as sexually loose, an unchaste and unfaithful woman before, after, and between her marriages. She was also perceived as a chronic violator of genteel convention, too forward and outgoing for proper society. Finally, Margaret Eaton simply rubbed people the wrong way, aside from any accusations of violating morality and gentility. She just did not fit in.
Clearly these are three separate issues, and different people reacted to her in these different ways. What actually took place, however, was a merging of these perceptions, a view that whether in one or in all three ways, Margaret Eaton was not a proper woman and should therefore properly be snubbed. She was a sexually loose, rude loudmouth who did not know how to behave and, therefore, for whatever specific reason, was unacceptable across the entire spectrum of proper womanhood.”
That sums up the author's POV in a nutshell. All of this boiled down to him to "she doesn't act like a proper lady is expected to." Which I wouldn't really argue with. Lord knows I've read enough about her at this point to get that she was A Character and probably just rubbed enough prominent (female) people the wrong way. But at the same time, she wasn't a ho-bag, she probably didn't cheat on her husband or do anything super terrible to deserve this drama. I think she was just off-putting. It probably didn't help that she certainly had a lot of suitors as a teenager and thus kind of had a reputation--she tried to elope, one suitor tried to poison her when she said no (I'll get to that stuff in Margaret's own account of her life). The author mentions the time when Richard K. Call got the impression that Margaret was of loose morality and put some kind of moves on her and she had to fend him off with fireplace tongs. Good for her on that one, I say.
Eventually Margaret finally got to elope very quickly with John Timberlake, a navy purser who really didn't have the best luck with finances. His job was to buy goods on credit, sell them on credit to his clientele on the ship and then get his money back from them come payday. Which doesn't work when sailors desert, the British capture his ship and things get thrown overboard and his books stolen....He wasn't too good at owning a store on land either. And it sounds like he had a drinking problem too (of course, right?). Making friends with John Eaton went better for him because Eaton would help him financially and legally, even if the legal aspects never worked out for him and the government refused to help. While Timberlake was away at sea, she worked in her family's boardinghouse/tavern, hanging out with politicians and sharing her opinions and being a Bright Young Thing...which mighta been kind of inappropriate for a married woman whose husband is away at sea for years on end. So all of that was fertile grounds for a rumor mill even before her husband died at sea in 1828.
The official cause of death was put down as pulmonary disease. According to this book, “she also discovered that he had not died from pulmonary disease but at his own hand by cutting his throat.” Supposedly his shipmates claimed he was just doing a mad act in delirium. Margaret thought it must have been an asthma attack. “Few believed her, particularly since John had almost killed himself in the same manner several months previously.” A few months later, Eaton proposed marriage to Margaret after asking Jackson's advice about it, and they elope on January 1, less than a year after her first husband's death. You can figure out on your own why all of that became a scandal after those circumstances. Somewhere around this time, the Eatons pay a call on the vice president's wife (Floride Calhoun), and the next day Floride decides she won't return the call and in fact, is going to skip on home to South Carolina so as to not deal with her. This sets off a giant social daisy chain of hatred, because when the most prominent wife in Washington refuses someone, so do all the other sheep or else they'll get shut out too.
Though to be fair, it sounds like Margaret was enough of A Character to manage to put people off on her own personality, which clashed with a lot of other people's. For example, Jackson's niece and hostess Emily Donelson, who finds Margaret so annoying that when the two of them are on a boat together and the hugely pregnant Emily is about to faint, Emily would rather faint than use Margaret's remedies for fainting. Emily also really didn't react well to getting a super lecturing patronizing letter from Eaton about how she shouldn't listen to her friends' opinions about his wife, and one day she got into a fight with Martin Van Buren when she insisted on finding out exactly how he felt about the situation. Van Buren actually liked Margaret, so that didn't go well (and the witness to the conversation, Emily's cousin Mary, apparently tried to hide next to the wall and cried while it was going on).
As I previously mentioned, Andrew Jackson was a friend of Margaret's and also a character himself, and he was super loyal and super protective of his people. And Margaret's drama was reminding him way too much of the hell his wife went through. So when half of his Cabinet members (John Berrien, John Branch, and Samuel Ingham) and his vice president's wife all started snubbing Margaret, this really ticked him off. Not to mention his niece and nephew were doing the same thing, which led to huge infighting at home. He eventually became convinced it was all part of some political campaign to force Eaton out of office and hurt his administration.
“I could not, nay I would not, abandon an old and tried friend. I sustained him, and I have no doubt he will become the most popular of the heads of the Departments and the War office will be well directed.” -Jackson.
It turned out that the whole rumor mill started because of two ministers. Yes, really, I said ministers. Head Rumormonger #1 was the Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, who formerly supported both Jackson and Eaton until two weeks after the inauguration. Ely wrote Jackson a letter urging him to fire Eaton because of his wife's immorality, claimed everyone in Washington knew she was a woman of ill fame, Jackson's wife had refused to visit her, and oh yeah, here's a list of her ho-bag activities you probably don't know about:
- Some guy at the National Hotel claimed that “Mrs. E brushed by me last night and pretended not to know me. She has forgotten the time when I slept with her.”
- Another guy said he heard Margaret tell a servant not to call her children Timberlake because Eaton was really their father. He also claimed that Timberlake had told him he’d never return home again because of Eaton seduing his wife.
- A Washington clergyman told him that Margaret miscarried when Timberlake had been gone at sea for over a year.
- A congressman indicated that the Eatons had stayed at a hotel as husband and wife before they were actually married. And he removed a lock from the door between their supposedly separate rooms, and the management of another establishment refused to let them come back there.
- Supposedly some friends of Eaton convinced him to live at another boardinghouse to get away from her.
Jackson really didn't take this well, and he lectured the reverend about making unsubstantiated charges, cited the people he knew who said Margaret was fine (including his dead wife), this isn't good Christian behavior... and this goes on for awhile. Margaret finds out about this and drags a few witnesses along when she goes to confront Ely...for six hours. Eventually Jackson and Margaret browbeat Ely into revealing his true source of all of these rumors, which was...Head Rumormonger #2: Pastor John N. Campbell, pastor of the church that Jackson and the Eatons patronized. Supposedly Dr. Elijah Craven, a doctor Margaret barely knew, blabbed this whole crazy miscarriage story. HIPAA might not have technically existed then, but even in the 1800's there was a code about doctors not blabbing stuff like that and all parties knew this. Margaret goes to confront Campbell (again, with witnesses), proving that her husband was around during the year of this so-called miscarriage with the documentation of his store records.
Jackson started investigating the whole situation, basically proved it was all lies, and shoved it in the faces of her male accusers--and got nowhere with it all because who cares about facts? Campbell straight up started claiming he was misunderstood as to the date and then fudged all to hell. Jackson called all the "guilty" parties into a meeting to produce his evidence and Ely still refused to repent, and Campbell walked out in a huff, and nobody would believe anything. At one point Jackson roared, “She is as chaste as a virgin!” PROBABLY NOT, DUDE, she has had two kids and two husbands. But still...this ain't right. Naturally, Jackson quit Campbell's church and Campbell made sure to get another gig in another state.
More social drama continues, and pretty much all the state dinners are super awkward after this, with guests either shunning Margaret, refusing to show up, showing up and eating and leaving, words are held on the dance floor, etc. The Dutch minister's wife threw a fit when she was forced to associate with them at a dinner and stomped out in a huff.
Eaton desperately wanted to duel with somebody or just plain anybody and everybody, but somehow those attempts never quite came off. Jackson attempted to make peace between his Cabinet members, and the anti-Eatons were pretty much all, "Hey, I can't force my wife to socialize here."
The author says, “Even Andrew Jackson knew he could not force any woman to accept his view of social propriety because this was in women’s sphere. Still, as head of his cabinet, there had to be something he could do.” He announced to the three personally. “I will not part with Major Eaton from my Cabinet, and those of my Cabinet who cannot harmonize with him had better withdraw for harmony I must and will have.” Supposedly people sorta kinda started caving in at this point...which I doubt. Meanwhile, Vice President John Calhoun was hiding out in South Carolina most of the time and staying out of it as far as I can tell (I'm not a fan of Calhoun, but he just doesn't sound as actively involved in this), but since Jackson didn't like Calhoun any more, Jackson started blaming it all as some kind of conspiracy Calhoun put together. Since the two of them were already clashing over the subject of nullification, that didn't help.
As part of the entire Eaton/Timberlake investigation, it's discovered that the pursuer who took over Timberlake's job after his death was doing some financial chicanery, and that fellow, Robert Randolph, got removed from military service. Randolph was so mad he assaulted Jackson later, the first physical attack on a president in American history. Apparently he twisted Jackson’s nose and caused it to bleed, which is .... not super badass, I have to say.
Meanwhile, the fighting between Jackson and his niece and nephew Andrew Donelson was getting worse and worse. Margaret refused to go to dinner with Jackson and his family because of Emily and wrote him a letter saying that. Andrew Donelson started defending his wife, and open war was breaking out. Jackson forced the Donelsons to go on tour in Tennessee with the Eatons, which was...awkward. At the end of the trip, Jackson basically told Emily to stay home with her mother and not return to Washington, and left it up to Andrew Donelson as to what he wanted to do. (Answer: Andrew Donelson returned to Washington and then had angry letter-writing arguments with his uncle even though they were down the hall from each other.)
Eventually the problem was more or less solved when Van Buren got the bright idea that HE should resign from the Cabinet, which in some strange logic I don't quite get, would somehow force everyone else to resign. When Eaton heard about it, he said, “Why should you resign? I am the man about whom all the trouble has been made and therefore the one who ought to resign.” (I'm pretty sure at this point Van Buren was thinking whatever the 1800's equivalent of "DUH" was, and doing the 1800's equivalent of a fist pump behind Eaton's back.) So those two guys quit, and Jackson used that as an excuse to more or less force resignations on pretty much all other remaining Cabinet members except for the lone remaining fan of Margaret.
You'd think this would have ended the whole drama, right? Well, not quite. After a newspaper article claims, "It is proved that the families of the Secretary of the Treasury, and of the Navy, and of the Attorney-General refused to associate with her.” Eaton wrote three identical letters to the ousted Cabinet members demanding to know if they sanctioned this. One of them wisely ignored the whole thing, another guy wrote back saying essentially when he heard the rumors, he didn't care if they were true or not, he just went along with what the entire community wanted. Which sums up everything in a nutshell right there, doesn't it? The third one, Ingham, stupidly wrote back and called Eaton deranged. A letter war along the lines of the "Your Obedient Servant" song broke out, Eaton wanted a duel, and then Eaton decided he was going to get up a posse and stalk and hopefully attack Ingham for his remarks. (Supposedly Margaret basically offered to be his second and come along, and according to her, a messenger told her husband that "Gen. Jackson says if he won't fight, you must kill him.")
So the posse waited around by Ingham's office and a nearby grocery store, but never quite managed to catch him. Though they did parade around by his building until late in the night, presumably waving their guns about and threatening to assault his building. Ingham notified Jackson of this and then reasonably deduced that Jackson approved of this behavior! Anyway, Ingham managed to flee town at four in the morning and avoid being murdered, so there's that. Jackson's actual reaction to this, for the record, was to quote the Bible--"The wicked flee, when no one pursueth," and asked the posse what happened. They denied it all and came up with alibis. Jackson forwarded on the accused men’s replies to Ingham, “twitting the former treasury secretary that he would have preferred discussing the matter with him in person but was sorry that he had left the city at 4 a.m.” He later wrote Ingham that his investigation had found that Ingham’s accusations did not appear to be founded in fact and referred to his “over-excited imagination.”
And yet, this silly drama still continued, even though at this point even Jackson was actively wishing for death to get out of it all. To quote him, he wanted to be “free from all the deception and depravity of this wicked world. Then my wmind would not be corroded by the treachery of false friends, or the slanders of professed ones.” After huge amounts of debate, Emily Donelson returned to Washington. Meanwhile, the Eatons were still hanging around Washington while everyone wished they would leave, and Eaton wrote up an angry document explaining his side of the situation, blaming Calhoun and his friends, and ripping on his fellow Cabinet members (apparently Jackson enjoyed that).
Berrien, who'd previously ignored Eaton's angry letter, lost it this time and wrote his own angry response back. “Unfortunately, even his supporters wished he had not done so.” Calhoun also lost it and wrote his own response, bitching that his name was being dragged into it. For once, the Eatons and Jackson didn't respond to something and ignored that.
Meanwhile, Van Buren was supposed to get a reward for good behavior or something and Jackson had appointed him to be the minister for Great Britain. He sent Van Buren off to do the job before actually bothering to get him confirmed by the Senate first. When the vote comes up--it's a tie, which means Vice President Calhoun gets to decide, and he votes nay! He was also quoted as saying, “It will kill him, sir, kill him dead.” It didn’t.
How did all of this drama end? Well, it ended with more of a whimper or a petering out. The Eatons finally left Washington for awhile, Eaton held various positions, ran for office and didn't win, Margaret continued to be pretty socially notorious wherever he went (she smoked peace pipes, ate anything people told her to at parties, pranked a physician by claiming she ate a ton of opium). When Eaton was the minister in Spain, the guy Eaton replaced wrote a cranky letter to President Van Buren saying the following fun comments about Eaton: that he was “entirely destitute of talent and…the most stupid man they have ever seen placed in a similar station.” “not only capable of putting together two common ideas but of comprehending a single one.” “a man of indolent habits who wants to do something but sit by his fireside and chew tobacco.” “he and she, together, regularly dispose of two bottles of rum (of the strongest kind in the spirit) every three days; that is, 4 glasses each and every day, besides wine; and while they are taking it, and he chewing, she smokes her cigars.” Eaton eventually got recalled by Van Buren, and ticked off Jackson by supporting William Henry Harrison in the next election instead. Eaton and Jackson eventually made up before Jackson's death. Eventually Eaton died and Margaret married a dance instructor who was 30 years younger than her, and who ran off with her granddaughter and all her money. She eventually dictated her memoirs (which I'll review later), died, and became neighbors with everyone she hated in the cemetery.
Anyway... as you can tell, this was a super comprehensive review of the whole drama. I didn't even put in all the juicy side stuff I could have, honestly. Well, maybe later. I'm giving this four stars for great coverage of this whole affair. It was a hilarious read.