Andrew Jackson and the Eaton Affair – A National Soap Opera


The scandals of President Clinton are nothing compared to some of our past presidents. One, the Eaton Affair, led to the fall of an entire government, with the exception of the president himself. The vice-president and the entire cabinet all resigned before it was over.

President Andrew Jackson was never a slave to political philosophy. During the Nullification Crisis (to be described in a later article) he took a strong pro-federal stance. In the Indian Removal, he took a strong states’ rights stance. The one value or belief on which he was absolutely firm was loyalty. Loyalty was probably the most important thing to Andrew Jackson. Jackson demanded absolute loyalty, and in turn was extremely loyal to his friends. He even created the “spoils system” by giving federal jobs based on party loyalty over ability or merit.

Jackson loved his wife dearly. His campaign had been a bitter one, and his wife became a favorite target of the opposition. (They had been married before her divorce was final, necessitating a second ceremony, leading to accusations of bigamy and adultery.) The attacks on her became so vicious and frequent, that her health was affected. She died of a heart attack between Jackson’s election and inauguration. He blamed the opposing party for her death, which was further motivation for refusing federal jobs to members of the other party.

Enter Peggy O’Neal Timberlake. As a young woman, it was said she was the cause of more than one duel. She was married to a navy purser named Timberlake, but the marriage was not a happy one.

One of Jackson’s closest friends was Senator John Eaton. It was Eaton who first convinced Jackson to run for president, and it was Eaton who managed his campaign. Jackson made Eaton Secretary of War in his cabinet. Eaton got Timberlake transferred to the Mediterranean squadron. Today, a Mediterranean cruise is wonderful; back then, it was very unhealthy due to the heat and a lack of friendly ports causing long times at sea. Timberlake was already in poor health, and the assignment was almost a death sentence. Shortly after going there, he died. Some reports said he committed suicide, others say he died of natural causes.

The problem came from the fact the Mrs. Timberlake and Secretary Eaton had been “seeing each other” before Timberlake died. They married shortly after getting word of Timberlake’s death. This would raise eyebrows today, but was absolutely scandalous in the 1820’s and 1830’s.

The political situation at that time also played a role in the scandal. Democrats at that point were divided into two camps. There were those who supported Jackson and favored Secretary of State Van Buren for the next president, and those who supported Jackson and favored Vice President John Calhoun to be the next president.

The cabinet wives, led by the socialite wife of Vice President Calhoun, ostracized the Eatons. This became especially embarrassing when every cabinet wife made her husband take her home the moment the Eatons arrived at an official dinner or function. The entire government would leave, creating an embarrassing situation for President Jackson in front of the world’s ambassadors.

Jackson held a cabinet meeting to discuss the social situation that was so adversely affecting his government. The government of the United States met to discuss a woman. Jackson, of course, stood by his loyal friend. Also, he saw some similarity in the gossip directed against Mrs. Eaton to that directed against his wife during the election. Both factors made him come down heavily on the side of Mrs. Eaton. He instructed his cabinet to cease the ostracism of the Eatons.

Vice President Calhoun saw this as an opportunity to improve his position. Rather than tell his wife to include Mrs. Eaton in social affairs, he encouraged her to increase her campaign against Mrs. Eaton. Calhoun hoped to make the Eatons so uncomfortable that Eaton, a key Van Buren supporter, would resign and go back to Tennessee. Calhoun got what he wished for. John Eaton resigned, and a furious Jackson reluctantly accepted his resignation. Calhoun was overjoyed.

Van Buren, who was nicknamed the “Fox of Kinderhook,” also resigned. He knew that tradition dictated that when two major cabinet members resigned, the rest were expected to resign in order to give the president a free hand in re-organizing his cabinet. Jackson at first refused Van Buren’s resignation, until Van Buren explained. Jackson then accepted all cabinet resignations, and replaced the entire cabinet with men from the Van Buren faction of the party. Van Buren had turned Calhoun’s victory into a defeat.

Jackson, always eager to reward loyalty, appointed Van Buren minister to the Court of St. James (England), the most coveted post other than secretary of state. Van Buren needed only to be confirmed by the Senate. Calhoun, as vice president, was the presiding officer of the Senate. He used his control and influence to defeat Van Buren’s appointment.

Calhoun had the added thrill of being able to personally defeat the nomination. The Senate tied, giving the presiding officer the deciding vote. Calhoun took great joy in casting the deciding vote. Immediately after the vote, Calhoun told Senator Thomas Hart Benton, “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.” But Benton replied, “You have broken a minister, and elected a Vice President.”

Benton was quite correct. When Jackson ran for re-election, he dropped Calhoun and replaced him on the ticket with Van Buren. Jackson and Van Buren won the election in a landslide. Calhoun had learned the hard way to “be careful what you wish for. You may get it.” At every turn, he got what he wanted. And at every turn, Van Buren turned the situation around and made Calhoun regret it. Van Buren was not called the “Sly Fox” and the “Little Magician” for nothing.

Calhoun found himself completely isolated in the government. Jackson no longer invited him to cabinet meetings, and at any rate, the cabinet was filled with Van Buren men. Calhoun was a lame duck vice president with no influence in the government. With three months left in his term as vice president, he resigned to accept election to the Senate from South Carolina.

Van Buren became vice president, and followed Jackson as president, exactly as Calhoun had wanted to do. Peggy Timberlake Eaton was the catalyst of a series of events that led to the resignations of the entire executive branch of the government (except President Jackson)—the entire cabinet and the vice president. Monica may have made a few ripples, but Peggy Timberlake Eaton caused a tidal wave.

The copyright of the article ANDREW JACKSON AND THE EATON AFFAIR – A NATIONAL SOAP OPERA is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish ANDREW JACKSON AND THE EATON AFFAIR – A NATIONAL SOAP OPERA in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.