1831 175 Years Ago

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On April 7 President Andrew Jackson accepted the resignation of his Secretary of War, John Eaton. Four days later he did the same with his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. By the end of the month all but one of Jackson’s cabinet members had resigned. The reasons behind the purge were a stew of political intrigue and conflicting loyalties, but they all came down to one woman: the Secretary of War’s wife, Margaret O’Neale Eaton.

Peggy O’Neale Eaton, photographed decades after her temptress days.
 
library of congress2006_2_80

On April 7 President Andrew Jackson accepted the resignation of his Secretary of War, John Eaton. Four days later he did the same with his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren. By the end of the month all but one of Jackson’s cabinet members had resigned. The reasons behind the purge were a stew of political intrigue and conflicting loyalties, but they all came down to one woman: the Secretary of War’s wife, Margaret O’Neale Eaton.

Peggy O’Neale was devastatingly attractive to men, and she knew it. After growing up as the pet of everyone who stopped at her father’s Washington tavern, she married a feckless Navy purser named Timberlake, whose frequent absences gave her ample opportunity to maintain her skills in coquetry. As her conquests grew in number and status, the explosive mix of disapproval and jealousy that such a woman can inspire in others of her sex mounted in equal measure.

In 1818 John Eaton, a new senator from Tennessee, took lodgings at O’Neale’s tavern. Five years later Andrew Jackson, a close friend of Eaton, came to Washington as Tennessee’s other senator, and soon both men were under Peggy’s spell. Like most women, she regarded her beauty as a wasting asset, and, with her husband overseas, she saw no reason to let it go unexploited. Rumors circulated that Peggy and the bachelor Eaton had gotten decidedly too familiar, and the tales became lurid in 1828, when Timberlake died on duty in the Mediterranean—a suicide, it was said.

That same year Jackson was elected President, and between his election and inauguration Eaton and Peggy O’Neale were married. Soon afterward Jackson invited Eaton to join his cabinet, a talentdeficient assemblage composed in equal part of hacks and cronies. Most of the other cabinet members and their wives shunned the disreputable Peggy Eaton, while Jackson and Van Buren were steadfast supporters.

This uneasy state of affairs continued for two years as the political breach between Jackson and Vice President John Calhoun deepened. Meanwhile, the struggle between Calhoun and Van Buren to succeed Jackson grew fierce. Antagonisms intensified as the proand anti-Eaton cliques merged with the proand anti–Van Buren factions. In early April 1831 Van Buren and Eaton tried to end the cabinet impasse by resigning. A furious Jackson then demanded the resignation of everyone else except the Postmaster General, William Barry.

Some analysts, then and now, have suggested that the entire imbroglio was engineered by Van Buren, the Karl Rove of his day. Intentional or not, the mass resignation had the effect of solidifying Van Buren’s position as Jackson’s right-hand man. Old Hickory rewarded Old Kinderhook’s loyalty by choosing him to replace Calhoun as his running mate in the 1832 election. Four years later Van Buren was elected President himself.

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