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The Rise Of The Little Magician
Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s right-hand man, was a master of political intrigue who let nothing block his one unwavering ambition—the Presidency. But sometimes he was too smart for his own good
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Van Buren was also launching his moves against the Calhoun camp in another locale. Being an intensely social animal, the Secretary of State had become a major figure in Washington society, a tireless party-giver and partygoer, and it was in these enterprises that he found his finest opportunities to advance his long-range purposes. The situation that worked to his greatest profit was the marriage of Secretary of War Eaton to Mrs. Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake on January 1, 1829.
The uncommonly beautiful Peggy was the daughter of a Washington tavernkeeper and the widow of a Navy purser who had allegedly committed suicide because of her extramarital flirtations. Her wedding to Eaton, which should have been an all-out social event, was boycotted en masse by proper and indignant capital ladies. At the inaugural dinner in March they would not speak to her, and Mrs. Calhoun established the precedent, which others quickly followed, of refusing to call on her. The President, gallant and sensitive to suffering femininity, became concerned. The lady herself, meanwhile, was facing up to the situation not like a frail violet but with the ferocity of a tigress. Given Mrs. Baton’s gameness, the President’s interest, and the unyielding opposition of the CaIhouns, Van Buren had all the ingredients of a highly profitable situation. He lost no time in exploiting it.
He proceeded to pay, as Jackson was to term it, “the most devoted and assiduous attention to Mrs. Eaton.” While other Cabinet members were bulldozed by incensed wives and squeamish daughters into slighting the wife of the Secretary of War against the President’s well-known wishes, the unattached Van Buren could maneuver as he pleased. He called on Mrs. Eaton. He gave parties in her honor. He prodded his friends, the British and the Russian ministers, both of whom were bachelors, to give dances at which the Secretary’s lady was treated with pointed distinction.
L’affaire Eaton, strenuously fanned by the enterprising Van Buren, quickly became a roaring holoaust. It gutted the Cabinet. The President, who was choleric on the subject, called his Secretaries together and admonished them to order their wives to be hospitable to Mrs. Eaton. At another point, he proposed to fire a Secretary whose wife was one of the shriller buglers of the crusade against her. But Van Buren managed to pull the President off; there was bigger game to bag.
In the White House the ranks were bitterly divided. Although Jackson was pure loyalty to Mrs. Eaton, the Donelsons with equal conviction deemed her a terrible blot on the social register. Not only that, Mrs. Donelson was blaming Van Buren and Van Buren alone for keeping her there, and the intensity of her feelings was becoming increasingly apparent to him. Until these recent rending events, Emily Donelson had been his favorite companion at dances and dinners. Of late, however, she had become noticeably distant.
One evening Van Buren dropped in at the White House, as was his habit, for a chat with anyone who happened to be about the sitting room. Jackson, he was disappointed to find, was not there. But Emily Donelson and several of her friends were. After some small talk, she drew Van Buren aside and with deadly candor told him that she was puzzled about his disposition toward Mrs. Eaton and would appreciate having the point cleared up. Awkwardly and ingloriously, the trapped Van Buren squirmed out of the situation by declaring that he had an engagement for which he had to leave at once. Under Emily’s exacting gaze, he felt compelled to add that he would be glad to discuss the subject further at their earliest mutual convenience. Emily insisted on a definite date.
At the appointed time, Van Buren and the piquant Mrs. Donelson commenced a long, lively discussion in the sitting room. Also on hand and quite alert was Emily’s cousin, Mary Eastin, who shared her opinion of Mrs. Eaton. The discussion quickly became heated. Greatly affected, Miss Eastin withdrew to the embrasure of a nearby window, sobbing heavily. Alarmed by the deterioration of the situation, and even more concerned that Jackson might enter at any moment, Van Buren worked desperately to set things aright. He launched into a long, consoling monologue; the upshot was that Miss Eastin’s tears were checked. Perhaps more important, Emily Donelson agreed that they should never discuss the subject again.
In the weeks that followed, Van Buren zealously plied the ruffled lady with attentions; the Donelsons, after all, were much too close to Jackson to be alienated. It worked. When Emily Donelson’s first-born daughter was christened in an elaborate ceremony at the White House, the mother had the pick of Washington’s manpower in selecting godfathers for her child; the two she unhesitatingly chose were the President and her recent antagonist, Mr. Van Buren.