The character of a president, wrote the historian Robert Shogan, “is a double-edged sword—an instrument that can discredit…and destroy [his] credibility but also one that presidents can use to establish their political identity and mobilize support” (3). “Character,” he concluded, “is the ultimate weapon in politics” (Shogan 3). Throughout presidential history, the roles that women have played in either highlighting a president’s positive character traits or exposing his character weaknesses have been important, not only regarding the ways in which women influence the president’s personal relationships, but also the ways in which they influence the public’s perception of him, and even the ways in which they influence the trajectory of his political success or failure. Such was the case in the scandalous relationship between Peggy Eaton and President Andrew Jackson. The so-called “Petticoat Wars,” which started ostensibly as a personal relationship between Eaton and the president, soon became so significant that they resulted a complete disruption of Jackson’s administration, culminating dramatically in the administration of the entire Jacksonian Cabinet (Boston D04).
Margaret O’Neal Eaton, known better to the history books as Peggy Eaton, was the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton (Boston D04). Mrs. Eaton was a fixture on the Washington, D.C. party circuit elite in 1828, being invited to political soirees by the Secretary of State and future president Martin Van Buren in the heady days following Jackson’s election to the presidency (Boston D04). From the beginning of her own political debut, Mrs. Eaton caused controversy and scandal. Other political wives questioned the appropriateness of inviting Mrs. Eaton to any social event. First of all, she did not come from polished political parentage; she was the daughter of a tavernkeeper and did not seem far removed from her bourgeois roots. More concerning than her lineage, however, was the fact that the other wives of the members of President Jackson’s Cabinet suspected that Mrs. Eaton was a loose woman, as she had allegedly had an extramarital affair (Boston D04). In fact, it was rumored that Peggy Eaton had married the Secretary of War after having a fling with him, cheating on her first husband, a navy purser, while he was away at sea serving the country (Felknor 68).
It is likely that the other wives’ uneasiness about Mrs. Eaton was not only the result of rumor mill fodder. Mrs. Eaton was young, just 29 years old, and she was reputed to have been “a woman of uncommon vivacity” (Shogan 45), beauty, and wit attracting the attention of men wherever she went (Felknor 67). The other wives refused to treat Peggy Eaton as a social or political equal, but Eaton seemed nonplussed by their rejection (Syrett 34). She had long been able to hold her own and exert her womanly charms over men with or without the friendship of other women (Syrett 34). In fact, in addition to her liaison with the Secretary of War himself, Peggy Eaton was alleged to have been unfaithful to her first husband on numerous occasions. By one account, Peggy Eaton had been with “eleven dozen other” men, though whether this is true is difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate (Felknor 68). The circumstances of the Eatons’ marriage were similarly suspect. Eaton’s promotion to the Secretary of War post permitted Mrs. Eaton’s first husband—to whom she was still married legally—to be assigned longer and longer tours of duty (Felknor 68). The man, who was obviously unfortunate in so many ways, then died at sea, clearing the way for Mrs. Eaton’s marriage to him to be dissolved and her marriage to Eaton to proceed (Felknor 68).
All of the pieces were in place for a political and romantic scandal, one that would be remembered as particularly a bad one in political American history. After his election but before taking the oath of office, President Jackson’s wife Rachel died of a heart attack, and he was devastated (Shogan 45). He blamed Rachel’s death on the stress of the campaign, which had been stressful for both due to excessive mudslinging and maligning of Jackson’s character and history (Shogan 45). The presence of Mrs. Eaton and her alleged infidelities, then, heightened anxieties that President Jackson would turn to her not only for aid in fulfilling the ceremonial functions of the First Lady, but also his own romantic or sexual comforts. Such anxieties seemed to be confirmed when Jackson, sensitive to the ways in which his own wife had been criticized baselessly while on the campaign trail, expressed profound sympathy for Eaton, and spent more time and exhibited more care for her than might have been the case under any other set of circumstances (Shogan 46). As Shogan wrote, “[President] Jackson…personalized what he regarded as the persecution of Peggy Eaton, allowing it to dominate his presidency” (46).
President Jackson’s passionate defense of Eaton exacerbated existing tensions and conflicts among politicians on both sides of the aisle, but even—and especially—within his own administration and, most notably, with his own vice-president (Shogan 46). Vice-President Calhoun’s wife, Floride, seemed to have a particular dislike for Mrs. Eaton, and she took every opportunity, both publicly and privately, to besmirch Mrs. Eaton’s already tarnished or questionable reputation (Shogan 46). Vice-President Calhoun apparently encouraged his wife in this gossipy behavior, as he had his eye on the presidency for himself, and he hoped that any scandal driven association between President Jackson and Mrs. Eaton might facilitate his own path to the highest post in the land by forcing the Secretary of War out of the Cabinet and by embarrassing President Jackson in such a way that it would lead to his resignation (Shogan 46). Whether such a hope was based in reality is anyone’s guess, but the vice-president’s encouragement of his wife’s tasteless gossip did have the effect of splintering the Jackson administration irrevocably (Shogan 46).
Vice-President Calhoun’s strategy to oust the Eatons and President Jackson out of the political stratosphere backfired, as he himself was ultimately driven out of the vice-presidency by Jackson. Ironically, Vice-President Calhoun was replaced by the same man who had brought Mrs. Eaton into the political social scene in the first place: Martin Van Buren (Shogan 46). Secretary of State Van Buren anticipated that the intensity of the scandal was likely to result in an upset in the Cabinet and his “deft defusing of the crisis” impressed President Jackson and made him so grateful that he promoted Van Buren to the vice-presidential position (Felknor 68). It is relevant to mention that Martin Van Buren, unlike all of the other members of President Jackson’s Cabinet, was single (Syrett 34). In fact, he was a widower, and his age and position made him a reputable and respectable figure who seemed to be more reasonable and rational than everyone else motivated by the passions of the Eaton affair (Syrett 34). With Van Buren’s able assistance, a new administration was constituted by 1831, and the Jackson presidency began to recuperate its stability, albeit haltingly and not without great difficulty (Syrett 14) perhaps more than ever seen in political American history.
The history books are vague as to whether President Jackson really did have any kind of romantic affection or sexual interest in Peggy Eaton. Historians Kohl (43) and Shogan (46) contend that President Jackson took up the passionate defense of Peggy Eaton not out of any particular allegiance or attachment to the woman herself, but because of the associations that he made between Eaton and his wife, whom he had supposedly loved deeply and whose absence he felt profoundly. Also, President Jackson had long had a reputation for championing anyone in an underdog position, especially if they had a compelling personality and deliberately resisted social norms by going against the grain (Kohl 43). Mrs. Eaton, then, was just one in a long line of marginalized people for whom President Jackson took up a case. Although he was dogged by accusations related to the scandal, and although he did have to suffer the complete instability and eventual breakdown of his own presidential team, the Petticoat Wars ultimately served to show what President Jackson was made of. He was a man who would always defend the rights of the persecuted and the downtrodden, and in the Eaton affair, he had proven this characteristic of his yet again.
President Jackson’s defense of Peggy Eaton was not only a proving ground to reinforce his own character traits; it was ultimately—and perhaps even more importantly—a proving ground for Martin Van Buren, who himself would eventually be elected to the country’s highest post as president (Ratner 26). Peggy Eaton, as scandalous as she was perceived to be or as she might have truly been in the context of American history, provided the conditions for both President Jackson and the future President Van Buren to pass the “true test of honor” (Ratner 26). By remaining loyal to their own principles, however hard-won that loyalty, both President Jackson and Vice-President Van Buren proved that they were men who were not simply willing to endure hard tests of character, but that they were fully capable of doing so. Although the first two years of President Jackson’s administration were consumed by the Petticoat Wars, a distracting scandal that probably did detract from progress in other areas of political, social, economic, and diplomatic importance, the team of Jackson and Van Buren was ultimately fortified by the scandal.
Women have always been important means by which presidents and other politicians have proven themselves and forged their identities throughout American history. While the presence of Peggy Eaton did reveal some ugly aspects of politicians’ characters and the scandalous and competitive side of political life in general, Peggy Eaton served a crucial if unintentional role in helping President Jackson and Vice-President Van Buren prove themselves to an American public that needed strong and courageous leaders. Without the scandal of the Petticoat Wars, American history might have been quite different.
Boston, Gabriella. “History’s Neighbors: Friends, Foes, Scandals in Decatur House Exhibit.” The Washington Times. (2004, November 7): D04.
Felknor, Bruce L. Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections. New York: Praeger, 1992.
Kohl, Lawrence Frederick. The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Ratner, Lorman A. Andrew Jackson and His Tennessee Lieutenants: A Study in Political Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Shogan, Robert. The Double-Edged Sword: How Character Makes and Ruins Presidents, from Washington to Clinton. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
Syrett, Harold C. Andrew Jackson: His Contribution to the American Tradition. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merill, 1953.