America’s First Sex Scandal

Andrew Jackson. By: Alexander Hay Ritchie.

Upon arriving in the White House, Andrew Jackson appointed John Eaton as Secretary of War. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 336. Little did Jackson know the extent to which this decision would plague the first year of his presidency.

Eaton’s wife, Margaret Eaton, had married John Eaton not long after Eaton’s wife died, and Margaret Eaton already had a reputation for being a mistress to many in Washington. See id. Eager to put this behind him, Jackson held a meeting as to the sexual morality of Margaret Eaton, at which Jackson exclaimed: “She is as chaste as a virgin!” See id. at 337. Nonetheless, her reputation did not change, and the administration continued to be plagued by the Eaton Affair.

This frustrated Jackson. He said, “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the Ladies of this place.” Id. quoting Kirsten Wood, “Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair,” JER 17 (1997): 238.

The one victor coming out of the Eaton Affair was Martin Van Buren. Jackson, to save face, had to force Eaton and his supporters to resign from the cabinet. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 339. The New York Courier commented: “Well indeed may Mr. Van Buren be called ‘The Great Magician’ for he raises his wand, and the whole Cabinet disappears.” Id. quoting Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics (Charlottesville, Va., 2000), 208.

One of the most prominent cabinet members, John Calhoun, had already created tension with Jackson, but the Eaton Affair and its consequences would prevent Calhoun from becoming Jackson’s heir. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 341. Van Buren had successfully taken that unofficial role of Jackson’s heir apparent.

There are two parts to unpack from the Eaton Affair. First, it was the first sexual controversy in the White House, and certainly the biggest one until the 1990s. Second, Van Buren had continually been reinforcing his political prowess, and his navigation of the Eaton Affair was just the latest example of that as the Jackson administration was beginning their first term.

Van Buren was coming to define American political shrewdness, and he was showing that he was going to stick around for a significant period of time. He was not prone to making the mistakes that others like Eaton were, and he knew how to avoid creating tension with those in power, unlike Calhoun. Van Buren, yet again, had shown why he earned the moniker “Magician.”

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