(1829 - 1833). What immediately follows is a traditional, "Reader's Digest" version of what I was taught in college, what has been featured in the Jackson documentaries that I've seen, and what I have generally taught in my classes concerning the significance of the "Peggy Eaton Affair": Peggy Eaton, the wife of the Secretary of War (who at one point in her life worked as a bar maid), was from Tennessee, not of the Eastern Elite, and was "shunned" by the other Cabinet member's wives (e.g. at dinner parties). The Eatons were personal friends of Jackson, and when the "shunning" did not end, he removed the members of his Cabinet, and replaced them, and yet the "shunning" continued. When Jackson discovered that his Vice-President, John C. Calhoun, had instigated the entire affair, he politically embarrassed Calhoun to the point where he resigned, went back to his native South Carolina, and started the Nullification Crisis. A Civil War nearly occurred 30 years before the real thing, leading South Carolina to view the threat of secession as a useful strategy . . . therefore, a bar maid helped start the Civil War.
As I started reading American Lion, I was curious to find out the true significance of the "Eaton Affair"; about half of Meacham's book features primary documents (especially letters) from the principal figures involved (the last third of the book contain his source notes). So, from reading Meacham's heavily researched biography on Jackson's Presidency, I formed the following conclusions . . .
a) The "Peggy Eaton Affair" did not cause the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina.
South Carolina nullified (cancelled) the Tariff of 1832 seven days AFTER Jackson won
re-election over Henry Clay. At most, the "Eaton Affair" was only one of several events that
led many Americans to believe that Jackson was concentrating too much power in the
Executive Branch. Many more Americans, as a result of the Election of 1832, showed that
they believed that he was actually representing the interests of the majority over those of
the Eastern Elite. (BTW, South Carolina nullified a Supreme Court ruling concerning slavery
in 1822; the "tradition" of nullification long predated the Eaton Affair).
b) The Eaton Affair did not directly lead to Jackson replacing his Cabinet; Martin Van Buren resigned as SecState for political reasons, and then John Eaton resigned as SecWar on his
own accord, in order to pursue a U.S. Senate seat back in Tennessee (which he did not
get); Jackson then decided to remove the rest of the Cabinet, since his two must trusted
members were no longer there (the most significant addition was his new Attorney
General, Roger B. Taney, soon to replace John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court). In was true that Jackson cleared out his Cabinet, in part, due to the "shunning" of
Margaret Eaton - to Jackson, an attack on him was an attack on the nation (in a way, his
motto could have been that of the Feminist Movement of the late-1960s/early-1970s -
"The Personal is the Political"). Jackson's enemies called the removal of the remaining
Cabinet members a "purge"; to them, it was just one more example of Jackson
consolidating Executive power at the expense of Congress. The Eatons, by 1 January,
1833, were "Old News" in Washington D.C. & Nashville society; they didn't matter
anymore, because they no longer had power (Margaret Eaton had become quite ill by
that point; possible reasons include that she had a hard time adjusting to life after her
husband resigned his Cabinet position).
c) While it was true a Calhoun instigated the "Eaton Affair", it wasn't the Vice-President,
but his wife, Floride Calhoun. The "scuttlebutt" among the Eastern Elites was that Margaret
Eaton, in her past, displayed behavior that was associated with "loose women", and was
repeatedly ignored and slighted at such social/political functions as dinner parties. As
difficult as Floride Calhoun (and many other women) was, Margaret Eaton was not the
innocent "Social Martyr" that popular history portrays. Margaret Eaton was at least as
culpable as Floride Calhoun for the political firestorm that consumed Washington, D.C.,
especially President Jackson. Margaret Eaton, in many ways, was her own worst enemy;
she even wrote a letter to Jackson attacking his niece, Emily Donelson, the de facto First
Lady, who was doing her best to keep her negative views of Margaret Eaton to herself.
After John Eaton died, Margaret Eaton married an Italian dance instructor - she was 59,
he was 19 years old - shortly after their marriage, he ran off w/ Margaret Eaton's
d) The "Eaton Affair" did play a major role in continuing the political version of "total war"
in Washington, D.C. politics. The tradition of trying to crush anyone that disagreed with
their politics was an outgrowth of the Constitutional Era. In part due to the "Eaton Affair",
Martin Van Buren (who was the only major politician other than Jackson to support the
Eatons) created the first truly national political party in our history - the Democratic Party - to crush any opposition (The Whig Party was created in 1834, largely by those that
believed Jackson had accumulated far too much power as President at the expense of
Congress). For those that think the current political climate in Washington, D.C. is the
worst it has ever been, Meacham made a very convincing argument, with plenty of
documentary evidence, that the political polarization during Jackson's presidency
was much, much worse than what we see today.
e) The "Eaton Affair" did do significant damage in one regard: it temporarily split Jackson's
family in the White House (his niece and her husband were his family in D.C.). Jackson,
in 1831, actually banished his niece, Emily Donelson, to Tennessee, over some comments
that she made about Margaret Eaton in a recent letter (that letter was sent to Jackson
after he read Margaret Eaton's letter "trashing" Emily).
f) John C. Calhoun did not resign the Vice-Presidency due to the "Eaton Affair"; he waited
until the South Carolina state legislature selected him to the U.S. Senate. The "Eaton
Affair" did not play a role in his decision to resign; his desire to run for President in
1832 was his major motivation (he decided not to run when he calculated he would not be
able to get enough Southern Electoral Votes to force the election to the House of
Representatives). He, like many others in South Carolina (and other Southern states),
argued that Nullification (in essence a state decides what is Constitutional, and what is
not) was an extension of Jefferson's "Republican Virtue". In the end, South Carolina stood
alone with its threat to secede from the Union in 1833; the other Southern states had a
cost-benefit analysis dilemma - was Nullification, a respectable enough political theory in
their eyes, worth Civil War?
President Andrew Jackson had significant political battles during his first term in
office, which included the future of the 2nd National Bank, Indian Removal, Nullification, and
the one that consumed him the most during his first term, the "Eaton Affair". However, the "Eaton Affair", which took so much of his time and focus as President, had the least historical significance relative to the other three events. When Jackson weakened the 2nd National Bank (Nicholas Biddle, the Bank's president, actually destroyed his own bank), what could have remained a "regular" depression intensified to a severe economic downturn starting in 1837. Jackson's policy towards Natives (it's important to remember Indian Removal was politically very popular in 1830s America) started the tradition of mass-removal to less desirable locations, such as to what is now Oklahoma. The U.S. Government's policy forcing Natives to reservations after the Civil War was an extension of what Jackson started during his first term in office. The Nullification Crisis with South Carolina planted the seeds for Civil War, in that the only real lesson South Carolina learned from the crisis was that the threat of secession was a useful political tool then, and for the future. In comparison, the "Eaton Affair" didn't have near the historical impact of the previous three events. At most, the "Eaton Affair" was a focal point for Washington, D.C. (and Nashville, TN) political society, but when John Eaton left Washington, D.C., the "crisis" was over. The "Eaton Affair" was only a partial cause for Jackson's Cabinet "Makeover", and was not a factor at all with Calhoun's resignation as Vice-President, or the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina.
The "Eaton Affair", to me, was rather similar to the divergent views of Nebraska Cornhusker football fans toward Coach Bo Pelini during the 2013 season - what consumed NU football fans simply did not matter at the national level (reinforcing the historical truism that "All Politics Are Local"). So, I would argue, based on reading Jon Meacham's American Lion, that a bar maid did not help start the Civil War.