In 1791, Andrew Jackson married Rachel Donelson, a woman who had just separated from a brief and abusive marriage to a Kentucky man. To their dismay, Rachel and Jackson discovered that her first husband had not finalized the divorce agreement.
Technically this made Rachel an adulterer and a bigamist, and the scandal followed Jackson throughout his escalating political career. He staunchly defended his wife and the attacks on her character throughout his presidential campaign.Only weeks before her husband’s inauguration, Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack. The death of his wife and the pain she endured under the public eye would eventually determine a hasty political action of Jackson’s.
Senator John Eaton, a close friend of Jackson, married the widowed daughter of a Washington innkeeper, Peggy O’Neale, only nine months after her husband had taken his own life. Rumors began to surface that the two had engaged in an affair before the death of O’Neale’s navy husband.After the marriage Jackson appointed Eaton as Secretary of War. The wives of Jackson’s cabinet refused to accept Peggy Eaton.
The anti-Peggy coalition was led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun. Everyone except Secretary of State Martin Van Buren refused to have anything to do with Peggy, and even Jackson’s supporters, (among them was his niece Emily Donelson) snubbed her. Jackson was quick to jump to the Eatons’ defense, especially since he attributed his own wife’s death to the sort of ordeal Peggy was enduring.
In retaliation, President Jackson turned his anger on Vice President Calhoun. There was already a rivalry between Calhoun and Van Buren over who would be Jackson’s successor, and tensions resulting from the Peggy Eaton Affair widened the issue. Jackson viewed Calhoun as the instigator in the attacks on the Eatons, while Van Buren accepted Peggy and invited her to all of his social events. In 1831 Van Buren volunteered to resign in order to restore harmony in the cabinet, therefore giving Jackson an opportunity to force a mass resignation.
Four other cabinet members volunteered to resign, including John Eaton. This unique event in Presidential history shed light on Andrew Jackson’s controversial decision making. Essentially, Jackson felt the need to defend Peggy Eaton to avenge his wife’s death. Instead of attending to the country’s affairs, Jackson encouraged scandal within his cabinet, threatening to fire any member who refused to include Peggy in their social functions.
As a result of this scandal, Jackson was able to entirely restructure his cabinet, while setting up Martin Van Buren for political success. In 1832, Van Buren replaced Calhoun as Jackson’s Vice President, and in 1837 he was elected the next President. President Jackson dealt with the Peggy Eaton affair in an outrageous and self serving manner. It was not his duty to force Mrs.
Eaton upon the other cabinet wives, but he used this as a guise to force people who didn’t agree with him out of his cabinet.