February 9, 2004


I ran across this today in John Siegenthaler's bio of Polk, "James K. Polk" (Henry Holt 2003). The original Timberlake/Jackson scandal (circa 1828):

"(John) Eaton, as (Andrew Jackson's) secretary of war, created a monumental public fiasco as his controversial marriage to Margaret O'Neale Timberlake escalated into a scandal that literally tore Jackson's cabinet apart. The president had become fond of the attractive, ambitious young "Peggy" when he and Eaton came to Washington as senators in 1824 and lodged in her father's boardinghouse. After her husband, a naval officer, committed suicide at sea, snide gossip flew about the capital that Senator
Eaton had "comforted" her in her "mourning." As Amos Kendall, a
journalist and member of Jackson's kitchen cabinet, put it, "Scandal says they slept together."

When Eaton told Jackson that he was thinking of marrying the
recent widow, the president urged him to do so and they were wed on New Year's Day, 1829. To the wives of the other cabinet members, the new Mrs. Eaton was a scarlet woman. Led by Florde Calhoun, the vice president's wife, they shunned her, boycotted events if the Eaton's were invited, and even refused Jackson's
invitations to the White House.

President Jackson took it as a personal affront, scolded the
cabinet members, and demanded that they force their wives to be kind to Peggy. The cabinet wives would not be forced. Great silliness ensued. There came a time when the president actually
cancelled cabinet meetings for weeks on end. During this period, Polk and other Jackson supporters in Congress, who were fighting the president's battles against internal improvements, the Bank of the Unitd States, high tariffs, and nullification, felt great frustration and longed for the stalemate to end.

The administration was a year old when Charles Wickliffe, Polk's House colleague from Kentucky, called a meeting to petition the president to fire the secretart of war. Wickliffe, a Calhounite, also wanted Jackson to fire Secretary of State Van Buren- who was unmarried and the only cabinet officer who had been courteous to Margaret Eaton.

The Eaton scandal was but a prelude to Jackson's climactic break with Calhoun. Van Buren was doing all he could to create friction between the two men. Their friendship finally was severed when Jackson learned that Calhoun, as Monroe's secretary of war, had been critical in cabinet meetings reviewing Old Hickory's conduct during the expulsion of the Spaniards from Florida.
Jackson confronted Calhoun and denounced him as a most profound hypocrite." The break was brutal and public. Suddenly Van Buren and Eaton resigned. Old Hickory demanded the resignations of the three cabinet officers who were Calhoun's close friends.....The war inside the administration was over."


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