Andrew Jackson 1767-1845 A brief biography

Turmoil in the Jackson Cabinet

Jackson chose John Eaton as secretary of War - and old and close friend who had done much to get Jackson elected. Eaton had a problem; he had recently married a young widow in "unseemly haste" after the suicide of her husband, John Timberlake. Timberlake was an officer in the navy, away from home for months or years at a time. Peggy was the daughter of a Washington innkeeper, constantly in contact with men, pretty, lively and forward (offensively so at times). She had had much contact with Eaton, a lawyer who had aided her in that capacity, and who also, with Jackson, stayed at O'Neils when in Washington.

Some believed (and some still believe) Timberlake had killed herself over his wife's infidelity. She was said to have been Eaton's mistress, and in some versions to have carried on affairs with many men, or to have borne children by Eaton. The truth of the matter may never be known.

Washington was quite a small society with elaborate social rituals of one party "calling on" another, and it being a clear insult not to reciprocate. Mrs. Eaton was socially boycotted, with Mrs. Calhoun playing the leading role. Was this a simple matter of aristocratic ladies resenting an "innkeeper's daughter", and perhaps a "loose woman" being put down in the middle of their society?

Calhoun plead the principal that women governed such social matters and he could not, as a gentleman, intervene. This is accepted by Calhoun's biographer, Margaret L. Coit, but doubted by the Jackson scholar Remini. Why would Calhoun have sought to drive Eaton out of the cabinet?

Calhoun had actively sought the presidency since 1820, and looked to have a controlling influence in Jackson's cabinet. The Age of Jackson (Arthur M. Schlesinger 1945) says that except for Van Buren and the "negligible" Postmaster General, Eaton was the only cabinet member not for Calhoun in '32. So, the thesis goes, Calhoun attacked Eaton in his weak spot.

Why should any good have come out of this for Calhoun? With his years in the Senate and 12 years in presidential administrations, he may have seen Jackson - the political newcomer as a man to be easily manipulated. It was Calhoun who had established the Democratic party organ, which wrote matter-of-factly of Calhoun succeeding Jackson in '32.

Calhoun may have felt some superiority too, over keeping Jackson in the dark for 10 years as to his role in the uproar over Jackson's actions in Florida, while seeing Jackson maintain an undignified enmity towards others over the old affair. He may have believed the struggle was between him and Van Buren over the "management" of Jackson.

The way in which this all worked out has given rise to another popular theory, which is that Van Buren was the master manipulator behind it all. Van Buren had no wife who would have to chose sides in the war over who to admit in "society". So he could and did give dinners and parties to which Mrs. Eaton was invited. A couple of unmarried foreign ambassadors did likewise, through the Secretary of State's friendly persuasion. This all put the New Yorker in good stead with the president.

Jackson was quite incensed over the slandering of another innocent female, as he saw it, much as his wife had been slandered and driven to her grave (even Jackson's mother was called a "common prostitute" in the campaign).

The onetime frontier brawler and Indian fighter Jackson, and the smooth operating New Yorker Van Buren, were growing very close. They understood each other. It took little time for Van Buren to see Jackson's political ability and excellent judgment in most matters. He did not dream of "managing" Jackson, or soon abandoned the idea.

Parallel with all this, went the beginnings of confrontation with the South Carolina Nullifiers, and the open break with Calhoun, arising from the Florida business.

The Exposition and Protest, of which Calhoun was the secret author, was delivered to the Senate by South Carolina's senators Robert Y. Hayne and William Smith, and their names were thus included in the preamble of the document.

In January 1829, a famous debate took place in the Senate between Hayne and Daniel Webster. Webster's Second Reply to Hayne was for decades the most celebrated speech in American history, used by schoolboys for practice in declamation.

Webster's "First Reply" maneuvered Hayne into a full-blown defense of the nullification doctrine, and his second reply was a massive rebuttal of it, ending with the melodramatic "I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder ...(nor) to hang over the precipice of disunion to see whether ... I can fathom the depth of the abyss below ... When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood."

In other words, he drew the conclusion, as many did, that nullification meant ultimate disunion and/or civil war. Certainly the land was to be drenched one day with "fraternal blood".

On April 13, 1830, Jackson cleared up any doubts as to where he stood. This was at an annual celebration of Jefferson's birthday given by those who considered themselves his political heirs. Those with states rights, nullification, and anti-tariff sentiments planned to make it a rally for their beliefs. Jackson, attended and, after listening to many toasts by the nullifiers, rose and proclaimed: "Our Union: It must be preserved".

Calhoun made clear their differences with: "The Union, Next to our liberty, the most dear. May we always remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union."

The nullification agitation continued in South Carolina, though without any landmark events for the next two years, until Congress passed a new tariff act, signed by Jackson on July 14, 1832.

Meanwhile, the differences between Jackson and Calhoun took on a more personal (or seemingly personal) note. As said before, Calhoun, in Monroe's cabinet, strongly opposed Jackson's seizure of Florida from the Spanish. Furthermore, Jackson assumed at the time Calhoun, the Secretary of War, had supported him, and Calhoun had let the impression stand whether he said anything to promote it or not.

On May 12, 1830, soon after the Jefferson Dinner confrontation, William Crawford, whom Jackson largely blamed for his censure over Florida, got papers into the hand of Jackson that proved Calhoun had proposed Jackson's arrest and punishment over the Florida affair.

Jackson was determined by this time that the nullifier Calhoun should not succeed him, and this, which probably only confirmed Jackson's suspicions on the Florida affair, provided a means to way to challenge Calhoun.

Jackson sent the Florida correspondence to Calhoun with a note harshly demanding an explanation. 

Calhoun responded in a 52 page letter which began "I cannot recognize the right on your part to call into question my behavior". He implied Jackson was being manipulated by others against Calhoun, as if Jackson were politically naive. The letter heavily implied that Calhoun would soon reveal to the public a conspiracy against him headed no doubt by Van Buren.

The Telegraph, long regarded as the administration's voice, had become a liability, being more loyal to Calhoun than to Jackson. It had even given the impression of Jackson as agreeable with the nullifiers.

So, by December 1830, Jackson, with the aid of his "kitchen cabinet" of private advisors, imported Francis P. Blair from Kentucky to launch The Globe, a purely Jackson newspaper.

On February 17, Calhoun took the self-destructive step of publishing via the Telegraph his recent correspondence with Jackson, with text that implied that it was part of a plot against him headed by Van Buren. It brought out into the open all the embarrassing feuds that had been going on in the cabinet, putting the administration up to ridicule.

On February 21, the new Globe labeled Calhoun's diatribe "a firebrand wantonly thrown into the [Democratic] party". It greatly lowered, rather than raising, Calhoun's public esteem, and Jackson concluded "[Green and Calhoun] have cut their own throats and destroyed themselves in a shorter space of time than any two men I ever know".

With Calhoun self mutilated, Van Buren could afford to be out of the public eye. Indeed it was the only thing for him, as much of the public would otherwise see him, in his Secretary of State position, as the triumphant manipulator - just as Calhoun claimed, and the party would be split between Anti Calhoun and anti Van Buren wings.

Van Buren had been accompanying Jackson on his daily exercise rides (after first taking riding lessons). On such a ride, Van Buren says he suggested to Jackson the way out of his dilemma. Van Buren would resign, and the rest of the cabinet would be pressured to follow suit.

Jackson would be freed from the "Eaton Malaria", as some called the affair, yet give no satisfaction to the Calhoun allies, who would also have to leave. Nor would it look like a triumph of a Van Buren faction, which Congress would have rejected, but a neutral dissolution of an incompatible team.

The embarrassing Mr. Eaton, the troublesome Calhoun allies in the cabinet, and the perceived "magician" left the cabinet together.

The resignations took place in April 1831, followed by an ugly brawl in the Washington newspapers, which would have been worse were it not during Congress' adjournment. Ingham and Branch, two ousted Calhoun allies, labeled it all a plot by "the Magician", and broadcast to the world all the charges of promiscuity against Peggy Eaton. Eaton counterattacked and defended his wife's (and his own) honor. He also, after demanding and not getting "explanations" from Ingham, challenged him to a duel and, not given this "satisfaction" from Ingham, threatened and harassed Ingham until he left town.

Nothing like this decimation of a president's cabinet had happened before, and it was seen as a constitutional crisis. By weathering it Jackson set the precedent that a president could exercise such control over members of his cabinet. There was a sense for a while that the Jackson administration was destroyed, but it passed.

Jackson had his new cabinet in place (though unratified) when congress reconvened. The next year and a half were the most eventful of his eight years in power.