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History: On learning from and writing history

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Edited: Apr 6, 2011, 10:21pm Top

I have decided to dig into the Petticoat Affair/Petticoat War/Eaton Affair. It's a complicated little tale that affects the Jackson Administration directly for the first two years of his first term. It includes a young lady with a healthy sexual appetite, two of her husbands, and the wives of the Jackson administration's cabinet officials.

It helps remove John C. Calhoun from possible contention for the Presidency in a post-Jackson America, it elevates Martin Van Buren, and quite possibly affects Jackson's postition on Nullification. Thereby having a wide and long ranging effect on American politics in the mid nineteenth century.

Most people don't know about it, but people have been writing about it regularly since 1831, the year it basically ended.

I'm hoping to write an article about it and shop it to some history magazines. Possibly even use it as an entrance essay to a doctoral program.

Comments, source material leads, and questions welcomed!


PS: Here's my current bibliography (publishers and dates missing where unavailable):

Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville VA: University Press, 2000.

Alotta, Robert. The Innkeepers Daughter: Margaret "Peggy" Eaton and Washington Society (Longman American Biographies)

eatonmargaret::Eaton, Margaret. The Autobiography of Peggy Eaton (Signal Lives)

Farrell, Brian. “Bellona and the General: Andrew Jackson and the Affair of Mrs. Eaton” History Today, 8:7 (1958) 474-484.

Gerson, Noel Bertram. That Eaton Woman: In Defense of Peggy O’Neale Eaton. 1974.

James, Marquis. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Bobs Merrill, 1938.

marszalekjohnf::Marszalek, John F. 505594::The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House. New Orleans: LSU Press, 1997

Pollack, Queena. Peggy Eaton: Democracy’s Mistress. 1931.

Wood, Kirsten E. “’One Woman So Dangerous to Public Morals’: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair” Journal of the Early Republic, 17:2 (1997) (unknown pages)


Apr 2, 2011, 10:01pm Top

My only recollection of the Eaton Affair was from the description in Sean Wilentz's Rise of American Democracy.

He has one major reference that you don't list:
Richard B. Latner, "The Eaton Affair Reconsidered," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 36 (1977): 330-51
and also Latner's book,
The Presidency of Andrew Jackson: White House Politics, 1829-1837: 62-66

Are you thinking of an analytic essay or a more popular retelling? Analytic essays can be hard because you need a new angle, and I see someone's already taken gender analysis, which would be the obvious one.

Edited: Apr 3, 2011, 2:55pm Top

>2 eromsted:

I've started writing a popular retelling, but I have been looking for a new analytic angle too.

I think a lot of what has been written, with the exception of the gender angle, has been centered around the effect on Jackson's Presidency. Indeeed it can be argued that Jackson's sense of personal loyalty, stubborness, and his lack of respect for the function of social status (ala Jefferson) extended the scandal and gave it a longer life than it would have otherwise had.

But I see a link between the start of the Washington social scene as a legislative lubricant under Dolly Madison and the Eaton Affair. Without the former the latter has no significance. So maybe the angle is that the Eaton Affair is both proof that Dolly Madison's invention was deeply important to the smooth functioning of the government and it's first real test.


Apr 3, 2011, 8:58pm Top

"the Washington social scene as a legislative lubricant" is an interesting idea. I confess to knowing next to nothing about the early years of the nation but when I read that line my mind jumped to Watergate. Wasn't there a socialite who kept putting herself into the events by making unhelpful remarks or am I thinking of Margret Mitchel?

It sounds like an interesting project.

Apr 3, 2011, 10:44pm Top

>1 JFCooper:
N.B. The "eighteenth century" is the 1700s. You're dealing with the nineteenth century.

Apr 3, 2011, 11:31pm Top

Has anyone done the angle of scandal in a democracy? The maneuvering of ministers during a court scandal was nothing new. But in a democratic state you had the addition of a free press and elections and that may have added a new element.

Apr 3, 2011, 11:36pm Top

I'd recommend looking at more recent Jackson biographies of Jackson, along with Marquis James'.

Marzalek's book is the only monograph on the subject AFAIK, but see the criticisms in this review.

Hoffman, Karen S., "Presidential Character in the Nineteenth Century" (book review), Rhetoric & Public Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 653-664.

Essentially, Hoffmann accuses Marzalek of failing to put the Eaton affair in context, drastically overstating the significance of the cabinet resignation. He also overreaches in casting Jackson as some kind of proto-feminist for defending Peggy Eaton, but it would be more accurate to say that Jackson tended to personalize disagreements and never forgot a perceived slight. So the major factor in magnifying the Eaton affair was Jackson's own character.

That's my reading of Jackson's character also. The Nashville lawyer who brawled in public with men half his age became the president who sought political revenge for petty social slights.

Apr 6, 2011, 10:43pm Top

>5 Muscogulus: Noted. Call it a "thinko." I meant to say nineteenth, but I spend so much of my study time in the earlier century that it trips off my typing fingers faster than I notice.

I just received the Pollack book courtesy of Amazon. I was wrong about the publication date, I must have misread James's bibliography, it's 1931 not 1831. That correction has been made as well above.

I'm a few pages into Pollack's book, and it seems darn near hagiographic so far. But I had a peek at the bibliography. It's lengthy and has some interesting notes in it. Could be very useful.

If Marszalek ends up being as off-the-mark as the review indicates, one can hardly blame him. It seems to me that this episode in the early Republic has much in common with the Salem Witch Trials, its relative lack of modern notoriety notwithstanding. The motivations lay so far out of our own experience of the world, yet we are drawn into it. So we try to make sense of it in a very modern way. But the facts of the Eaton Affair resist that effort. The result is that a promising subject floats away from the investigator.

I think the problem is that the scandal had less substance than the antagonists would have us believe and the effect in Jackson's administration is really more of Jackson's own making rather than Peggy Eaton's. Lots of alluring smoke. Not much in the way of fire that late 20th and early 21st century folk can easily understand.

Thus a popular retelling seems the most prudent course of action. But if the Washington-social-scene-as-legislative-lubricant angle works, I'll run with it. ;-)

I'll know more as I acquire the resources listed above. (I would definitely like to see personal papers from the major players: Jackson, Eaton, Call, Calhoun, Clay, Van Buren, Donelson, Lewis, etc.)


Apr 7, 2011, 11:53pm Top

You’ve thought deeply about this, and I think you’re right about the scandal being “really more of Jackson’s own making.”

On the social-lubricant thesis, you will be called on to compare the role of elite socializing in Washington — some might call it a salon culture — with that of other capitals — at the very least, Philadelphia and New York. Was there really something new about Washington? Or were Washingtonians aping Londoners and Parisians? Was the city’s elite socializing meant to counterbalance the relative shabbiness of the marshland village that served as the American seat of government?

You might get something from the tragedy of a colonial Virginian trying to make his way in London by accompanying some Cherokee warriors on an extended visit. See The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake. The author portrays himself as an honest provincial made miserable by the cynical machinations of ambitious, socially connected men. Timberlake and the Cherokees are caught up in the capital’s social whirl.

Apr 8, 2011, 8:43am Top

It is so interesting that you are working on this particular subject. I have just been working on the rise of American nationalism after the War of 1812 and have been studying the lives of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. All of which dominated the United States Antebellum era as statesmen from their geographic regions. I have a great book that might aid you. Try The Great Triumvirate by Merrill D. Peterson and Liberty and Power by Harry L. Watson

Hope this helps and good luck with your research. I would love to read whatever you come up with.

Apr 8, 2011, 4:14pm Top

Worth noting that Peggy Eaton's husband, John, before he became Jackson's secretary of war, was Jackson's campaign biographer. His life of Jackson, although purposefully partisan, is still better than many of the hagiographies that followed. It appeared too early to comment on the Eaton affair, but is worth seeing just because of the author's identity, and maybe the book's role in managing Jackson's reputation (or what we would call his image).

Apr 9, 2011, 1:36pm Top

>9 Muscogulus: & 11 Yep. Brief comparisons to the highly stylized and subtle shades of purposeful socializing in the French and British courts will likely be useful. And it's interesting you bring up The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake. Peggy Eaton's first husband was a Purser in the US Navy named John Bowie Timberlake. As small as the colonies were, I'd make a small bet that Lt. Henry and John Bowie were related.

I am aware of Eaton's role and very interested in it. My strategy for this is to read the secondary and most direct materials first. From there I'll stretch out to related material, and after that I'm going to track down some primary sources. I want to read personal papers related to the subject and written in the time period (mentioned in message #8).

>Thanks lokidragon!



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