WORD —GARBLED, INCOMPLETE word—of the battle between the president and the clergymen was leaking out into Washington. Writing his wife in mid-September 1829, John Quincy Adams said, “I have a confused story about Mr. Campbell of the Presbyterian Church and Dr. Ely … altogether unintelligible to me.” One reason the story may have been “confused” and even “unintelligible” to the former president is that those who knew all were not talking much, and those who knew only a little were talking a great deal—a common feature of life in Washington.
The special meeting of the Cabinet took place that Thursday, on a cloudy and rather cool evening. A light breeze blew outside as Ely, Campbell, and the secretaries sat at the rectangular table in front of the fireplace. Eaton was not there; Jackson represented his interests. Andrew left Emily and the new baby to come down the long hall to the session. Lewis made his way from his room, took a left, walked beneath two arches, and came in. Jackson began with a lecture, James Parton wrote, “upon the meanness of calumny.” He and Campbell again angrily argued over the alleged miscarriage.
At a stalemate on the question—Jackson said it could not have happened; Campbell said it had, though he could not name the year—Jackson moved on. Finally came the charge of Eaton and Margaret spending the night together in a New York hotel, a tale Ely had investigated and found wanting. “The reverend gentleman told his story, and concluded by saying that there was no evidence to convict Major Eaton of improper conduct,” Parton wrote.
“Nor Mrs. Eaton, either,” Jackson said.
“On that point,” Ely said, “I would rather not give an opinion.”
Jackson could take no more. “She is as chaste as a virgin!” he said, but no one in the room appears to have seconded the president’s sentiment. Campbell was unbending, gambling that the volume of rumors about Margaret outweighed any defense, even one marshaled by the president. The allegations about Margaret, Louisa Adams wrote her husband, “are so public that my servants are telling them [at the] tea table.” As usual, Margaret had done herself little good by talking. Much of the to-ing and fro-ing between the president, the clergy, and the Eatons was known because of Margaret, Mrs. Adams said: “All this got abroad from the intemperate language of the Lady.”
Though Jackson would not give up the fight, there is a hint that he did find the storm over Margaret’s sexual history unsavory. He was standing by his friend Eaton, but he did not want his own family to be cast in such a light.
He was relieved, therefore, to hear from Andrew Jackson, Jr., that a “little engagement” with a Tennessee girl named Flora had been broken off, following Jackson’s fatherly advice. Jackson, who knew the young woman, believed she “had given herself up to coquetry,” and suggested in the aftermath that his adopted son “treat her with all kindness, but I assure you I am happy at the result, as I seldom ever saw a coquette make a good wife.”
He wrote these words only eleven days after declaring Margaret “as chaste as a virgin”—a defense even she herself would not have advanced. “When you marry, if ever,” Jackson told Andrew junior, “I wish you to marry a lady who will make a good wife and I, a good daughter, as my happiness depends much upon the prudence of your choice.” As Jackson had learned anew since the Eatons’ wedding, marriage was not a private matter, and he did not want his son bringing another flirtatious woman into his circle.
JACKSON WAS FINDING executive power ever more congenial as the months went by before his first annual message, due to be delivered at the convening of Congress in December 1829. He might not be able to move the ladies of Washington, but he could put his own people in federal offices, threaten (however subtly) Biddle, make his intentions clear to the Indians, and, two days after the Eaton Cabinet meeting, he launched a secret diplomatic initiative to establish more favorable trade relations with Turkey. In a note marked “Secret and Confidential,” dated Saturday, September 12, 1829, Jackson instructed Navy Secretary John Branch to put $20,000 at the disposal of the commander of the U.S. squadron in the Mediterranean to pay the costs of a mission to Sultan Mahmud II of Turkey. The sultan had lost Greece and much of his fleet in a fabled revolution in the 1820s (Lord Byron died fighting for Greek independence from the Muslim Turks). Turkey needed ships; Jackson wanted expanded commerce in that part of the world. Ignoring the Senate, which had traditionally approved the appointment of commissioners who undertook such missions, Jackson moved unilaterally: the fewer players, the stronger his control. He would deal with the Congress in due course. First he wanted action, and so the commissioners set out for Constantinople.
In the autumn of 1829, Nicholas Biddle paid a call on Andrew Jackson. It was a cordial enough session, with Jackson explaining his reservations about the Bank, and Biddle, as usual, appearing unconcerned about Jackson’s skepticism. “I do not dislike your Bank any more than all banks,” Jackson told Biddle, according to a memorandum Biddle kept of the conversation. “But ever since I read the history of the South Sea bubble”—referring to a failed land speculation scheme in England—“I have been afraid of banks.” Jackson had also learned to fear debt and lenders in the most personal way possible: he had been nearly ruined by them. In 1795, he became involved with a speculator in Philadelphia and ended up in what he called “great difficulty” that he only narrowly escaped. From that point on, Jackson was skeptical of promissory notes, land speculation, and financial maneuvering.
He was grateful, however, that Biddle was planning to make the final payment on the national debt by the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans in 1833, and said he would mention his thanks in his December message to Congress. “That is my own feeling to the Bank—and Mr. Ingham’s also,” Jackson said, according to Biddle. “[Jackson] said with the Parent Board and myself he had every reason to be perfectly satisfied,” Biddle recorded, and then apparently chose not to take the president’s next point seriously: “[Jackson] had heard complaints and then mentioned a case at Louisville—of which he promised to give me the particulars.” Jackson was not so satisfied, then, that he was not eager to continue registering the complaints of the people.
But Biddle chose to hear what he wanted to hear. “I said, well I am very much gratified at this frank explanation,” Biddle recalled himself saying. “We shall all be proud of any kind mention in the message—for we should feel like soldiers after an action commended by their General.”
“Sir,” said Jackson, “it would be only an act of justice to mention it.”
A SERIES OF Washington parties made the Eaton matter even more unpleasant. As the December session of Congress approached, the president gave the traditional dinner in honor of his Cabinet. It was held on Thursday, November 26, 1829, in the East Room. The evening had its glamorous elements, with elegantly dressed women and bemedaled and beribboned military officers circulating through the first-floor rooms; Barry, the postmaster general, and the only Eaton ally in the Cabinet except for Van Buren, called it “the most splendid entertainment I have ever been at in Washington.” The vice president and his wife were still in South Carolina, but many of the guests—presumably led by the Inghams, the Branches, and the Berriens—were cool to the Eatons, and Van Buren noted the president’s “mortification at what was passing before his eyes.”
Van Buren soon gave another dinner, but not a single Cabinet wife, including Margaret, accepted. He tried again, throwing an even more ambitious evening party. This time the company was large (even Calhoun, now in town, came; his wife had remained behind in South Carolina). Margaret was there, too, and at one point during the night, Van Buren ducked downstairs to take a rest on a sofa. He was soon interrupted by word that there had been a scene on the dance floor between Margaret and the wife of Alexander Macomb, the commanding general of the U.S. Army. They had bumped into each other and quarreled; Van Buren was summoned by a friend “to prevent a fight.” The evening was less than triumphant.
A later ball given by the Russian minister, Baron Paul de Krudener, nearly led to the expulsion of the Dutch envoy, Bangeman Huygens, and his wife. Because Mrs. Calhoun and Mrs. Ingham were absent, Mrs. Eaton was the ranking Cabinet wife, and Krudener escorted her in to dinner. John Eaton offered his arm to Madame Huygens, who was said to be furious (it was alleged that she had expected Van Buren to escort her, but the secretary of state was detained at the card table). Angry at being linked so overtly to the Eatons—the Huygenses were also seated with them at Krudener’s dinner—Madame Huygens was said to have vowed social revenge by declaring she would give a party, snub the Eatons, and that Ingham, Branch, and Berrien would follow suit.
Jackson heard the Huygens rumors and, after a sleepless night worrying over the possibility that the diplomatic world was to oppose him over the Eatons, joining his own secretary of the Treasury, attorney general, and secretary of the navy, he called for Van Buren, who went to see the Huygenses. If they were in fact actively conspiring against the president and the Eatons, they would have to leave the country. In their conversation with Van Buren, the Huygenses denied that there was any kind of plot at work. Van Buren took their word, as did Jackson, who “received the information with unaffected pleasure.” There would, at least, be no international incident over Margaret.
AS THE AUTUMN wore on, Emily went to Jackson to talk about Mary Rachel’s baptism. She had barely raised the subject when Jackson interrupted her. “Spare no expense nor pains, ma’am,” he said. “Let us make it an event to be remembered; we will do all honor to the baby.” Emily was touched, and the arrangements that took shape blended the important elements in Jackson’s universe—clan, faith, and country.
The service would be in the East Room, the liturgy taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Congressmen, senators, diplomats, secretaries, judges, and military officers filled the elegant room. Emily and Andrew had chosen to have one godfather, Van Buren, and one godmother, Cora Livingston, for their daughter. Given the politics of the moment, asking Van Buren was interesting, but it also suggests that as difficult as things were, there were bonds of affection and respect among those closest to Jackson.
Was there an element of shrewdness in the choice as well? Were Emily and Andrew, even unconsciously, reaching out to Jackson’s closest ally to secure their position? Perhaps, but a widowed, gentle father himself, Van Buren, like Jackson, adored children, and Emily and Andrew were at once perceptive and forgiving enough to see his essential goodness despite their differing views on the Eatons. They knew Van Buren to be a kind man who loved their uncle almost as they loved him. It is a testament to their unusual maturity of judgment and capacity to keep their political disputes free from rancor that the Donelsons so honored Van Buren.
Van Buren was to hold Mary Rachel as the minister read the office, but she burst into tears and would be calmed only when Jackson himself swept her up in his long arms. Then the officiant hushed the gathering and began with the Lord’s Prayer.
Addressing Cora and Van Buren, the officiant asked, “Dost thou, in the name of this child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?”
Cora and Van Buren did not have a chance to answer. Hearing the question, Jackson, who was not supposed to have a speaking part, could not help himself, and announced with authority, “I do, sir, I renounce them all!”—a decided, improvised, but heartfelt reply that prompted smiles in the congregation. No little girl ever had a more sincere protector speak for her at such a moment.
UPSTAIRS, AT WORK on his annual message to Congress, the sentiments from the baptism remained with the president. “In communicating with you for the first time it is to me a source of unfeigned satisfaction, calling for mutual gratulation and devout thanks to a benign Providence, that we are at peace with all mankind, and that our country exhibits the most cheering evidence of general welfare and progressive improvement,” Jackson said. “Turning our eyes to other nations, our great desire is to see our brethren of the human race secured in the blessings enjoyed by ourselves, and advancing in knowledge, in freedom, and in social happiness.”
The making of Jackson’s speeches and messages often began with thoughts and points he would jot down and give to Donelson, who kept a running file. Cabinet secretaries and advisers were asked to sketch out what they thought the president should say about particular issues. The president then frequently produced a lengthy draft in his own hand—the documents tended to the lawyerlike, marshaling evidence—which he would hand off to Donelson, Kendall, and others for revision and refinement.
Jackson’s message went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, December 8, 1829. It was the Twenty-first Congress of the United States, with 213 representatives and 48 senators representing 24 states; the president’s supporters enjoyed majorities of 136–72 in the House and 25–23 in the Senate.
The document reflected the will of a single man—Andrew Jackson—and its sweep promised a new course for the presidency and for the country. Looking abroad, he articulated the principle that had already driven him to take on piracy near Cuba and to open the secret mission to Turkey: he would protect the nation, come what may. “Blessed as our country is with everything which constitutes national strength, she is fully adequate to the maintenance of all her interests,” Jackson said. “In discharging the responsible trust confided to the Executive in this respect it is my settled purpose to ask nothing that is not clearly right and to submit to nothing that is wrong.”
He then turned to his vision of the White House. No institution, he argued, should stand between the people and the presidency. There should be no check on the will of the nation in the choice of a president, and that will could be ascertained only by the popular vote. No president had spoken in such a way before. Each of his predecessors, from Washington to the second Adams, had at times moved to expand the power of the office, but none had gone so far as to suggest that the office itself should be in the direct gift of the people. Only the House was so close to the populace. The Senate was controlled by the state legislatures; the presidency by the Electoral College and possibly the House; the courts by the presidency and the Senate.
The president, Jackson believed, should be an instrument of the people against the combined interests of the rich and the incumbent. “Our system of government was by its framers deemed an experiment, and they therefore consistently provided a mode of remedying its defects,” Jackson wrote in the message. It was time, he said, to put the presidency on a different footing. Amend the Constitution, Jackson said, to allow the people to have their choice, but—sensitive to the possibility that a president, too, could be corrupt—limit the executive to a single four- or six-year term, thus checking the danger of a despot.
The first principle of America, Jackson believed, was that “the majority is to govern,” and the context of this assertion in the message was the connection between the people and the president: “It must be very certain that a President elected by a minority cannot enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties.”
Partly because of his defeat at the hands of the House in 1825, partly because of his fear of the Bank, partly because of his distrust of entrenched officeholders, Jackson believed the country was being controlled by a kind of congressional-financial-bureaucratic complex in which the needs and concerns of the unconnected were secondary to those who were on the inside. It was an oversimplified view, to be sure, but he was convinced of it, as he was convinced that he was to play the hero’s role.
He could do so, however, only if the office he now held—the presidency—had the means to marshal what he saw as the will of the people in order to crush the will of the few. His vision of the appointment power was a case in point. “In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people, no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another,” he said in the message. “Offices were not established to give support to particular men at the public expense. No individual wrong is, therefore, done by removal, since neither appointment to nor continuance in office is a matter of right.”
Jackson believed he, as president, was the defender of the liberties of the people and of fair play; his opponents on Capitol Hill chose to see his executive exertions as prelude to dictatorship. In a speech on the Senate floor, David Barton of Missouri, an ally of John Quincy Adams, worried about the perversion of what he thought to be the Founders’ will in the matter of the presidency. The Framers and the people of the time, Barton said, feared “Executive encroachment.… The histories of all nations which have losttheir liberties lay before them and they saw on their pages that arbitrary Executive discretion and will … had been the destroyers of national liberty throughout the greater part of the world … and the fathers did intend … to establish a government of law and of checks and restraints upon Executive will, in which no case should exist in which the fate of the humblest citizen whether in private or in public life could depend upon the arbitrary will of a single man.”
The stakes of the battle were now clear. It was Jackson and his interpretation of the will of the people versus those congressmen, senators, Bank presidents, nullifiers, judges, federal officials, religious activists, and Indians who differed from him.
On the Bank, Jackson kept his word to Biddle and mentioned the matter. Far from a salute or an offering of thanks, though, the allusion was a signal that Jackson wanted to reconsider the Bank’s very existence. “Both the constitutionality and the expediency of the law creating this bank are well questioned by a large portion of our fellow-citizens,” Jackson said, suggesting perhaps a simpler national bank to handle only the government’s credit and revenues, thus eliminating private profit on the government’s money.
Learning of the president’s remarks, Biddle tried to make the best of things. “It is not … a cabinet measure, nor a party measure, but a personal measure. As such it is far less dangerous because if the people know that this is not an opinion which they must necessarily adopt as a portion of their party creed—but an opinion of the President alone—a very honest opinion though a very erroneous one—then the question will be decided on its own merits,” Biddle wrote to a Senate ally after the message.
IT WAS A personal measure, but because it was Jackson’s, it was now a public measure. His view of the presidency was that he was in the White House to fight the people’s battles as best he could. Earlier presidents tended to limit their appeals to the broader public (in part because the voting population was much smaller prior to 1828). Jackson was committed to the idea that if left to their own devices, the elite would serve their own interests at the expense of the interests of the many. In 1824–25, he had been unable to stop the powers that were from taking the presidency away from him. He had promised himself and the country that nothing like that would happen on his watch, and he saw the Bank as the embodiment of unfair privilege. “I was aware that the Bank question would be disapproved by all the sordid and interested who prized self-interest more than the perpetuity of our liberty, and the blessings of a free republican government,” he wrote to James A. Hamilton in mid-December. “I foresaw the powerful effect, produced by this moneyed aristocracy, upon the purity of elections, and of legislation; that it was daily gaining strength, and by its secret operations was adding to it.” He had, therefore, done the most important thing he could do: “I have brought it before the people and I have confidence that they will do their duty.”
There was a distinctly Old Republican tone to the annual message. Jackson was calling, in many cases and on many issues, for an approach that would limit the role of the general government. On the tariff, which so vexed South Carolina, for example, Jackson—who, as a senator, had voted in favor of the tariff in 1824—called for moderate reform, avoiding specifics (there would be time enough for those) and laid out the many virtues of retirement of the national debt. Jackson wanted the presidency to be central, but he was less interested in a centralized government, believing that such consolidation (as his contemporaries often called it) led to the rise of special interests like the ones he was now fighting.
Jackson also pressed Indian removal. In a series of twenty-four essays, signed “William Penn,” published from Wednesday, August 5, to Saturday, December 19, 1829, Jeremiah Evarts had made the moral case against removal. “Most certainly an indelible stigma will be fixed upon us, if, in the plenitude of our power, and in the pride of our superiority, we shall be guilty of manifest injustice to our weak and defenseless neighbors,” Evarts wrote in his first Penn essay. God, Evarts said, was watching, and would hold the country accountable.
In a self-aware passage in the annual message, Jackson admitted that government policy toward the Indians had been a failure, but he asserted that he could see no answer other than removal or submission to state laws. Emigration, he said, “should be voluntary, for it would be as cruel as unjust to compel the aborigines to abandon the graves of their fathers and seek a home in a distant land. But they should be distinctly informed that if they remain within the limits of the states they must be subject to their laws.”
Signaling that he understood the moral elements of the problem, Jackson acknowledged the tragedy of it all. “Our conduct toward these people is deeply interesting to our national character. Their present condition, contrasted with what they once were, makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies. Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for awhile their once terrible names.… It is too late to inquire whether it was just in the United States to include them and their territory within the bounds of new states.… That step cannot be retraced. A state cannot be dismembered by Congress.”
In the hierarchy of Jackson’s concerns, the sanctity of the Union outranked any other consideration. As long as the Indians were in the heart of the nation, they were threats—and as threats they had to be removed.
CHRISTMAS 1829 WAS a dim, unremarkable affair at the White House. Sick and unhappy, Jackson was, Lewis said, “in very feeble health”—so feeble that the Jackson circle thought the end might be near. “Indeed, his whole physical system seemed to be totally deranged,” Lewis recalled, “his feet and legs, particularly, had been very much swollen for several months and continued to get worse every day, until his extreme debility appeared to be rapidly assuming the character of a confirmed dropsy”—referring to a now obsolete diagnosis of swollen tissues that could be fatal. Jackson, who ordinarily thrived on offering hospitality to all comers, spent the season, as he had the last, immersed in the most solemn of thoughts. “Things are not as they ought to be here,” Amos Kendall wrote Francis Preston Blair.
Lamenting that with Congress in town “my labors increase,” Jackson told a friend, “I can with truth say mine is a situation of dignified slavery.” Jackson was finding, as presidents do, that he could not control the crush of events.
He was faced, still, with a divided Cabinet and a vice president who was more rival than ally. Speaking of the “old differences” and the “vile tales about Mrs. Eaton,” Kendall wrote Blair: “The impression is abroad, but I cannot tell whether it is true or not, that Mr. Calhoun’s friends are the principal agitators and instigators of this business. Mr. Calhoun is a madman if he promotes it, and he is not a wise man if he does not put an end to it. What can he expect by separating from General Jackson? But it is useless to speculate. The old General is determined to put an end to all these intrigues as far as he can, whatever may be their object, and if those around him will not harmonize, he will scatter them like a whirlwind.”