JIMMY O’NEAL, the White House doorkeeper who accepted mail and greeted visitors, lived in quarters to the right of the main entrance on the north side of the mansion. His fondness for strong drink was a frequent trial for the president and his family. Once, ringing and ringing for him, Jackson said, “Where can Jimmy be?” “Drunk, most likely,” Andrew Donelson replied.
In the first week of April 1829, O’Neal was in good enough shape to bring Emily Donelson a letter addressed to her from John Eaton. “You are young and uninformed of the ways and of the malice and insincerity of the world, therefore do I speak to you,” Eaton wrote, advising Emily to ignore the gossip he presumed she was hearing from her new friends in Washington. “You may take it for a certain rule that those whom you hear abusing others will by and by when occasion offers, abuse you too.”
Rather than approaching Emily with deference or appealing to a sense of justice or loyalty, Eaton chose to make his case on the ground that Emily herself might one day be the target of vicious gossip—hardly the way to persuade a young woman who had already bristled at Margaret’s faux intimacy and who had nothing to be ashamed of. It was an odd, dissonant argument to put forward. Calling Emily’s circle a “little nest of inquisitors,” Eaton said that he knew “their gossiping tattle” had touched on “me and my wife.” Then, making the same mistake Ely had made with Jackson, he invoked Rachel. “I should presume, that some recent events which gave pain in your own bosom would lead you to forbear attaching any importance to tales of slander.”
It was the worst road to take with the self-conscious Emily, yet once embarked, Eaton could not help but go further, his words stoked by his resentments and frustrations.
These people care nothing about you. They are eternally haunting your house, and bringing you tales and rules, only that your Uncle is in power, and they hope to give themselves consequence through the smiles they may pick up in your doors.… You have known me long and well, and well know that in nothing have I ever deceived you or your friends. Appreciate therefore what is written … for your own benefit, not mine. Let your uncle get out of office, and I greatly mistake if you do not have cause to repent that ever you nestled to your bosom such friends and such counselors.
As Emily read the letter with, as she said, “some surprise,” Eaton, with a day’s reflection, realized he had failed to ask a crucial question. Desperate to know the precise nature of the rumors in circulation—he and Margaret needed to hear the stories in order to mount an effective defense—Eaton scrawled Emily a second note. “On looking to the copy [of the first letter], I perceive there is omitted one of the great objects of writing it,” Eaton wrote on Thursday, April 9, 1829.
The great object? “… to ask you, if you felt entirely at liberty, to state to me, what were the remarks” Emily had heard. He had to know: the capital was arrayed against him, speaking of his wife’s easy virtue and of what Adams called Eaton’s own “lewd, licentious life,” and the only way to begin to possibly, just possibly, repair the damage was to determine exactly what he was facing.
HE WOULD LEARN nothing from Emily. Answering him in a polite but steely letter dated Friday, April 10, she gave no quarter. She was, she said, “totally unacquainted” with the notion that her conduct was being directed by others. She warned him off the Rachel-Margaret analogy with candor and verve: “Having drawn my attention to the slanders got up for political purposes to tarnish the reputation of my lamented Aunt, you will suffer me to say that the most conclusive proof of her innocence was the respect in which she was universally held by her neighbors, and the love and veneration entertained for her by her family.” The unmistakable implication: the same could not be said of Mrs. Eaton. Yes, Emily acknowledged, “there were some unfortunate circumstances connected with her marriage growing out of the unsettled state of the country,” but—and this was, to Emily, the most important point—“they never disturbed the confidence and esteem which she deserved and received at the hands of society.” In two sentences, Emily thus demolished a key element in Eaton’s defense of his wife: that the assault was of a piece with the campaign against Rachel, equally unfounded and equally worthy of a vigorous counterattack from all those who loved Jackson.
As for herself, Emily used restrained irony and a tone that was soft but stringent. “As to the probability of my becoming a victim to the slanders of this or any other place, I feel it due to myself to say that although I am conscious of possessing many of the faults and imperfections common to humanity, yet I hope I shall maintain my reputation as it has heretofore been unsullied, and at the close of my life that I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that my character has not only been pure but unsuspected,” she wrote.
Emily then turned Eaton’s condescension against him. “As you say, I am young and unacquainted with the world, and therefore will trouble myself as little as possible with things that do not concern me”—things such as rumors about Margaret Eaton.
Eaton had misjudged Emily. The young woman was getting the better of him. With subtlety and deft disingenuousness, she wrote: “I take this opportunity to assure you that I do not wish to decide upon any person’s character here, nor control in any way the etiquette of this place.”
As Emily knew, however, she could not act as though she were not who she was: hostess for the president of the United States, the woman closest to him in both physical and emotional terms, the center, with her husband, her child, and the baby she was to deliver in four months’ time, of what Jackson called “my family, my chosen family.” Andrew Donelson sent his wife’s letter to Eaton, enclosing a more conciliatory—but still lukewarm—note of his own: “No one can be more ready than myself,” Donelson wrote Eaton, “to pay to yourself and to Mrs. Eaton every proper mark of respect.” Andrew’s insertion of “proper” left him room to maneuver, for “proper” could mean whatever Donelson wanted it to mean.
For Eaton, the exchange with Emily and Andrew was a disaster. He had set out to draft Emily into service as a defender of his cause and had failed. There seemed to be no relief at hand. With the large exception of Jackson himself, the Eatons were isolated. If they were spoken of, it was either with scorn or, at best, pity. Eaton himself bristled and seethed, hungry to challenge his wife’s accusers to duels, but for now had to content himself with writing overly formal letters demanding to know whether the addressee had ever said this or that. His powerlessness to exert any kind of control drove him first to fury, then to a sense of futility.
AT SOME POINT after his exchange with Emily, Eaton weighed whether his war to survive in office was worth fighting. In a previously unknown letter of Emily’s that has been in private family hands for more than a century and three quarters, there is evidence that Eaton—most likely in conversations with Jackson and Lewis that reached Andrew Donelson’s ears—considered stepping down in these first months of the presidency. “Indeed the prejudice is so strong against them here, that Major Eaton has spoken of resigning and it seems the most proper course for him to pursue,” Emily told her mother on Sunday, May 10.
The talk of Eaton’s leaving office in the spring of 1829 came to nothing, but what if Jackson had decided to encourage his friend to leave the Cabinet, perhaps giving Eaton a diplomatic post or urging him to return to Tennessee to run for governor, thus taking the issue of his wife to the people? A quick end to the petticoat war would have brought tranquillity to Jackson’s family, for what was to Emily a middle course struck her uncle as a radical one, and he hated that she and Andrew refused to bend to his will and accept the Eatons unconditionally. In politics, the battle for primacy between Calhoun and Van Buren could not have been fought in the way that it was, as Van Buren would have had to find some other means to ingratiate himself with Jackson than by becoming Margaret’s courtly champion.
Without Margaret, many things might have been different. Van Buren probably would have outfoxed Calhoun in the end anyway—the Eaton affair only exacerbated and exaggerated fundamental differences of political opinion, chiefly on the question of the nature of the Union, between Calhoun and Jackson, but it would probably have been more difficult, and taken longer. Calhoun himself thought the affair crucial in Jackson’s decision to turn on his first vice president. With the Margaret issue alive, Calhoun said, “the road to favor and patronage lay directly before me, could I have been base enough to tread it. The intimate relation between Gen. Jackson and Maj. Eaton was well known.” That Calhoun’s influence was checked by the Eatons does not necessarily mean the vice president would have thrived had Eaton left the Cabinet in the first spring of the administration. In Jackson’s mind the damage was perhaps done, and in his regret at losing Eaton he might have exacted revenge on Calhoun and others. There is little question, however, that the race between Calhoun and Van Buren would have been run on a different track, and what Calhoun in 1831 called the “artful machinations” of those who “have placed Gen. Jackson and myself in our present relation”—the “present relation” at that juncture meaning, essentially, that Jackson would just as soon have shot the vice president of the United States—would have had to find a different weapon to begin dividing Jackson from Calhoun.
As it turned out, Eaton chose to soldier on, with Jackson commanding Margaret’s lean but determined forces. There would be no resignation, no capitulation, no surrender.
BY JUNE 1829, after his talk of retreating from the field, Eaton hoped that the combination of Jackson’s confidence and his own brave face might carry the day. “It is Sunday, the good and pious be all at Church, myself at home,” Eaton wrote John Coffee. Eaton’s gratitude to Jackson was evident; many other politicians would have thrown Eaton over when they had the chance. In writing to Coffee, Eaton found himself marveling at the image of Jackson that came to him as he put words to paper. “Our old friend is himself again” after his latest illness, Eaton said. “Occasionally, when home and the Hermitage is chanced to be named, you may perceive something of deep emotion; but ordinarily he is lively, cheerful and agreeable—professing the same undying industry and the same prying curiosity to ascertain whatever is right and proper to be done, as he ever had.… President Jackson and Andrew Jackson are one and the same thing.… Such a man cannot fail to win the esteem and confidence of the people.”
The only exceptions, according to Eaton: “those who have been removed from their offices” and—in an indirect allusion to his plight—those for “whom motive dictates a contrary feeling.” It was Eaton’s only brush with self-pity. He soon returned to his rhapsody to Jackson: “He has firmness enough, you know, to go on with what he believes to be right, let those opposed find fault and abuse as they may.” Eaton’s closing was brief: “My wife desires to be kindly remembered to you.”
Jackson, it is true, could be wrongheaded about things, but his defense of the Eatons should not be seen, as it sometimes is, as simply a case of prideful defiance undertaken by a president who loved a fight for fight’s sake. That the attacks on his friend’s wife came so soon after those on his own beloved and seemed to him—perhaps wrongly—to be as baseless surely fueled Jackson’s Eaton campaign, but the echoes were not the only driving force. Jackson understood that he was expending precious political capital and untold hours battling for the Eatons’ full acceptance into Washington society, but he was doing it less for Margaret than for her husband, for whom he held genuine regard and whose good sense appears to have extended to every aspect of public life except for his own marriage.
THE FIGHT OVER Biddle’s Bank was progressing, too, in its way. On Saturday, June 27, 1829, Senator Levi Woodbury, a future Jackson Cabinet secretary, wrote Treasury Secretary Samuel Ingham from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to report that parts of the business community there, and a number of Jackson supporters, were unhappy with Jeremiah Mason, the president of the Portsmouth branch. Petitions were en route to make the case that Mason, a Federalist who was close to Daniel Webster and to John Quincy Adams, had been “partial, harsh, novel, and injurious.” It was the old story: the Bank was said to be under the influence of men hostile to Jackson.
As he had in the face of earlier charges against other branches, Biddle conceded nothing. In August he traveled to New Hampshire himself to look into the matter and dismissed the allegations. Jeremiah Mason would continue in charge in Portsmouth. The complaints of the Jacksonians were ignored. Biddle took the occasion, in a letter to Secretary Ingham on Tuesday, September 15, 1829, to assert his own authority in stark language. The Bank, its branches, its directors, and its president, Biddle wrote Ingham, “acknowledge not the slightest responsibility of any description whatsoever to the Secretary of the Treasury touching the political opinions and conduct of their officers, that being a subject on which they never consult and never desire to know, the views of any administration.” Biddle said he and the Bank’s directors were reluctant to underscore their own power, “but charged as they are by Congress with duties of great importance to the country … they deem it most becoming to themselves, as well as to the Executive, to state with perfect frankness their opinion of any interference in the concerns of the institution confided to their care.” Biddle was essentially accurate: though the federal government named five of the Bank’s twenty-five directors, there was no mechanism for Congress or a presidential administration to control the Bank once it was chartered—save two possible courses. First, the administration could remove the government’s deposits from the Bank, fatally crippling it; or, second, it could kill the institution more frontally by declining to renew its charter, which was to expire in 1836.
Biddle could not really conceive of either. His view of his own power was absolute. Presidents came and went, but the Bank, Biddle believed, was eternal. Jackson’s understanding of things was very different, and there was a clue to the president’s thinking in a memorandum in Jackson’s hand about how Ingham should reply to Biddle’s assertion of autonomy. The Treasury secretary and the president, Jackson noted, could “redress all grievances complained of by the people of the interference by the branches with the local elections of the states, and all their interference with party politics, in every section of the country, where those complaints have reached the Executive.” The president of the United States and no one else—certainly no banker—spoke for a free people.
DESPITE THE DISPIRITING Eaton business, Jackson was comfortable in the White House, where he was charming even old-line Washingtonians like Margaret Bayard Smith. “We visited the President and his family a few days since, in the big house,” Mrs. Smith wrote shortly after the Jackson circle moved in. “Mr. Smith introduced us and asked for the General. Our names were sent in and he joined the ladies in the drawing-room. I shall like him if ever I know him, I am sure—so simple, frank, friendly.… His pew in church is behind ours, his manner is humble and reverent and most attentive.”
Jackson knew the thrust and tenor of the conversations his foes had about him around their dinner tables and at their firesides, and he knew, too, that personal contact was one way to slow the thrust and soften the tenor. He made certain, then, not to become a distant monarch. Loyalists and skeptics alike were welcome in his house.
When Martha Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, moved from Monticello to Washington, Emily and Jackson each paid calls on her, honoring a former mistress of the White House. Mrs. Randolph, whose mother had died in 1782, long before Jefferson’s 1801–09 presidency, had served from time to time as her father’s hostess when he was president. She had given birth to a son (named James after James Madison, Jefferson’s secretary of state) in the White House, the first child to be born there, and Jackson instantly recognized her as a dowager figure due his respect. He asked Van Buren to write to see whether he might call on her.
The answer was yes. Jackson and Van Buren saw her together, followed by Emily and Mary—an extraordinary gesture, for it was traditional for the president and his household to receive the initial call as a mark of respect, and then return calls as they pleased. As the first provincial White House circle, however, Jackson and the Donelsons discerned the wisdom of displaying deference to a grande dame from the city’s already mythical past. They knew that the highbrow dinner-table abuse of Jackson in houses such as the Smiths’ and the John Quincy Adamses’ presupposed a fall from the golden age of the first six presidencies. True provincial revolutionaries would not have cared what was said of them. They would more likely have reveled in their isolation, savoring the mix of disdain and fear their ascension occasioned from an elite that felt a sudden, possibly irretrievable loss of control and command.
Tough as hickory: Andrew Jackson’s raw courage in combat made him a hero to his men, and then to the nation.
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, the great love of his life. She died after being attacked as a bigamist and adulteress. Jackson never really recovered from losing her.
The Hermitage, Jackson’s plantation twelve miles outside Nashville, Tennessee. The house was always full of company.
Andrew Donelson, Jackson’s nephew and private secretary. The president had the highest of hopes for Donelson, telling him that one day he, too, would “preside over the destinies of America.”
“Everyone was in love with her.” Beautiful, shrewd, and headstrong, Emily Donelson was twenty-one years old when she became the president’s official White House hostess.
Andrew Jackson, Jr., a ward of the president’s who took care of the Hermitage in Jackson’s absence, was perennially hapless, running into debt and ultimately dying in a hunting accident.
Sarah Yorke Jackson of Philadelphia married Andrew, Jr., in 1833, and quickly joined Emily as a source of comfort to the aging president.
In 1780, Banastre Tarleton, a brutal British commander, led a massacre of Americans in Andrew Jackson’s Waxhaw.
As a fourteen-year-old during the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson refused to shine a British officer’s boots. The officer struck Andrew with a sword, scarring Andrew’s hand and leaving a deep gash in his head, a wound he carried for the rest of his life.
After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the Red Sticks, a part of the Creek tribe, he adopted an orphaned infant, Lyncoya, and sent him to Rachel at the Hermitage to raise. Lyncoya died of tuberculosis in 1828, the year Jackson was elected president.
Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, transformed him into a figure of national renown. His military fame would ultimately propel him to the presidency.
The ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, in January 1824, brought five of the great figures of the age together in the White House: left to right, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams. Three of them—Jackson, Clay, and Adams—competed against one another for the presidency later that year.
A collector of political gossip and a translator of the classics, John Quincy Adams was James Monroe’s secretary of state before winning the presidency in the House in 1825. Defeated by Jackson in 1828, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, where he served for nearly two decades.
Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, presided over the White House from 1825 to 1829. Her letters are witty, perceptive accounts of life in the capital through several decades.
The 1828 presidential campaign was particularly brutal. Jackson was attacked for alleged military atrocities in handbills like this one, while his supporters accused John Quincy Adams of procuring women for the Russian czar and of lavishly spending public money on fancy china and billiards for the White House.
Washington in the age of Jackson was taking familiar shape, with the Capitol (the dome not yet completed) to the right and the White House to the left. This painting, entitled The City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard, was done in 1833, the midpoint of Jackson’s White House years.
Jackson takes the presidential oath from Chief Justice John Marshall on Wednesday, March 4, 1829, on the East Portico of the Capitol. John Quincy Adams had not been invited to the ceremony, and learned of the transfer of power when he heard the cannon fire greeting Jackson’s oath.
The White House as it appeared for much of Jackson’s presidency.
Francis Scott Key had thought the stately scene of the huge crowds at the Capitol “sublime”; the storming of the White House later in the afternoon led Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story to lament the beginning of what he called “the reign of King Mob.”
A painting captures the chaos and joy of the post-inaugural festivities at the White House in 1829. Jackson’s aides had to form a protective circle around him and spirit him to safety at his hotel as the crowds cavorted.
Variously known as “the Sly Fox” and “the Little Magician,” Martin Van Buren of New York served as Jackson’s secretary of state, then vice president. He was a critical adviser, a cautious, calculating figure who took regular horseback rides with the president.
John C. Calhoun was Jackson’s vice president from 1829 to 1832, and hoped to succeed to the presidency himself. A nationalist as a younger man, in middle age Calhoun came to believe in the theory of nullification, which Jackson considered a step toward secession. It was rumored that medals emblazoned JOHN C. CALHOUN: FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY were being struck.
Shrewd, secretive, and devoted to Jackson, Amos Kendall was an invaluable adviser, quick with a pen, and a master of political organization in the early stages of the creation of what became the Democratic Party.
“Send it to Bla-ar” was a common order from Jackson once Francis Preston Blair arrived in the capital to edit the Washington Globe, the administration’s newspaper. Jackson grew so close to Blair’s family that he gave Rachel’s wedding ring to one of Blair’s daughters.
Author, social chronicler, and longtime Washingtonian, Margaret Bayard Smith kept an invaluable diary of politics and people in the capital from Jefferson forward.
The failed architect of a “Christian Party in Politics” and the man who first wrote Jackson about the alleged sexual improprieties of Margaret Eaton, Ezra Stiles Ely was a prominent Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia. John Quincy Adams thought him “a busybody clergyman.” Ely’s interest in fallen women, or at least supposedly fallen women, was perennial: he had written a book about his ministry among prostitutes in New York City.
Joel R. Poinsett was Jackson’s man on the ground in South Carolina in the tense days of the nullification crisis in 1832–1833. “Keep me advised constantly,” Jackson told Poinsett. Both men feared civil war might be imminent.
Known as “the Christian Statesman,” Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey led the Senate fight against Jackson’s Indian policy.
Jackson and the Donelsons, however, were not true provincial revolutionaries. They were sophisticated about the ways and means of society and their connection to the ways and means of politics. Ralph Waldo Emerson—who, in the early years of the Jackson presidency, was a Unitarian minister at the Second Church in Boston—once wrote that “there is properly no history, only biography.” Even at the pinnacle, politics is intensely personal. People who believe they are valued and set apart in the mind of a leader are less likely to be implacable foes. Jackson knew that both men and massive, impersonal forces shaped nations, and he was determined to use his own personality to, if not convert, then at least charm those who shaped the climate of opinion in which he was to govern.
Hence the sweetness to the Smiths on their first visit and the calls on Mrs. Randolph: better to keep the establishment close, or at least off guard, than to alienate it altogether. The fact of a president’s power and the White House itself are the most formidable weapons on the field. It is the unusual political creature who will not be softened, at least briefly, by the gift of attention from the incumbent, especially if the gift is bestowed within the walls of the White House.
LITTLE IN WASHINGTON was as it seemed. John Campbell and Ezra Ely, clergymen who were supposed to be above the social and political fray, were instead spreading stories of sin and scandal. Emily and Andrew, the family Jackson had thought he could count on no matter what, were failing to follow his wishes with enthusiasm. He had a vice president hostile to the supremacy of the Union. John Eaton, far from being the rock on which Jackson could rely in the Cabinet, was the source of chaos.
Martin Van Buren was, for Jackson, a surprising figure of order. They began riding on horseback most days, and the intimacy of those hours created a strong bond between the president and his secretary of state. The diminutive New Yorker and gaunt Tennessean made an unlikely match. “We are getting along extremely well.… The President proves to be in all respects a finer man than I anticipated,” Van Buren wrote a friend.
Van Buren knew that Jackson’s political isolation could be disastrous. Elected by a coalition of regions and interests, Jackson could not afford to cut ties to all who disagreed with him. In Washington, as in capitals everywhere, this afternoon’s foe may become this evening’s ally. Politics is rather like a theatrical company in which a troupe of actors are cast in different roles depending on the moment or the issue at hand.
In this spirit, Van Buren asked Jackson about going to pay a call on John Quincy Adams. Van Buren did not expect Jackson to come along; he simply wanted to clear his course with the president. Such a courtesy toward Adams could not hurt, and might one day help, for Van Buren’s goal as he took up his duties at the State Department was not only the success of the Jackson years but the elimination of Calhoun as a rival to follow Jackson. Keeping up warm—or at least warmish—relations with the former president from New England was good politics for a New Yorker with national ambitions at a time when the South was inclined in another direction. Jackson heard Van Buren out and approved. Though he hated Adams for what he believed to be the former president’s role in the 1828 attacks on Rachel, Jackson recognized the value of loyalty. If Van Buren wanted to see Adams, then Van Buren should see Adams.
Greeting Van Buren on the first Saturday in April, the former president was at once pleased and sour. Rejected by the voters, ignored by Jackson, struggling to find solace in literature (he was reading the eleventh Philippic of Cicero) and gossip, the former president, remembering his days of power, confided his self-pity to his diary, writing that “all the members” of Jackson’s administration “have been with me upon terms of friendly acquaintance, and have repeatedly shared the hospitalities of my house.” But Adams was no longer either on the rise or at the pinnacle. And so, Adams wrote, “they have all gradually withdrawn from all social intercourse with me.” Receiving Van Buren, Adams was grateful for the attention. “Of the new Administration he is the only person who has shown me this mark of common civility,” Adams noted. The two spoke of the weather, and of ongoing negotiations about American trade with Turkey and access to the Black Sea.
Congratulating himself that he had been “very cordially received by Mr. Adams,” Van Buren believed that his mission to Meridian Hill, the Adams home in Washington, to “reestablish friendly relations” between Jackson and Adams had a “good prospect of success.”
Writing in his diary that evening, Adams assessed Van Buren coldly and accurately: Van Buren was, Adams said, “by far the ablest man of them all, but wasting most of his ability upon mere personal intrigues.… His principles are all subordinate to his ambition, and he will always be of that doctrine upon which he shall see his way clear to rise.”
VAN BUREN LIKED everyone to like him. Toward the end of a visit with Emily and Mary Eastin one day in the spring, Margaret’s name came up in conversation. Though Van Buren was in the Eatons’ camp, he knew Emily’s views and had therefore kept his own opinions on the matter to himself when he was in her company. In the Washington of that time, though, it was impossible to go long without talking over what Van Buren called “the Eaton malaria,” and Emily, anxious to know Van Buren’s thinking, could not stand his diplomatic silence any longer. In a tone that Van Buren thought “conveyed, tho’ gently, a complaint of my reserve,” Emily “expressed her surprise that whilst almost every tongue in the city was canvassing [Margaret’s] merits and demerits, she had never heard me say anything upon the subject.” Van Buren had to leave, but agreed to come back another day to take up this most sensitive of subjects.
Returning, he heard Emily explain herself in terms that were consistent with her earliest letters on the subject. It was not Margaret’s virtue that worried her, she said; it was, rather, Margaret’s abrasive personality. Van Buren heard Emily out, then, in a failed avuncular maneuver, committed the same sin Eaton had in his letter by suggesting that Emily was “being controlled in her course by persons” whom she esteemed—the established families in Washington again—and who had “unduly influenced” her.
At this Emily’s rage began to rise. Failing to detect her anger, Van Buren charged forward. This was about more than society, he lectured: it was about “the situation of her Uncle” and “the difficulties he had to contend with in the performance of his public duties”—as though Emily did not already appreciate the political stakes. Van Buren then pushed yet further. Emily’s decisions, he said, were affecting “the peace and harmony” of the family circle Jackson loved, causing Jackson “misery.” Mary Eastin, who had been listening to Van Buren’s speech, was horrified by his candor. Grasping Emily’s fury, Mary “sought to hide her emotions by gradually withdrawing herself from sight in the embrasure of the window,” Van Buren recalled, and she “sobbed aloud.” At this point, at the sound of Mary’s crying, Van Buren realized the effect his words were having on Emily. Suddenly he saw that Emily, far from benefiting from his counsel, was “deeply agitated” and “offended.”
Van Buren nearly panicked. “I rose from my seat, begging her to excuse whatever I might, under the excitement of the moment, have said to hurt her feelings,” Van Buren recalled. Retreating, he “asked her permission to drop the subject”—which they did.
IT WAS A tense time. Living in close quarters, in daily if not hourly contact with Jackson, Andrew and Emily knew how important the Eaton question was to the president. They were there to comfort and to serve, not to antagonize, yet they had made their choice and they were as subject to the paralyzing force of pride as Jackson was.
On an excursion aboard the steamboat Potomac to Norfolk, Virginia, a few months later, in July, the Eatons joined Jackson, the Donelsons, and others for the trip. At Alexandria an artillery company fired a salute to the president; crowds of admirers awaited on the beach at Norfolk. Emily was nearly eight months pregnant, and the midsummer voyage proved too much for her. As the boat moved south, she began to feel faint. Margaret offered her fan and cologne bottle, essential tools for a fainting woman in the early nineteenth century. Even in distress, though, Emily remained consistent in her aversion to Margaret—an aversion that was by now visceral. She would not accept Margaret’s help, and in her refusal made it obvious that she would rather collapse in a heap than be indebted to Margaret Eaton for anything.
As Emily fainted, the spurned Margaret grew furious. Andrew, who was elsewhere on the Potomac, was summoned, and once Emily was made comfortable, he saw Margaret “betray an extraordinary discomposure of temper,” as he put it. Puzzled about what had happened—but sure that something had—Andrew escorted Margaret off the boat once it had docked for, he said, “the purpose of ascertaining the cause” of her latest fit of anger. “She informed me … that Mrs. Donelson had … showed a disposition not to be intimate with her,” Andrew recalled.
Hot and humiliated, Margaret overplayed her hand. Rather than letting the events of the day speak for themselves—that she had acted charitably when faced with a crisis, and Emily had been cold and possibly rude—Margaret let her hatred for the couple overwhelm her. As Donelson recalled it, she announced that she felt “pity” for Andrew and Emily, for Jackson “had agreed that if we did not behave differently … to send us back to Tennessee.”
Her presumption infuriated Andrew, but even he, as close as he was to Jackson, could not be certain whether Margaret had the power to displace Jackson’s closest family. The fear of a woman’s secret hand at court had ancient roots, and the worry about what Duff Green, the editor of the Telegraph, called Margaret’s “secret influence” over not only society but politics was making a nervous capital even more so. “The interference of the lady in matters of public concern, her active interference in appointments, and the success of applicants who threw themselves on her influence, soon provoked inquiry and much speculation as to her private character, and rumor was again busy with her reputation,” Green said.
It is unlikely that such charges were true. Eaton and Lewis certainly had influence with Jackson, and observers inclined to do so could attribute the Eaton-Lewis faction’s victories in the administration to Eaton’s wife. In political terms, however, the facts mattered little. It was said that Margaret “flatters up the old General in great style and it runs down even to the hem of his garment like oil.” People believed Margaret to be a power, and the idea that appointments were decided, even in part, “as the means of gratifying the private pique of a vain and indiscreet, if not a guilty woman,” Green said, made life more complicated and difficult for Jackson.
ON THE EVENING of Wednesday, August 19—the weather was lovely—Jackson again boarded the Potomac to retreat to the Rip Raps, Virginia, a seaside military enclave near Norfolk. On the trip south through the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, his mind returned, as it did often, to Rachel and to Tennessee. He was worried about the only thing he could do for her now: the tending of her grave. Writing to Andrew Jackson, Jr., Jackson wondered “whether the weeping willows that we planted” around the tomb were “growing, or whether the flowers reared by her industrious and beloved hands have been set around the grave as I had requested.” It was not an idle question. “My dear son, inform me on this subject,” Jackson wrote. “You know it is the one dearest to my heart, and her memory will remain fresh there as long as life lasts.”
Within his circle, matters of the heart, from love to jealousy, were bringing him only misery. Amid everything else Jackson had to deal with, Andrew junior had been troubling the president with a debate about whether to marry a girl he was courting in Tennessee. Jackson was cool to the idea, hoping that the twenty-year-old Andrew would wait to wed. Writing from aboard the Potomac, though, Jackson had only a small hope that his son would heed him. No one else he loved seemed to be listening to him on personal matters. “I beg you, my son, enter into no more love affairs until you see me,” Jackson wrote. “You have many years yet for the improvement of your mind and to make a selection of a companion.”
Finishing his fatherly admonition, Jackson arrived at the Rip Raps, where the military was building a fortress named after Calhoun in recognition of the vice president’s service as secretary of war under Monroe. Steaks, English cheese, turtle soup, veal, ducks, and a gallon of whiskey were ordered in over the ten-day stay. Newspapers reported Jackson’s relaxing routine, telling readers that the president had been “inhaling the salubrious ocean breeze, and daily taking the salt water bath.” Jackson also dealt with correspondence and, the Richmond Enquirer said, “is at all times accessible and affable to those who call on him merely en passant, and appears to enjoy a fine flow of spirits for an invalid.” The only seaside peril he encountered: a sea-nettle jellyfish stung him, inflaming his forehead.
John Eaton kept the president company while the Donelsons remained in Washington; Emily’s baby was due any day. “My dear and sincere friend Major Eaton is with me,” Jackson wrote Andrew junior, underscoring the words, and “he is worthy to be called friend.”
EATON HAD JACKSON’S ear at the moment, and Margaret’s words still echoed in Donelson’s memory. Were he and Emily secure, or would the rise of the Eatons eclipse them? How could Donelson be sure that his own future was not under attack in Eaton’s private exchanges with Jackson?
Then, on Saturday, August 29, 1829, Andrew Donelson received an evening call from the Reverend John Campbell. It was not a social visit. Margaret had learned that Campbell was a source for Ely’s charges, and Campbell decided it would be best to come forward before the Eatons—fueled by passion and armed with information—could mount their attack on him. Stiff and formal, Campbell arrived at the White House in the humid darkness and climbed the stairs to Donelson’s office in the far northeast corner of the second floor.
The minister came straight to the point. At the time of the inauguration, Campbell said, he had felt bound by “feelings of the most sincere friendship” for Jackson, “as well as a sense of duty to religion and the interests of the society in which he was performing the services of a Pastor,” to try to derail Eaton’s nomination to the Cabinet. His reason: the story of Margaret’s alleged miscarriage and implicit adultery.
Donelson immediately grasped the implications of Campbell’s revelations. Here, standing only a dozen paces from the door of the president’s office, was the man whose hidden hand had pushed Ely to oppose Margaret Eaton. For six months, Jackson had been raging against visible political foes (Clay and Calhoun), but, aside from Ely, had found the sources of the Eaton rumors to be maddeningly invisible. Campbell’s confession, Donelson knew, opened a new front with a new enemy. Campbell must have known this, too, for he asked a favor of Donelson: Would Donelson absorb the first blows from Jackson by relating Campbell’s story to the president?
It was a clever but cowardly move on Campbell’s part, and Donelson refused. When it came to the Eatons, he had enough problems with Jackson without appearing to be the agent of the opposition. “I declined a conversation with the President on the subject,” Donelson said. Campbell was trapped. He would have to face Jackson alone.
After Campbell left, disappearing into the night to prepare for services the next morning, Donelson walked down the hallway to bed. So much to think about, so much to balance. The pregnant Emily slept in their big room at the west end of the house. “She seems strong and ready for the trial,” Donelson told Coffee, but childbirth could be harrowing. Campbell’s announcement, Donelson later wrote, added “combustible qualities” to the crisis that could “be ignited in so many different ways … that sooner or later, we must anticipate an explosion.”
Meanwhile, Donelson knew Calhoun was up to no good. A correspondent from South Carolina had told him to expect that Calhoun would “attempt much next winter at Washington and endeavor to place himself at the head of the Anti-Tariff party”—which meant the head of the nullifying party. But instead of taking the summer to gather his forces and his strength to fight Calhoun, Jackson was exhausting himself over the Eatons. Jackson’s emotions “have been steamed to the highest point,” Donelson told Coffee, “and have done more to paralyze his energies than years of the regular and simple operations of the Gov. ought to have done.” Retiring for the night on this August Saturday, Donelson understood there were still more tumultuous months to come.
THE FOLLOWING DAY passed quietly as the household began to prepare for Jackson’s homecoming on Tuesday. Then, on Monday, the thirty-first, in the Donelsons’ big bedroom, Emily bore a healthy little girl, Mary Rachel. The baby, her proud father wrote Coffee, was “a fine healthy child,” and Emily was “quite strong.” Thanking him for the “gratifying intelligence” of the safe birth, Coffee told Donelson, “I assure you the family was greatly relieved … in as much as great anxiety had been felt for Emily.” Arriving in Washington the next day, the first of September, Jackson declared little Mary “the Sunshine of the White House,” and was reminded anew of the role Emily and Andrew played in his life.
On the evening of Tuesday, September 1, John Campbell returned to the White House and again went upstairs. Donelson greeted him and showed him to Jackson’s office while Jimmy O’Neal, the doorkeeper, rousted from his quarters, went to find the president, who was relaxing with William Lewis in a sitting room on the first floor. Hearing that his pastor was waiting, Jackson went upstairs, leaving a curious Lewis behind.
After Jackson arrived, Donelson left the two men alone. As he had on the previous Saturday, Campbell, having summoned up his courage to come, moved to the heart of the matter and repeated his story to the president. Jackson was stunned. “Never having suspected or even heard it lisped that the Reverend Campbell was the individual, I was truly astonished,” Jackson told Ely. This was his pastor, the minister whom he had heard preach week after week through the year. Now he was being told—by the man himself—the origins of what Jackson called “this vile tale”: that while married to Timberlake, Margaret had miscarried a baby after Timberlake had been away at sea for at least a year. The two men disputed dates and details. The conversation was going nowhere.
“We parted,” Jackson said tersely. Campbell left the mansion. The president went in search of documents that would contradict Campbell’s story, and was soon confident that he found sufficient evidence in Timberlake’s old papers. To Jackson, victory seemed at hand. Peace in the capital, and in his Cabinet, was imminent. It looked as though this might be the most glorious of weeks. First the birth of the new Donelson and now the vindication of Margaret: perhaps Jackson could at last dispel the shadows that had hung over him and his presidency since Rachel’s death.
Jackson called for Donelson and asked him to arrange with Campbell what Jackson assumed would be one of the final interviews on the Eaton affair. Leaving Emily and the baby, Donelson did as he was asked, and the meeting was set for Thursday. It was a clear, pleasantly warm day, and Jackson awoke and dressed with every expectation that the world was about to be set right. Campbell and Donelson gathered in Jackson’s office. As sunlight came in the two windows facing south toward Virginia, Jackson “stated the result of my inquiry … and having the proof in my hand, observed that it evidenced, beyond all contradiction, that the tale of [the miscarriage] could not be true.”
His tone could not have been anything but one of satisfaction, even triumph. He awaited his foe’s capitulation. He would be gracious in conquest, but he wanted the conquered to acknowledge defeat and ask how to make reparations.
BUT CAMPBELL WOULD not surrender. Jackson “must have misunderstood him as to the date,” he said. Perhaps nothing Campbell might have said at that moment could have flabbergasted and infuriated Jackson more. Jackson had had enough. The appointment was over. Campbell was dismissed, but he remained central in Jackson’s mind as he turned to write an urgent letter to Ely in Philadelphia summoning him to Washington: “I think it necessary that you come on here as soon as you can.” Jackson wanted to air the charges, refute them, and break Campbell.
“Man born of woman is full of trouble,” Eaton had said in the midst of this maddening week. Once Ely arrived, the showdown was set for Thursday, September 10, 1829. The setting: a special meeting of the Cabinet, in the president’s office, at seven in the evening.