John Eaton was President Jackson’s Secretary of War. This cabinet choice was controversial and ultimately disruptive. Not the first time that a president, upon reflection, would want a ‘do over,’ as President Trump retrospectively regrets his selection of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.
Eaton (1790-1856) had much to recommend him for Secretary of War. He like Andrew Jackson was a resident of Tennessee and served with Jackson as a United States Senator from this state. He was re-elected to the Senate and served in that body for eleven years. He fought under General Jackson’s command during the War of 1812, and wrote the first Andrew Jackson biography, The Life of Andrew Jackson, Major General in the Service of the United States (1817).
Trouble began when Eaton, a widower for many years married Peggy O’Neale Timberlake, a widow with two daughters. Peggy was the daughter of the most famous saloon keeper in the District of Columbia, and the wife of Navy purser Timberlake who committed suicide in the Mediterranean. Moreover, she was beautiful, vivacious, charming and very smart, an obvious target of envy by many Washington wives.
Eaton, to his credit, before his wedding, discussed with the president the problems that his marriage to Peggy might provoke. Jackson, a chivalrous soul still suffering from the recent death of his wife who had been unfairly attacked by political opponents, told Eaton: Go ahead and I’ll back you up. Jackson always has been credited for his ferocity and obstinacy.
The Eaton marriage took place, and the fallout commenced immediately. The Women of Washington refused to socialize with Peggy, someone whom they considered to be of a lower class. Snubbing and snobbery also infected the cabinet when the wives of half the Secretaries and of Vice President John C. Calhoun avoided Mrs. Eaton both publicly and privately. Old Hickory became incensed by this unseemly behavior towards an innocent lady. He severely castigated their husbands, leading to cabinet dysfunction and governmental stagnation. This lasted for two years until the President forced the resignation of his entire cabinet including Secretary of War Eaton.
Jackson, well known for loyalty to his friends, appointed John (and Peggy) to the governorship of Florida (1834-1836) and to the ambassadorship of Spain (1836-1840). Mrs Eaton, the talented saloon-keeper’s daughter, excelled as the wife of the Florida Governor and the Ambassador to Spain. In the latter role, she became an intimate of the Spanish queen and a favorite of the Spanish people.