THE PETTICOAT AFFAIR Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House By John F. Marszalek Free Press. 296 pp. $25
Peggy O'Neale was sexy, outspoken and perhaps a trifle soiled -- so at least her detractors claimed -- by New Year's Day 1829, when she married John Henry Eaton. Few would have taken notice of the occasion if the bride had not been the daughter of a well-connected tavern and boardinghouse operator in the District of Columbia, and the groom the most intimate friend of the newly elected president, Andrew Jackson. The combination, as it quickly turned out, was highly combustible.
The story of Peggy Eaton has been forgotten for generations, known to few except scholars of the Age of Jackson or, more recently, of women's history. But it is, as John F. Marszalek argues in "The Petticoat Affair," an important story, one involving "politics and etiquette, ambition and honor, personality and society." Whether it really was, as Marszalek contends, "the most famous debate over the meaning of womanhood in American history" is certainly open to question, but it raised issues that remain pertinent today.
The hour at which Peggy O'Neale married John Eaton was momentous for Washington and the nation. The two-party system was in its youth, bringing into the open passionate conflicts between the old elite leadership and the newly aggressive "common people" for whom Jackson was both representative and spokesman. Washington was a small city (pop. 39,000) dominated by a tory old guard in which "politics and society were difficult to separate," indeed were widely regarded as one and the same.
The old guard feared and hated Andy Jackson, whom it saw as coarse, rapacious and untrustworthy. To some degree he was all of that, yet this rough-and-ready man from Tennessee was also faithful to the most rigid ideals of honor as embraced by antebellum white Southern males. The recent death of his wife, Rachel, "was a loss beyond his comprehension"; he quickly found, in Peggy Eaton, a woman toward whom to redirect "his extreme gallantry toward women, manifested especially in his belief that they were innately weak and that men, as the stronger sex, were morally obligated to protect them."
Margaret Eaton -- as Marszalek insists upon calling her, apparently on the mistaken assumption that the nickname somehow diminishes her -- needed, if not protection, friends and defenders. In a culture that expected women to "exemplify submissiveness, piety, purity, and domesticity," she was none of the above: "She was, for all intents and purposes, a tavern keeper, a woman, it was said, who, since her teenaged days, had openly consorted with males in a confined place where alcohol was served, inhibitions were loosened, and all kinds of talk took place."
Combine this with a lethal mixture of sauciness and beauty, and the proper ladies of Washington had more than enough to chatter about. They were horrified that, less than a year after the death of her first husband, the strumpet remarried. They were aghast when, hard on the heels of this outrage, the president-elect named her new husband secretary of war, a position of great prominence and influence. So when Mrs. Eaton came calling, in the proper fashion of the day, she was snubbed. Gossip circulated and escalated with astonishing intensity; she was called every name in the book and accused of specific offenses, not a single one of which could be proved.
Jackson, who had business of critical importance to the nation on his desk, became obsessed with Mrs. Eaton's virtue, which he proclaimed at every opportunity. Not merely was his friend's wife under vicious and unjustifiable attack, but he saw the onslaught "as a manifestation of opposition to him." For the first two years of his first term, Mrs. Eaton's reputation was at the top of his agenda. By the time the scandal reached its inconclusive end, the president had dissolved his Cabinet, become the bitter enemy of his vice president, John C. Calhoun, and given a leg up to Martin Van Buren, president-in-waiting.
It is both an amusing and a cautionary tale. Parallels between it and those of Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky are far from exact, but all are useful reminders that political Washington is above all else a snake pit in which trivial affairs can become matters of state, thanks to the prevailing small-mindedness and vindictiveness. As for the questions of woman's place that Marszalek raises, undoubtedly the Eaton case anticipated controversies of a later day, but this is more an accident of history than a step in a linear progression. Peggy Eaton may not have been Moll Flanders, but she wasn't Gloria Steinem, either. Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is email@example.com.