So what was the Eaton affair?
Jackson and Eaton had known each other since the days when they both served as senators from Tennessee and had roomed at the same boarding house in Washington, D.C. Eaton was in love with Margaret O'Neal Timberlake, the daughter of the boardinghouse owner, who lived there at the time. A beautiful and flirtatious young woman, she was smart and outspoken. Far from home and family, the gentlemen at the boardinghouse - many of them senators and congressmen - found her beguiling. She would later say, "I was always their pet." At the time Margaret met John, she was married, with her husband often away. Many said her relationship with Eaton was scandalous. Margaret and Eaton described it as a friendship. When Margaret's husband died under suspicious circumstances, the gossips claimed that he had committed suicide over the unfaithfulness of his wife. Just after Jackson's election in 1828, Eaton came to ask Jackson's advice on his decision to marry Margaret, despite the rumors. Jackson told him, "If you love Margaret Timberlake go and marry her at once and shut their mouths."
Jackson wanted to appoint John Eaton secretary of war in his new administration. Some of Jackson's supporters begged him not to do so, citing the inevitable social and political fallout associated with Mrs. Eaton. Jackson explained that, "When I mature my course, I am immovable," and refused to back down. He told his critics, "Do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my cabinet?" Once his cabinet was in place, Jackson insisted that its members force their wives to receive Margaret Eaton socially, something the wives steadfastly refused to do. One day, when John Eaton was absent, Jackson called a cabinet meeting for the express purpose of defending Margaret's honor, presenting evidence of her morality. The lecture did not achieve the desired results. At the annual cabinet dinner, all wives, except Margaret Eaton, found reasons to stay away. The most adamant was Floride Calhoun, Vice President John Calhoun's wife. Calhoun had seemed to be the man in line to become Jackson's handpicked successor at the end of his term. Yet Jackson's anger at Calhoun's inability to control his wife led to a breach in the relationship and emphasized other irreconcilable differences between the two men on personal and political issues.
The so-called "Petticoat War" raged on, and began to erode the energy and focus of Jackson's cabinet. Only Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, being a man with presidential ambitions of his own, sided with Jackson. Van Buren, a widow, was not in the same position as the other cabinet members. Furthermore, he saw that the Democratic Party was being damaged by this whole affair, and perhaps recognized that his own political career might be enhanced if he could mend the rift. Knowing that Jackson would not ask Eaton to resign, he convinced Eaton to do so on his own. Then Van Buren resigned. Other cabinet members followed suit, at Jackson's request, thus allowing him the opportunity to be rid of all involved in the controversy, and start afresh.
Washingtonians were amazed and wondered what it all meant. Questions abounded. The Senate had confirmed all of these cabinet officers. By demanding that they resign, did Jackson intend to end the Senate's role and set up a dictatorship? Did Mrs. Eaton's efforts to gain legitimacy in Washington society symbolize the democratizing influences of Jackson, and, if so, wasn't it a dangerous trend? Eventually the displaced cabinet members and others wrote letters to the editors of prominent newspapers, claiming that Mrs. Eaton was influencing presidential patronage. To hear them tell it, she was controlling every government appointment Jackson made, a charge that proved unfounded. Jackson was undeterred by their complaints: the cabinet acted as an advisory body to the president, he said, and the task required harmony. When harmony did not exist - some said harmony meant compliance with Jackson's views - it was time for a change.
This site also has some primary sources from the era, which I think are so much fun and great classroom materials! Here is one of the excerpts:
In a letter written to Mrs. Boyd in the spring of 1829, Mrs. Smith expressed her opinions about Jackson's new cabinet, and once again brought up the subject of Mrs. Eaton.
. . . . you wish for a description of the Inauguration, and for some account of the new Cabinet, of the President and his family. On these topics I have but little to say. Bayard will transmit to Sister Jane and she to you, my last long letter to him, containing a full account of that grand spectacle, for such it was, without the aid of splendid forms or costumes. Of the Cabinet, I can only say the President's enemies are delighted and his friends grieved. It is supposed wholly inefficient, and even Van Buren, altho' a profound politician is not supposed to be an able statesman, or to possess qualifications for the place assigned him. Yet on him, all rests. Mr. Ingham, is the only member with whom we are personally acquainted, -- him we have known long and well. He is a good man, of unimpeachable and unbending integrity. But no one imagines him possessed of that comprehensiveness and grasp of mind, requisite for the duties of his new office. He will be faithful, this, no one doubts. Whether he will be capable, experience only can show. Of the others, we know absolutely nothing, the people know nothing, and of course can feel little confidence. As for the new Lady [Mrs. Eaton], Elizabeth enquires of after a thousand rumours and much tittle-tattle and gosip and prophesyings and apprehensions, public opinion ever just and impartial, seems to have triumphed over personal feelings and intrigues and finally doomed her to continue in her pristine lowly condition. A stand, a noble stand, I may say, since it is a stand taken against power and favoritism, has been made by the ladies of Washington, and not even the President's wishes, in favour of his dearest, personal friend, can influence them to violate the respect due to virtue, by visiting one, who has left her strait and narrow path. With the exception of two or three timid and rather insignificant personages, who trembled for their husband's offices, not a lady has visited her, and so far from being inducted into the President's house, she is, I am told scarcely noticed by the females of his family.
On the Inauguration day, when they went in company with the Vice-President's lady, the lady of the Secretary of the Treasury and those of two distinguished Jacksonian Senators, [Robert] Hayne and [Edward] Livingston, this New Lady never approached the party, either in the Senate chamber, at the President's house, where by the President's express request, they went to receive the company, nor at night at the Inaugural Ball. On these three public occasions she was left alone, and kept at a respectful distance from these virtuous and distinguished women, with the sole exception of a seat at the supper-table, where, however, notwithstanding her proximity, she was not spoken to by them. These are facts you may rely on, not rumours--facts, greatly to the honor of our sex. When you see Miss Morris, she will give you details, which it would not be proper to commit to writing. She and I have become very social and intimate and have seen each other often. I hope she will call on you and talk over Washington affairs. Dear Mrs. Porter, her departure cost me some bitter tears. And so did good Mrs. Clay's. Mrs. Ingham professes a desire to be very social with me, "the oldest friend," as she says her husband has in the city, but a friend of 18 years is a thing I shall never make now, it is too late in the day. We visited the President and his family a few days since, in the big house. 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. He looks bowed down with grief as well as age and that idea excited my sympathy, his pew in church is behind ours, his manner is humble and reverent and most attentive.