The Woman Who Started the Civil War

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Historians are allowed a certain amount of creativity in their evaluations of events. Consequently, their versions of history don’t always agree, especially when it comes to deciding what precipitated a war. Poetic license allowed the Greek poet Homer to be especially creative: he blamed the Trojan War on a woman. I can’t claim poetic license, but if you will allow me to innovatively interpret historical events, I will tell you about the woman who caused the Civil War.

Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale was the daughter of the proprietor of a tavern and inn located in Washington, D.C. She was a dark-haired beauty, but in addition to her beauty she was noted for her cleverness and wit. The term most often applied to Peggy was vivacious. Her father’s tavern was a popular spot for Congressmen as well as Presidents and members of their cabinets. Some actually resided at the inn during their terms in office. One such tenant was John Henry Eaton, the recently widowed Senator from Tennessee. At the time of Eaton’s residency at the inn, Peggy was married to a Navy purser, John Timberlake, who was often assigned to foreign seaports for long periods of time. Rumors began to circulate about an affair between Peggy and Senator Eaton. (This was not the first rumor involving Peggy and a male tenant.) Whether true or not, her absent husband committed suicide, purportedly upon hearing reports of his wife’s infidelity.

Senator Eaton felt obligated to marry Peggy but first he sought the counsel of his friend and fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, who had been elected President and had intended to make Eaton his Secretary of War. Jackson, although aware of the gossip about Peggy, offered no objection to the marriage.

Andrew Jackson’s own wife Rachael had been a victim of vicious gossip. Much to her distress, Rachael learned that when she married Jackson, her divorce from her first husband had not been legally consummated. According to the mores of the time, the newly weds were living in sin. (Upon learning that someone had cast a slur on his wife, Jackson challenged the man to a duel and killed him.) Rachael Jackson died a few months before her husband was inaugurated and Jackson always blamed Washington’s high-society gossipmongers for his young wife’s untimely death.

So Senator John Eaton married Peggy Timberlake and on March 4, 1829, joined Andrew Jackson’s cabinet as Secretary of War. Eaton’s fears that his bride would not be accepted by Washington society were soon realized. Peggy Eaton was snubbed at the inaugural ceremony, and the Eatons were not invited to Washington social functions. Her attempted social visits to wives of her husband’s associates were rebuffed by servants who informed her that the lady of the house was either out or unable to receive guests.

Naturally, the social rejection of Peggy Eaton infuriated President Jackson. But, although he made his associates aware of his displeasure, Mrs. Eaton continued to be shunned. Probably the most obstinate of the high-society ladies involved in the ostracizing of Peggy Eaton was Floride Calhoun, wife of the Vice-President, John C. Calhoun.

Although one of the most accomplished and celebrated men in our history, John C. Calhoun remains an enigma to many Americans. Within three years of his graduation from Yale, as one of the top students in his class, Calhoun was admitted the bar. Two years later he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and three years after that became a member of the United States Congress. From then on there was no let up in his ascension through the ranks of government: Secretary of War for President James Monroe; Vice President serving with President John Quincy Adams and also Vice President in the Jackson administration that succeeded Adams.

Calhoun rode such a persistent career path to the presidency that it was generally believed that after Andrew Jackson left office, Calhoun would become President. In fact, there were rumors that Jackson would serve only one term and step aside to allow for the Calhoun presidency. Calhoun did indeed seemed destined to become President but destiny can be fickle.

John C. Calhoun’s alliance with Jackson had its roots in 1828 when Calhoun was still Vice-President in the John Quincy Adams administration. That year Congress passed and Adams signed into law the so-called “Tariff of Abominations” wherein import duties were increased to almost 50% in order to “protect” Northern manufacturers.

(Let me digress briefly to demonstrate the critical role tariffs played in the growing conflict between the North and the South. As there was no income tax at that time, tariffs were used to generate the revenues necessary to fund government operations. The rates for such tariffs were usually modest and had broad support. However, another kind of tariff (like the one enacted in 1828) was later imposed to “protect” Northern manufactures from overseas competition. The rates for these tariffs were much higher and damaging to the South because the South relied on overseas imports not only for the implements needed for agriculture production but also items for personal use.

To illustrate, let’s assume that Southern planters could buy a plowshare from Europe for $10.00 whereas one manufactured in the North cost $14.00. If Congress could be persuaded to impose a 50% tariff on imported products, Southern planters would have to pay $10.00 for the imported plowshare plus a $5.00 import duty. Facing a total cost of $15.00 for each plowshare bought from overseas, Southern planters would probably buy the $14.00 model from the North. Hence, Northern manufacturers were “protected” from competition because the South was forced to buy their goods. Also, the tariff rates had little impact on the North’s economy as the region did not have a great need for imported products.

The South had to absorb this additional cost by increasing the price of its cotton to the point where it was less competitive in the world market. Also, as these tariffs significantly reduced Great Britain’s exports to America, it threatened to curtail its purchases of Southern grown cotton. And, as the South sold most of its cotton to Great Britain, the loss of this market would seriously harm the South’s economy. Furthermore, English exporters were reluctant to allow their ships to sail home from Southern seaports empty. Consequently, more cotton, tobacco and various other products were purchased from the Southern region. This significant source of revenue was also lost to the South as the result of high import duties.)

At the time the Tariff of Abominations was enacted, Calhoun assumed that, as President, Jackson would seek to severely reduce the unfair protective tariffs. Indeed, Jackson had given that impression. So Calhoun turned against Adams and, at the end of his term in office, campaigned for the Vice-Presidency in order to serve with Andrew Jackson.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows and that was certainly the case with Calhoun and Jackson. Calhoun was a member of the aristocracy, a scholarly man with considerable debating and legislative skills. Jackson, on the other hand, was the first president that did not come from the aristocracy. A down-to-earth planter and soldier with little formal education, whose rise to the presidency was primarily the result of his defeat of the British forces at the Battle of New Orleans. But the two men enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship until the Peggy Eaton Affair, mockingly called “The Petticoat War,” undermined the bond between them.

It is often thought that emotional responses to events are primarily confined to females whereas men react to events in a more logical fashion. Consequently, historians usually ignore the effect of emotions and attribute the actions of famous men solely to the rational pull of historical or political factors. But the behavior of men is also influenced by emotions, especially anger that frequently interferes with their judgments — Alexander Hamilton lost his life in a duel with Aaron Burr as a result of a political squabble that became personal.

The following incident illustrates how emotionally involved Andrew Jackson was in the Peggy Eaton Affair.

On September 10, 1829, one of the most unusual cabinet meetings in history took place. Andrew Jackson convened his cabinet to discuss the social rejection of Peggy Eaton. Secretary Eaton prudently avoided the meeting to allow a freer discussion of his wife’s dilemma. The President, obviously in a foul humor, opened the meeting by forcefully expressing his displeasure with “unchristian” men and women who engage in false and spiteful gossip harmful to “a helpless and virtuous female.” Jackson responded to one unfavorable comment about Peggy Eaton by shouting “She is as chaste as a virgin!” When Jackson’s own pastor mentioned unfavorable newspaper reports about Mrs. Eaton, Jackson again lost his temper. He interrupted his minister by loudly advising him that he was brought to the meeting to give evidence, not to make a speech. The insulted pastor stood, gathered up his papers, bowed to the President and left the room. The meeting was adjourned.

Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s Secretary of State, saw the Eaton Affair as an opportunity to improve his standing with the President. Van Buren began inviting the Eatons to his social gatherings; taking them for carriage rides through Washington, having tea with Mrs. Eaton and making his approval of her widely known. Van Buren’s behavior towards Peggy Eaton may have pleased the President but it infuriated Calhoun and his friends. A Calhoun group emerged and was opposed by a Van Buren camp.

As both Calhoun and Van Buren sought Jackson’s endorsement for their presidential ambitions, each tried to lessen the President’s opinion of the other. In one of their thrusts and parries, the Van Buren camp leaked to the press documentation that questioned Calhoun’s loyalty to the President. Calhoun countered with a vigorous response, also for publication, that not only disputed false charges made against him but also tactfully compared his faithfulness to the President with that of Van Buren. Still Calhoun insisted that his document not be published without the approval of the President who should make any revisions he deemed necessary. The newspaper editor prevailed upon Secretary Eaton to review Calhoun’s document with Jackson. Eaton withheld the document from the President but the next day returned it to the editor implying that Jackson had approved it. The article in the newspaper came as a complete surprise to President Jackson and he was furious with his Vice-President. Henry Eaton had his revenge on the man whose wife had caused such hurt to his own spouse.

Martin Van Buren maintained his flattering behavior towards Mrs. Eaton and President Jackson rewarded him with the ambassadorship to Great Britain. As he was only serving as a recess appointee; Van Buren’s appointment had to be voted on by the full Senate. In one of those quirks of fate, the Senate vote ended in a tie which placed the tie-breaking vote in the hands of the Vice-President, John C. Calhoun. Still smarting from Van Buren’s calculated fawning over Peggy Eaton, Calhoun voted to reject the appointment. This proved to be a grievous political error for soon the story began to circulate that President Jackson had decided to abandon Calhoun and make Van Buren his running mate in his upcoming re-election bid.

In the summer of 1832 the Senate negotiated a revision of the Tariff of Abominations. Calhoun was both surprised and disappointed that President Jackson did not insist on significant rate reductions. Either Jackson’s intentions had been misunderstood or he had changed his mind. If Jackson had indeed changed his mind, was it the result of economic or political considerations? Or was it annoyance with Calhoun and the Calhoun camp’s ill treatment of Peggy Eaton?

In any event John C. Calhoun, realizing that his presidential aspirations were not to be, resigned from the Jackson Administration in December, 1832; the first Vice-President to resign in United States history. Calhoun called upon South Carolina to issue a proclamation advising its refusal to enforce the new tariff rates. The state not only issued the proclamation, it also elected Calhoun as one of its Senators. However, the language of the proclamation stated that its provisions would not take effect until March, 1833, giving Congress time to reconsider the law. South Carolina’s proclamation led to the famous Nullification Crisis. President Jackson threatened military action against South Carolina but Calhoun’s gamble paid off. Congress revised the law and reduced tariff rates to 20% and lower over a ten-year period.

Had it not been for the Peggy Eaton Affair, Calhoun would not have fallen out of favor with Andrew Jackson. He would have served as Vice-President during Jackson’s second term and would have been anointed by Jackson for the office of President in 1837.

John C. Calhoun’s national reputation combined with the backing of Jackson, the popular war hero, would have assured his election as President. I think we can also assume that Calhoun’s years of experience in both the executive and legislative branches would have protected him from many of the pitfalls that beset lesser presidents. And, in the absence of some unforeseen crisis, he would have served at least two, or, if his health permitted, possibly three terms (there were no term limits at that time).

Could an extended Calhoun presidency have influenced the nation’s political direction to such an extent that the War Between the States might have been avoided? First we should consider the major conflicts that led to the war: the growing political influence of industrial regions accompanied by the weakening political influence of agricultural regions; high protective tariffs that benefited manufacturing regions to the detriment of agricultural regions, a trend away from the sovereignty of states toward an all-powerful central government, and the reluctance of a congressional majority to allow citizens in new territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery. (Opposition to slavery in states where it already existed was not one of the conflicts that led to the war. It was generally understood that there was no prohibition against slavery in the Constitution, a fact that so infuriated radical abolitionists that they publicly burned copies of the Constitution.)

Although these conflicts had been festering for years, they did not reach the point where war was inevitable until roughly 1855. So, from the end of the Jackson administration, 1837, until 1855, there was a window of opportunity for a peaceful compromise. But if we look at the administrations from1837 to 1855, we will not find a president that made any serious attempts to address these issues. We will also not find a strong or popular president during that time. None was elected to a second term, although two died in office. So we are left to wonder what would have happened if a strong and popular president had set into motion a firm agenda to arbitrate the growing conflict between North and South.

But could Calhoun, a staunch supporter of slavery, modify his views to the extent necessary to be president of all the people? I maintain that he could. The office of the presidency tends to alter one’s perspective from a regional outlook to a national outlook. And based on the speeches and writings of Calhoun’s later years, we know he wanted to keep the Union intact. He also begrudgingly accepted the change in the South’s fortunes and was more concerned about the South’s survival rather than trying to reclaim its glory days. And Calhoun was known for his ability to compromise divergent viewpoints.

Central to Calhoun’s thinking was his contention that a nation’s problems are not caused by those who cling to traditions and old-fashioned ideas but rather by those who zealously try to force “progressive” changes more rapidly than the nation is able to accommodate them without drastic upheavals to its economy and social order. This is the philosophy he would have brought to the White House. As President, Calhoun might not have been able to halt the trends he opposed but he might have slowed them and managed them in such a way as to prevent them from causing a war.

John C. Calhoun knew that the two things the commercial interests in the North feared most were abolitionists and Southern secessionists. Both had the potential to seriously disrupt the North’s economy because of its reliance on the cotton trade. So the slavery conflict in the pre-war years was not so much between North and South as it was Northern entrepreneurs and Southern planters versus abolitionists and politicians. The dependence of the North’s economy on Southern grown cotton would seem to be the leverage a Calhoun presidency needed to block the zealous activity of radical abolitionists and allow for a more pragmatic solution as well as a realistic timetable for ending slavery.

Calhoun would certainly have attempted to alter the congressional rules that allowed a simple majority to enact protective tariffs that only benefited one region of the country. He might have tried to revive the failed proposal offered at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 requiring a two-thirds vote of Congress for laws regulating commerce including tariffs. (We are still suffering today from this Constitutional flaw that allows Congress to pass a law with a vote of just over 50%.) Calhoun also might have appealed to the economic interests of Northern entrepreneurs for help in industrializing the South with agricultural machinery and finding Southern locations of Northern owned mills

As a Senator, Calhoun had lost favor with some of his colleagues with his opposition to the war with Mexico. His Senate speeches show that he understood and feared the devastating effects of war so we would expect that, as President, he would make an extra effort to prevent war, especially a war between sections of the country. As a result of the success of the Nullification Crisis, he recognized the power of an implied threat of secession, but he would not have endorsed the actual act of secession. He would have used his enormous influence on the South to mitigate the voices of the more extreme secessionists in order to dissuade the region from leaving the Union, a critical factor for preventing war.

Am I overestimating John C. Calhoun’s abilities? For an answer go back to 1957 when a special committee was created by the Senate to determine the five most outstanding Senators in American history. This committee was chaired by the freshman Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and had the daunting task of reviewing the legislative skills and accomplishments of all U.S. Senators from 1789 to 1957. A major criterion was “acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines” and the recommendation of a candidate required the unanimous consent of all committee members. The top three Senators selected by the Kennedy Committee were Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. These three were specifically cited because their “legislative compromises held the nation together during the tumultuous decades leading to the Civil War.”

The fact that Calhoun’s reputation for negotiation and compromise so impressed Senators over 100 years after his death lends credence to my assumption that he would have been a president capable of preventing the War Between the States. But, although a Calhoun presidency was once an almost a foregone conclusion, his path to the White House was blocked by Peggy Eaton’s petticoats.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.

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