Book Review: The Petticoat Affair
John Marszalek, in his book The Petticoat Affair: Manners Mutiny and Sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House, investigates the well-documented and scandalous ‘Eaton Affair’ of President Andrew Jackson’s first presidential term, in which he defended the provocative marriage of Peggy Timberlake (rumored to be sexually promiscuous) to Jackson’s War Secretary John Henry Eaton. Since the wives of the rest of Jackson’s Cabinet refused to accept her into the fold, Jackson tirelessly spent two years of his life trying to defend her honor, which cost Jackson a great deal of reputation and cachet among the American people. It even cost him membership in the church, as well as his entire Cabinet. Marszalek’s version of the tale, a book-length recounting of the scandal itself, looks at this political fiasco through how it reflects on Jacksonian era gender norms and societal attributes. According to Marszalek, the Eaton affair became “the most famous debate over the meaning of womanhood in American history” (p. 21). In the scandal, more was at stake than the honor of a single political figure; “the very relationship between men and women was on trial” (p. 99). In this way, Marszalek investigates Jacksonian culture through its treatment of a promiscuous woman in the President’s inner circle.
Marszalek provides an incredibly sympathetic account of Eaton; instead of sticking with the condescending “Peggy,” he regards her as Margaret Eaton, and absolves her of all sexual misconduct. In essence, he argues that her biggest crime was being much more flirtatious and forward than most conservative women of the time, flying in the face of such conventions that ruled over people during this era. She was active in her pursuit of enjoyment and attention, and was outspoken on political and economic issues. She spoke with a boldness uncharacteristic of most women. It is for these reasons that Jacksonian-era American society shunned her and thought her to be licentious because of all of these attributes. Unlike other literature on the Eaton affair, Eaton herself is the focus, not Jackson; she is even painted as a progressive figure. “Hardly a crusader for women’s rights, she was, nevertheless, an aggressive proponent of her cause, the same cause of many others in later days: the right of women to go beyond the barriers that society has built to enclose them and vociferously uses to keep them in their place” (p. viii). By telling her story, Marszalek wants to show her tale as an example of women’s struggles to overcome an incredibly patriarchal society, which still exists in some form today to limit women’s agency.
What is most compelling about Marszalek’s attempt to retell the story is that he does not deconstruct it or privilege any of the people involved in the affair unnecessarily; this is something that also sets it apart from other historians’ retellings of the story. There is no category of analysis that is included in the recounting of the tale, merely a straightforward and conversational account of the Eaton affair itself, making it an easy and entertaining read. However, while this makes it more readable, it can be argued that it does not work as hard as it could to prove its case – Margaret Eaton’s promiscuousness is denied virtually on the grounds of her denials alone (as well as Jackson’s inability to find proof in his own investigations). However, there is a conflict of interest inherent to Eaton’s denials, and Jackson did not really disprove the allegations; instead he shamed and shoved the accusers into recanting them. Jackson is painted in Marszalek’s book as being bullheaded to the point of paranoia, imagining various conspiracies around him and fighting to silence them.
Naturally, the primary issue of Marszalek’s book is not whether or not Eaton was actually unfaithful and promiscuous; Marszalek notes that the controversy itself said a lot about the way women were considered during that time; the Eaton affair itself was a fight over what it means to be a woman. That is, this is what he claims the point to be in the book; there is the expectation that at some point Marszalek will discuss the varying sides of the conflict to be based around what constituted real womanhood in the Jacksonian era. If this were included in the book, it would support other accounts of differences over the roles of men and women between political parties and lend a greater significance to the affair (Wood, 1997). Unfortunately, Marszalek demonstrates that the debate was merely about Mrs. Eaton’s behavior as an individual, and whether or not it was improper – they did not seem to care about women’s behavior in general. Arguments raged not over whether it was right for a woman to act improperly, just whether or not this was true of Margaret Eaton. Even Andrew Jackson still believed that loose women would be justifiably shunned from polite society; he just did not think Eaton was one of those women. There is no clear framework for the discussion of gender norms in this era given by Marszalek in the book; the meaning of what it is to be a woman seems similar on both sides of the table.
There are moments in which Marszalek implies that Margaret Eaton’s behavior was symbolic of the changing social and political environment of Jackson-era America, particularly where women were concerned. “Women’s role as defenders of morality became, therefore, that much more important in this time of flux. If women failed in their task of preserving societal morality, there was little hope for the future, and change would bring disaster, not progress” (p. 68). He then goes on to claim that Margaret Eaton’s shunning by society was a reply to those changes, but there is no real evidence presented to back up that claim.
In conclusion, Marszalek, in The Petticoat Affair, paints a very straightforward and readable account of the Eaton affair. His claims that the affair was symbolic for women’s rights in a changing America, however, are not really backed up with evidence, as it seems much more constrained to the acceptability and validity of one woman’s potential promiscuity. There are many manuscripts cited in the work, but they are not used in great depth to explore the ideas of female power during this time. By siding so far with Margaret Eaton, he does not give her detractors the time of day needed to explore their motivations in depth, and not much is added to the conversation about this affair that is not covered in other literature.
Marszalek, J.F. (2000). The petticoat affair: manners, mutiny and sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House. Louisiana State University.
Wood, K.E. (1997 Summer). ‘One Woman So Dangerous to Public Morals’: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair. Journal of the Early Republic 17: 237-275.