Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Petticoat Affair

(The vast highways of America's Bad Lands.)

 Great classes wander off into tangents.  It's always been this way.  Students try everything within their power to distract and derail, but careful teachers know the value of a pressure valve.  So, as we...  wander lonely as clouds through the Big Sky Country of Montana, through Indian Territory and Reservation, we pause for a tangent... and ugh!  Heaven Help Me! We turn on CNN!
(We stop in the little town of Broadus, Montana.)

Like Public Enemy's Chuck D to Elvis, believe me, Andrew Jackson never meant much to me.  But as I crouch around a little hotel TV set with my daughters in the middle of a South Dakota nowhere watching, like all my other fellow American knuckleheads: The Comey Testimony, I can't help but think back to Old Hickory and some of the scandals he faced during his tenuous presidency and their lasting impact.  For starters, look no further than the Petticoat Affair.  
(America!  You're in for a bumpy four years.)

I cringe to say it, but Andrew Jackson was a bad ass.  Cut from that frontier's cloth, researches have him participating in 10 to 100 different pistol duels of honor during his life: one for revenge with a lawyer who tore his argument to shreds in court; one with the incumbent governor of Tennessee to defend a friend, and one, most famously, over an unpaid horse racing bet that left one man dead and Jackson with a bullet in his chest too close to his heart to be surgically removed. Yeah, I'd say history is pretty solid on Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, going down as a frontier legend!
(I love these moments, pulling into a town and standing on the corner surveying the world, drawing it all inside, knowing you will never pass this way again.)

The Petticoat Affair surrounded the controversial Jackson cabinet appointment of John Eaton as Secretary of War in 1829.  You see, Jackson, a total non-conformist, appoints Eaton despite his marriage to Margaret 'Peggy' O'Neill, an ex-bar maid and woman of ill-repute.  Raised in a boardinghouse, Peggy, a 'gorgeous hussy,' entertained then-Senator Jackson and Eaton on numerous occasions and had many illicit affairs before her marriage.  When she hooked up with Eaton, her husband who was a Navy sailor, reportedly killed himself.  Their relationship caused a stir around Washington D.C. especially with Vice President John Calhoun's wife, Floride who led the capitol city's elite in snubbing the Eatons at social affairs and started the 'Anti-Peggy' coalition.  Opponents used the 'Eaton Affair' or 'Petticoat Affair' to attack the president's moral judgment in the press.  There were even cigar boxes depicting Peggy's beauty and Jackson fighting duels to defend her honor.  All in all, it was an epic American scandal.  
(The ceremonial trophies and relics people display, the memories of a life long lost... the Americana...)

Of course, President Jackson wouldn't be swayed.  He sympathized with his friend Eaton because his own wife Rachel, whom he had unwittingly married before her divorce, and who had also been the victim of social gossip and the cause of many of his duels, had to have her honor defended on multiple occasions.  Say what you like about Jackson's politics toward Indians, but as a defender of women, you have to give him his props!  By 1831, the Petticoat Affair had proved immensely divisive and politically damaging to Jackson.  In response, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren and Eaton resigned.  Vice President John Calhoun was replaced on the presidential ticket and returned to (you guessed it) South Carolina where he became a staunch proponent of State's Rights, Slavery, and Secession from the Union.  
(And then back on the road again... what a feast for the eyes!)

All of this division, turmoil, and strife, over some petty Washington D.C. power play gossip.  It puts the Comey Testimony in a different perspective, doesn't it?  The danger of rivalries and political ambition.  The need to burn down the world if only to stay in power one day longer.  While all these political Big Shots were arguing about rude social behaviors and offensive eye glances... thousands of Native Americans were being slaughtered and marched to their death on the Trail of Tears.  Keep your eye on the ball, America.  Level swings.  Level swings.  

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