Peggy's Intervention

William Wayne Weems

2016 by William Wayne Weems

Painting of Margaret "Peggy" O'Neal Eaton.
In the first decade of this Century a group of enthusiasts restored the decaying grave monument of a woman who died more than 100 years ago. They believed that her account of an incident that occurred at a tomb in Nashville,Tennessee, revealed her as the effective savior of the Federal Union of the United States...30 years before the Civil War. Her tale may be plausible, but it is supported only by her recollection and the conjectured effects of her actions are certainly controversial. Nevertheless, I will offer a highly condensed version of that tale here since the Nashville tomb exists today nearly unchanged.

Margaret "Peggy" O'Neal Eaton was a true beauty of her day, and she certainly had her way with men. She had married President Jackson's Secretary of War, John Eaton. Her rapid rise from poor beginnings outraged the "society wives" of other prominent Washingtonians, who suspected that she had gained her position by improperly using her feminine did the loose women of the streets. This resentment went on to touch off campaigns of slander and innuendo Washington wags styled "petticoat wars". But President Jackson was also from poor beginnings, and he had heard too many of the same calumniations that had been unjustly piled upon the hapless head of his beloved Rachel, so he became Peggy's vocal champion....with the steadfast backing of her husband, all the support she needed. As to her female detractors, Peggy observed:
“I was quite as independent as they, and had more powerful friends…none of them had beauty, accomplishments or graces in society of any kind, and for these reasons…they were jealous of me.”

In 1830, Jackson continued his public support for Peggy by inviting her and her husband to join in a visit to his Nashville home at the Hermitage during Christmas week. Jackson had wanted to view the completed tomb in which lay his dear Rachel, but this was the first time he had been able to get away. 

Their visit turned into a seemingly endless series of visits, dinners and receptions, but Peggy was increasingly concerned about the President's mood. All manner of Rachel's things lay about the house; Peggy recalled that Rachel had been packing for the trip to Washington City when she was fatally stricken, and Jackson had to leave for his inaugural almost immediately after
her funeral. Peggy suspected what today's analysts might style as an insufficient time to properly grieve, and she became increasingly concerned about him. Then came the evening when all manner of important and influential people were invited to dinner and Jackson was nowhere to be found. But Peggy thought she knew where to look for him...and there he was, lying flat on the ground before Rachel's tomb in the new fallen snow, sobbing uncontrollably.
Tomb of Andrew and Rachel Jackson at the Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee.

Was Peggy touched by this human vulnerably of this "Iron General", and impressed by the depth of devotion to his deceased spouse? Perhaps, but this was still the early part of the nineteenth century. The people had elected a notorious "badass" as their leader, and counted on him to keep the wayward in line by whatever means he deemed necessary. The most dangerous of those was probably South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, who had led that State's efforts to "nullify" unwelcome Federal laws and boldly endorsed the notion of the secession of States from the Federal Union. Calhoun and his sympathizers in other states had a better chance of successful secession in the 1830's; the North was not as industrialized as it was later, and the waves of European immigration to primarily non-slave states following the revolutions of 1848 had obviously yet to take place. But Calhoun was visibly and physically intimidated by Jackson...the "Iron General" Jackson, not the helpless sobbing wrench lying in the snow before Peggy.

So Peggy looked about her, noted they were alone, and with the help of sympathetic house slaves smuggled Jackson unseen into an unoccupied room. There she used all her interpersonal skills to buck up Jackson and remind him of the importance of his public persona. When the two joined the crowd shortly thereafter Jackson was his usual imperious self, with Peggy beaming proudly on his arm.

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