Sunday, 10 February 2013

Spite: weapon of choice of the powerless

Few people were more powerless in the nineteenth century than women. 

Women still have a long way to go before they can regard equality as achieved, but things were far worse around 1830: they didn’t even have the vote and it was simply inconceivable that they might have any impact on political processes. It’s curious to discover that an influence women were denied the right to exert openly, should have come back through the back door, if in a form one can only describe as 

The first six presidents of the United States all came from the wealthy, cultured and sophisticated Virginia or Massachusetts 
establishment, which knew how to behave itself. Each president was succeeded by his Vice President or Secretary of State, which meant that he (and it always was a he, of course) was able to get his heir fully toilet trained before handing the office on. As a result, while committed to the self-evident truth that all men are born equal, the successor wouldn’t be so tactless as to push the principle to the point where it might challenge the hegemony of respectable gentlemen, far less raise awkward questions about the rights of native Americans or slaves.

There was a brutal change with the arrival of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. He was openly, unashamedly a democrat. So he wasn’t having any of this kowtowing to the elites, those tiny minorities that seemed to regard themselves as born to rule the country. His approach profoundly changed the way the US was governed even though, given the power still exerted by monied elites, we don’t want to overstate the extent of his achievement.

But, while most of us would probably admit that democracy demands that the majority rules, and that sweeping aside a monied minority is pretty essential to achieve that aim, the majority isn
t always as careful as might be of other minorities that don’t have the power that established wealth provides. In particular, in Jackson’s world view, there was no question of taking up the cause of slaves or native Americans. Slavery was safe under Jackson, and the Indians most certainly weren’t: he presided over acts of mass ethnic cleansing as the tribes were driven west of the Mississippi, even though that meant breaking solemn treaties signed with them.

Ugly in public, the administration had a pretty seamy side running through its private affairs as well.

To secure the support of the southern States, Jackson had chosen John Calhoun of South Carolina to run with him for Vice President. But Calhoun nursed his own ambitions of getting to the White House, and South Carolina was on a collision course with Washington over tariffs the State felt were crucifying it economically, and which it believed it had the right to ‘nullify’: it believed that a State could override the will of Federal government enshrined in law passed by Congress.

Now Jackson had an attractive aspect to his character which also had a severe downside: he was intensely loyal to those who were loyal to him. One close friend was John Eaton, a longtime supporter of Jackson’s who had served with him in the War of 1812 against the British; Jackson appointed him Secretary of War (equivalent to Defense Secretary today).

Unfortunately Eaton had married a woman, Margaret, who as well as being quite a looker, was known, in the quaint of expression of the time, to be no better than she should have been. Indeed, rumour had it that Eaton had had an affair with her before her first husband had died. This was behaviour most women in high society disapproved of at this time and, powerless to affect politics in any other way, they were perfectly prepared to affect it by acting on their dislikes.

Margaret Eaton
The face that launched a Civil War?

Floride Calhoun, wife of John, refused to call on Margaret Eaton. She was the one who’d brought the money to marriage and liked her family to respect her will; John supported her snubbing of the Eatons. 

Jackson’s Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, was as keen as Calhoun on getting to the White House. Once he’d seen that the Calhouns had turned their backs on the President’s friend, he decided it would do him no harm to do the opposite. A widower, he was free to act on his decision, and paid the necessary visit to the Eatons.

Now fast forward a little more than thirty years. The United States was being torn apart by a brutal Civil War, which was being lost by the South including Calhoun’s state, South Carolina. He never did make it to the White House, whereas Van Buren did, and van Buren’s State, New York, was on the winning side of the war.

James Parton, looking back from the 1860s to the doings of the White House thirty years earlier, wrote that ‘the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr Van Buren touched Mrs Eaton’s knocker.’

Of such small things are great historical events made. And behind the rift was no matter of principle, or even of wealth or fame or power, but the spiteful refusal of a group of women to live and let live.

In this way, disenfranchised womanhood played a bigger role in framing politics than one might have imagined.

And who would have simple spite could have been such a key factor?


Awoogamuffin said...

Yeah that's a fascinating story! Now I know that lately you've been geeking out on American history, but the "This American Life" podcast recently spoke about this story – have you started listening to it, or is this a coincidence?

David Beeson said...

Pure coincidence. It was the geeking that did it - I came across the story in Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion.