Think this past year was a train wreck for a certain U.S. president? By any measure, the first year of Andrew Jackson’s administration was every bit as embarrassing.
“His most trusted advisors were bitterly divided; the whole government stood at a standstill. But after reviewing all of the evidence, exploring all of the charges, and hearing the testimony of witnesses, the president announced the conclusion that he hoped would place the ship of state back on course: Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, was ‘as chaste as a virgin.’”
Defending the honor of his war secretary’s sexually notorious wife actually ate up two years of Jackson’s presidency. The backstory is dense — here’s a pretty decent summary, though Daniel Walker Howe’s writeup in his Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought is better and more entertaining.
All you really need to know are the parallels to now.
You had a president peddling laughable falsehoods, angrily doubling down when challenged. You had Washington society and the press eating it up. You had a nation distracted from the nation’s business.
So what happened next? Um, the president won.
Everyone who refused to uphold Peggy Eaton’s virtue was sent packing — even Andrew Jackson Donelson, the Jared Kushner of his day. Jackson went on to win re-election, and his heavy-handed, divisive mode of governing continued to shape American politics until the Civil War.
Is the Oval Office portrait starting to make more sense now?
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