One of the advantages of digital history is that it allows its practitioners to comment on public events in real time and achieve a potentially broader and more immediate impact. And what event could be more gripping than a big old scandal? Scandals tap into a seemingly universal appetite for tawdry drama. In times of great crisis or division, they serve an important cultural function. Brimming with prurient details, amplified by politicians and the media, public scandals are manufactured distractions. Really good scandals also have the capacity to shake revered institutions to their core—to disturb and expose powerful elements that are normally obscure or hidden.
Of all the endless varieties of public embarrassment, the sex scandal holds a special place for its ability to shed light on subterranean social anxieties. The latest example offers up a juicy blend of the military, politicians, the CIA, and the FBI (and the East Tuscaloosa Junior Marching Band, and Kevin Bacon, and your mom, and who knows how many others by the time the investigation is concluded). But the story is as old as America . . . or at least as old as Old Hickory.
The Petticoat Affair that almost derailed Andrew Jackson's first term as President was perhaps the first major American sex scandal. And like the still-unraveling Petraeus Affair, it disgorged fascinating information about the inner workings of power in what would become the world's mightiest military machine.
|A 19th century cigar label depicting |
the scandalous Peggy (O'Neal) Eaton
Without delving into a complicated biography, it will suffice to say that Eaton was an intelligent and ambitious young women who attracted the attention of politicians and military officials in the nation's capital (Senator Andrew Jackson was an early admirer). When her first husband, a naval officer, died at sea, rumors circulated that he had killed himself as a result of his wife's alleged infidelities. Her marriage to Senator John Eaton shortly thereafter added further grist to the gossip mill, and when Jackson appointed Senator Eaton as his Secretary of War in 1829, Washington erupted. Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led a campaign to ostracize the Eatons from important social and political gatherings. The
President became involved and eventually his entire cabinet split into factions. After an excruciating media circus, Secretary Eaton and the rest of the cabinet resigned and the government persevered. And Peggy Eaton lived in infamy, later immortalized by Hollywood as The Gorgeous Hussy (oh, Hollywood).
The Petticoat Affair, as it came to be known, says a lot about class, gender, and sexuality in the Early Republic. But it also says a great deal about American political culture. Compared to other other sex scandals involving 19th-century politicians, it was unusually potent and destructive. The connection between the Jefferson and Hemings families, which rivals the Petticoat Affair for media-fueled speculation, did not significantly impair Thomas Jefferson's presidency. Indeed it took almost 200 years, Annette Gordon-Reed, and DNA evidence for historians to take the relationship seriously. Richard Mentor Johnson, a Jacksonian Democrat and Vice President under Martin Van Buren, made no secret of his relationship with the enslaved Julia Chinn. Although it damaged his career, and opponents published racist, sexually-charged cartoons, it did not have a lasting impact on the government. James Henry Hammond's omnivorous sexual appetite, which ranged from his college friends to his teenage nieces, resulted in a minor setback for his political ambitions, but it did not derail his career as a pro-slavery pamphleteer or his appointment to the Senate in 1857. And yet a dispute between Floride Calhoun and Peggy Eaton spiraled into a moral panic that almost brought the Jackson administration to its knees. Why did the coercive and brutal actions of slaveholders matter less than the hasty marriage of a widow?
|James Akin, Newburyport, MA, c. 1804|
It may be too soon to attempt to draw conclusions from this unfolding drama. But a few things are evident, even at this early stage. The media, which eagerly pounced on the story, has presented a narrative that might be described as Gorgeous Hussies: The Sequel. Major news outlets are scrambling for any scrap of information about Broadwell and Kelley, despite their own painfully obvious desire to stay out of the spotlight. Like the public commentators who fretted over Peggy Eaton's polluting influence on the Jackson administration, there has been much hand-ringing about the "pillow talk" between Broadwell and Petraeus. Interestingly, according to Allgor, contemporaries depicted Peggy Eaton in similar terms, as a dangerously powerful "courtesan." The coverage of Kelley has been especially severe, if not voyeuristic. A feature article on CNN focuses on her "smart canary yellow dress" and "hot pink handbag," and quotes "a senior official" describing her as a "bored, rich socialite." There is a point in every scandal, perhaps, when the coverage passes from the real to the absurd. The Daily Show, mocking the media descent into tabloid gossip, has suggested that the military institute a ban on heterosexuals.
Even so, it might be worth asking why this scandal, like the Petticoat Affair, has caused so much consternation. Generals Petraeus and Allen, the establishment figures at the center of the controversy, have presided over a military-intelligence complex responsible for funneling over $1 trillion in tax revenue into wars that have cost countless lives. No senior military or intelligence official resigned over the disgrace of Abu Ghraib. Yet marital infidelity (admittedly sleezy and reprehensible) is career suicide. That could be the biggest scandal of them all.
* Joseph Yannielli is a doctoral student in History and contributes to the blog Digital Histories at Yale.