Culture > Books

Books: Where's daddy?

Books | Extremism in defense of honor is no vice, but by the standards of today it is undoubtedly extremism

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

When the Monica Lewinsky business broke last January, I had just arrived home from a longer-than-usual trip. Perhaps that explains my first reaction to the story. "Where," I asked my 18-month-old son Calvin as he pounced on me, "is her daddy?" Where was he when his impressionable 21-year-old daughter was apparently falling for a powerful, married man? And where was he when the White House was beginning its systematic destruction of her reputation and credibility? Beneath the spin, the polls, and the political strategies, there is a deeper magic, as C.S. Lewis might have said. There is the duty of a father to defend his family. And there is honor-something we don't hear much about these days. And that brings us to The Petticoat Affair, by Mississippi State University history professor John Marszalek. The book is deceptively subtitled Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House. In a broad sense, maybe, it's about a Washington sex scandal, but it's much more about honor. The Eaton Affair (we would have called it Reputationgate) was about Secretary of War John Eaton's wife Margaret. The pretty daughter of an innkeeper, Margaret didn't fit in with Washington high society. There were rumors that she had betrayed her first husband and caused him to kill himself. Washington wives ostracized her-chief of these was Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John Calhoun. President Andrew Jackson was righteously angry for Mrs. Eaton and resolved to defend her honor. Honor was profoundly important to President Jackson and to the age. By the time he reached the White House, the Hero of New Orleans had two bullets lodged in his body from duels. His beloved wife Rachel had been abandoned and divorced by her first husband, but a glitch in the frontier court system invalidated the final decree. So for a time, Rachel Jackson was unknowingly guilty of bigamy. When Andrew Jackson's political opponents unwisely used this against him, they found him willing to defend his wife's honor to the death (he did, in fact, kill one man in a duel over this). So when Margaret Eaton's honor was impugned, she could not have found a better or more fierce ally. President Jackson, who had lost Rachel a few weeks before his inauguration, quoted a Psalm and declared: "The Liar's tongue we ever hate, and banish from our sight." And then the battle began. Before it was over, the entire Cabinet had resigned. It's a great story, and it's generally well told. Where Mr. Marszalek falls short is his portrayal of Mrs. Eaton as Demi Moore. "Margaret Eaton dared live her life in a way that contemporaries found improper for a woman.... It illuminates the debate over woman's proper role in American society." No, it illuminates just how completely we've banished the concept of honor. President Jackson was willing to wreck the administration to defend a woman's honor. The Clinton White House is willing to destroy any number of women's honor to preserve its own power. There are signs of hope, however. At first I thought my reaction to Monicagate was unique. But a recent episode of the Fox Network's Ally McBeal had the postfeminist Boston lawyer defending a college kid who punched out the man who insulted his date. Maybe honor is making a comeback. Andrew Jackson, I think, would have approved.

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