December 28, 1832. John C. Calhoun resigns as Vice President of the United States after clashing with President Andrew Jackson.
It’s January 1st, 1829 in the heart of Washington DC.
It’s a bleak and cold day in the US capital. The Potomac River has frozen over into one great sheet of ice and the city streets are lined with snow. But in spite of the miserable weather… the church bells of the Foundry Methodist Church ring out a happy tune as the front doors fly open and a newly married couple emerge to the cheers of their friends and family. The bride is a stunningly beautiful 29-year-old, Margaret Timberlake, or as she’s more commonly known, Peggy. Peggy glances over at her new husband, the lean and auburn-haired Senator from Tennessee, John Eaton. Together, Peggy and John walk arm in arm to a waiting carriage.
But as Peggy climbs inside… she can’t help but notice that many of the guests she expected to see today are missing. Some of the most powerful men in American politics are here, including the Vice-President of the United States, John C. Calhoun. But those that are not here, Peggy realizes, are the women. The men showed up to the ceremony. But their wives stayed home. It’s clear the women of Washington’s high society do not approve of her marriage.
As the carriage pulls away, Peggy puts on a happy face. But deep down, she’s hurt and angry at this deliberate snub. And she suspects someone else will be, too. Her husband’s soon-to-be boss: America’s next president, Andrew Jackson.
Peggy and John Eaton’s marriage marks the beginning of a political scandal known as the Petticoat Affair. Senator Eaton’s new wife is the daughter of a tavern owner, whose bar is just a stone’s throw from the White House. Though Peggy grew up around politicians, she isn’t in the same social class. Senators are not supposed to marry bargirls, no matter how beautiful they are. So many in Washington think it’s a scandal that John has done so. And they’re appalled by the fact that this is Peggy’s second marriage. It’s been less than a year since her previous husband died. And rumor has it that Peggy and John were having an affair and that her husband killed himself out of grief.
But President-elect Andrew Jackson sympathizes with Peggy, whom he calls the “smartest little woman in America.” Jackson’s marriage is his wife, Rachel's second as well. She ran away from her first husband and got a divorce to marry him, and he knows how the gossip can hurt. During the last presidential election, Jackson’s political enemies mercilessly attacked his wife, whose health was failing her. Not long after Jackson won the election, Rachel died of a heart attack. But Jackson blamed her death on his political foes.
So after John and Peggy’s controversial marriage, Jackson does not distance himself. Instead, he names John his new Secretary of War; an act that will shake the foundations of the government, poison relations between its most senior officials, and set the stage for the first-ever resignation of an American Vice President four years later, on December 28th, 1832.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 28th, 1832: The Resignation of Vice President Calhoun.
It’s early March 1829, almost four years before John C. Calhoun’s resignation.
In an office at Calhoun’s home in Washington DC, the forty-six-year-old Vice President of the United States is working through his official papers when his wife Floride storms into the room.
Floride says she’s made an important decision. She will not be paying any social calls to Peggy Eaton, the wife of the new Secretary of War. Not after the things she’s heard about how their marriage started.
Floride has no way to establish whether the many rumors floating around about Peggy are true, but she insists it would be improper for her to socialize with the scandalized woman. Then Floride turns on her heels and marches out of her husband’s office.
Calhoun stares after her. Though it might sound like petty gossip, Calhoun knows that his wife has just set off a political earthquake.
Calhoun has been Vice President for four years. He served first under John Quincy Adams and now holds the same office under Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s wife - Rachel - died just a few months ago. And with the president now a widower, the Vice President’s wife has become the pre-eminent lady of Washington’s polite society. Floride Calhoun takes the responsibility seriously. She sees it as her duty to uphold moral standards. And like many other upper-class women in Washington, she believes that Peggy Eaton, the new wife of the Secretary of War, has broken the rules. Her behavior should not be condoned, no matter how important the man she has married is.
And where Floride leads, the other ladies of Washington will follow. Soon, Peggy Eaton is a social pariah. But John Eaton isn’t just the Secretary of War. He’s also one of the President’s closest allies. Andrew Jackson is fond of John and his new wife. And outraged by her treatment, the President summons his vice president for a private conversation.
At their meeting, the President stares across the desk at Calhoun urging him to order his wife to pay a visit to Peggy Eaton. But Calhoun refuses. He and Floride are both from South Carolina, and back home, it’s women who decide on such matters. Calhoun defers to his wife, saying “This is a question upon which women should feel, not think. Their instincts are their safest guides.”
So despite the President’s best efforts, Floride Calhoun and the other leading ladies of Washington continue to shun Peggy Eaton. Before long, this dispute will split the President’s cabinet, and threaten to plunge his new administration into chaos.
It’s the Fall of 1829 in a crowded ballroom in the nation’s capital and a party is underway.
President Jackson’s Secretary of State Martin Van Buren sits chatting with his friend and colleague, Secretary of War, John Eaton.
Like John, Martin is sick of the vicious attacks on Peggy’s honor. And he’s tired of his fellow cabinet members’ wives snubbing her at public events like this one. So as he and John sit by the fire, Martin reveals that he has come up with a plan. He’s manufactured a situation that will elevate Peggy’s honor, and infuriate Floride Calhoun and her harem, as he calls them.
This evening, Martin has arranged for John and Peggy to escort the guests of honor - the Minister to Holland and his wife - to dinner. Then, Martin explains, John and Peggy will sit by their side at the head of the table. John graciously thanks Martin for his kind gesture.
But soon, their conversation is interrupted by one of Martin’s associates who informs him that there’s been an accident upstairs. When Martin asks what happened, his man says that Vice President Calhoun’s wife bumped into Peggy Eaton causing a huge commotion. Hearing this, John is furious and so is Martin Van Buren. Together, they bolt upstairs to rescue Peggy from the uncomfortable situation. But the drama of the evening is just beginning.
Martin Van Buren hoped to elevate Peggy’s status, and silence her critics, by singing her praises to the Minister to Holland, and arranging for Peggy and John to sit - prominently displayed - at the head of the table. But Floride Calhoun undercuts Martin. Before dinner, Floride tells the Minister’s wife about the scandal. Instead of letting the Eatons escort them to the table, the Minister and his wife skip dinner entirely and slip out early.
When President Jackson hears of this incident, he decides enough is enough. Soon, he arranges a dinner with his cabinet and their wives. He places Mrs. Eaton beside him at the table. With Peggy by his side, he admonishes everyone present. He calls the attacks on Peggy a slander on her character and insists that they stop at once. Jackson goes so far as to threaten to remove his cabinet if their wives refuse to fall in line.
But in the end, the wives’ control over their husbands prove stronger than Jackson’s threats. Vice President Calhoun and his supporters in the cabinet continue to defy Jackson’s commands. Eventually, a plan is concocted to put an end to the conflict once and for all.
In the spring of 1831, Jackson’s allies in the cabinet - Martin Van Buren and John Eaton - resign because of the ongoing feud. Jackson uses this as a pretext to fire the rest of the cabinet, claiming they are impeding his ability to govern. As president, Jackson can remove the appointees in his cabinet, but he does not have the power to fire his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, an elected official. So in the months to come, the conflict between Jackson and Calhoun will intensify culminating in a dispute that will force Calhoun out of the government and push the country to the brink of Civil War.
It’s April 13th, 1830, more than two years before John C. Calhoun resigns as Vice President of the United States.
In a Washington DC hotel, a lavish celebration is underway. All the most powerful men in the so-called Democratic Republican Party have gathered for a dinner to celebrate the birthday of the party’s late founder, Thomas Jefferson.
Sitting at the end of a central table laden with decanters of whiskey and gin, Vice President John C. Calhoun considers with satisfaction a printed list of men set to make speeches and toasts that evening. John has chosen all of them personally because for Calhoun, this isn’t just a dinner, it’s a political ambush. The target is the man sitting at the far end of the table: Calhoun’s archrival and boss, President Andrew Jackson. Lately, though, their disagreements haven’t centered solely around Peggy Eaton. Instead, they’ve been at loggerheads over a divisive political topic that grips the nation: tariffs.
For several years, Calhoun has been fighting against trade tariffs introduced during the previous Presidential administration of John Quincy Adams. These tariffs imposed high taxes on imported goods and materials. And Calhoun believes they unfairly penalize cotton-producing states in the south, like his own, South Carolina.
Calhoun had hoped that when Andrew Jackson became President, the tariffs would be removed. But Jackson refused to do so. And now an increasingly public dispute has consumed the pair. Their argument isn’t just about tariffs. It’s about who wields power, and who has the right to shape the future of America, a country which is still little more than fifty years old.
In addition to tariffs, Calhoun also supports the legal theory of ‘Nullification’, believing that a state – such as his South Carolina – can refuse to implement a federal law the state deems unconstitutional. Calhoun thinks this will help the United States survive - it will mean a State won’t have to leave the Union to avoid laws it cannot abide by. But President Jackson believes that the Union cannot survive if every state picks and chooses which laws it wants to obey.
So now Calhoun has seized on the Jefferson dinner to show the President just how much backing he has in the party. As the night goes on, speech after speech extolls the primacy of state rights over those of the federal government.
Finally, however, it's the turn of the President to address the hall. By the time he stands to take the floor, Jackson is furious. He straightens his back, his eyes thundering, and glares down the table at the Vice President. Stiffly, the President raises his glass and gruffly says: “Our Union: it must be preserved”.
This short speech is a direct challenge to the Vice President. The room falls silent. And in response, Calhoun rises from his chair. His voice is steady but his hand shakes with emotion as he answers: “The Union – next to our liberty the most dear. May we always remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States.”
Before long, the war of words between President and Vice President will escalate, threatening not only the government of Andrew Jackson but the future of the Union itself.
On November 24th, 1832, more than two and a half years later, Vice President John C. Calhoun makes his way through a vast crowd of supporters outside the State House in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina. There, Calhoun reaches the portico and climbs the steps. At the top, he stops and waves to the crowd, who roar back in approval. Then he turns around and heads inside.
It’s a momentous day in South Carolina. A special session of the state legislature has been called for a vote on “Nullification”. Calhoun's pet theory that says a state has the right to ignore any Federal law it deems unconstitutional. The Vice President's battle with Andrew Jackson over the tariffs and legal theories has reached a dangerous juncture. There have already been riots in the streets of Columbia between supporters of the different camps. And the President has sworn to implement Federal law in the states… by force if necessary.
Despite this threat, today, the South Carolina representatives vote by an overwhelming majority to adopt the ‘ordinance of nullification’, declaring the tariffs imposed by the Federal government to be unconstitutional and thus unenforceable.
Two weeks later, in Washington DC, President Andrew Jackson fires back with describing nullification as tantamount to treason. He writes that it is “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”
John C. Calhoun is horrified by Jackson’s uncompromising response, and troubled by the responding cries of secession from his fellow South Carolinians.
Despite his long and fervent opposition to the tariffs, Calhoun doesn’t actually want South Carolina to secede. He hoped that Nullification would allow states dissatisfied with certain laws to remain in the Union. But now he fears the country is on the verge of civil war.
Still, Calhoun believes deeply in nullification. And eventually, his ongoing campaign for the doctrine will take him back to Washington and lead him to take an unprecedented action when he resigns as Vice President of the United States.
It’s December 28th, 1832, in Columbia, South Carolina.
In a quiet office in the State House, the Vice President of the United States, John C. Calhoun sits down at his desk to write a short but historic note. It’s addressed to the Secretary of State and is only a few lines long. Calhoun hesitates briefly before writing the final words: “I herewith resign the office of Vice-President of the United States.” He will be the first holder of this office to resign. But it’s all part of a plan.
Calhoun is in Columbia to consult with his allies on political strategy. They don’t want an armed confrontation with the Federal Government, but none of them is ready to give up on their doctrine of Nullification. So they’re all in agreement that Calhoun is the best man to champion their cause in Washington. Congress is where the true power is. So they’ve arranged for Calhoun to take up a vacant Senate seat from South Carolina. But Calhoun can’t be both a Senator and Vice President. He must resign his old office before he can take up his new one.
So after writing his brief letter of resignation, Calhoun departs Columbia for Washington. As he clambers into his stagecoach for the long journey north, there are lingering goodbyes in the city. His allies in Columbia admire his courage – by leaving South Carolina and heading back to Washington, Calhoun is taking his life into his own hands. There are rumors that as a leader of the Nullifiers, Calhoun will be arrested for treason and possibly even hanged.
Nevertheless, Calhoun arrives safely in Washington in the early days of 1833, ready to fight for nullification. But despite Calhoun’s best efforts, in the months ahead, no other states join South Carolina in adopting the controversial doctrine. Isolated and with the threat of military intervention by Federal authorities hanging over them, a compromise is eventually reached. The immediate crisis ends when the Tariff of 1833 is adopted, which reduces the charges on imports that so riled Calhoun and his fellow South Carolinians.
So for a time, at least, violence is avoided. But the fundamental issues that lay behind this dispute remain unresolved. And just a few decades later, a devastating civil war will break out in America - a conflict that has at its heart the very same clash between State and Federal governments that once led to the historic resignation of Vice President John C. Calhoun on December 28th, 1832.
Next on History Daily: December 29th, 1890. The United States Army massacres hundreds of Lakota Sioux, mostly women and children, at Wounded Knee.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.